CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Move Violates Laws of War; A Protest From the U.S.

Wilson Running For Re-election; ‘He Kept Us Out of War’

Special to The Great War Project

(18-22 September) Germany is dragooning hundreds of thousands of Belgian citizens into forced labor.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, in these days in the war a century ago, Germany gives the orders that 700,000 Belgian workers are to be forcibly transported to Germany.

Belgian women maintain the farms as men forced into labor in Germany.

Belgian women maintain the farms as men forced into labor in Germany.

This development brings sharp condemnation from many quarters, including the United States. “Among those who protested,” reports Gilbert, “was Cardinal Foley of New York,” who condemned this transportation of “a whole people into bondage.”

In the United States, there is strong and widespread condemnation of the German action.

In Washington, President Woodrow Wilson, now running for re-election, instructs the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin, James Gerard, to raise the matter with the German Chancellor.

Gerard tells the German leader that “there are Belgians employed in making shells, contrary to the rules of war and the Hague Conventions.” The Chancellor’s response? “I do not believe it,” he declares.

Ambassador Gerard responds: “My automobile is at the door. I can take you in four minutes to where thirty Belgians are working on the manufacture of shells.”

James Gerard, American ambassador to Germany.

James Gerard, American ambassador to Germany.

The Chancellor elects not to take the Ambassador’s offer.

At this time a century ago, President Wilson, the Democrat, is running for re-election on the slogan: He kept us out of war.

Wilson’s Republican opponent in the campaign is Charles Evans Hughes, a justice of the Supreme Court and former governor of New York. Under Wilson, the United States is still pursuing a policy of neutrality. But public sentiment in the U.S. is growing more favorably toward the Allies, especially when news of Germany’s treatment of the Belgium civilian population reaches the U.S.

Hughes does not call overtly for the U.S. to enter the war, but he does stand for increased “readiness,” and expansion of the American army. He criticizes Wilson for failing to expand the military and improve its readiness. That only serves to strengthen Wilson’s position as an anti-war president.

Still tension between the United States and Germany does not diminish. Under extreme pressure from the U.S., Germany has restricted its submarine campaign against American merchant ships.


The Arrival of the Tank; German Infantry Terrified.

A Future British Prime Minister Witnesses the Monster.

Special to The Great War Project.

(13-17 September) On this date, September 15th, precisely a century ago, a new weapon appeared at the battle of the Somme – the tank.

The first tanks belonged to the Allies. They fielded forty-nine tanks “moving forward on a wide front,” reports historian Martin Gilbert. “Ten of the tanks were quickly hit by German artillery fire.” After all, it is a slow moving easy target.

British troops pose with new tank in the Battle of the Somme.

British troops pose with new tank in the Battle of the Somme.

“Nine of the tanks broke down with mechanical difficulties,” Gilbert writes, “and five failed to advance. But those that did manage to go forward were able to advance more than 2,000 yards.” They capture several small villages.

Both Winston Churchill, who is no longer in a position of power, and Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who still is, recognize the value and great potential of these “land battleships” as Churchill calls them.

Churchill expresses frustration that the tanks are used only on a petty scale. But Haig immediately grasps their value. Reports Gilbert “Recognizing the potential of the new weapon, Haig asked the War Office for a thousand of them.”

“The Germans were far behind in their tank experiments.”

Some historians believe the introduction of the tank marks a significant change in the battle. “The offensive at the Somme,” writes war historian John Keegan, “might have been doomed to drift away into an autumn of frustration and a winter of stalemate had it not been for the appearance” of the tank, a weapon that is armored against bullets and that “could bring fire power to the point of assault.”

Some of the tanks were quickly destroyed.

Some of the tanks were quickly disabled.

The new vehicles are equipped with external guns, and caterpillar tracks. They permit it to maneuver across uneven terrain that wheeled vehicles cannot navigate.

“The appearance of the tanks terrified the German infantry defending their sectors,” reports Keegan, “and the armored monsters led the British onward for 3500 yards before mechanical breakdowns and ditchings in rough ground brought the advance to a halt.”

“A number caught in artillery fire were knocked out,” observes Keegan. “The event brought one of the cheapest and most spectacular local victories of the war on the Western Front thus far.”


Greece is Now in the Fight, Seeking Ancient Lands

Most Troops Dying from Malaria, Other Diseases.

Special to The Great War Project

(9-12 September) On this day a century ago, there is much news from a lesser known theater of the war.

Another front is opening in the war. It is the Salonika Front, centered at a port in northeastern Greece, near the hostile Bulgarian border.

The White Tower, overlooking the Mediterranean at Salonica.

The White Tower, overlooking the Mediterranean at Salonika.

“The Allies chose to set up another front based in Salonika [now Thessaloniki] Greece,” writes historian Michael Neiberg. It’s a complex operation. It is designed to give Serbian forces, allied with Britain, France, and Russia, “a place to fight and to help the Russians.”

It begins with troops from France and Britain and grows rapidly to 150,000 troops.

But there is skepticism about its utility. It is commanded by a French general “who had grown unpopular with the high command.”

All told, writes historian Martin Gilbert, the first Salonika offensive involved French, Russian, Serb, British, and Italian troops.

“They spent months training and the superiors in Paris and London thought the expedition was a political idea,” Neiberg writes, “with little military utility.”

British troops in the trenches at Salonika, autumn 1916.

British troops in the trenches at Salonika, autumn 1916.

The view from the French and British command is that “anything sent to Salonika weakened the Western Front. They refused to send men and supplies except when ordered.”

The British and French land most of the troops. “Their landing at Salonika,” writes war historian John Keegan, “had been made without a by-your-leave…The Allies proceeded to transform their Salonika base into an extraterritorial military settlement.”

The Greek King, King Constantine, “at one point protested feebly,” Keegan reports, “I will not be treated like a native chieftain.” But that is precisely how the Allies treated Greece.


Dedicates Life to Ending ‘This Foul Thing Called War’

Writes of the ‘Choosers of the Slain.’

Hundreds Killed in Tunnel Explosion.

Special to The Great War Project

(5-8 September) Tom Kettle was an Irish nationalist and a journalist and poet. He is also a former member of the British Parliament.

A century ago on these days he finds himself an officer in the British army, fighting the Germans at the Somme, in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War.

Unlike many other prominent Irish nationalists who oppose the war and actually take up the gun for Irish independence, Kettle enlists in the British army when war breaks out.

Tom Kettle, poet, Irish nationalist, politician.

Tom Kettle, poet, Irish nationalist, politician, British officer.

He writes that he joined “not for England but for small nations.”

“I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live,” he writes to his brother on September 4th a century ago. “If I live, I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace.

“I have seen war and faced modern artillery and know what an outrage it is against simple men.”

Earlier he writes to his wife, “I want to drive out this foul thing called war.”

But Kettle does not survive. On September 5th he is leading his men, many of them Irish, against the Germans at a village called Ginchy.

“Before the attack,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “the officers were given pieces of green cloth to be stitched on the back of their uniforms, a symbol of Irish patriotism.”

Tom Kettle memorial, Born County, Dublin.

Tom Kettle memorial, County Dublin.

A soldier who witnesses Kettle’s death writes a letter of condolence to his wife: “He carried his pack for Ireland and Europe. Now pack-carrying is over. He held the line.”

Had he lived, reports Gilbert, “he would have taken up the position of Base Censor, away from the daily dangers of the front line and the assault.”

In his last letter to his brother, Kettle writes: “Somewhere the choosers of the Slain are touching with invisible wands those who are about to die.”

Death can come suddenly and from any direction. As if this war is not terrible enough, at Verdun, still being fought over after many months, more than five-hundred French soldiers are killed, not in an attack but by a thunderous explosion, Gilbert reports, “when the Tavannes railway tunnel being used for the accommodation of troops, blew up.”

This is a disused railway tunnel, reports Swedish historian Peter Englund, “which the troops have been using for a long time as a bunker, cantonment, and ammunition store.”

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”