CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Germans in Stronger Position; Allies in Terrible Shape;

The Kaiser Declares Victory.

Special to The Great War Project.

(19 March) In the early morning of March 21st a century ago, the Germans launch the spring offensive that is intended to bring rapid victory to their forces on the Western Front.

The goals, according to historian Martin Gilbert, are first to drive the British army from the River Somme in northern France. And at the same time drive the French forces from the River Aisne.

Germany’s spring offensive, 1918.

Both areas were fought to a stalemate earlier in the war.

Now “the omens for Germany were good,” writes Gilbert. “Russia was out of the war. The German pre-war nightmare of a conflict on two fronts was over.”

The German railway, hitherto tied to the Eastern Front, now is moving men and guns rapidly westward.

The initial German thrust surprises the British. They figure the initial action would come much further south. But they are wrong.

And, their manpower is weak in the face of the German onslaught.

“After three and a half years of fighting,” observes Gilbert, “the manpower shortage was still a factor in the British army’s ability to make war.”

German reserves rush to the front in the German spring offensive, 1918.

In this offensive, a century ago, more than 6,000 heavy German guns unleash their fury, augmented by another 3000 mortars.

Reports Gilbert, “Gas shells were employed to weaken the ability of the British artillery to counter the German barrage.”

The Germans drop as many as two million gas shells on the British lines.

British aircraft are also vastly outnumbered.

Then, the first wave of German infantry attacks.

Reports historian Gilbert, Winston Churchill is visiting one of the frontline headquarters when the assault begins. He is only just able to escape the initial artillery barrage, before the Germans advance four-and-a-half miles and take 21,000 British prisoners.

German stormtroopers attack in spring offensive.

“Two days later, the Germans bombard Paris, using three long distance artillery guns especially manufactured for just such an operation,” Gilbert writes. The British are forced to retreat to the Somme.

The German Kaiser declares “the battle won, the English utterly defeated.”


A Thousand Protesters in Prison; Socialists Won’t “Repent.”

Uneasy Days on the Battlefront.

Special to The Great War Project.

(13 March) The anti-war movement in the United States remains as intense as ever.

That’s the view of historian Adam Hochschild as he surveys the battlefields these days a century ago.

“More than a thousand conscientious objectors were still behind bars in the United States,” Hochschild reports, “and attendance at peace rallies was on the rise.”

American Socialists in St. Louis rally against the war.

“American radicals scoffed at President Woodrow Wilson’s high-flown rhetoric about democracy and self-determination,” Hochschild writes, “insisting that the real reason the U.S. was fighting for an Allied victory was to ensure that massive American war loans to Britain and France would be paid back.”

“Although American war resisters were never as numerous as their British counterparts, more than 500 draftees refused any sort of alternative service and went to prison.”

Witness the case of the American Socialist Party leader, Eugene Debs.

Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs

Debs left a sickbed in 1918 to give a series of anti-war speeches, for which he too was thrown behind bars. “The judge told him he might get a lesser sentence if he repented.”

“Repent?” asked Debs. “Repent for standing like a man?”

In the spring of 1918, Debs is given a ten-year sentence for violating the recently sharpened Espionage Act, according to historian Michael Kazin. Debs speaks at a picnic for Socialist party members in Ohio.

“On that occasion,” reports Kazin, “Debs has not railed against conscription nor specifically condemned the war Americans were currently fighting.”

Debs and supporters, 1918.

Instead Kazin notes, “he rails against the fact the working class has never yet had a voice in declaring war. But were taught it was their patriotic duty to have themselves slaughtered at command.”

Kazin concludes, “that was evidently too much for the Justice Department.”

Later Debs would remain in prison even though he eventually ran for president on the Socialist ticket.

On the battlefield, Hochschild reports, “in early March 1918, General Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of British forces, gets an intelligence report: an offensive on a big scale will take place during the current month.”

That intelligence proves to be true.


German Air Attacks Increasingly Deadly.

For Allies, It’s Victory or Collapse.

Special to The Great War Project.

(6 March) This week a century ago, the Germans let loose with one of their most effective air attacks of the war.

Historian Martin Gilbert writes: “In the first week of March 1918, Germany and Austria launch four bombing runs. Austrian aircraft bomb Venice, Padua” and two other Italian towns.

But they lose a third of their planes.

London homes bombed by German aircraft.

“Three days later, German Giant bombers attacked London,” Gilbert reports.

“A single bomb kills twelve people in a residential neighborhood.”

Four hundred homes are damaged.

Then German planes drop more than ninety bombs on Paris.

Writes Gilbert, “Without panic but with much fear, 200,000 Parisians left the capital by rail for the countryside.”

Paris crowds react to German bombing.

Three days later, a German airship drops its bombs on the Italian naval base and steel plant at Naples. German forces occupy Odessa.

During these days, everyone is waiting anxiously for offensives on both sides.

On March 9th “the Germans begin, with a series of artillery bombardments, the preliminary phase of what was to be their largest and most essential gamble of the war: a massive offensive against the British and French forces on the Western Front.”

“Hitherto the main military initiatives on the Western Front,” observes Gilbert, “had been taken by the Allied powers: on the Somme, at Ypres, and at Cambrai. Each of these offensives had broken themselves against superior German fortifications and defense lines.”

“Now it was the Germans trying to break through the line of the trenches,”

Gilbert writes. “They had one overriding concern, that their victory should be secured before the mass of Americans reached the warzone.”


On Russian Front, German Eyes Set on Petrograd

The Kaiser Celebrated with Champagne

Special to The Great War Project.

(25 February) It’s a crucial moment in the war for all sides.

The peace treaty that ended the war between Germany and Russia fundamentally redrew the map of Europe.

“The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin,” reports historian Martin Gilbert, “gave up all claims to the Baltic provinces (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania), Poland, Byelorussia, Finland, Bessarabia (now Moldova), Ukraine, and the Caucasus.”

The Russian Battlefield near Petrograd.

Then, a century ago, “the Germans looked set to enter Petrograd,” the Russian capital.

“In their rapid and virtually unopposed advance,” reports Gilbert, “they had captured 63,000 Russian prisoners, 2,600 artillery pieces, and 5,000 machine guns. The weapons would be of great value to them on the Western Front.”

Finally, Russia signs a formal piece treaty with Germany. “The Bolsheviks accepted the harsh reality of the battlefield,” that they could no longer resist.

Battle for the Black Sea

“The German high command was relieved,” Gilbert writes, “it was eager to turn Germany’s military might against the Western Front.”

There is much talk now of an imminent German offensive on the Western Front. The Germans think they can finish this war before the waves of American soldiers hit the battlefield.

Now Russia as an empire — indeed Russia as a nation — may not have a future.

According to historian Gilbert, the territory Russia has been forced to give up “constitutes a third of its pre-war population, a third of its arable land, and nine-tenths of its coalfields.”

“Almost all the territory, in fact,” Gilbert observes, “that had been added to the Tsarist dominions since the reign of Peter the Great more than two hundred years earlier.”

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”