CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


In Final Stages of Preparation; Germans Seek Knockout Blow Against French Bastion.

French, British Eye Offensive at the Somme

Special to The Great War Project.

(7-10 February) Planning on both sides intensifies, as the Germans and the Allies each hope to mount massive offensives that can break the war’s devastating stalemate..

Writes historian Martin Gilbert, “Two plans, one German, one Anglo-French both aimed at securing victory on the Western Front, were being devised in mid-February.”

French mounted troops rest near Verdun, February 1916.

French mounted troops rest near Verdun, February 1916.

But the two plans are quite different.

“The Germans,” reports Gilbert, “were in the final stages of planning what they believed would be a successful war of attrition, centered upon a massive, sustained attack on the northern French fortress of Verdun.”

For the German command, Verdun offered the possibility of a gambit “to bring a quick and favorable end to the war,”...

…writes historian Alexander Watson.

“The place was well chosen,” Watson notes. The fortress at Verdun holds historical significance for the French, having been constructed during the French Revolution in the 1790’s. “It had been a bastion guaranteeing France against invasion.”

French send reinforcements to Verdun, February 1916.

French send reinforcements to Verdun, February 1916.

Verdun has already seen battle in this war. “Throughout 1915,” writes Gilbert, “the German frontline trenches had been only ten miles from the center of the town.”

“Now it was to be the German Army’s main objective for 1916.”


German Limits on U-boat Ops Satisfies Americans.

Under Siege in Iraq, British Desperate for American Support

Special to The Great War Project

(3-6 February) It is now completely obvious that, at this stage in the war a century ago, without American support in munitions and loans, Britain and France will lose the war.

Writes historian Arthur Link….

“The Allies were now completely dependent upon American raw materials and munitions…

…There were, moreover, signs that they would soon become dependent upon American credit as well.”

British leaders, like Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, understand that Britain is rapidly depleting its supply of gold and foreign currency, fundamental to maintaining the allied war effort.

British lion and symbol John Bull read newspaper account of American war protests.

British lion and symbol John Bull read newspaper account of American war protests.

In Link’s view, “Any action meanwhile by the American government, no matter how seemingly trivial on the American side, impairing the flow of credit to the United Kingdom, or any change in the American opinion that would affect the willingness of bankers to lend, could be fatal to the Allied cause.”

Moreover, the British fear that the American stance “was part of a broad new understanding between Germany and the United States on the conduct of submarine warfare.”

At this time, the British ambassador in Washington, Cecil Spring Rice, cables Grey in London that “the Germans are now praising the President, [the Secretary of State Robert] Lansing and Congress.” This is the result of German negotiations over the issue of restrictions on submarine warfare.

As a result of American pressure, reports Link, “the Germans had conducted virtually no submarine operations in British waters” since September of 1915.

However, German U-boats continue to mount attacks without warning on armed merchant ships in open waters.


Little Food Reaching Germany; Its Exports Drying Up

In Dire Straits, Berlin to Mount Huge Attack at Verdun

Special to The Great War Project

(30 January-2 February) The British sea blockade of Germany is causing real pain.

The British goal is to starve Germany into submission, and the blockade is having an impact.

British battleships and submarines participate in blockade of Germany, circa 1916.

British battleships and submarines participate in blockade of Germany, circa 1916.

In the early stages of the war, the Germans use their great submarine fleet to fight the blockade. They are highly effective, but Germany faces a serious problem when its U-boats sink British ships carrying Americans and American cargo bound for Britain.

The German sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 poses a great danger to Berlin. Under severe pressure and threats from the United States, the Germans scale back their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Map of British blockade of Germany.

Map of British blockade of Germany.

But the Germans are developing other effective weapons. On February 1st one hundred years ago, “the first merchant ship,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “was sunk by aerial bombs from a German plane.”

Still the current circumstances pose serious problems for the Germans. They are suffering under extreme pressure from the British blockade. A struggle breaks out in the German command over whether to return to unrestricted submarine warfare.

The German top commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, sends a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm. In it he argues in favor of unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The Germans must find some way of breaking the blockade.

According to war history John Keegan, Falkenhayn insists that Germany’s objective “must be to dishearten Britain on whose industrial and maritime power the Alliance [Britain and France] rested.”

“He therefore argued for a resumption of the U-boat campaign.”


Allies Focus on River Somme; Germans on Verdun.

Anything to Break the Stalemate

Special to The Great War Project

(26-29 January) Despite the terrible deadlock on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, war commanders for the Allies are busy planning a great offensive against the Germans and Austrians.

From the last month of December 1915, writes war historian John Keegan, the Allies’ thoughts “were concentrated on the great offensives they jointly planned to deliver in the west and east, offensives which they believed would, after eighteen months of stalemate in France and Belgium, a year of defeats in Poland, and six months of frustration in Italy, bring them decisive victories.”

Devastation from fighting in northern France, date uncertain.

Devastation from fighting in northern France, date uncertain.

Looking at the big picture of the war, from Belgium to the Middle East, the Allies have to make some hard choices. They decide that on the minor fronts – Greece, Egypt, and Iraq – they will not be reinforced.

“On the major fronts, by contrast,” writes Keegan, “the Russians, the Italians and the British and French bound themselves to mount attacks so timed as to prevent the Central Powers [Germany and Austria] from transferring reserves between theatres and with all the forces available to each army.”

The Allied forces believe they are ready for such offensives.

“The Allied forces had grown considerably since the beginning of trench warfare,” reports Keegan.

Take Italy. Although Italy is the “weakest of the major allies,” it has “succeeded by early 1916  in raising its number of infantry battalions from 560 to 693, according to Keegan. Italy pieces are similarly much more numerous. And the Italian army in the zone of combat “had grown in strength since 1915 from a million to a million and a half.”

British victims of German gas attack on Western Front, date uncertain.

British victims of German gas attack on Western Front, date uncertain.

Similarly, Russia “despite the terrible fatalities of 1914-1915 and the large loss of soldiers to captivity,” is on the way to fielding an army of two million. Russian industry is turning out a rapidly expanding number of artillery pieces, explosive shells, and rifles, not to mention output in other equipment, such as trucks, telephones, and aircraft.

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”