Tag Archives: Amiens

Birdsong: Part I

Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature.  It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910.  The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front.  Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels.  It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.

All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it.  It’s a tough read.  I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle.  But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I.  The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair  in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment.  I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.

Jack Firebrace listening for enemy tunnelers

Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS.  I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen.  After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book.  And I have to say, I was very impressed.  Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war.  The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character.  In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.

Stephen and Isabelle steal a moment alone together.

The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey).  I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week.  This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf.  Maybe the third try’s the charm.

Wraysford at the Front

Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).

See my thoughts on Part II here.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Period Pieces, World War I

Breaking the Stalemate at the Front

During World War I, two equally-matched armies sat deadlocked on the Western Front, each ensconced in elaborate entrenchments.  While night patrols and trench raids took place, they did not amount to much, and lobbing grenades at each other only went so far.  Creative thinking was needed to end this bloody war of attrition.

Through the combined use of new weaponry and tactics, the stalemate was finally broken in 1918, beginning with the German Spring Offensive.

Frontal infantry assaults on heavily fortified trenches led to devastating losses and little ground gained.  Shelling the trenches beforehand had proved ineffective (such as in the Battle of the Somme).  The following new tactics were developed in hopes of ending the stalemate:

  • Pre-battle training: Model trenches (see picture here) were designed to help soldiers visualize what they would be running into, so that they could avoid dangerous spots and target the weaker sections of an enemy’s trench system.  Sharing this knowledge with a number of soldiers, rather than just the senior officers, meant the men would know what to do in the event their officers were shot down during battle.  Junior officers were also given a larger role, as the armies realized that it was unrealistic to carry out a large orchestrated military maneuver from afar.  Junior officers would need to think on the spot and show initiative.
  • Artillery coverage: The new plan was to have the artillery suppress the strongest portions of the enemy entrenchments, while the infantry went around them to the weaker points.  Artillery also used new intelligence-gathering techniques in order to find enemy guns and destroy them, so that they would not be in the way of the infantry.
  • Pushing forward: The army was to constantly push into enemy territory without letting up, so that the enemy did not have time to reinforce their trenches and deploy their reserve troops.
  • Combining forces: The main key to success was to combine artillery, infantry, and new weapons and to throw everything at the enemy at once.

So what happened when these tactics were put into action?

Spring Offensive

German Stormtrooper, spring 1918

In March, 1918, the Germans launched a full-scale offensive in an attempt to end the war.  Seeing that the war of attrition was tipping in the Allies’ favor with the United States entering the fight on their side (with fresh troops and supplies), the Germans knew they needed to launch an attack before the United States had a chance to become a formidably trained fighting force.

The plan was to attack the weakly defended Somme area, outflank British troops there and defeat the British army, thus causing the French to call for an armistice.  The German army had developed specialized units known as “stormtroopers” to move through the weakened sections of enemy lines, disrupting artillery, enemy headquarters, and supply depots, and rapidly seizing enemy territory.

At first the Germans found success with this tactic, surprising the British troops, who suffered heavy casualties.  However, the German army began to lose momentum as they were unable to keep the stormtroopers supplied.  These delays gave the Allies enough time to regroup and slow the German advance.  By April the German offensive was no longer a great danger to Allied forces.

During the Spring Offensive the Allies lost 255,000 men, numbers that could be replenished by American troops.  The Germans lost 239,000 men, most of whom were the best soldiers Germany had to offer, the “stormtroopers” that had been sent in during their final big push to win the war.  The lack of decisive victory lowered the remaining German troops’ morale.

Amiens and the last 100 days

Canadian troops at Amiens

In August the Allies launched a surprise offensive against the weakened German army.  The “combined arms” approach was used for this successful attack, with the infantry advancing behind a curtain of artillery fire, and with the support of tanks, armored cars, cavalry, and close air support.  The Allies almost broke through the German lines, but reinforcements were rushed in, preventing the Allies from moving farther.

However, the battle of Amiens had shaken the German army’s confidence, while bolstering the Allies’.  Before Amiens, the Allied army saw the war stretching on for another two years at least, but the battle had proven just how weakened the German army was.

In the hundred days that followed, the Allied troops continued to forge ahead, pushing past German trenches using the same techniques (tanks, artillery, and air power).  Outnumbered and outgunned, the German army was forced to retreat, and it was soon obvious that the war was drawing to its conclusion.

Sources: Canada and the First World War, First World War.com, Wikipedia

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Downton Abbey Season 2, ep. 4 recap

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Last night Downton Abbey did not end with a cheery song and the return of an unscathed missing man.  Instead viewers were hit with one piece of depressing news after another.  This was the darkest episode yet (except for a few light spots with the Dowager Countess, such as when she calls the telephone an instrument of torture.  Oh Granny).

Two of my Downton Predictions proved accurate in this episode.  During the battle of Amiens (which was the beginning of the end of the war and was a major success for the Allied forces), Matthew and William are wounded by a nearby shell explosion.  William sustains a serious lung injury that will slowly kill him, while Matthew’s injury leads the doctor to suggest that he will never walk again, and will never have a “proper marriage.”  Now the future of the entail is called into question again, as well as Matthew’s engagement to Lavinia.  He tells her to leave, refusing to tie her down to a cripple who won’t be able to give her any children.

Lavinia pours her heart out to Lady Mary, then promptly departs for London, leaving Mary to care for Matthew.  Given Lavinia’s meek and mild nature, someone with Mary’s strong resolve is probably what Matthew needs (and of course I’m rooting for them to reunite).  Mary devotes herself to Matthew’s care, and seems to finally have found her place among all the change occurring around her from the war.

But Mary has other problems to tend to.  Vera Bates returns (thanks to O’Brien) and has every intention of revealing Mary’s secret, and plans to bring Anna down along with the Crawley name.  Anna tells Mary, who goes to see Sir Richard about the matter.  You know you’ve made a mistake in your choice of fiancee when he says he’s happy to help, but it also pleases him to know that he’ll have something on you and you’ll be in his debt.  As we can see from next week’s preview, it looks like Sir Richard plans to play the “Pamuk card” to get what he wants.

Mrs. Bates is paid off by Sir Richard, who then promptly announces his engagement to Mary (again, not a good sign, given that Mary had no knowledge that he would do so).  This news infuriates Vera, and she swears that she will get Bates back another way.  This woman is on an entirely different level than O’Brien and Thomas in her one-dimensional vendetta against Bates and Anna.  O’Brien and Thomas can be nasty, but who knows to what lengths Vera will go to get back at Bates.

Meanwhile William is dying at Downton (after a few strings are pulled by Lady Violet to get him there) in the largest bedroom he’s ever slept in.  Daisy is basically peer-pressured into marrying William in order to receive a widow’s pension.  You can’t help but feel badly for her, and I know the guilt is going to eat away at her as that pension starts coming in.  The marriage, quickly followed by the death of William, left us reaching for the tissues (if Lady Violet is allowed to shed a tear, so are we!).

There were a few odds and ends tucked in throughout the episode.  Lady Edith quietly nurses William, keeping him comfortable during the final days of his life.  A  few short scenes between Lady Sybil and Branson show that he seems to be chipping away at the barrier she’s put between them (really, this relationship grows creepier each week, like Sybil is some sort of trophy that Branson’s trying to win).

Lord Grantham is being ignored by Lady Grantham, who is busy running the convalescent home, and like some sort of spoiled child he pouts with his newspaper, and then takes an all-too keen interest in the new maid (did anyone else notice that lingering look he gave after she left the room?).  Mrs. Hughes has been looking out for Ethel and her illegitimate child, who the father wants nothing to do with (is it just me or does this thread fall somewhat flat–I didn’t have enough time with Ethel to become emotionally invested in her).  And Isobel Crawley returns at last, and the look Matthew gives her before breaking down when he sees her was enough to make me bring out the tissues again.

So what next?  Nothing was resolved in this episode, and it looks like several story arcs are getting ready to hit their critical peaks.

What did you think of this week’s episode?

Miss any of the other episodes?  See my episode 1, episode 2, and episode 3 recaps.

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