Germany’s Fateful Gamble

US National Archives
US National Archives

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 262nd installment in the series. 

January 9, 1917: Germany’s Fateful Gamble

The most fateful decision of the First World War was made on January 9, 1917, at a top-secret meeting of Germany’s civil and military leaders at Pless Castle in Silesia in Eastern Germany. Here, at the urging of chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, first quartermaster Erich Ludendorff, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg reluctantly agreed to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare – a gamble that would decide the outcome of the war.

As 1917 began, Germany’s strategic options were narrowing. The plan of the previous chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to bleed France white at Verdun had succeeded in causing massive casualties but failed to split the Allies or knock France out of the war, as hoped. Germany’s main allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were both on the defensive, requiring more and more assistance to simply survive, and the simultaneous Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia had sorely taxed German manpower and material.

Meanwhile Germany’s vast industrial machine was gradually being stretched to the limit, while shortages of food and fuel stirred growing discontent in the civilian population. The indecisive Battle of Jutland in May 1916 left the Allied naval blockade undisturbed, and Britain’s adoption of conscription was putting several million new soldiers in the field. 

But Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that victory was still within reach, provided Germany acted boldly and swiftly. Indeed the Allies also found themselves overstretched, as France reached the limits of her own manpower following Verdun and the Russians suddenly found themselves responsible for shoring up Romania, or what was left of it. Further, as before Germany enjoyed the advantage of a central position, allowing it to move forces between various fronts and perhaps defeat its enemies “in detail,” or one at a time.

In order to exploit these opportunities, in 1917 Hindenburg and Ludendorff contemplated yet another shift in focus, this time from west to east (reversing Falkhenhayn’s earlier switch from east to west). On the Western Front, they planned a surprise withdrawal from the Somme to massive, newly constructed fortifications at the Siegfried Line – known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line – shortening the front by around 25 miles and freeing up two whole armies for service elsewhere. 

By going on the defensive on the Western Front, they hoped, Germany would be able to deliver a knockout blow to Italy, Russia, or both; Russia in particular was already teetering on the edge of revolution, and the incompetent tsarist regime just needed a final push before it collapsed.

However Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized that simply shortening the Western Front and digging in wouldn’t be enough: they also had to ratchet up the pressure on Britain in order to keep the British from launching a new offensive like the Somme, and maybe even knock them out of the war. To accomplish this they pinned their hopes on a new (but no longer secret) weapon: the submarine.

“Germany Is Playing Her Last Card” 

Germany had already tried unrestricted U-boat warfare twice, unleashing a growing fleet of submarines on Allied and neutral shipping, with permission to sink unarmed merchant ships without warning. But on both occasions these campaigns were eventually suspended (first in the summer of 1915, then again in the spring of 1916) in the face of protests from neutral countries, especially the United States of America, over civilian casualties. 

The threat of war with the U.S. had forced Berlin to back down twice, but by early 1917 Germany’s leaders were willing to take the risk. A number of factors contributed to this shift, including the general sense that time was working against Germany, as well as public demands for retaliation in kind against the “Starvation Blockade” maintained by the British Royal Navy. The steady growth of Germany’s U-boat fleet also held out the promise of a decisive result. 

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Most important, however, were Britain’s growing dependence on U.S. imports to sustain its war effort, a vulnerability which could be exploited by attacks on shipping, and the resulting enmity of Germany’s new military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, towards the U.S.

According to the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, in the fall of 1916 Ludendorff was on the record as stating that “he did not believe America could do more damage to Germany than she had done if the countries were actually at war, and that he considered that, practically, America and Germany were engaged in hostilities.” With the ascendancy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff over Germany’s civilian government – in effect a bloodless military coup countenanced by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the balance of political power in Berlin shifted towards open confrontation.

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The minutes of the meeting on January 9, 1917, make clear that Bethmann-Hollweg was now playing second fiddle to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, public heroes who enjoyed the backing of the fickle monarch. Germany’s leaders also allowed themselves to be swayed by optimistic thinking, in the form of cheery projections from the Admiralty about how quickly British morale and war-making capacity could be destroyed through unrestricted sinkings. 

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Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, who headed the Admiralty’s analytical division, calculated that Germany’s growing U-boat fleet could sink 500,000-600,000 tons of British shipping per month at first – a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. However Holtzendorff erred in his assumptions about the impact that this would have on Britain’s total available shipping, as the British could requisition neutral shipping and order more replacements from American shipyards. The German Admiralty also failed to anticipate Allied tactics for convoying merchant ships (they believed convoys were ineffective, and if anything would make it easier for submarines to find targets). Finally, the German high command underestimated Britain’s ability to increase domestic production by finding manufacturing substitutes, implement rationing, and bring new farmland under cultivation; although ordinary British people certainly suffered from shortages and chaffed at rationing, the U-boat campaign fell far short of “starving Britain to her knees.”

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Equally important to the German (mis)calculations was the belief that America, as a mercantile but not mercenary nation, was basically unwilling to fight, due both to her traditional isolation and what they viewed as the social and cultural incoherence of the American population, resulting from the large proportion of immigrants (including millions of German descent, whom they assumed would not be loyal to their adopted land).

In short they predicted that the undisciplined, polyglot American rabble would resist conscription and European-style mass mobilization. Instead, any declaration of war would be mostly symbolic, or as Bethmann-Hollweg summarized the military leaders’ argument: “America's assistance, in case she enters the war, will consist in the delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.” And its armed forces were so pathetically small that even if America did fight, Hindenburg and Ludendorff assured the civilians, Germany could win the war before it had a chance to mobilize enough men to make a difference in Europe. 

It’s worth pointing out that even at this critical stage, not everyone was convinced. Indeed Bethmann-Hollweg sounded a skeptical note during the meeting, observing, “Admiral von Holtzendorff assumes that we will have England on her knees by the next harvest… Of course, it must be admitted that those prospects are not capable of being demonstrated by proof.” Nevertheless he bowed to the general’s convictions, thus completing the submission of Germany’s civilian government to its military.

When the decision was publicized at the end of the month, everyone understood that Germany’s fate was riding on the outcome. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, confided in her diary: “We all know and feel that Germany is playing her last card; with what results, no one can possibly foretell.” Unrestricted U-boat warfare would resume on February 1, 1917.

See the previous installment or all entries.

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

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