Somme Bombardment Begins

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 241st installment in the series. 

June 24, 1916: Somme Bombardment Begins

Britain and France had agreed to mount a major offensive on the River Somme as far back as December 1915, but the timing remained vague, in part due to Douglas Haig’s replacement of Sir John French as overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force around the same time, with further confusion generated by unexpected events including the Easter Rising in April and the  death of War Secretary Lord Kitchener in early June. 

But as spring gave way to summer and the German assault on Verdun continued, mounting French desperation left the British little choice but to commit: following the French failure to retake Fort Douaumont, on May 26 French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre warned the British that the French Army would “cease to exist” if they delayed much longer. Then on June 11, following the German conquest of Fort Vaux, Philippe Pétain, the savior of Verdun, asked Joffre to urge the British to move up the date for their attack. Finally, as the Germans unleashed a new attack even closer to Verdun in late June (see below), in an unusual deviation from the usual civil-military protocol French Premier Aristide Briand personally urged Haig to act swiftly, warning of dire consequences for their alliance if the British failed to attack.

Preparations for the massive Anglo-French assault on the Somme had been underway for months, and went forward on an awesome scale, reflecting the Allies’ hopes that the “big push” would deliver a decisive blow to the German military and maybe even end the war. Most of the work was focused on equipping the area around the Somme with infrastructure to support the British Fourth Army, numbering 400,000 men and 100,000 horses, all of whom had to be supplied with food, water, and ammunition. The British had also accumulated over 1,500 artillery pieces to deliver one of the heaviest bombardments in history, requiring millions of shells to break up the enemy’s defenses. These figures don’t even count the contribution from the neighboring French Sixth Army, which would carry out a simultaneous push to the south. 

In the first half of 1916 the British and French built two new railroads connecting the supply hub at Albert and the Somme, later complemented by dozens of new narrow-gauge “trench railways” connecting the bigger rail hubs to supply depots near the front. The Allies also repaired roads and bridges, erected vast camps with tents and barracks for hundreds of thousands of men, dug new wells and laid out dozens of miles of water pipelines, and built electric generators and a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire to serve as a nervous system connecting it all.  Edward Liveing, a British subaltern, recalled the final weeks before the assault: 

The roads were packed with traffic. Column after column of lorries came pounding along, bearing their freight of shells, trench-mortar bombs, wire, stakes, sandbags, pipes, and a thousand other articles essential for the offensive, so that great dumps of explosives and other material arose in the green wayside places. Staff cars and signallers on motor-bikes went busily on their way… Horse transport and new batteries hurried to their destinations. “Caterpillars” rumbled up, towing the heavier guns. Infantrymen and sappers marched to their tasks round and about the line. Roads were repaired, telephone wires placed deep in the ground, trees felled for dug-outs and gun emplacements, water-pipes laid up to the trenches ready to be extended across conquered territory, while small-gauge and large-gauge railways seemed to spring to being in the night.

However the sheer scale of the preparations also meant there was no chance of surprise, as the Germans were bound to see these efforts and draw the obvious conclusion. On that note Lieutenant Own William Steele, a Canadians soldier from Newfoundland serving in the BEF, wrote in his diary on June 21, 1916: 

The Hun certainly appears to be expecting our visit, for they are, according to reports all along the front, hard at work. There is an immense amount of traffic everywhere. Opposite our own particular position, he is seen working by day and night… Only last night, he could be plainly heard strengthening his wire work, and even adding to it, etc. 

On paper at least, it shouldn’t have mattered that Germans knew what was coming, because the plan was simply to annihilate them with a “creeping barrage” of artillery and the explosion of nineteen giant mines tunneled under the German positions – and in truth, even the Germans were surprised by the unparalleled ferocity of the Allied attack. But British planners didn’t reckon with German engineering skill, which allowed tens of thousands of German troops to wait out the bombardment in deep concrete dugouts burrowed 40 feet underground; the Germans also built a second and third line of trenches for defense in depth. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from directing artillery fire against German artillery and strongholds. 

Nonetheless the initial bombardment, which began on June 24 – a full a week before the infantry attack on July 1 (delayed from June 28) – was by all accounts an awe-inspiring and terrifying spectacle, as a thousand British guns saturated the German trenches with over 1.7 million shells in eight days. Like the German maelstrom at Verdun, the rumbling of the great guns was heard over a hundred miles away, and was even said to be audible in London when the winds were favorable. 

Many observers compared the incredible downpour of steel to natural phenomena. Stanley Spencer, an officer with the Royal Fusiliers stationed further north on the Western Front, recalled: 

… night and morning, we hear the peculiar roll and thunder of hundreds of guns farther south in preparation for the Somme offensive. The sky was continuously lighted up by innumerable flashes, the earth shook and the air seemed to quiver with the restless rumbling and muttering that constantly rose and fell, and rose and fell again, like the rising, breaking, and subsiding of enormous waves. 

The shelling continued relentlessly through the night into day and then night again, when the dark sky turned into a nightmarish carnival of blinking, stuttering lights. Frederick Palmer, an American war correspondent, left a vivid description of the preparatory bombardment at night:

After dark the scene from a hill, as you rode toward the horizon of flashes, was one of incredible grandeur. Behind you, as you looked toward the German lines, was the blanket of night pierced and slashed by the flashes of gun blasts; overhead the bloodcurdling, hoarse sweep of their projectiles; and beyond the darkness had been turned into a chaotic, uncanny day by the jumping, leaping, spreading blaze of explosives which made all objects on the landscape stand out in flickering silhouette. Spurts of flame from the great shells rose out of the bowels of the earth, softening with their glow the sharp, concentrated, vicious snaps of light from shrapnel. Little flashes played among big flashes and flashes laid over flashes shingle fashion in a riot of lurid competition, while along the line of the German trenches at some places lay a haze of shimmering flame from the rapid fire of the trench mortars. 

Incredibly enough, men from the artillery crews were apparently able to rest during the shelling, according to Palmer, who noted that in many places the guns seemed to fire in shifts: 

It seemed that all the guns in the world must be firing as you listened from a distance, although when you came into the area where the guns were in tiers behind the cover of a favorable slope you found that many were silent. The men of one battery might be asleep while its neighbor was sending shells with a one-two-three deliberation. Any sleep or rest that the men got must be there in the midst of this crashing babel from steel throats. 

Palmer also noted the stupendous cost of the bombardment:

The flow of ammunition for all came up steadily, its expenditure regulated on charts by officers who kept watch for extravagance and aimed to make every shell count. A fortune was being fired away every hour; a sum which would send a youth for a year to college or bring up a child went into a single large shell which might not have the luck to kill one human being as excuse for its existence; an endowment for a maternity hospital was represented in a day’s belch of destruction from a single acre of trodden wheat land. 

The effect on the German troops subjected to this shelling was predictable enough, as they were forced to remain in their cramped concrete dugouts day and night for eight days, often cut off from supplies and unable to sleep amid the explosions pounding the earth above them. Above all, they wondered when the other shoe would drop. The German private Eversmann of the 26th Reserve Division wrote in his diary on June 26:

The barrage has now lasted thirty-six hours. How long will it go on? Nine o’clock: a short pause of which we avail ourselves to bring up coffee, each man got a portion of bread. Ten o’clock: veritable drum fire. In twelve hours shelling they estimate that 60,000 shells have fallen on our battalion sector. Every communication with the rear has been cut, only the telephone is working. When will they attack – tomorrow or the day after? Who knows?

However the important thing from the German soldiers’ personal perspective – and from a strategic perspective as well – was that most of them were still alive as the British infantry prepared to attack on July 1. An officer in the 26th Reserve Division, Lieutenant Cassel, noted with satisfaction: “On the whole we had very few casualties: some sentries were wounded and in one dugout that was partly squashed there were some deaths and seriously wounded. But the company on the whole, and my platoon in particular, kept its battle strength, thanks to the superior quality of our construction in the position.”

The failure of the bombardment, compounded by a number of mistakes on the day of the attack, would result in one of the worst debacles of the war – making July 1 the bloodiest day in British history.

Germans Unleash Phosgene Gas At Verdun 

On June 22, 1916 the Germans unleashed a terrible new chemical weapon, phosgene gas, as part of another massive assault intended to finally capture the hills above the Meuse overlooking the citadel of Verdun – their main objective during the months-long battle, which would force the French to abandon Verdun or send untold numbers of men to their deaths in an effort to eject the Germans. In the end, the Germans achieved neither aim – but only after a nightmarish struggle for Fort Souville, one of the last French strongholds protecting the citadel of Verdun. 

The shells containing phosgene, called “Green Cross” gas by German soldiers because of the special markings on the shells, began falling on the evening of June 22, and soon thousands of men were screaming and gasping for breath – their panic only deepening as they discovered that their gas masks didn’t protect them from the new weapon, developed by German chemists for exactly that purpose. Men and horses died by the scores, with many of the former supposedly turning a shocking green color.

The German gas attack targeted French artillery all along the line, forcing gun crews to flee and so leaving the infantry in the trenches unprotected. At 5 a.m. the German infantry advanced in dense masses, soon overrunning French defensive works and entering the village of Fleury – more than half way to Fort Souville. By now, however, the phosgene gas was starting to dissipate and French gun crews were returning to their positions. As the fighting continued Joffre sent four fresh divisions to shore up the defenses before Verdun. The German attack had been blunted – but just barely.

For ordinary soldiers on both sides, conditions at Verdun somehow become even worse. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, described the German gas attack in his diary entry on June 22: 

At 9 p.m. an avalanche of fire bursts on the ridge, the relief has to be delayed, it would be impossible to pass. Is it an attack? There is gas as well as shells, we can’t breathe and are forced to put on our masks… My company is placed in one line, without any trench, in shell craters. It’s a plateau, swept continuously by machine-gunfire and flares… The terrain is littered with corpses! What an advance! It’s dark, one feels something soft beneath one’s feet, it’s a stomach. One falls down flat and it’s a corpse.

Amid continuing fighting, Desegneaux wrote on June 26: 

Our 220 mortars bombard Thiaumont: we must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. We attack incessantly. It’s four days since we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun; filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing. I am unrecognizable, frighteningly dirty.

In a later diary entry Desegneaux described one of the most awful, and tragically common, scenarios of the war: grievously wounded men dying slowly in front of their comrades because no stretcher bearers could make it to the frontline positions under heavy fire. On June 30, 1916 he wrote: 

Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils not knowing where to go come to us, believing that they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke, the air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood… One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously one begs me, ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die, Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me.’ The other, perhaps more gravely wounded and nearer to death, implores me to kill him with these words, ‘Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me the revolver!’ Frightful, terrible moments, while the cannons harry us and we are splattered with mud and earth by the shells. For hours, these groans and supplications continue until, at 6 p.m., they die before our eyes without anyone being able to help them. 

Not long afterwards an anonymous soldier from the French 65th Division, stationed on the west bank of the Meuse, painted a similar picture in a letter home: 

Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don't have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground...

See the previous installment or all entries.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

12 Festive Facts About White Christmas

Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye in White Christmas (1954).
Paramount Home Entertainment

In 1953, Paramount Pictures set out to make a musical built around and named after the most popular Christmas pop song of all time. At that point “White Christmas” had already become a holiday classic thanks in no small part to Bing Crosby’s hit recording of the song, but would it translate to the same success on the big screen?

With Crosby’s star power leading the way and Michael Curtiz in the director’s chair, White Christmas overcame some early development struggles and even some anxiety from composer Irving Berlin to become one of the most celebrated holiday movies of all time. Here are 12 facts about its production and reception.

1. The song "White Christmas" was already a hit.

Though the film didn’t come along until 1954, the story of White Christmas actually began more than a decade earlier, when Irving Berlin composed the future holiday classic that would become the title track. Berlin wrote the song in 1940, and the next year Bing Crosby—the singer still most identified with the song, despite many cover versions—sang it on his Christmas radio show.

By 1942, Crosby had recorded the song, and over that same year it made its first film appearance in Holiday Inn, starring Crosby and Fred Astaire. The film helped earn “White Christmas” the Oscar for Best Song in 1943, and over the course of the 1940s the song climbed to #1 on the charts several times. It would go on to hold the title of bestselling single of all time for decades, until it was finally eclipsed by Elton John’s rewritten 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind.” Because of the song’s enduring popularity, particularly during the World War II years, it was only natural that Hollywood would want to capitalize, and by 1949 what would eventually become White Christmas began to take shape at Paramount Pictures.

2. White Christmas was originally set to co-star Fred Astaire.

By the late 1940s, Irving Berlin and executives at Paramount Pictures were working on piecing together White Christmas as a movie musical with the title song as its centerpiece, and they had big plans for the film’s stars. The project was originally envisioned as the third installment of an unofficial trilogy of buddy musicals starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The duo had already teamed up for Holiday Inn in 1942 (which also featured “White Christmas”) and Blue Skies in 1946, and White Christmas was supposed to mark a triumphant reunion. Unfortunately, Astaire ultimately turned the project down, reportedly due to lack of interest and a concern that he might be getting too old for such a film.

3. Bing Crosby almost passed on White Christmas.

While most of the casting drama surrounding the film was tied to the Phil Davis character, there was also a point during pre-production on White Christmas that the film almost had to go searching for a new Bob Wallace. In January of 1953, when Astaire decided to back out of the project, Crosby also decided he wasn’t sure the film was right for him, and initially planned to take time off to be with his son following the death of Crosby’s wife, actress Dixie Lee. Later that some month, though, Crosby decided to stick with the project, and White Christmas moved ahead.

4. Danny Kaye was cast at the last-minute.

Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

With Fred Astaire out of the picture, Paramount had to search for a new star to play Phil Davis to Bing Crosby’s Bob Wallace, and settled on Donald O’Connor, who was fresh off the success of Singin’ in the Rain. O’Connor was all set to play Davis in the film, but became ill shortly before production was set to begin. Now anxious to find a new co-star in time, the studio offered the role to Danny Kaye, who decided to go for broke and request a salary of $200,000 plus a percentage of the film’s gross. Kaye was apparently certain the studio would say no, but they agreed to his terms rather than attempting to wait it out for O’Connor’s health to improve. Kaye was cast as Phil Davis, and O’Connor would later go on to work with Crosby on Anything Goes.

5. Rosemary Clooney couldn’t dance.

Rosemary Clooney was one of the most acclaimed and beloved singers of her generation, and with White Christmas she became a co-star of one of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films of all time. Clooney was able to do this despite one particular shortcoming, which she was always honest about in both interviews and in her eventual autobiography: She was not a dancer. Clooney’s character, Betty Haynes, only has two real moments of dance in the film—in “Sisters” and in the “Minstrel Show” medley—and both times the choreography is rather simple and (in the case of “Sisters”) makes use of a prop to help make the scene visually interesting without too much actual dancing involved.

6. Vera-Ellen couldn’t sing.

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

To complete the duo of the Haynes sisters, Rosemary Clooney was paired with Vera-Ellen, who was already an experienced and acclaimed movie musical performer considered by many to be one of the best dancers in Hollywood at the time. Clooney recalled feeling “inadequate” when paired with her new co-star in terms of learning her limited White Christmas choreography, but also noted that their dynamic was rather evened out by both Vera-Ellen’s patience and the fact that she couldn’t sing. Vera-Ellen’s vocals were dubbed in White Christmas, largely by an uncredited Trudy Stevens, but by Clooney herself for the song “Sisters.”

“If they could have dubbed my dancing, now, we would have had a perfect picture,” Clooney later joked.

7. Bing Crosby improvised a lot of his White Christmas dialogue.

By the time White Christmas came along, Bing Crosby was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, a veteran singer and actor who could pack audiences in and commanded respect on the Paramount Pictures lot. This meant his job came with a lot of perks, including the opportunity to embellish and flat-out improvise much of his dialogue on the fly. As co-star Rosemary Clooney recalled later on a commentary track for the film, when Bob Wallace used phrases like “slam-bang finish,” it was often because the phrases were favorites of Crosby’s. Clooney also recalled that the little monologue Crosby’s character goes on when they meet in the Columbia Inn lounge for sandwiches and buttermilk was largely made up by Crosby on the spot, faux German accent and all.

8. Bing Crosby didn’t like shooting White Christmas's "Sisters" scene.

One of the most famous scenes in White Christmas involves Bob Wallace and Phil Davis rolling up their pant legs and lip-syncing to Judy and Betty Haynes’s song “Sisters” in an effort to cause a diversion so the sisters could escape a vengeful landlord and hop on a train to Vermont. It’s an instantly memorable, and very funny movie moment, but apparently Bing Crosby was actually somewhat uncomfortable about the scene. In an effort to liven the performance up and get a rise out of his co-star, Danny Kaye improvised the moment when he begins to slap Crosby with his feathered fan. If you watch the scene closely, you can see Crosby caught off guard by this, and by the end of the scene the two men are cracking up on camera for real. According to Rosemary Clooney, Crosby was convinced that the take was unusable, but director Michael Curtiz liked the spontaneity of it, and used it in the finished film.

9. White Christmas features an Our Gang cameo.

Early in the film, as Bob and Phil get to know the Haynes sister, they discuss the sisters’ brother Benny, who Bob and Phil knew from the army and who ostensibly connected them for their meeting at the club. Judy Haynes then offers to share a recent photo of Benny, who Phil had already referred to as “Freckle-faced Haynes, the dog-faced boy.” The photo appears only briefly, but fans of the Our Gang series of comedy shorts might recognize Benny Haynes. He’s played in the photo by Carl Switzer, who was Our Gang’s Alfalfa.

10. White Christmas was the first movie released in a new format.

A scene from White Christmas (1954).Paramount Home Entertainment

At the time White Christmas was produced, film was having to increasingly compete with television for the attention of the American public, and this meant numerous gimmicks were deployed to get people to go to the movies. This included even more prevalent use of color on the movie screen (at a time when television was still a black and white medium), as well as a more ambitious use of aspect ratios to emphasize the “big” in big-screen. White Christmas was envisioned as a Technicolor showcase, but it also became the first film to be released in Paramount’s new widescreen format, VistaVision.

The format featured special film magazines that were mounted to the side of the camera lens, which fed the film negative through the camera horizontally rather than vertically. This created a more detailed widescreen exposure that was then printed vertically just like any other film. The result was a format that could play on virtually any movie screen and offer an increase in quality, unlike other contemporary large format options like CinemaScope, which required an adapter.

11. Irving Berlin was nervous about White Christmas.

By the time White Christmas was in production, the title song was one of the bestselling and most beloved songs in the world, and had already been in heavy circulation for more than a decade. Still, that didn’t stop Irving Berlin from being nervous about how the film would be received. Though he wasn’t always on the soundstage during shooting, Rosemary Clooney later recalled that Berlin showed up every day at the cast’s recording sessions for the soundtrack, and as Crosby and company recorded the finale version of “White Christmas” the legendary composer couldn’t stop nervously pacing around the studio. Eventually, Berlin’s worried look proved so distracting that Crosby went over to him and said: “There’s nothing we can do to hurt this song, Irving. It’s already a hit!"

12. White Christmas was the biggest movie of 1954.

White Christmas was released in the fall of 1954 and, on the strength of Berlin’s songs and the Technicolor and VistaVision production values, quickly became a hit for Paramount. The film was the highest-grossing movie of 1954 with a box office take of $12 million. It was also the biggest hit of director Michael Curtiz’s career, which was impressive considering his resume already included classics like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca.

Additional Sources:
White Christmas: A Look Back with Rosemary Clooney (2000)
White Christmas commentary track by Rosemary Clooney (2000)
Backstage Stories from White Christmas (2009)
Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold (2018)