CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Millions of Africans Pressed into Servitude;

Disease, Exhaustion Take Their Terrible Toll

Special to The Great War Project

(20-23 August) Africa is also a front in the First World War: an enormous battleground stretching across the continent.

For years, Europe’s great powers are busy carving up Africa into colonial territories. Britain has widespread African colonies. France as well, and Germany. Belgium has the Congo.

Now each European power covets the colonies that their enemies control.

Cameroon company in fight for Africa, date and place uncertain.

Cameroon company in fight for Africa, date and place uncertain.

“Africa provided Britain, France, and Germany with manpower,” writes historian Michael Neiberg. “The Allies had the advantages of more populous colonies, more wealth in Africa itself, and a favorable geographic position.”

“War in Africa led to high casualty levels not only from direct combat, but also from disease and exhaustion in the unforgiving climate. Casualty rates among human porters,” reports Neiberg, “were especially high.”

Writes historian Adam Hochschild, “Small contingents of British, South African, French and Belgian troops, with far larger numbers of African conscripts, had fought German soldiers (with their own conscripts) everywhere from Cameroon [in central Africa] on the west coast of the continent to German Southwest Africa [now Namibia] to Tanganyika [also known as German East Africa, now Tanzania].”

The European scramble for Africa.

The European scramble for Africa.

Hochschild reports: “Just as Germany openly coveted the central African colonies of France and Belgium, which would give Berlin an unbroken belt of territory stretching across the continent, so the Allies were maneuvering to seize Germany’s African possessions.”

In the process all the warring colonial powers used forced labor to carry out and support their attacks.

No warring power has clean hands, neither Germany nor Britain and France.

“Like the Germans,” writes Hochschild, “they had for decades used forced labor in their African colonies. But now the number of such laborers swelled and their working conditions grew unbearably hard as both sides conscripted huge numbers of African porters to carry military supplies long distances through terrain that lacked roads for vehicles.”

African troops in German East Africa, date uncertain.

African troops in German East Africa, date uncertain.

The treatment of these African conscripts by all the colonial powers is nothing less than criminal.

The deaths that these Africans suffer are not deemed worthy of being accurately counted.

They are underfed African porters, reports Hochschild, “subjected to whippings as punishment, who for years carried wounded men or sixty-pound loads of food and ammunition through rain forest, swampland, and savanna.” 


Germans March to Their Death;

“Like a Scythe Had Mowed Them Down.”

Romania Joins the War.

Special to The Great War Project

(16-19 August) The Battle of the Somme in northern France rages on. The two sides are locked in mad fury. Neither the British nor the Germans are capable of mounting a knock-out blow to end the battle.

“Attrition rather than breakthrough,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “had become the grim pattern of fighting for the Anglo-French armies.”

The shattered landscape at the Somme, likely dated August 1916.

The shattered landscape at the Somme, likely dated August 1916.

“It was a war of woods, copses, valleys, ravines and villages taken and lost,” Gilbert continues, “then retaken and lost again.”

On August 18th precisely a century ago, the Germans mount one counter-attack, a tragic and deadly effort. The British war correspondent Philip Gibbs is present at the fight. He sees the German troops march to the British trenches, “shoulder to shoulder, like a solid bar.”

For the Germans, it was “sheer suicide,” Gibbs writes.

“I saw our men get their machine-guns into action, and the right side of the living bar frittered away, and then the whole line fell into the scorched grass.”

“Another line followed. They were tall men, and did not falter as they came forward, but it seems to me they walked like men conscious of going to death.”

Gibbs writes: “They died…It was exactly as though some invisible scythe had mown them down.”

On the bodies of dead and living German soldiers, Gibbs discovers letters to family and home that are not yet put in the post. One is especially powerful for Gibbs, “one cry of agony and horror.”


His Last Day on the Battlefield

A Sense of Something Poetic, Now Gone

Special to The Great War Project

(12-15 August) The Battle of the Somme shows no signs of ending, even though it’s now more than six weeks old.

What’s it like? What is it really like to live through this horror? There are several ways to see. Swedish historian Peter Englund puts together what he calls “The Beauty and the Sorrow, An Intimate History of the First World War.”

It’s a kind of oral history, and one of the voices is Kresten Andresen, a Danish soldier fighting on the German side on the Western Front. He is “one of the soldiers,” writes Englund, “who will have to face the [British] attack.”

German prisoners of war marched by British troops, the Somme circa August 1916

German prisoners of war marched by wounded British troops, the Somme  August 1916

“His regiment has been sent in to reinforce one of the most exposed sectors on the Somme.”

Englund describes the scene. “No more sun, just mist and haze. The front line has not moved much since the middle of July but the battles continue to rage. The landscape is strangely colorless. All the colors, particularly the greens, are long gone.

The storm of shells having kneaded everything to the same drab grey-brown shade.”

The British Commander Field Marshall Douglas Haig seeks to launch an attack – even a small one – for the benefit of a royal visit. King George V is visiting the troops and, reports Englund, Haig would like to “welcome His Majesty with some small victory.”

King George V observes fighting at the Somme, date uncertain.

King George V observes fighting at the Somme, date uncertain.

“One of the German soldiers who will have to face that attack is Kresten Andresen.”

At this point in time, a century ago, Andresen, 23 years old, writes to his parents. “I hope I have now done my bit here, for the present anyway. One can never know what will happen in the future. But even if we are sent somewhere in the very depth of the sea, we could not go anywhere worse than this place.”

Andresen’s company is devastated by ceaseless shell fire. Most of his comrades are dead.

And still the shells rain down.

“It’s like meeting “a monster from the sagas,” he writes.

In a letter home, Andresen writes “At the beginning of the war, in spite of all the terrible things, there was a sense of something poetic. That has now gone.”


Turks Eye Second Attempt to Seize the Suez Canal

Under Scorching Sun, the British Reject Ottoman Force.

Special to The Great War Project

(8-11 August) In early August a century ago, a little remembered battle erupts in the Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal.

It takes place in an Egyptian town called Romani.

It is the second time there is a fight for Romani. The first breaks out early in the war, in 1914. Then the British stop Ottoman forces from crossing the strategic canal and taking control of it.

Australian and New Zealand ANZAC troops in Sinai, summer 1916.

Australian and New Zealand ANZAC troops in Egypt, summer 1916.

But in the two years since, the Ottomans and the Germans are widely expected to mount a second attack on the Suez Canal. By the summer of 1916, “the Ottomans and their German allies were impatient to proceed,” writes historian Eugene Rogan.

At this moment the Turks are withholding their participation, hoping to enlist Sharif Hussein and his Mecca-based Arab force in the attack on the British.

But before the Turks can enlist the Arabs in the fight at the canal, the Arab Revolt breaks out in the summer a century ago,

Sharif Hussein of Mecca, supported by the British, mounts widespread attacks on the Turks on the Arabian Peninsula.

“The outbreak of the Arab Revolt in June 1916 dashed those hopes and created a new hostile front in the Arab provinces,” reports Rogan.

In response, the Ottoman leaders decide to attack the British in the Sinai, reasoning that success there would undermine the appeal of the Arab Revolt in the Arab provinces.

Map of Battle of Romani, August 1916.

Map of Battle of Romani, August 1916.

So Rogan writes, in the midst of a scorching summer, when the British least expect it. the Ottomans give “the green light to launch the long-delayed second attack on the Canal Zone,”

The battle centers around the town of Romani in the Sinai desert.

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”