CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Ferocious British Guns, but the Germans Well Dug In; Their Barbed Wire Defenses Hold.

Starvation Growing in Germany; Hundreds Die Each Day

Special to The Great War Project

(26-29 June) The British Command decides to launch its offensive on the River Somme in northern France on this June 29th a century ago.

The Germans have been constructing well protected defenses at the Somme for more than a year. They are prepared for the British assault – indeed the British do not realize just how ready the Germans are.

German trenches at the Somme, July 1916.

German trenches at the Somme, July 1916.

But there is trouble brewing inside Germany. “Anti-war feeling is growing,” reports historian Martin Gilbert.

“Deaths from starvation as a result of the Allied blockade were becoming a daily occurrence.”

More than 121,000 deaths in 1916 are attributed to the blockade. That’s 331 deaths a day in Germany, according to Gilbert.

“There were food riots in more than thirty German cities. On June 28th (a century ago) a three-day protest strike began, in which 55,000 German workers took part.”

Berliners scrounge for food, date uncertain.

Berliners scrounge for food, date uncertain.

There is only one anti-war member in the German parliament, the Reichstag. He is Karl Liebknecht, and he is expelled from the Reichstag and sentenced to two years’ hard labor for his opposition to the war, urging Germans not to fight.

At this same moment in the war a century ago, the Allies see some progress on the Italian Front. The Trentino offensive in the Alps is making steady progress against Austrian forces.

The mountainous terrain of the Trentino front, date uncertain.

The mountainous terrain of the Trentino front, date uncertain.

On the night of June 28th, writes Gilbert, the Austrians unleash a “terrifying bombardment with hydrocyanide gas shells causing grave injury to more than 6000 sleeping Italians.” The gas blows back into the Austrian positions and more than a thousand Austrian troops are injured.

At the same moment on the Russian Front, reports Gilbert, “The Austrians were mauled at the Battle of Kolomea (now western Ukraine). There, the Russians take 10,000 prisoners.”

And on the Western Front, the commander-in-chief Field Marshall Douglas Haig, sets June 29th for the start of the ground offensive at the Somme.


Ground Attack Coming

Germans Well Dug In; Fears British Offensive Will Fail

Special to The Great War Project

(21-25 June) The British open their enormous bombardment at the river Somme on June 24th a century ago.

It is sustained along a twelve-mile front, reports historian Martin Gilbert. “More than 1500 guns and howitzers fired more than 1.7 million shells.”

British soldiers prepare artillery shells for Battle of the Somme, summer 1916.

British soldiers prepare artillery shells for Battle of the Somme, summer 1916.

Just how effective theses shells are is not immediately known. Many are duds. Many simply “churn up the already battered surface, causing less damage than hoped to the deep dug-outs of the German defenders.”

Nevertheless, “the impact of the bombardment on the mood and morale of the attackers was considerable.”

All the same, there are early indications the bombardment faces other problems. “During brief pauses in the bombardment,” Gilbert reports, “raids were made across no-man’s land to report on the situation in the forward German trenches.” One British intelligence report brings some troubling information…

…the British raids following the bombardment are unsuccessful. Some troops even “turned tail.”

As for the Germans they have launched no major attacks along the Somme sector. In fact, the Germans have not gone on the offensive there for a year-and-a-half. They build deep and complex defenses during this time.

“Scattered clues,” writes historian Adam Hochschild, “suggested that these were disturbingly sturdy.”

German trenches at the Somme, summer 1916.

German trenches at the Somme, summer 1916.

“From both sides, miners were now busily digging under the other side’s trenches to plant explosive charges. Some surprised British miners digging at a level they thought far below the German trench system found themselves unintentionally hacking through the wall of a German dugout.”

But, Hochschild reports…

“this and other signs of how deep the Germans had built their shelters were brushed aside.”

Field Marshall Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief, inspects his divisions on horseback. He is supremely confident. On June 22nd he writes to his wife, “The situation is becoming more favorable to us.” Two days later Haig writes, “I feel that every step in my plan has been taken with the Divine help.”


French Town on Verge of Collapse;

Pleas to British: Launch Offensive at the Somme Now.

Haig Hesitates.

Special to The Great War Project.

(17-20 June) The French are putting intense pressure on Great Britain to launch a massive attack on German forces at the River Somme in northern France.

The Allies have been planning this offensive for months. There is a massive build-up of military infrastructure to support such an offensive.

The French are desperate for the British to launch soon. It’s the only way, they argue, to prevent a collapse of the French forces at Verdun.

French defenses at Verdun, date uncertain, spring 1916.

French defenses at Verdun, date uncertain, spring 1916.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, the British Commander General Sir Douglas Haig is committed to begin the offensive on June 29th a century ago.

For the French, that’s not good enough. They fear that if the last fort defending Verdun, Fort Souville, falls, “Verdun would become untenable,” Gilbert reports.

The struggle for Verdun began in mid-February, and the French are committed to defending it to the last man.  During the time since according to war historian John Keegan, twenty million shells were fired into the battle zone — twenty million.

“The shape of the landscape had been permanently altered, forests had been reduced to splinters, villages had disappeared.”

“Worse by far,” writes Keegan, “was the destruction of human life.” By this time at Verdun a century ago, “over 200,000 men had been killed or wounded on each side.”

“Verdun had become a place of terror and death that could not yield victory.”

Now it is on the verge of collapse.

Haig is a stubborn man and refuses to order the beginning of the Somme offensive for another ten days. So the French Prime Minister himself “went to see Haig…to ask him to attack sooner. Haig said it was too late to do so.”

Allies moving horse near to Verdun, spring 1916

Allies moving horse near to Verdun, spring 1916

Haig tells the prime minister, Aristide Briand, that the massive artillery barrage preceding the attack will take place as planned.

The British are preparing the largest artillery bombardment in the war so far…

…reports Gilbert, indeed “the longest concentrated artillery bombardment in modern warfare.” It is set to last five days, preparing the way for a massive ground attack.

The British plan for the Somme offensive is to use the artillery to break through the concentrated German barbed wire defenses. It is Haig’s hope at this point according to a letter he writes to the British General Staff that “the advance was to be pressed eastward far enough to enable our cavalry to push through into the open country beyond the enemy’s prepared lines of defense.”


Hundreds of Thousands of Austrians Taken Prisoner

Swift Hashemite Gains in the Arab Revolt.

Special to The Great War Project.

(16 June) The Russians continue to make significant gains on the Eastern Front in what is being called the Brusilov offensive. It’s the most progress the Russians make since the beginning of the war in 1914.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, on June 12th a hundred years ago, General Alexei Brusilov announces that “in the advances that his men had made since the start of his offensive eight days earlier, they had captured 190,000 Austrian soldiers,” nearly 3000 Austrian officers, 216 heavy guns, 645 machine guns, and almost 200 howitzers.

Russian troops secure defensive positions during the Brusilov offensive, spring 1916.

Russian troops secure defensive positions during the Brusilov offensive, spring 1916.

Reports Gilbert, “One third of the Austrian forces facing him had been taken captive.”

In another three days, the Russians take the city of Czernowitz, now in Ukraine, then the farthest eastern city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Dead soldiers during the Brusilov offensive.

Dead soldiers during the Brusilov offensive.

In the Middle East, additional significant gains for the Allies in the Middle East. A few days earlier, Sherif Hussein, the leader of the Hashemite clan in Mecca, declares the start of the Arab Revolt, an operation planned by the British to take the Arabian Peninsula away from the Ottoman Turks.

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”