CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Planning Jihad in Istanbul; Smashing the Lines in Antwerp

Special to The Great War Project

(30 September) The focus of the war on the Western Front is shifting to the Belgian fortified city of Antwerp near the English Channel.

Germans deploy super guns to crack Belgian lines at Antwerp, October 1814

Germans deploy super guns to crack Belgian lines at Antwerp, October 1914

Antwerp “possessed Belgium’s last great ring of forts,” observes historian Martin Gilbert. The British command wants the defenders of the city to hold out as long as they are able, thereby making the possibility of invading Britain across the Channel less likely.

“Even one week’s resistance,” Gilbert writes, “would enable the British army to form a defensive line in Flanders, from which an attack could then be launched to liberate Belgium, and then drive the Germans back to Germany.”

The British immediately send heavy artillery to Antwerp and entreat the French to match them.

The Germans begin the bombardment of Antwerp on this day, a century ago. There are three lines of defense that ring Antwerp. The German general in command devises a way to crack these defense lines.

He orders a siege train of “super heavy guns” to be transferred to his command. The Germans quickly crack the Allies’ first line of defense and send their infantry through.

The British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, sends a letter to his mistress on this day, writing “the Belgians are rather out of ‘morale.’”

Meanwhile, intrigue continues to simmer in Istanbul.


No Saluting Incompetent Generals, 

Plan Second Serbia Invasion.

Espionage in Istanbul.

Special to The Great War Project

(28-29 September) By this time a century ago, there are secret plots in abundance involving the Germans in Istanbul and the British in Cairo.

Enver Pasha, leader of the Young Turks, negotiated secretly to ally Turkey with Germany

Enver Pasha, leader of the Young Turks, negotiated secretly to ally Turkey with Germany

The Ottoman Empire remains neutral – for the moment– but many in Britain fear and many in Germany hope that the Turks will enter the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The Germans are doing everything they can secretly to bring the Turks into the war on their side.

And in Cairo the British are in secret talks with the Arab sheikhs of Mecca to bring in an Arab army should the Turks side with Germany.

One of those German covert plots involves an effort to spark holy war against the British in the Middle East and among the Muslims of south Asia and India. The British secretly offer the Arabs “control of vast regions of the Turkish Empire,” reports historian Martin Gilbert, “in return for Arab participation.”


An Honorable Surrender in France; Fears of Invasion in Britain

Special to The Great War Project

(26-27 September) Despite the extraordinary slaughter of the first two months of the war, the troops in the field develop a profound respect for each other. And they do not shrink from demonstrating this respect.

On this day a century ago, at the French town of St. Mihiel, the Germans mount the siege of the fortress of Camp des Romains. According to historian Martin Gilbert the artillery and grenade attacks on the French are heavy, and the French troops inside the fortress resist surrendering.

But they cannot hold out, and when the more than 500 surviving troops do leave the fortress, the New York Times reports, “they found their late opponents presenting arms before them in recognition of their gallant stand.

“They were granted the most honorable terms of surrender…

…their officers were allowed to retain their swords, and on the march to honorable captivity they were everywhere greeted with expressions of respect and admiration.”

British marines deployed in defense of Antwerp, Belgium 1914

British marines deployed in defense of Antwerp, Belgium 1914

On this same day in Belgium, the Germans mount artillery attacks against the Belgian fortresses at Antwerp, not far from the channel coast. Belgium is dotted with these fortresses, and those defending Antwerp are the last holdouts.

There is a fear among the British commanders that the fall of Antwerp will permit the Germans to seize the nearby ports on the English Channel. “possibly threatening Britain herself,” Gilbert reports.

The British and French decide to make a stand at Antwerp in the coming days. At the same time, the Germans are planning its bombardment.

On the same day, September 26th a century ago, Gilbert reports the Russian army pushes deep into Austrian territory on the Eastern Front, and some Russian cavalry even penetrate into Hungarian territory.

“It looks bad for the Austrians,” writes one German general on this day in 1914.

But the Germans move to help the Austrians, and Gilbert reports that the Germans are slowly seizing the Russian provinces of Poland. (Germany and Russia have divided and occupied Poland for more than a century.)

“Battles of great intensity were opening up for Poland the prospect of ending nearly 150 years of Russian rule,” writes Gilbert.


War On a Titanic Scale; The Impact of Mud.

Special to The Great War Project

(24-25 September) The Russians acquire intelligence that the German army is moving toward Warsaw in Poland to take the pressure off the Austro-Hungarian forces on the Eastern Front.

Russia's vast army in Poland, World War One, date uncertain

Russia’s vast army in Poland, World War One, date uncertain

The Russians make the necessary adjustments. They move armies toward Warsaw from elsewhere in Poland and from faraway Siberia, and according to war historian John Keegan, they intend to sit there and wait.

Keegan calls the Russian maneuvers “war on a titanic scale, as large in numbers committed as in the west and larger by far in terms of space and depth of movement than in any of the operations in that comparatively constricted theater.”

The Germans are not aware of the Russian troop movements.

At the same time, Germany’s unsteady ally, Austria-Hungary, is in “dreadful condition,” according to historian Norman Stone. Austria’s job is to hold off the Russians “so that Germany could win in the west.

That strategy does not work. Austria-Hungary loses half a million men, reports Stone, “100,000 of them captured.” Another garrison of 120,000 Austrian soldiers is “shut in” at the great fortress at Przemysl (pronounced PSHEH-mih-shuhl), the Austrian troops confined to the fortress by thick mud that surrounds it.

Austrians defend the fortress at Przemysl in World War One, date uncertain

Austrians defend the fortress at Przemysl in World War One, date uncertain

The mud keeps the Austrians in and the Russians out.

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.