Monday, February 29, 2016

Flashback, February 1916: Epic Battle of Verdun Begins

When the German High Command committed to assaulting the French northeastern town of Verdun, it fully expected that those fortifications—including a ring of underground forts—would be no match for the far superior artillery assault launched against it on February 21, 1916.  It never anticipated that the initial nine-hour bombardment would be only a small part of the nearly 40 million artillery shells exchanged in the battle; that a combined 976,000 casualties would occur before Germany halted the campaign in December; and that Verdun would be perhaps the most draining—and certainly the longest—military encounter of the First World War.

On the French side, the campaign gave rise to one of the great battle cries of all time: “They shall not pass!” It also brought to prominence General Henri Philippe Petain—acclaimed as the victor of a fight thought to be unwinnable, beloved by his men for his concern for their welfare—a reputation battered beyond all recognition a generation later by his surrender to--and collaboration with--the same German nation he had once fought so stoutly.

Erich von Falkenhayn,  Chief of the German General Staff, saw the battle as a chance to strike a knockout blow against France before Great Britain could re-join it in the spring for an offensive. “The string in France has reached breaking point,” he wrote Kaiser William II in support of his plan. “A mass break-through – which in any case is beyond our means – is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death.”

The German Fifth Army lost an early opportunity to seal the fate of Verdun when it was forced to postpone an attack on February 12 because of heavy snowfall. The French high command, which had not anticipated an assault on that point, rushed arms and troops with the bought time.

Even so, the French Second Army was dangerously exposed. While its foes were served by a dozen rail lines, 10 of which were broad gauge, the French only had one narrow gauge line and one road in which to transport men and supplies.

In many ways, the situation quickly worsened for the French. By the 25th, the Germans had reached Douaumont, the most formidable fort protecting Verdun, and could not believe their good fortune: Not only had most of its guns and 500 of its infantrymen been transferred the prior year, but the few gunners remaining in the fort were now inside listening to a lecture. The fort fell without a shot.

Complicating matters in short order was the constant German bombardment, which left only fragments of trenches. Soldiers were isolated, by themselves or in small groups. That meant they were often without food or stretcher-bearers.

If there was one good consequence of the horrifying loss of Douaumont, it was the appointment of Petain. Not only did he reorganize the front lines and transport systems, but he made a special point of meeting with his troops, carefully explaining what he was doing and what he needed them to do. Above all, to a situation that had borne all the signs of careening inexorably out of control, he brought a stability that, in time, transformed into one of the great defensive stands of history. 

All of this was helped immensely by La Voie Sacree (“The Sacred Way”), the route along which 3,000 trucks a day braved a constant barrage to bring troops and supplies to the defense of Verdun.

With all of that, it was still a near-run thing, particularly after Falkenhayn widened the battle zone in the spring. Soldiers on both sides grasped for words to convey the horror of what they were experiencing. The German Expressionist painter Franz Marc wrote on March 3, 1916: “For days I have seen nothing but the most terrible things that can be painted from a human mind.” (He fell in battle the very next day.) A French veteran, Albert Joubaire, wrote simply: “Hell cannot be this dreadful.”

By early summer, Russian advances on the Eastern Front and the combined Anglo-French offensive at the Somme diverted resources from Falkenhayn. His failure to bring the battle to a successful conclusion led to his dismissal in August. The French spent the last months of the year retaking territory previously lost, and both sides—now onto deadlier ground elsewhere—had stopped fighting at Verdun by year-end.

Even so, the artillery bombardment left lasting scars on the land. Before the battle, Verdun had been a primarily agricultural community. But, as Stuart Thornton writes in this article for National Geographic, trees were smashed and the small villages in the vicinity of the fighting were destroyed by the munitions.  After the war, the French government, despairing at the price of restoring the farmland, simply declared this the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone. A century after the battle, unexploded shells remain a danger in this area.

Quote of the Day (Noel Coward, on Honesty and Deceit)

“It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”-- Noel Coward, Blithe Spirit (1941)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Quote of the Day (W.H. Auden, on Good and Evil)

"Good can imagine Evil, but Evil cannot imagine Good." —British poet W.H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Quote of the Day (Saul Bellow, on How ‘The Most Dangerous People Seek the Power’)

“In every community there is a class of people profoundly dangerous to the rest. I don't mean the criminals. For them we have punitive sanctions. I mean the leaders. Invariably the most dangerous people seek the power." —Saul Bellow, Herzog (1964)

Friday, February 26, 2016

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Honeymooners,’ on Why Ralph Appeals to Women)

Ralph Kramden [played by Jackie Gleason]: “Well, let me tell you something, I had some chances, too, you know, before I married you!”

Alice Kramden [played by Audrey Meadows]: “Ha ha!”

Ralph: “Don't laugh, Alice, there were plenty of girls crazy about me and you know it. Every time I went down to the beach, they used to crowd around me.”

Alice: “Sure. Sure, they crowded around you. That didn't mean they were crazy about you. They just wanted to sit in the shade!”— The Honeymooners, “Hello Mom,” Season 1, Episode 10, original air date Dec. 3, 1955, teleplay by Marvin Marx and Walter Stone, directed by Frank Satenstein

Jackie Gleason, “The Great One,” was born 100 years ago today in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The set of The Honeymooners was, in fact, based on his childhood home in the borough’s Chauncey Street.

He had the proverbial Dickensian childhood: an older brother died when Jackie was three. Six years later, his Irish-American father, an insurance auditor, left the family for good. His Irish-born mother died when he was about 19, leaving him penniless.  Performing arts became his path out of misery, as he took jobs, in turn, as a stunt driver, a carnival barker, as well as working in a pool hall and in touring shows. Sheer talent helped him triumph, even over his own excesses—the taste for food (ridiculed in the above quote), women and booze.

He got his first real break in a Broadway musical, Follow the Girls (1944). It might have been appropriate, then, that he won a Tony as the ne’er-do-well, alcoholic brother-in-law in another musical, Take Me Along (1960).

At a time when much of the rest of television was turning its attention to suburban dads, Gleason found comic gold in a more gritty urban setting. Bus driver Ralph Kramden's arguments with wife Alice (which, for all his blustering about sending her “to the moon,” always ended with him shown up as stupid) often revolved around the kind of things that people who are financially hard-pressed would, such as money. Millions of TV viewers nodded even as they smiled and laughed.

Outside of The Honeymooners, Gleason demonstrated his skill as an actor in The Hustler (1961), in an Oscar-nominated role, and a particular favorite of mine, his last movie, the comedy-drama Nothing in Common, in which he played Tom Hanks’ cantankerous father.