CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


A Poem for the Fallen; in Washington Seeking Neutrality

Special to The Great War Project

(20-21 September) President Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisers continue to struggle with what it means for a nation – the United States – to remain neutral in this war, especially in light of the reports of German atrocities in Belgium and France.

Wilson at his desk in the White House, date uncertain

Wilson at his desk in the White House, date uncertain

Wilson refuses to speak in detail with the Washington press corps about this, lest he might say something that can be misconstrued by the belligerent powers and the American public.

In these days a century ago, Wilson receives appeals and evidence from all the belligerent powers. That includes from the German Kaiser claiming Belgian atrocities against German soldiers and from a delegation of Belgians urging him to take up their cause.

He remains steadfast in his impartiality.

At the same time, Britain is establishing a naval blockade of Germany. President Wilson is not happy with this development. He protests to the British government that it will have “evil effects” on American public opinion, according to historian Martin Gilbert.


Little Reporting from Eastern Front; Arrival of the Steel Helmet

Special to The Great War Project

(18-19 September) On the Eastern Front, historians call the battles there “titanic.”

The Austrians are in retreat east of Cracow in what is now Poland. Their losses are 350,000. In pursuit, the Russians suffer a quarter of a million casualties. The Austrians also abandon a thousand railroad locomotives on the battlefield, according to historian Max Hastings.

Yet far less is known of these Eastern battles.

There are far fewer written accounts of the fighting in the east.

“Personal reminiscences are very rare,” writes war historian John Keegan. “Nobody collected them…

Russian peasant soldiers in World War One, date uncertain

Russian peasant soldiers in World War One, date uncertain

“The voice of the Russian peasant soldier could not speak to posterity.”


“To Prevent Cowardice in Face of the Enemy.”

At the Aisne, Stalemate

Special to The Great War Project

(16-17 September) By these days a century ago, thousands of British troops manage to establish positions on the northern ridge of the Aisne River, but the Germans still occupy the higher ground there. And as the British attempt to push further on the north bank of the river, German machine-guns backed by heavy guns and mortar ravage the British attackers.

French soldier apparently executed by firing squad with officers looking on, date unknown

French soldier apparently executed by firing squad with officers looking on, date unknown

The Germans do not budge from their superior positions. But they cannot dislodge the British forces. It is stalemate.

Historian Max Hastings writes that by these days a century ago, “thousands of British troops were established on the northern bank of the Aisne – but in a wretched predicament. Soaking wet, exhausted and mostly unfed for many hours, they clung to positions just above the woods.”

One soldier writes in a letter home: “It is a terrible place out yonder – nothing but heaps of bodies and plenty of blood.

It appears the stalemate at the Aisne could last a long time.


Stalemate in the West; Crisis in the East.

A Medal for a Jewish Soldier

Special to The Great War Project

(15 September) A serious battle is unfolding at the French river Aisne.

The Germans, having withdrawn in good order from their defeat at the Marne, are now digging in on the north side of the river Aisne along the ridge above the river.

The Germans have the better positions and the tools to construct superior trenches.

Poor allied trenches on the River Aisne, September 1914

Poor allied trenches on the River Aisne, September 1914

On the Eastern Front, Austria’s army is struggling to hold the lines in Russian-occupied Poland.

The pattern of the war is becoming clear, writes historian Norman Stone. “In the west a stalemate and in the east a more or less constant Austro-Hungarian crisis.”

Both sides are learning an important lesson, according to Stone: “If troops attacked frontally, they would be met by a hail of shell and small-arms fire from positions in the ground that guns could not easily deal with.”

What to do? Both sides come to the same conclusion: move to the open flank northwest of the Aisne. This is a well-known maneuver in warfare, writes Stone, because it allows the attackers to “enfilade” the defenders, that is, fire on a line of vulnerable troops who can’t fire back.

Listening Post

Searching for Uncle Theo, Killed in WWI

The rifle volley shattered the quiet in the cemetery and made me jump. Immediately, the synchronized snick of bolts being worked, empty shells clinking on the ground, and the order, “Ready, fire!” and another cracking volley.

I was ten at the time.

I scrambled between adult legs to snatch one of the still warm brass casings. I hardly noticed that the volley was being fired over the grave of my great uncle, Theodore Williams, who was killed in WWI.

Theodore Colley Williams

Theodore Colley Williams

Each year of my 1940’s childhood in tiny Thomaston, Maine, a military unit along with marching band formed up on Armistice Day (Nov. 11) and marched through town to the cemetery. I thrilled to this little martial spectacle. The street was lined with crowds, and we kids ran along beside, dodging through grown-ups wearing red paper poppies, the symbol of remembrance of those who died in the Great War. (Not until 1954 was Armistice Day changed to Veteran’s Day).

My great aunt, Theodore Williams’ sister, lived with us and told me that her brother had been killed in the war, but she provided no details, and I didn’t pay much attention. This was shortly after WWII ended, and my best friend and I were engrossed in playing with a trunk full of Wehrmacht memorabilia brought back by his wounded brother. And movies like John Wayne’s The Sands of Iwo Jima had focused my interest on WWI’s sequel.

But as we embarked on The Great War Project, I began to wonder about the death of this great uncle I never knew.

It turns out that he was involved in two of the most significant battles of the war. One of them was the first major engagement fought by Americans and the second, in which he was killed, is viewed by many historians as the hinge point in the war.

Remembering WWI in a Small Town in Scotland

Editor’s Note : In much of Europe, commemorations of World War I already are kicking into high gear. Cori Princell, an American independent radio producer living with her family in Oban, Scotland, discovered just how vivid memories of the war are in that town.

I moved to Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, in late October. A few weeks later it was November, and the town was blanketed in red poppies. I soon learned that’s the symbol for war remembrance here. Poppies bloomed in the fields of battle, and red, of course, symbolizes blood.

Maybe it was just Remembrance Sunday, but I had formed the impression that the World Wars are more present here. I’d read articles in the local newspaper about an island war memorial getting fixed up by school pupils, and a new war monument being built in a nearby village – even now, 100 years on. I thought I’d learn more at the Oban War and Peace Museum, so I stopped in yesterday.

Volunteers at Oban War and Peace Museum

Volunteers at Oban War and Peace Museum

One of the volunteers said he hoped I was coming in to learn something, not to just get in out of the rain. But when I told him I was there to learn about World War One, he frowned. Oban was critical in the World War Two effort, but the first world war? “The ones that would tell the stories are dead.”

As we talked, though, stories did come. One remembered a disabled World War One vet in his neighborhood when he was a boy. Another knew his father had been wounded and carried out of a trench on his best friend’s shoulders.

That generation didn’t talk much about hardship, but they ran businesses in town and raised children, who had children of their own. And as we talked, I began to see Oban as they do – a small town where people know one another and one another’s families, in some cases going back many years. One of the men, now in his 60s, said he’s still known as “Toadie’s grandson”– though his grandmother is long gone, she’s quite alive in him.

I thanked the men and left the museum. It had stopped raining, so with the old pictures and stories in my mind, I set off down the seafront to Oban’s war memorial. I thought I might quickly count the names.

Oban WWI monument

WWI Monument in Oban, Scotland

But I soon realized, though I’ve walked past the monument many times, I had never really looked at it. A few battered red poppies beat in the wind near the base, and I looked up at the names of war dead, 1914–1918, on the side of the war memorial that faces Oban. Then I turned and saw that the list continues along another side. Then I turned, and turned again. This old stone monument, in a small Scottish town, is wrapped on four sides with the names of war dead.

One of the men I had talked to in the museum remembered seeing a photo from 1923, soon after the monument was built. “Hundreds of folk round it, just literally hundreds.” And I realized they’d given me my answer – why even now, this old war feels more alive here.

Those names on the monument?
“Local people,” he said simply.