French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 236th installment in the series.

May 22-25, 1916: French Fail To Retake Fort Douaumont 

Following the German onslaught against Verdun in February 1916, the defense of the symbolic fortress town was organized by general Philippe Petain, commander of the French Second Army, who won fame for holding off the first waves of the attack, implementing a system of rotating deployments to keep defenders (relatively) fresh, and creating the continuous truck convoy which kept the French divisions around Verdun supplied with weapons, ammunition, and food.

Even more importantly, Petain – a dour pessimist who’d quickly realized the futility of infantry assaults again entrenched defenders – avoided falling into the trap set by German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who hoped to wear France out through sheer attrition. Where Falkenhayn expected the French to fling every last man into the fight to save Verdun, Petain avoided sending his troops against strong German defensive positions whenever possible, was willing to cede small amounts of ground when necessary, and relied heavily on artillery to make the enemy pay for every square foot of captured ground (thus turning the tables on Falkenhayn, who’d hoped to lure the French into counterattacks and blow them away with artillery).

Between this and German commanders’ over-eager advances, what was supposed to be a battle of attrition for the French alone ended up being equally costly for the Germans, prompting the commander of the German Fifth Army, Crown Prince Frederick Wilhelm, to privately advise Falkenhayn that the attack had failed and should be called off on April 21, 1916. In short, the French defense of Verdun appeared to be successful. 

However, French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre wasn’t satisfied with mere defense: given Verdun’s symbolic importance, the German gains had to be reversed through systematic counterattacks, even at great cost. In other words, he was prepared to abandon Petain’s hard-fought defensive posture, thus playing into Falkenhayn’s hands exactly as the latter hoped. And Joffre had the perfect commander to launch the glorious bloodletting: General Robert Nivelle, a cocky French artillery officer who’d made his name helping defeat the German offensive of 1914 at the Marne and Aisne. Nivelle was supported by the commander of the 5th Division, General Charles Mangin – a committed acolyte of the cult of the attack, who exuded confidence that the right combination of firepower and French bravery could dislodge the Germans from their positions north of Verdun. 

Of course Joffre couldn’t just cashier a successful officer like Petain (as he had literally hundreds of other lesser lights) so instead he decided to kick him upstairs. On May 1, 1916 Joffre promoted Petain to command of Army Group Center, giving him responsibility for a large stretch of the Western Front besides Verdun, while Nivelle was promoted to command the Second Army. The stage was set for the French to switch from defense to offense.

While the Germans remained focused on the incredibly fierce struggle for the strategic hills Cote 304 and Mort Homme (the appropriately named “Dead Man”) on the west bank of the Meuse, Nivelle and Mangin planned to strike a blow at the very center of the German line by recapturing Fort Douaumont, lost with scarcely a shot fired in the first days of the attack on Verdun, now a safe haven, communications hub and clearing house for German troops on the way to the trenches. They were understandably encouraged by belated news of the disastrous explosions and fire that killed 650 German soldiers at Fort Douaumont, concluding that these had probably damaged the fort’s defenses as well. 

However the Germans quickly repaired the damage with their typical efficiency, and then – alerted to the coming attack by intelligence reports – buttressed the garrison with reinforcements. Meanwhile the French artillery preparation (which lasted five days; above, the French bombardment) was frustrated by pre-war French engineering skill, making little impression on a roof composed of thirty feet of soil over eight feet of concrete, although several turrets, entrances, and a power generator were destroyed. 

Click to enlarge

When the French emerged from their positions to attack, German artillery in the trenches around Douaumont opened up with ferocious accuracy, wiping out entire battalions before they reached the fort. Nonetheless one French regiment, the 129th, managed to storm the roof of the structure, and a small number of French troops actually managed to penetrate the fort through a hole left by a lucky French shot, reaching the the outer tunnels and even glimpsing the interior of the fort itself before being swiftly expelled. 

The French set up a machine gun on the roof of the fort and mowed down scores of German (counter)-attackers emerging from the fort’s interior, but their own losses were astronomical, amounting to almost half the regiment by the end of the first day. One anonymous French observer at Douaumont noted the lunatic ferocity of the fighting, and its effect on the men: 

Even the wounded refuse to abandon the struggle.  As though possessed by devils, they fight on until they fall senseless from loss of blood.  A surgeon in a front-line post told me that, in a redoubt at the south part of the fort, of 200 French dead, fully half had more than two wounds.  Those he was able to treat seemed utterly insane.  They kept shouting war cries and their eyes blazed, and, strangest of all, they appeared indifferent to pain. At one moment anaesthetics ran out owing to the impossibility of bringing forward fresh supplies through the bombardment.  Arms, even legs, were amputated without a groan, and even afterward the men seemed not to have felt the shock.  They asked for a cigarette or inquired how the battle was going.

Worse still, the French troops on the fort’s roof were cut off from reinforcements and resupplies by German artillery, meaning it was only a matter of time before they ran out of ammunition and succumbed as well. By May 24 a German trench mortar wiped out the French machine gun, and the arrival of the Bavarian 1st and 2nd Divisions as reinforcements on the German side on May 25 spelled the end of the venture.

Thus the attack by the French 5th Division against Fort Douaumont ended in total defeat. The total cost from May 22-25 was 6,400 French casualties, including dead, wounded, missing and prisoners, or almost half the strength of the 5th Division, now so battered it could barely hold its own position in the French defensive line. 

Meanwhile fighting continued along the entire Verdun front (above, newsreel footage of Verdun) and especially on the west bank of the Meuse, where the French and Germans were still battling for control of Cote (Hill) 304. One eyewitness, the French soldier Louis Barthas, described the shocking scenes amid nonstop fighting at Cote 304: 

As day broke, I looked out upon this famous, nameless hill. Our trench lay at the foot of it. For several months the hill had been disputed as if it had diamond mines on its slopes. Alas, all it contained now were thousands of shredded, pulverized corpses. Nothing distinguished it from neighboring hills. It seemed to have been partly wooded at one time, but no trace of vegetation remains. The convulsed, overturned earth offered nothing but a spectacle of devastation. All day long we stayed close to the ground, huddled in this covered trench, suffering from heat and lack of air. 

Barthas later saw the remnants of a French regiment which had been wiped out on Cote 304 not long before in the “Rascas trench”: 

There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes with a layer of dirt on top of them, from the wafting smells of rotten flesh. There was all sorts of debris everywhere: broken rifles; gutted packs from which spilled out pages of tenderly written letters and other carefully guarded souvenirs from home, and which the wind scattered; crushed canteens, shredded musette bags – all labeled 125th Regiment. 

An anonymous French lieutenant painted a similar picture of conditions at Verdun: 

We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was packed with dead bodies… you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a few minutes before the people at the table beside us would stand up and leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun.

See the previous installment or all entries.

7 Weird Super Bowl Halftime Acts

Al Bello, Getty Images
Al Bello, Getty Images

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez seem like natural choices to perform the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl, but the event didn’t always feature musical acts from major pop stars. Michael Jackson kicked off the trend at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993, but prior to that, halftime shows weren’t a platform for the hottest celebrities of the time. They centered around themes instead, and may have featured appearances from Peanuts characters, Jazzercisers, or a magician dressed like Elvis. In honor of Super Bowl LIV on February 2, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest acts in halftime show history.

1. Return of the Mickey Mouse Club

The era of Super Bowl halftimes before wardrobe malfunctions, illuminati conspiracy theories, and Left Shark was a more innocent time. For 1977’s event, the Walt Disney Company produced a show that doubled as a squeaky-clean promotion of its brand. Themed “Peace, Joy, and Love,” the Super Bowl XI halftime show opened with a 250-piece band rendition of “It’s a Small World (After All).” Disney also used the platform to showcase its recently revamped Mickey Mouse Club.

2. 88 Grand Pianos and 300 Jazzercisers

The theme of the halftime show at Super Bowl XXII in 1988 was “Something Grand.” Naturally, it featured 88 tuxedoed pianists playing 88 grand pianos. Rounding out the program were 400 swing band performers, 300 Jazzercisers, 44 Rockettes, two marching bands, and Chubby Checker telling everyone to “Twist Again."

3. Elvis Impersonator Performs the World’s Largest Card Trick

Many of the music industry's most successful pop stars—like Prince, Madonna, and, uh, Milli Vanilli—were at the height of their fame in 1989, but none of them appeared at Super Bowl XXIII. Instead, the NFL hired an Elvis Presley-impersonating magician to perform. The show, titled “BeBop Bamboozled,” was a tribute to the 1950s, and it featured Elvis Presto performing “the world’s largest card trick.” It also may have included the world's largest eye exam: The show boasted 3D effects, and viewers were urged to pick up special glasses before the game. If the visuals didn't pop like they were supposed to, people were told to see an eye doctor.

4. The Peanuts Salute New Orleans

Super Bowl XXIV featured one of the last halftime acts that was completely devoid of any musical megastars. The biggest celebrity at the 1990 halftime show was Snoopy. Part of the show’s theme was the “40th Anniversary of 'Peanuts,'” and to celebrate the milestone, performers dressed as Peanuts characters and danced on stage. The other half of the theme was “Salute to New Orleans”—not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the comic strip.

5. A Tribute to the Winter Olympics

Super Bowl XXVI preceded the 1992 Winter Olympics—a fact that was made very clear by the event’s halftime. The show was titled “Winter Magic” and it paid tribute to the winter games with ice skaters, snowmobiles, and a cameo from the 1980 U.S. hockey team. Other acts, like a group of parachute-pants-wearing children performing the “Frosty the Snowman Rap,” were more generally winter-themed than specific to the Olympics. About 22 million viewers changed the channel during halftime to watch In Living Color’s Super Bowl special, which may have convinced the NFL to hire Michael Jackson the following year.

6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye

“Peace, Joy, and Love” wasn’t the only Disney-helmed Super Bowl halftime. In 1995, Disney produced a halftime show called “Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye” to tease the new Disneyland ride of the same name. It centered around a skit in which actors playing Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood stole the Vince Lombardi Trophy from an exotic temple, and it included choreographed stunts, fiery special effects, and a snake. Patti LaBelle and Tony Bennett were also there.

7. The Blues Brothers, Minus John Belushi

The 1990s marked an odd period for halftime shows as they moved from schlocky themed variety shows to major music events. Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 perfectly encapsulates this transition period. James Brown and ZZ Top performed, but the headliners were the Blues Brothers. John Belushi had been dead for more than a decade by that point, so Jim Belushi took his place beside Dan Aykroyd. John Goodman was also there to promote the upcoming movie Blues Brother 2000. The flashy advertisement didn’t have the impact they had hoped for and the film was a massive flop when it premiered.

15 Fun Facts About Betty White

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Happy birthday, Betty White! In honor of the ever-sassy star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls's 98th birthday, let's celebrate with a collection of fun facts about her life and legacy. 

1. Her name is Betty, not Elizabeth.

On January 17th, 1922, in Oak Park, Illinois, the future television icon was born Betty Marion White, the only child of homemaker Christine Tess (née Cachikis) and lighting company executive Horace Logan White. In her autobiography If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won't), White explained her parents named her "Betty" specifically because they didn't like many of the nicknames derived from "Elizabeth." Forget your Beths, your Lizas, your Ellies. She's Betty.

2. She's a Guinness World Record holder.

In the 2014 edition of the record-keeping tome, White was awarded the title of Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Female) for her more than 70 years (and counting) in show business. The year before, Guinness gave out Longest TV Career for an Entertainer (Male) to long-time British TV host Bruce Forsyth. As both began their careers in 1939, they'd be neck-and-neck for the title, were they not separated by gender.

3. Her first television appearance is lost to history.

A photo of Betty White
Getty Images

Even White can't remember the name of the show she made her screen debut on in 1939. But in an interview with Guinness Book of World Records, she recounted the life-changing event, saying, "I danced on an experimental TV show, the first on the west coast, in downtown Los Angeles. I wore my high school graduation dress and our Beverly Hills High student body president, Harry Bennett, and I danced the 'Merry Widow Waltz.'" 

4. White's initial rise to stardom was derailed by World War II.

Before she took off on television, White was working in theater, on radio, and as a model. But with WWII, she shelved her ambitions and joined the American Women's Voluntary Services. Her days were devoted to delivering supplies via PX truck throughout the Hollywood Hills, but her nights were spent at rousing dances thrown to give grand send-offs to soldiers set to ship out. Of that era, she told Cleveland Magazine, "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything." 

5. Her first sitcom hit was in the early 1950s.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Co-hosting the Al Jarvis show Hollywood on Television led to White producing her own vehicle, Life With Elizabeth. As a rare female producer, she developed the show alongside emerging writer-producer George Tibbles, who'd go on to work on such beloved shows as Dennis The Menace, Leave It To Beaver, and The Munsters. Though the show is not remembered much today, in 1951 it did earn White her first Emmy nomination of 21 (so far). Of these, she has won five times.

6. White loves a parade.

From 1962 to 1971, White hosted NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Bonanza's Lorne Greene. But that's not all. For 20 years (1956-1976), she was also a color commentator for NBC’s annual Tournament of Roses Parade. However, as her fame grew on CBS's The Mary Tyler Moore Show, NBC decided they should pull White (and all the rival promotion that came with her) from their parade. It was a decision that was heartbreaking for White, who told People, "On New Year's Day I just sat home feeling wretched, watching someone else do my parade."

7. She has been married three times.


Getty Images

White and her first husband, Dick Barker, were married and divorced in the same year, 1945. After four months on Barker's rural Ohio chicken farm, White fled back to Los Angeles and her career as an entertainer. Soon after, she met agent Lane Allen, who became her husband in 1947, and her ex-husband in 1949 after he pushed her to quit show biz. She wouldn’t marry again until 1963, after she fell for widower/father of three/game show host Allen Ludden.

8. Her meet-cute with husband number three happened on Password.

Bubbly Betty was a regular on the game show circuit, but she met her match in 1961 when she was a celebrity guest on Password, hosted by Allen Ludden. Though White initially rebuffed Ludden's engagement ring (he wore it around his neck until she changed her mind), the pair stayed together until his death in 1981. Today, their stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame sit side-by-side.

9. White originally auditioned for the role of Blanche on The Golden Girls.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

Producers of the series thought of White for the role of the ensemble's promiscuous party girl because she'd long played the lusty Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, they eyed Rue McClanahan for the part of naive country bumpkin Rose Nylund because of her work as the sweet but dopey Vivian Harmon on Maude. Director Jay Sandrich was worried about typecasting, so he asked the two to switch roles in the audition. And just like that, The Golden Girls history was made.

10. If she hadn't been an actor, she'd have been a zookeeper.

"Hands down," she confessed in a 2014 interview. This should come as little surprise to those aware of White's reputation as an avid animal lover and activist. Not only does she try to visit the local zoo of wherever she may travel, but also she's a supporter of the Farm Animal Reform Movement and Friends of Animals group, as well as a Los Angeles Zoo board member, who has donated "tens of thousands of dollars" over the past 40 years. In 2010, White founded a T-shirt line whose profits go to the Morris Animal Foundation.

11. She passed on a role in As Good as It Gets because of an animal cruelty scene.

A photo of actress Betty White
Getty Images

White was offered the part of Beverly Connelly, onscreen mother to Helen Hunt, in the Oscar-winning movie As Good as It Gets. But the devoted animal lover was horrified by the scene where Jack Nicholson's curmudgeonly anti-hero pitches a small dog down the trash chute of his apartment building. On The Joy Behar Show White explained, "All I could think of was all the people out there watching that movie … and if there's a dog in the building that's barking or they don't like—boom! They do it." She complained to director James L. Brooks in hopes of having the scene cut. Instead, he kept it and cast Shirley Knight in the role.

12. A Facebook campaign made White the oldest person to ever host Saturday Night Live.

In 2010, a Facebook group called Betty White To Host SNL … Please? gathered so many fans (nearly a million) and so much media attention that SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels was happy to make it happen. At 88 years old, White set a new record. Her episode, for which many of the show's female alums returned, also won rave reviews, and gave the show's highest ratings in 18 months. White won her fifth Emmy for this performance.

13. She is the oldest person to earn an Emmy nomination.


Getty Images

In 2014, White earned an Emmy nod for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program for the senior citizen-centric prank show Betty White's Off Their Rockers. She was 92. She also holds the record for the longest span between Emmy nominations, between her first (1951) and last (so far).  

14. She loves junk food.

The key to aging gracefully has nothing to do with health food as far as White is concerned. In 2011, her Hot in Cleveland co-star Jane Leeves dished on White's snacking habits, "She eats Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries, and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." Fellow co-star Wendie Malick concurred, "She eats red licorice, like, ridiculously a lot. She seems to exist on hot dogs and French fries." 

15. She wants Robert Redford.

A photo of actor Robert Redford
Getty Images

White once gave this cheeky confession: “My answer to anything under the sun, like ‘What have you not done in the business that you’ve always wanted to do?’ is ‘Robert Redford.'” Though she has more than 110 film and television credits on her filmography, White has never worked with the Out of Africa star, who is 14 years her junior.

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