CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


 Bolsheviks Gain Strength in Russia

A Poet Speaks Out in Britain

Special to The Great War Project

(25 June) In Russia on the Eastern Front, “the summer of 1917 was a chaotic one,” reports historian Adam Hochschild.

“Russian troops were killing their officers or replacing them with soldiers’ soviets, and by the hundreds of thousands they kept on leaving the front. History had never before seen an army dissolve on such a scale.”

Lenin in Petrograd

Political chaos reigned in Petrograd, Russia’s capital. Reports Hochschild, “there were more strikes and stormy meetings as the Provisional Government” – remember the Tsar was overthrown earlier in the spring – “tried to corral the Bolsheviks and other radical sects into continuing the war.”

Russian communists gather in Petrograd

In Petrograd soldiers were marching against the war shouting, “Down with capitalism,” and “Stop the war.“ By then,” Hochschild writes,

“a Bolshevik takeover was on the way.”

Anti-war activists in London tried to bring that spirit to Britain hoping to spark a similar outbreak of sentiment against the war. Activist Sylvia Pankhurst, who ran a radical newspaper in London, published appeals, urging soldiers to lay down their arms. She published “critical letters from soldiers at the front,” reports Hochschild.

Her newspaper was the first to publish a statement unlike any the war had yet seen  —

an eloquent avowal from a front-line officer and a highly decorated one at that, declaring his intention to stop fighting.”


First American Contingent Arrives in France

Virtually Untrained;

Who Will Command Them? Pershing Says He Will

Special to The Great War Project.

(18 June) At this moment in the war a century ago, the first significant contingent of American troops — some 14,000 – reaches France.

Their crossing the Atlantic was largely uneventful, according to historian Gary Mead, “apart from a few submarine scares.”

Some of the first Americans to reach France, June 1917.

The Americans are hardly battle-ready. According to historian Martin Gilbert, “this was to have had no effect at all on the battlefield. The men had first to train and to be reinforced by colleagues.”

Reinforcements are not expected to arrive for three months.

“America was at war,” Gilbert writes, ‘but in France her effort was necessarily focused on building up port and training facilities, supply lines, and store depots.”

“Some gaps were immediately evident.”

Gaps such as artillerymen arriving without their guns. Many of those with their guns do not know what they look like and how to use them.


Pershing in London Tells King No Aircraft On the Way

Soldiers Lay Their Rifles Down

Special to The Great War Project.

(11 June) At this moment in the war, it is hard to resist the conclusion that in the war in Europe, there is no “winning side” – every side is losing the war.

“The war on the battlefield,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “had become one of bizarre contrast. On both the Eastern and Western Fronts the savagery of the conflict was matched by mass desertions, mutinies, and fraternization.”

Antiwar leaflet

“On the Eastern Front,” one senior general writes in his diary, “an armistice was to all intents and purposes in being in many points. At other points there was fighting.”

Writes historian Gilbert, “Mutinous French troops everywhere revealed their hated of the war.” Most French divisions between the front line and Paris are unreliable.”

In Britain at his moment in the war, anti-war sentiment is spreading rapidly. One-thousand pacifists are in prison.

Declares philosopher and anti-war activist Bertrand Russell, “By their refusal of military service, conscientious objectors have shown that it was possible for the individual to stand against the whole power of the state.”

Caricature of British anti-war philosopher Bertrand Russell

Russell receives a huge standing ovation when he makes this declaration at an anti-war conference in the British city of Leeds, reports historian Adam Hochschild. “The control of events,” Russell writes, “is rapidly passing out of the hands of the militarist of all countries. A new spirit is abroad.”

Elsewhere, writes historian Gilbert, the mood is not so optimistic. “The will of governments to continue to fight, despite the actual horrors of trench warfare, despite the chaos in Russia, despite mutiny in France, did not dissolve.”

This is a crucial moment in the war – mid-June one hundred years ago — and no government is willing yet to declare opposition to the war.

In fact, the British government is hard at work planning a new offensive, despite a growing awareness in London that “the French were finding it difficult to go on, with their reserves physically and mentally exhausted.”

At this moment in June a century ago, as the British war cabinet in London is planning their next offensive, the leader of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing and his staff, reach Liverpool.


Huge Explosion on Western Front.

Tunnelers Digging for Months; Explosion Heard in London.

Special to The Great War Project.

(4 June) In northern France a century ago, British soldiers are digging a tunnel.

Actually they are digging many tunnels, a whole complex of tunnels and mines.

“In an epic doggedness,” writes historian Norman Stone, “miners had tunneled below the Messines ridge, “and had twenty-one great mines to blow up under it with a million tons of explosives.”

A million tons!

Devastating mine explosion at Messines ridge

Allied tunnelers have been working for more than six months, writes historian Martin Gilbert, “to dig the shafts, one of which is 2,000 feet long. “

“The deepest of the mines were placed a hundred feet below the German trenches.”

Reports Gilbert, “nineteen mines were exploded under the German front line, with a total explosive power of five hundred tons.”

“One of the explosions blew a crater 430 feet in diameter. Two mines failed to explode.”

The explosion is heard miles away in London.

The crater at Messines Ridge..

The effect of the explosions at Messines “was devastating,” writes Gilbert. “Ten thousand German soldiers are thought to have been killed outright or buried alive.”

“Thousands more were stunned and dazed, and more than 7300 were taken prisoner.”

The explosion was so loud, it caused panic in German occupied Lille, fifteen miles away.

At the site of the explosion, German soldiers trapped in the crater are screaming for help “We could do nothing for them,” writes one British soldier.

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”