Battles of Morval and Thiepval Ridge

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 250th installment in the series. 

September 25-28, 1916: Battles of Morval and Thiepval Ridge 

Following the qualified British victory at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette from September 15-22, 1916, which saw the first use of tanks on the battlefield (to decidedly mixed effect), British Expeditionary Force commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig remained determined to break through the German lines at the Somme, leading to yet another bloody offensive in late September – actually two linked attacks at Morval and Thiepval Ridge. 

Morval 

The first phase of the tandem assault was the Battle of Morval, from September 25-28, 1916, when the British Fourth Army attacked German defenders entrenched around the villages of Morval and Lesbouefs east of Flers, which like dozens of other places across the Somme battlefield would soon be villages in name only (top, British troops advance towards Morval; below, a British soldier avails himself of an abandoned bed in the ruins of Morval).

The attack at Morval wasn’t intended to deliver the breakthrough blow but merely to even up the lines by capturing objectives left unattained during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, as well as tie down German forces in preparation for the main attack by the Reserve Army (later Fifth Army), set to begin the following day at Thiepval Ridge, about seven miles to the west. Thus Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson set relatively modest goals, including capturing the German first-line trenches and the villages named above. To the south, the French Sixth Army under General Emile Fayolle would make a simultaneous attack on German positions around the villages of Sailly and Combles. 


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Because the objectives were limited, British gunners were able to concentrate most of their fire on the German front-line trench and artillery positions, aided by close aerial observation by the Royal Flying Corps’ airborne spotters. For their part the German defenders, forced back repeatedly by successive Allied assaults, still hadn’t had a chance to build the sort of impressive dugouts that sheltered their troops from British artillery fire on July 1, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. 

The furious bombardment unleashed by the British on the evening of September 24 tore up the German trenches, clearing the way for an advance by British infantry and tanks beginning at 12:35 p.m. on September 25 (this time, instead of trying to deploy the tanks in the front ranks of the assault troops as they had at Flers-Courcelette, the armored vehicles were assigned a support role, moving up with the second wave and focusing on German strongholds still holding out after the initial attack; below, British troops in reserve trenches).

Aided by a creeping artillery barrage scouring the battlefield in front of them, attackers from the Guards, 5th, 6th, and 56th Divisions surged forwards in the face of heavy machine gun fire to seize Morval and Lesbouefs; although the Allies failed to capture Combles in the initial assault, their advance elsewhere left the Germans clinging to a long, narrow salient, an untenable position from which they voluntarily withdrew to safer positions on September 26 (below, a British soldier escorts a German prisoner).

Thiepval Ridge

That same morning the British Reserve Army under General Hubert Gough launched the main attack in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, which lasted from September 26-28, 1916. With fresh divisions coming into the line, Haig and Gough sought to deliver a knockout blow to the German Second Army, which they believed was demoralized and near collapse. The contest would naturally focus on Thiepval Ridge, a strong defensive position occupied by the Germans north of the village of the same name, including several formidable strongpoints, the “Schwaben Redoubt,” “Stuff Redoubt,” and “Zollern Redoubt.” After the capture of the ridge, the British generals imagined another attack around Beaumont-Hamel, bringing them one step closer to achieving the original objectives of the Somme offensive. 

Following a thunderous three-day bombardment beginning September 23, shortly after noon on September 26 on the Reserve Army’s right two British and two Canadian divisions poured from their trenches near Courcelette towards the German lines including Zollern Redoubt and another heavily fortified position at Mouquet Farm, from which the German defenders laid down withering machine gun fire. The attackers were left further exposed when two tanks, assigned to help take the strong points, ended up trapped in shell craters instead. 

In the center the British 18th Division met with more success in its attack on the village of Thiepval itself, although they were still subjected to devastating machine gun fire from the ruins of the village and the Schwaben Redoubt on the ridge behind it, as Australian Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen recalled: 

Sometimes a wave of men would dip and disappear into a trench only to emerge on the other side in perfect line again. Now they are into Thiepval! No, the line suddenly telescopes into a bunch and the bunch scurries to right or left, trying to evade a machine-gun in front, and then with a plunge the first wave, broken now into little groups, vanished amidst the ruined houses.

Like their peers on the right British troops in the center had high hopes for tanks in the assault on Thiepval, but once again the experimental weapons often failed to live up to these expectations. Stephen recalled one distinctly uninspiring performance: “At this stage a tank crawled on to the scene can crept laboriously, like a great slug, towards Thiepval. It disappeared among the ruins, puffing smoke. Subsequently it caught fire.” 

Nonetheless the British forged ahead, aided by continuous shelling, to capture Thiepval village and the neighboring Thiepval Chateau by the end of the day – but that night found themselves on the receiving end of a blistering counter-bombardment by German artillery, which precisely targeted the former German trenches. With the arrival of relief troops overnight the British returned to the attack the next morning, and finally penetrated the fortress-like Schwaben Redoubt on September 28 – but another week of savage fighting would be required before the redoubt finally fell under total British control on October 5.  

Scenes of Horror (and Beauty) 

By this time the Somme battlefield was a wasteland filled with scenes awful beyond description. In September 1916 R. Derby Holmes, American volunteering as a junior officer in the British Army, left the following description in his diary:

The dead here were enough to give you the horrors. I had never seen so many before and never saw so many afterwards in one place. They were all over the place, both Germans and our own men. And in all states of mutilation and decomposition. There were arms and legs sticking out of the trench sides. You could tell their nationality by the uniforms… And their dead lay in the trenches and outside and hanging over the edges… We would cover them up or turn them over… The stench here was appalling. That frightful, sickening smell that strikes one in the face like something tangible. Ugh! I immediately grew dizzy and faint and had a mad desire to run. I think if I hadn't been a non-com with a certain small amount of responsibility to live up to, I should have gone crazy. 

Another soldier fighting in the British Army, Coningsby Dawson, painted a similar picture in a letter home dated September 19, 1916: 

A modern battlefield is the abomination of abominations. Imagine a vast stretch of dead country, pitted with shell-holes as though it had been mutilated with small-pox. There's not a leaf or a blade of grass in sight. Every house has either been leveled or is in ruins. No bird sings. Nothing stirs. The only live sound is at night--the scurry of rats. You enter a kind of ditch, called a trench; it leads on to another and another in an unjoyful maze… From the sides feet stick out, and arms and faces--the dead of previous encounters. “One of our chaps,” you say casually, recognising him by his boots or khaki, or “Poor blighter—a Hun!” One can afford to forget enmity in the presence of the dead. It is horribly difficult sometimes to distinguish between the living and the slaughtered--they both lie so silently in their little kennels in the earthen bank. 

The enemy’s experience was no different – indeed the Germans suffered around 130,000 casualties on the Somme in the month of September 1916 alone, including killed, wounded, and prisoners, and ordinary German soldiers suffered the additional trials of falling under repeated British bombardments during the incremental offensives. Describing one such shelling, during the Battle of Guillemont on August 23, the German memoirist Ernst Junger recalled the condition of men subjected to shelling with high explosives for hours on end as they sheltered in a ruined farmhouse: 

Ahead of us rumbled and thundered artillery fire of a volume we had never dreamed of; a thousand quivering lightnings bathed the western horizon in a sea of flame… In the course of the afternoon, the bombing swelled to such a pitch that all that was left was the feeling of a kind of oceanic roar, in which individual sounds were completely subordinated… Throughout, we sat in our basement, on silk-upholstered armchairs round a table, with our heads in our hands, counting the seconds between explosions… From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron… Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. 

Later Junger’s platoon found itself occupying shattered trenches that had already played host to hundreds of their comrades – and still did:

The churned-up field was gruesome. In among the living defenders lay the dead. When we dug foxholes, we realized that they were stacked in layers. One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of earth sent up by shells, and then the relief company had taken their predecessors’ place. And now it was our turn. 

As so many soldiers had discovered to their horror, in addition to threatening their own lives the relentless shelling and sniper fire prevented them from burying corpses even just a few feet away, forcing them to resort to much less effective coverings: 

The defile and the land behind was strewn with German dead, the field ahead with British. Arms and legs and heads stuck out of the slopes; in front of our holes were severed limbs and bodies, some of which had had coats or tarpaulins thrown over them, to save us the sight of the disfigured faces. In spite of the heat, no one thought of covering the bodies with earth. 

At the same time, amidst the scenes of horror there could still be moments of transcendent beauty – including instances ironically springing from the fighting itself. Thus Clifford Wells, an officer in the Canadian Army, wrote home detailing one vignette in a letter dated September 28, 1916: 

There was a heavy bombardment on at the time, and the sight was so wonderful that I halted my party for a quarter of an hour to watch the show. All around us gun flashes were lighting up the sky, the sound of the guns merging into one uninterrupted roar. Overhead a couple of searchlights were searching the clouds for hostile aircraft. In the distance, we could see the shells bursting over the trenches, the shrapnel shells bursting in the air with a red flash, the high explosives bursting on the ground with a whiter light. Flares by the score were being shot into the air all along the line, some of them, white, some red, some green. It was a sight which no words can adequately describe. 

Rasputin’s Power Grows

On September 21, 1916, the French ambassador to Petrograd, Maurice Paleologue, recorded a disturbing conversation with two very prominent acquaintances, who expressed their fears for the future, centering on the increasingly dysfunctional Tsarist regime, now obviously hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Russians: 

I dined this evening at the Donon restaurant with Kokovtsov and Putilov. The ex-President of the Council and the millionaire banker outbid each other with lugubrious forebodings. Kokovtsov said: “We're heading for revolution.” Putilov added: “We're heading for anarchy.” To explain himself, he continued: “The Russian is not a revolutionary; he’s an anarchist. There's a world of difference. The revolutionary means to reconstruct; the anarchist thinks only of destroying.” 

Unbeknownst to them yet another blow against was about to fall, further undermining what little administrative competence the regime had left. On September 25, 1916, the Tsarina Alexandra – egged on, as always, by the sinister holy man Rasputin – convinced her husband Tsar Nicholas II to appoint Alexander Proptopopov, previous deputy speaker of the Imperial Duma, as interior minister (a role previously occupied by Boris Stürmer, another Rasputin familiar now serving as prime minister).

Coming not long after War Minister Polivanov was replaced by Shuvaev and Sturmer replaced Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov – both at Rasputin’s behest – Protopopov was another disastrous cabinet appointment, who despite liberal leanings evinced earlier in his career showed himself to have a harsh reactionary streak of the kind that delighted the Tsarina and Rasputin. He was also rumored to have secret pro-German sympathies (again like the empress and the Siberian holy man), fueling fears that he would push for a separate peace with the Central Powers. In his diary entry on October 3 Paleologue pointed to Protopopov’s enigmatic meetings with German industrialists in Sweden while returning from a tour of the Western Allies – not to mention some of the bizarre “qualifications” that won the Tsarina’s admiration: 

… during a short stay in Stockholm on his way back he had a strange conversation with a German agent, Warburg, and though the affair remains somewhat obscure, there is no doubt that he spoke in favour of peace. When he returned to Petrograd he made common cause with Sturmer and Rasputin, who immediately put him in touch with the Empress. He was soon taken into favour and at once initiated into the secret conclaves at Tsarskoïe-Selo. He was entitled to a place there on the strength of his proficiency in the occult sciences, principally spiritualism, the highest and most doubtful of them all. I also know for certain that he once had an infectious disease which has left him with nervous disorders [i.e., syphilis], and that recently the preliminary symptoms of general paralysis have been observed in him. So the internal policy of the empire is in good hands! 

A day later, Paleologue shared his growing sense of despair with his diary: “Everyone looked very downcast, and indeed one would have to be blind not to see the portents of disaster which are gathering on the horizon.” It didn’t take a diplomat, or prophet, to see that the Romanov Dynasty was steering Russia towards disaster. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Late MythBusters Star Grant Imahara Honored With New STEAM Foundation

Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Grant Imahara attends San Diego Comic-Con
Genevieve via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans of MythBusters and White Rabbit Project host Grant Imahara were saddened to hear of his passing due to a brain aneurysm in July 2020 at the age of 49. Imahara, a graduate of the University of Southern California, used the television medium to share his love of science and engineering. Now, his passion for education will continue via an educational foundation developed in his name.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation was announced Thursday, October 23, 2020 by family and friends on what would have been Imahara’s 50th birthday. The Foundation will provide mentorships, grants, and scholarships that will allow students from diverse backgrounds access to STEAM education, which places an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. (Formerly referred to as STEM, the “A” for art was added more recently.)

Imahara had a history of aiding students. While working at Industrial Light and Magic in the early 2000s, he mentored the robotics team at Richmond High School to prepare for the international FIRST Robotics Competition. Whether he was working on television or behind-the-scenes on movies like the Star Wars prequels and The Matrix sequels, Imahara always found time to promote and encourage young engineering talent.

The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation’s founding board members include Imahara’s mother, Carolyn Imahara, and close friends Don Bies, Anna Bies, Edward Chin, Fon H. Davis, Coya Elliott, and Ioanna Stergiades.

“There are many students, like my son Grant, who need the balance of the technical and the creative, and this is what STEAM is all about,” Carolyn Imahara said in a statement. “I’m so proud of my son’s career, but I’m equally proud of the work he did mentoring students. He would be thrilled that we plan to continue this, plus much more, through The Grant Imahara STEAM Foundation.”

Imahara friend Wade Bick is also launching an effort in concert with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to name a study lounge after Imahara. Donations can be made here.

You can find out more about the foundation, and make a donation, on its website.