CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Seeking A Knockout Blow Against Britain; Close Eye on America.  

A Poet in No-Man’s-Land.

Special to The Great War Project.

(7-12 January) On these days a century ago, the Germans make a fateful decision. On January 9th the German Kaiser,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “presided over a Crown Council at which the long-debated question of unrestricted submarine warfare was to be resolved.”

The first to speak is Germany’s chief of the naval staff, Baron Conrad Von Hotzendorf. He assures the Kaiser, reports Gilbert, that……

if Germany takes this step, “England would sue for peace in six months.”

The Kaiser has the United States in mind. He asks, what will be the effect of this step on the actions of the United States?

The response? “I will give your Majesty my word as an officer, that not one American will land on the Continent.”

Baron Conrad von Hotzendorf, chief of German naval operations.

Baron Conrad von Hotzendorf, seated, chief of German naval operations.

Another top general who favors unrestricted attacks on ships tells the Kaiser, our naval operations hav been effective. There’s been a sharp decrease “in supplies of munitions going to the Allies.”

The Kaiser is impressed.

One senior member of the German war council does oppose unrestricted submarine warfare. He is the German Chancellor, the highest civilian authority in Germany, and he opposes widening the war at sea.

As an opponent of this step, he tells the Kaiser, it risks bringing the United States into the war, especially if there is significant loss of life as a result of German submarine attacks on American ships.

But the hawks carry the day.

“The Kaiser hesitated no longer,” writes Gilbert. “Unrestricted German submarine warfare against all shipping, whatever flag it flew and whatever cargoes it carried, would begin with the utmost energy from February 1.”

It is one of the great gambles of the war, writes history Adam Hochschild.


Deeper and Longer Trenches Divide Europe into Two Armed Camps.

Little Changed in Nearly Three Years.

Special to The Great War Project

(4-8 January) With the coming of January a century ago, what does the global battlefield look like after more than two-and-a-half years of war?

“The face of the war at the beginning of 1917,” writes war historian Robert Keegan, “was little altered” from what the world looked like two years earlier in 1915.

French soldiers at Verdun, 1916.

French soldiers in the trenches at Verdun

The trench lines divide Europe into two armed camps, writes Keegan. In the East, the Germans have pushed the Russian trenches back 300 miles, from the Carpathian Mountains in central Europe to the Black Sea in southeast Europe.

The Russians still maintain a strategic position to the north, as far as the Baltic Sea.

In addition, the trenches have come to the frontlines between Italy and Austria. They have also sprung up at the Greek border with Bulgaria, which is allied with Germany and Austria).

Trench lines “have come and gone,” writes Keegan, from Gallipoli at the north western tip of Turkey, and from Kut in what then is known as Mesopotamia, now Iraq.

Similar trenches rest uneasily between the British and the Turks in the Sinai Peninsula not far from Cairo, and in the Caucasus on the cusp of western Asia. That is now more a landscape of “outposts and strong points,” reports Keegan, between the Black Sea and northern Persia.

None of this has much changed from this geography of battle two years earlier in 1915. Little has changed on these battlefields – the endless killing of all armies. In northern France, so devastated by trench warfare, nothing is changed, nothing whatsoever.

Helmet and rifle mark where a soldier fell, Verdun, 1916.

Helmet and rifle mark where a soldier fell, Verdun

Only the trenches are dug deeper and deeper.

By these moments in the war a century ago, “much digging and wiring, and excavation” have deepened the construction of the trenches. Especially on the German side, “which, Keegan reports, “sought to secure trenches against British assault.”

First there was but one line of trenches; then a second as the Germans dig in deeper. Then even a third.

By this time a century ago the trenches “are usually three belts deep,” writes Keegan, “and reinforced by concrete pill boxes,” for machine gun emplacements.

“The thicker the trench system grew, the less likely its course could be altered, even by the weightiest of offensive effort.”

Keegan writes: “The chief effect of two years of bombardment and trench-to-trench fighting across no-man’s-land was to have created a zone of devastation of immense length, more than four hundred miles long, but of narrow depth.” Defoliation and devastation for a mile or two on each side.


As 1916 Ends, A Yearning for Peace;

But the Slaughter Continues.

Special to The Great War Project.

(1 January) As 1917 begins, the war just keeps on spreading, on all fronts.

Eleven European nations are now at war, plus the Turkish Ottoman empire which is fighting mostly in Asia. The Allied side,” observes historian Martin Gilbert, “now consisted of the Russians, the British, the French, the Italians, the Japanese, the Portuguese, the Serbs (with a tiny toe-hold in the south of their country), the Belgians (likewise clinging to a tiny fragment of their soil), and the Romanians (just driven out of their capital).”

A sea of artillery shells, impossible to comprehend.

A sea of artillery shells, impossible to comprehend.

“The British forces included contingents from Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, the West Indies, and Canada.”

On the other side are the Central Powers: the Turks, the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Czechs, Slovaks, and the Poles are waiting for the feeble Austro-Hungarian Empire to collapse so they can claim some of their territory still in Austrian hands.

Huge forces still sent into war, despite horrendous losses.

Huge forces still sent into war, despite horrendous losses.

But that does not complete the order of battle.

In the Middle East, the Arab Revolt is “gaining momentum,” reports Gilbert, Arabs against Turks — the British supporting the Arabs, with men, guns, gold, and warships.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, “Many Jews hoped the defeat of Turkey,” writes Gilbert, “would lead to some form of Jewish autonomy in Palestine.” The Jewish war is fought mostly underground, with Jewish and Turkish spies rather than overt armed conflict.

The war also continues at sea, with Germany about to take the plunge into unrestricted submarine warfare. This could put almost impossible pressure on the United States.

During an earlier period of unrestricted U-boat attacks, hundreds of Americans lost their lives at sea, most famously in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.

But the Americans still do not succumb to pressure to get into the war, more than a century ago. 

Now the United State could once again face German attack at sea.

Despite these losses, “only the United States among the great powers maintained its neutrality,” observes Gilbert.


Towering Explosion in Romania Oilfields; But the Kaiser is Happy.

A Feeler for Peace, but the War Spreads Further

Special to The Great War Project

(10-16 December) The global picture in the Great War a century ago does not look good for the Allies.

“The Central Powers [Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire] were now the conquerors of five capitals,” observes historian Martin Gilbert, “Brussels, Warsaw, Belgrade, Bucharest” and Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro in the Balkans.

“The Allies had none,” observes Gilbert.

Destroyed oil field in Romania, 1916.

Destroyed oil field in Romania, 1916.

In these days a century ago the war for Romania (on the Allied side) is growing in intensity. The Allies are losing their grip. They are especially fearful about an Allied loss there because of oil. Romania is a big oil producer.

Holding Romania means the Allies control a huge source of oil.

So the Allies resort to sabotage. In the first week in December a century ago, a spectacular explosion rocks the Romanian oilfields at Ploesti, leaving more than 800,000 tons of oil flooding and burning the oil facilities.

Still, despite the sabotage, writes historian Norman Stone, “the Romanian army is at risk of being cut off,” and defeated. So they abandon the Romanian capital Bucharest “under quarrelsome Russian protection through the smoke of endless burning oil wells to a new defensive front in the mountains of Moldavia.”

Romanian prisoners carrying artillery shells for occupying German troops, 1916.

Romanian prisoners carrying artillery shells for occupying German troops, 1916.

German troops quickly enter the capital.

The German Kaiser, Wilhelm, according to historian Gilbert, celebrates the seizure of Bucharest with a glass of champagne.

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”