CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Eyewitnesses to the Carnage.

The Muck and Grime of Death.

Special to The Great War Project

(22-25 May) Vicious fighting resumes again at Verdun in northern France on the Western Front.

On May 23rd a century ago, the French attack at Fort Douaumont, outside the town of Verdun. It looks at first like the French are successful, gaining ground without firing a shot.

But quickly the Germans counterattack. Two French battalions are crushed. According to one French officer who is an eye-witness to the fighting, “Nearly five hundred men were killed or wounded. The dead were piled up as high as the parapet.”

The dead at Verdun.

The dead in the trenches at Verdun.

Another eye-witness is a 21-year-old French Second Lieutenant, Alfred Joubaire. He marches to the front, reports historian Martin Gilbert, behind the regimental band playing Tipperary.

Photograph of the Band of the 5th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment, playing in the ruins at Ypres, Belgium, during the Great War

British band on the battlefield, Western Front, date uncertain.

Joubaire is keeping a diary. On May 23rd he writes, “Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre. What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!”

The following day, Joubaire is killed by a German artillery shell. “One projectile from the 2200 artillery pieces,” writes Gilbert, “that the German had concentrated on the salient.”

The British poet Siegfried Sassoon is also in this fight. He witnesses a night patrol as the soldiers creep toward the German trenches. Shots ring out, explosions nearby. Sassoon moves toward a crater in the battlefield. He finds one wounded man, who tells him there is another “somewhere down the crater, badly wounded.”

The Germans open fire. “The bloody sods,” Sassoon recalls later, “are firing down at me from point blank range.” Sassoon thinks his time has come. “He presses on and soon he finds the wounded man, twenty-five feet down in the crater.”

The soldier is hit in many places — arm, leg, body and head as well.

Sassoon crawls back to the British trench for help. He and two other men return to the crater, where the wounded man has now lost consciousness. They bring rope and attempt to pull him out of the crater.


British Operations in U.S. Spend Millions Each Week

The German Response: Sabotage

Special to The Great War Project

(18-21 May) By this time in the war a century ago, the United States is supplying the Allies – Britain, France, and Russia – with an estimated forty percent of the weaponry they need to fight the war effectively.

Britain is paying for everything, writes historian Thomas Fleming. “Of the five million pounds England spent on the war each day, two million pounds or $70 million – were spent in the United States.

Shell preparation in British munitions factory.

Shell preparation in British munitions factory.

According to Fleming, the British purchases in Washington, D.C. are substantial. There are three British operations underway.

One, under the control of the British Ministry of Munitions, “had a staff of 1,600,” Fleming reports, “and bought weapons and ammunition for both Britain and [bankrupt] France.”

“Ministry agents were in hundreds of U.S. factories where orders were being filled. British agents even rode the freight trains and supervised loading at U.S. docks to prevent sabotage.”

Two other British operations are extremely active in the U.S. The Board of Trade and the Wheat Export Company “were also hard at work buying immense amounts of civilian goods, cotton, and grain.”

It’s not surprising then that the German leadership wants to mount unlimited submarine warfare against American as well British ships, carrying military or civilian goods.

“Simultaneously,” reports Fleming, “the United States did little while the British navy slowly but steadily extended the meaning of the word contraband (of war) until the definition included almost every imaginable article produce by farmers or industrialists.”

The Wilson administration’s policy of neutrality allows both sides in the war to purchase American supplies. But the U.S. implementation of this policy clearly favors the allies. What’s more, the Americans give the British license to inspect for contraband nearly everything on American docks bound for Germany.


Austrians Deploy Hundreds of Guns on Trentino Front.

Terrible Toll at Verdun as Battle Drags On.

Special to The Great War Project

(14-17 May) During these days in May a century ago, the Germans are building up their defenses on the Western Front.

The major fighting for the Central Powers is the launch of a massive Austrian offensive on the Trentino Front, in the mountains between Italy and Austria.

It’s an area, writes historian Michael Neiberg, “with many ethnic Germans whom the Austro-Hungarians hoped might help them to win a major victory.”

Italians scale Alpine peaks to defend their lines, date uncertain.

Italians scale Alpine peaks to defend their lines, date uncertain.

“The offensive began well for the Austro-Hungarians,” Neiberg reports.

The massive Austrian offensive on the Trentino Front involved “400 guns participating in the opening bombardment,” according to historian Martin Gilbert. The Austrian goal is to break out of the mountains and onto the Venetian plain and knock Italy (one of the allied powers) out of the war.

That might have happened if the Germans helped their Austrian allies. But the Germans do not provide the support the Austrians need. The goal of the Austrians — to cut off the Italians on the slopes of the Isonzo mountains — might have worked if the Germans were inclined to support the Austrians.

They offer no such help, observes historian Norman Stone. “Still the Austrians persist. It was a very bold plan…including hauling heavy guns with ski-lift cable cars.”

“After a fierce resistance the Italians were driven off the mountain peaks,”

…writes historian Gilbert. “Heavy snow nine days after the offensive began forced it to a halt…within a week the offensive was resumed, and one by one the peaks and passes fell.”

Snow and ice a big factor on Italian Fronts.

Snow and ice a big factor on Italian Fronts.

The Austrians capture 30,000 Italian soldiers. “But the advance across mountainous craggy terrain exhausts the attackers. A gain of twelve miles, so small an area on the map, was for those who had carried it out, a major success.”

“This was the only “might-have-been in the war,” reports Stone. If the Germans support the Austrians…then Italy “could easily have been knocked out altogether with dramatic consequences for the other fronts.”

“The option was never seriously considered.”

On the Western Front, the battle at Verdun in northern France is still raging. It begins in February 1916 a century ago, and it quickly bogs down in the horrible stalemate that is so characteristic of the war on the Western Front.


Both Sides Eager for Fight; Both Weakened by War

Ottomans Launch Wave of Executions

Special to The Great War Project

(9-13 May) The British are making efforts to ignite an “Arab Revolt” in the lands of Arabia, led by Sharif Hussein, descendant of Mohammed, leader of the Hashemite clan, and keeper of the Sacred Mosque in Mecca.

Sharif Hussein of Mecca, leader of the Arabs, Keeper of the Sacred Mosque.

Sharif Hussein of Mecca, leader of the Arabs, Keeper of the Sacred Holy Mosque.

Through a web of intelligence agents, the Ottoman leadership in these territories learns quickly of the British and Arab plans to defeat them.

They are quick to act, in deadly fashion. As early as August 1915 hangings of Arab plotters take place in Beirut. They are carried out in the dead of night, but the local population learns of them quickly, as do the people of Damascus and Jerusalem.

“These first hangings proved but the beginning of a reign of terror,”

,,,writes historian Eugene Rogan. Dozens more Arab activists are arrested, accused of plotting the overthrow of their Ottoman overseers. “Between their sessions before the military tribunal, the suspects were tortured to reveal the names of other members and the aims of their societies,” reports Rogan.

Repression worked, writes Rogan. Those Arab leaders that have conspired with Hussein and his sons “are broken and on the run.”

The repression continues into the spring of 1916, a century ago. Many from well-known Arab families are quickly found guilty of treason. Reports Rogan, “While everyone knew that treason carried the death penalty, many of those convicted came from prominent families and held high office, as members of parliament or in the Ottoman senate.

“It seemed unthinkable that the government would hang such prominent citizens like common criminals.”

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”