CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


In the Frozen Heights Austrian Soldiers Die in Their Sleep

Russians Prevail; Austrian Army Shattered

Special to The Great War Project

(28 February-2 March) A century ago, the Eastern Front war in the Carpathian Mountains is brutal – and largely unknown in the West.

Yet the Carpathian campaign may prove to be decisive for both sides, Russian and Austrian.

Austrian troops advance in deadly snow and ice, date uncertain, probably 1915

Austrian troops advance in deadly snow and ice, date uncertain, probably 1915

The Russians fight to destroy the Austro-Hungarian army and break into the vast heartland of Hungary and central Europe. The Austrians fight desperately if incompetently to defend the very territory of Austria and Hungary.

“The whole operation was flawed,” writes historian Geoffrey Wawro of the Austrian effort to confront the Russians in the mountains. The Austrians with German support field “just 175,000 troops with a thousand artillery pieces for a sequence of suicidal assaults on entrenched Russian positions.”

The terrain and the viciously cold weather are killing as many Austrians as the Russians are.

The Austrians are “wallowing uphill through knee-deep snow,” reports Wawro, “assaulting the same 3000-foot Russian-held heights they had stormed, taken, and lost the previous week.”

Efforts to attack at night yield no better results, Wawro reports. The Austrian troops make too much noise crossing ice. ‘The sound of cracking ice betrayed us as we advanced toward the Russian wire,” writes one Austrian officer. “The enemy illuminated us as we got near and hit us from three sides.”

Repeated efforts by the Austrians to mount an offensive go nowhere. The snow is so deep that Austrian artillery shells burrow into the snow and do not detonate.

“The infantry gained no ground,” writes Wawro, “and lost half its strength, 40,000 men, to cold and wounds. “Generals would awake to discover that hundreds of their men had frozen to death in their sleep. Hundreds more deserted. Thousands of Austrians are “going into Russian captivity without firing a shot.”

“One Czech regiment [of the multi-national Austrian army] lost 1850 of 2000 men to desertion in a single night,” reports Wawro.


Will Flamethrowers and Grenades Break Deadlock?

Russia’s Problem: Desperate Shortage of Rifles.

Special to The Great War Project

(25-27 February) Many areas of the Western Front are inactive and confined to trenches.

Despite the stalemate though, attacks and counterattacks are a regular and in some cases murderous presence in many sections of the extensive trench lines in France and Belgium.

But they do not bring decisive victories.

Key zones of the front are “too broken, stream-cut and tree-choked,” writes war historian John Keegan. Elsewhere the zones are too water-logged, nothing but quagmire.

“Much of the front was unsuitable for the style of major operations both sides envisaged,”

…reports Keegan. “in which the power of artillery would prepare the way for large-scale infantry assaults to be followed by cavalry exploitation into open country.”

The Germans introduce flamethrowers, here at the town of Verdun, 1915

The Germans introduce flamethrowers, here at the town of Verdun, 1915

So the Germans introduce new weapons to the battlefield in an attempt to break out from this clogged trench warfare. On February 26th a century ago, the German side uses flamethrowers for the first time, according to historian Martin Gilbert, in an attack on French trenches.

The attack occurs near the town of Verdun in northeastern France. “This was the first of an estimated 653 flame-thrower attacks,” reports Gilbert. “But the trench system, with its deep protection, gave flamethrowers little more than the element of surprise.”

Shortly after this, another new weapon makes its debut. “French troops were issued with grenades for the first time,” Gilbert writes. On that day, “a seventy-strong German infantry detachment, advancing behind armored shields for the first time, lost half its men killed or wounded, without piercing the French trenches.”

Among the wounded on the French side, a Captain Charles de Gaulle


On Eastern Front, A String of Austrian Defeats;

Germany on Its Own.

Special to The Great War Project

(22-24 February) Stalemate remains the order of the day on the Western Front, but on the Eastern Front, the war is more fluid.

“The scale of battle remained a formidable one,” reports historian Martin Gilbert. Consequently, there are more casualties and more prisoners – on both sides.

On February 22nd a century ago, the Germans take one town in Poland, Przasnysz, along with 10,000 prisoners.

The Russians drive the Germans from the town three days later and seize 5,400 German prisoners.

On a much larger scale is the emerging fight for the Masurian Lakes in southern Poland...

…a battle between the Germans and the Russians. This is the second clash in this region, and like the first, writes historian Michael Neiberg, the Germans strike quickly and with great surprise in these days a century ago. They mean to encircle the Russians.

The German surprise attack takes place during a snowstorm, thick fog, and bitter cold. It’s designed “to prove that the Russians were close to collapse,” writes Neiberg

Russian prisoners in the battle of the Masurian Lakes, date uncertain, 1915.

Russian prisoners in the battle of the Masurian Lakes, date uncertain, 1915.


Tens of thousands of Russian troops surrender. The Russians put the number at 12,000 and many thousands more killed, reports Neiberg. The Germans claim they take more than 90,000 Russian prisoner, according to war historian John Keegan.

There is evidence though that the majority of the Russian troops in the battle “had in fact escaped through the forest,” reports Keegan. Strategically the German victory insures that German East Prussia to the north is no longer threatened by the Russian army.


Turkish Forts in Ruins.

Attack on Strategic Straits To ‘Knock Turkey Out of War.’

Special to The Great War Project.

(19-21 February) British warships are bombarding the ancient forts in the Dardanelles in western Turkey. The British bombardment is successful. It reduces two forts there to rubble.

British bombardment of Dardanelles, date uncertain, 1915

British bombardment of Dardanelles, date uncertain, 1915

The Dardanelles is a very narrow strait that connects the eastern Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, the waterway to Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. In ancient times it was known as the Hellespont.

British targeting of the Dardanelles is strategic. Its purpose, according to war historian John Keegan: “To open a supply route to Russia through the Dardanelles and, in so doing, to knock Turkey out of the war” by bombarding Constantinople.

Conceived primarily by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the campaign is to be solely a naval operation. Its goal is also to relieve the Turkish pressure on Russia in the east of Turkey — in the Caucasus. There in the snows of winter, Russia needs help, and St. Petersburg asks the British to do something that will draw Turkish troops away from the eastern battle with Russia.

War is not unknown to the Dardanelles.

“The strategic location of the Dardanelles had brought armies, and navies to it scores of times in history,” writes Keegan. The first such clash occurred in 378 AD. One of the casualties then, the Emperor Valens, which brought about the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west.

In more recent times, it is the ambition of Russia, Keegan reports, to seize Constantinople, “thus recovering the seat of Orthodox Christianity from Islam,” and providing Russia with a warm water route to the seas.

Art & Culture of War

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”

Gallery: Guns, Gas Masks and Pigeons

A building is pictured after a German 'Friedrichshafen' seaplane crashed into its roof (Reuters / Archive of Modern Conflict, London)

A German ‘Friedrichshafen’ seaplane crashed into a building’s roof (©Reuters / Archive of Modern Conflict, London)

The Reuters gallery, titled “Guns, Gas Masks and Pigeons”, unveils some recently found photos from a private collection. The images picture the “more unfamiliar aspects of the war, from squadron athletics to pigeons used to send messages at the Front,” including a “sequence of images, showing a German U-boat sinks an Allied merchant vessel.”