CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


 Britain and France Carve Up The Middle East

One Problem: Ottoman Turks Winning the War

Special to The Great War Project.

(1-4 May) The British may have been defeated at Kut in Mesopotamia on the last day of April a century ago, but they are not defeated in the Middle East. At least that’s the way they see it.

Just three days before the British surrender in Kut — after a Turkish siege of 145 days — British and French diplomats, negotiating for months in Paris, sign a secret pact partitioning the Middle East after the war.

The document, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, is the work of Sir Mark Sykes from Britain and Georges Picot of France. They hold private talks for months, negotiating the postwar partition of the Middle East.

“The diplomats,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “were dividing up Asia Minor [much of the Middle East] in a secret agreement with France. In the Levant [present day Lebanon] France would control the Lebanese coast, with its capital at Beirut.”

The Middle East as seen through the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The Middle East as seen through the Sykes-Picot agreement.

The agreement creates “an Arab sovereign state in Syria,” reports Gilbert, “based in Damascus, that would be under French protection.”

Britain would be sovereign over the port city of Haifa [now in northern Israel] and the crusader city of Acre [also in northern Israel], thus controlling the bay that would serve as the Mediterranean terminus for oil pipelines coming from Mesopotamia.

“Palestine,” reports Gilbert, “would be under the triple protection of Britain, France, and Russia.”

And finally, Gilbert observes, an Arab state under British protection would stretch from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

Of course this all depends on the Ottomans’ losing the war. Just now though, they are celebrating the great victory against the British at Kut…

…on the Tigris River a hundred miles south of Baghdad.

“More than 9,000 troops surrendered to the Turks on April 29th,” a century ago, according to Gilbert.

Nonetheless, in Britain the surrender at Kut comes as a great shock. “More men had surrendered to the despised Turk at Kut,” Gilbert writes, “than had surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown,” (a great victory for the Americans during their revolutionary war).


Scale of British Surrender Unprecedented.

Soldiers Starving; Locals Hanged;

‘The Trees Dangling With Corpses’

Special to The Great War Project

(27-30 April) On this day, April 27th a century ago the British garrison at Kut, on the Tigris River in Iraq, opens negotiations with the Ottoman forces to surrender.

Three British officers, including Captain T.E. Lawrence (who will become legendary as Lawrence of Arabia,) “offer the Turks one million pounds in gold,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “if the besieged troops were allowed to leave in peace and rejoin the British forces in the south.”

The Ottoman commanding general will hear nothing of that.

“Your gallant troops,” General Halil Beg replies, “will be our most sincere and precious guests.”

Starving Indian British troops at Kut, April 1916.

Starving Indian British troops at Kut, April 1916.

Now the British desperately hope a Russian force in neighboring Persia, approaching the Mesopotamian border, will come to the rescue. But the Russians are one hundred miles from Baghdad, and Baghdad is another one hundred miles from Kut. The Rnussians are hardly able to reach Kut in time to save the British force.

The commanding general of the British garrison at Kut, Charles Townshend, confesses that he is not of sound mind or body to carry out the negotiations with Halil Bey. “None of the British top brass,” writes historian Eugene Rogan, “wanted to involve themselves in discussions that were certain to end in an unprecedented humiliation for the British army.”


Irish Uprising Crushed but Anti-War Sentiment Spreading;

Even in Germany, Support for War Weakens

Special to The Great War Project

(23-26 April) Support for the war in Europe, even in Germany, is beginning to crack.

A century ago in April, there is turmoil in the Reichstag, the German parliament. Karl Liebknecht, the leader of the German Social Democrats, rises to challenge Germany’s continued participation in the war.

German anti-war leader Karl Liebknecht

German anti-war leader Karl Liebknecht

According to historian Martin Gilbert, Liebknecht enrages “the patriotic mass of members by interrupting the Chancellor to declare that Germany was not free, and that the German people had not wished for war.”

On Easter, April 24th a century ago, anti-war representatives gather in Switzerland. Liebkhecht is there meeting with French activists.

They “denounced the war as a capitalist conspiracy,” Gilbert reports, “fought for the benefit of arms profiteering and territorial gain.”

The Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, also is there. Russia’s secret police believe revolutionary sentiment in Russia is growing.

On the same day that the meeting in Switzerland takes place, Britain confronts a new challenge, this time on its own doorstep.

An anti-British uprising erupts in Dublin.


Small States Around the World Especially Vulnerable;

Endgame at Kut in Iraq, A Humiliation for the British

Special to The Great War Project

(19-22 April) The war has unleashed deep ethnic hatreds all across Europe, the Middle East and even in the far Pacific.

By now, the Ottoman Turks have slaughtered nearly one million ethnic Armenians living in Turkey. Their excuse: they claim the Armenians “are in league with the Russians,” writes historian Adam Hochschild. The Turks and the Russians are engaged in a bloody standoff in the Caucasus, where many Armenians live.

The Armenian dead, date uncertain.

The Armenian dead, date uncertain.

“No one knows exactly how many Armenians perished,” Hochschild observes, “but most scholars estimate the number at one to one-and-a-half million.”

But that is not the only ethnic rivalry set free by the war.

“The Ottoman Empire was also unleashing a reign of pillage, terror, and village-burning on its Greek population, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands conscripted as forced labor.”

What’s more, “in the perennial tinderbox of the Balkans, old enmities among Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Bulgarians, and others helped Austria-Hungary carry out a ruthless occupation of Serbia,” reports Hochschild.”

“Everywhere, it seemed, the war had undammed reservoirs of hatred long kept in check.”

And everywhere it seems, these smaller states are being carved up by larger powers in an effort to grab the ultimate spoils of war. Hochschild reports “Bulgaria, promised chunks of Serbia, had joined the Central Powers” Germany and Austria-Hungary; Greece promised pieces of Turkey; and Romania, its eye on Austro-Hungarian territory.”

Greek troops mobilize against possible Bulgarian attack, date uncertain.

Greek troops mobilize against possible Bulgarian attack, date uncertain.

Even in the Pacific, far from the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, there is the same struggle over territory, this time in the colonial territories held by the great powers.

“In the Pacific,” Hochschild reports, “Japan had jumped into the fray, helping itself to some of Germany’s island colonies, and aided by British troops, to the German-controlled port of Tsingtao in China.”

Australia and New Zealand seize German Samoa, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.

“From desert and rain forest to remote atolls, the war was engulfing the globe.”

Art & Culture of War


The Great War Project welcomes letters, photos, and other memorabilia that you or your family members may have.

Here’s one, a poignant homecoming.


Los Angeles resident Gina Barker Young provided this family photo of her great great grandfather William Thomas Patterson welcoming his sons Lawrence and Thomas home from the war, Los Angeles, 1918

Los Angeles resident Gina Barker Young provided this family photo of her great great grandfather William Thomas Patterson welcoming his sons Lawrence and Thomas home from the war, Los Angeles,1918

To My Peoples

Screenshot of virtual exhibition, To My Peoples: The First World War 1914-1918

The Europeana museum, the Austrian National Library, and Google collaborated on the online presentation, “To My Peoples!” The First World War 1914 – 1918, a collection of “untold stories & official histories of WW1.”

We created a new virtual exhibition to commemorate the First World War. The exhibition guides you through the Emperor Franz Joseph’s manifestos, from announcements for mobilisation, to administering shortages, to dealing with prisoners of war and refugees. The big influence of the First World War on children is presented in remarkable drawings and letters by students in the chapter “My dear Pupils”. The exhibitions ends with a selection of photographs from the front, the hinterland and life in the field.

The War Illustrated

Painting from The War Illustrated of a battle in 1914 Belgium
“The Story Of The Great European War Told By Camera, Pen And Pencil” was the subtitle of The War Illustrated, a magazine published in London publication by William Berry (later owner of The Daily Telegraph). The first issue date was August 22, 1914, eighteen days after the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The magazine continued until 1919, with a peak circulation of 750,000 (and was revived in 1939 during the Second World War).

The issues were later packaged into books (all online at the Internet Archive: see list below). “Volume I. The First Phase” featured articles Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (“How the Boer War Prepared Us for the Great War”) and H. G. Wells:

The cause of a war and the object of a war are not necessarily the same. The cause of this war is the invasion of Luxemburg and Belgium. We declared war because we were bound by treaty to declare war. We have been pledged to protect the integrity of Belgium since the kingdom of Belgium has existed. If the Germans had not broken the guarantees they shared with us to respect the neutrality of these little States we should certainly not be at war at the present time.
—H. G. Wells, “Why Britain Went to War”, The War Illustrated: Volume I

BBC “Live” Blogs 1914 Assassination

The BBC applied their modern news reporting techniques to “live” blogging the century-old assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, with on-the-scene videos and minute-by-minute updates.

BBC News is used to reporting breaking news around the world. It’s what we do, part of the reason for our very existence. So if there were to be an assassination of a prominent European leader today, we would want to be there, reporting live. And audiences expect to consume breaking news in a live blog environment which is why we wanted to experiment with revealing history in this way.

This was the idea behind 1914 Live as the BBC’s First World War season reaches the first significant anniversary. We would use all the techniques of breaking news in 2014 to report on events from Sarajevo 100 years ago, particularly the BBC’s Live format.
BBC, “1914 Live: History retold as breaking news”