CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Allied Offensives Crumbling

Desperation From France to the Middle East.

Special to The Great War Project

(24 April) It is one disaster after another for the Allied troops during these horrible days of the World War, a century ago.

The French launch their so-called Nivelle Offensive, named after the French commanding general, in mid-April one hundred years ago.

French troops gather for attack, the Nivelle Offensive, April 1917.

French troops gather for attack, the Nivelle Offensive, April 1917.

Coming after the British defeats at Arras and Vimy Ridge, the French operation too “was a disaster,” writes historian Martin Gilbert.

It is the first time the French throw tanks into their battles, but it doesn’t help.

General Robert Nivelle, commander of French forces on the Western Front.

General Robert Nivelle, commander of French forces on the Western Front.

“Nivelle planned to advance a full six miles,” Gilbert reports. “His men were halted after six-hundred yards.”

Nivelle had expected about 15,000 casualties; there were almost 100,000.”

The lion’s share of the French tanks and aircraft are knocked out on the first day of the offensive. “Every element in the planning proved disastrous,” writes Gilbert.


British and Canadian Forces Stymied by the Germans.

Outcome in France All Too Familiar.

Special to The Great War Project.

(16 April) A century ago, there are major developments on the Western Front in France.

Just a few days earlier, a combined British and Canadian force launches simultaneous offensives at Arras and Vimy Ridge.

The destruction at Arras, April 1917.

The destruction at Arras, April 1917.

The first stage is clearly successful. The German line is penetrated and 5600 German soldiers are taken prisoner.

The British and Canadian force, according to Gilbert, “overruns almost the whole of the German front-line trench system” in just forty-five minutes. And the second line just a short time later.

“By nightfall,” Gilbert adds, “even part of the third German line was in British control.”

“The Canadians were also successful in the first hours, taking 4,000 prisoners.”

Canadian troops at rest, near Arras , April 1917.

Canadian troops at rest, near Arras , April 1917.

But the result is not all roses for the Allied force. A third German line is much better defended.

In this offensive, the British employ a new tactic. They call it the rolling or creeping barrage. As historian Gilbert describes it, “the targets of the artillery would move steadily and systematically forward, while the infantry followed close behind it, taking advantage of the effect of the artillery in stunning the defenders and disrupting the defenses.”

But soon the Germans reverse the momentum of the attack.


Germans Seal Train with Russian Revolutionary Aboard

Send it Off to Russia ‘Like a Plague Bacillus’

Special to The Great War Project

(9 April) The Allies are confronted with a clever political stratagem, conceived by the Germans and designed to knock Russia out of the war.

On April 8th a century ago, the Germans prepare the ground for the return of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Bolshevik leader and revolutionary, to Russia.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenon

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

An outlaw in imperial Russia, Lenin is living in Switzerland where he is out of the reach of Russia’s secret police. He continues to agitate for revolution from afar.

Lenin opposes what he calls this imperialist war. He has sworn to end Russia’s participation should he lead the Bolsheviks to take over.

Given the chaos in Russia, and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, now the Germans realize they can undermine Russia further by smuggling Lenin back into the country.

Lenin is notorious for his opposition to Russia’s participation in the war. “In a move,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “designed to destroy one of the pillars of the Alliance, Lenin and 32 other Bolsheviks are herded onto a sealed train and dispatched from Zurich to Russia.

The Germans are taking no chances. The train is sealed so that it is certain to reach its destination. “The Kaiser, told of this stratagem,” writes Gilbert, “approves of it.”

Lenin, the Bolshevik leader back in Russia.

Lenin, the Bolshevik leader back in Russia.

But others in Germany and Austria worry that “a successful Bolshevik revolution in Russia could be dangerous for all monarchies, five of which [Belgium, Serbia, Romania, Albania, and Montenegro] had already been dethroned.”

Lenin’s goal is to spark revolution across Europe.

“As the train steamed through the night,” reports historian Adam Hochschild, “it carried as escorts to the revolutionaries two German officers, one of whom spoke fluent Russian but was under orders to conceal it, all the better to report overheard conversations back to Berlin.”

The Russians sing revolutionary songs as they plan their strategies once they arrive in Petrograd, the Russian capital.

Lenin’s slogan of “peace, land, and bread” has great resonance.

“And on a war-weary continent,” observes Hochschild, “it could be highly contagious.”

Lenin loved cats.

Lenin loved cats.

In London, Winston Churchill expresses unease at the possible wider impact of the German gambit. “In Churchill’s words, Germany had sent Lenin on his way to Russia like a plague bacillus.”

“It remained to be seen how fast the bacillus would multiply.”


U.S. To Go to War With Germany,

House and Senate Say Yes to War.

President Signs War Declaration.

Special to The Great War Project

(6 April) – For two days round-the-clock, members of the House and Senate are debating a resolution that would bring the United States into the war against Imperial Germany.

The Senate begins its deliberation at 11 at night on April 5th and finally votes for war the next morning,

One of many front pages around the nation.

One of many front pages around the nation.

Then the House takes up the war declaration, just as news reaches the U.S. that another American ship is sunk by a German submarine. At that point, writes historian Margaret Wagner, “The momentum for war seemed unstoppable, even though many were torn.”

There was “something in the air,” said one lawmaker, “forcing us to vote for this declaration of war…

“…when away down deep in our hearts we are just as opposed to it as are our people back home.”

Many members of Congress vote against the war declaration. Those opposed include Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first female member of the House of Representatives.

With tears in her eyes, reports historian Wagner, “Rankin said “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war.”

Nevertheless, the war resolution passes in the House 373 to 50, at 3:12 a.m. on April 6th, precisely one hundred years ago.

Banner headlines.

Banner headlines.

President Woodrow Wilson signs the declaration at one-eighteen that afternoon.

The United States is now at war with Germany.

You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the Allies, writes Wagner. But the American people are much divided. Reports Wagner, “Americans absorbed the news with confusion and conflicting emotions.”

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”