CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


The Terrible Arithmetic of Death; A Sort of Peace.

Special to The Great War Project

(22-23 November) The fighting around Ypres in Belgium is officially over, and all the forces present there are digging in.

In the five weeks the fighting continues around Ypres, British casualties – killed and wounded – are more than half of the troops Britain initially sends to France.

British in the trenches, an  astonishing death toll 1914.

British in the trenches, an astonishing death toll 1914.

French troops are fortifying their trench system. The Germans as well. The Germans have the advantage by holding onto the higher ground around Ypres, known as the Ypres Salient. But they leave 41,000 young soldiers fallen on the Ypres battlegrounds.

The losses from the beginning of the fighting in late July ‘til this moment in the war are staggering.

War historian John Keegan has attempted the grim task of counting the dead on the Western Front. In their order taking into account the Battles of the Frontiers, of the Great Retreat, of the Marne and the Aisne, and the Race to the Sea and this battle for Ypres…

the French army is the most devastated.


Einstein Wants End to War; Lenin Sees Civil War Spreading

Special to The Great War Project

(12-21 November) Many significant developments during these days across the broad bloody tapestry of the war, one hundred years ago.

Two powerful individuals are watching the war spread: the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin from his safe perch in Switzerland and Albert Einstein from inside Germany.

Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, spent much of the war in Switzerland.

Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, spent much of the war in Switzerland.

“The epoch of the bayonet has begun,” writes Lenin, who predicts the coming of a civil war between the classes, and according to historian Martin Gilbert “the triumph of the working class,” as he watches a one-day workers’ strike unfold in Petrograd on November 12th.

Just a few days later, Albert Einstein and other prominent German intellectuals create the New Fatherland League. It appeals,” reports Gilbert, “for the “prompt achievement of a just peace without annexations” and for the creation of an international organization “that would have as its aim the prevention of future wars.”

The League has little impact.

Another founding member recalls years later how she once approached Einstein “when I was depressed by the news of one German victory after another and the resultant intolerable arrogance and gloating of the people of Berlin.”

“What will happen, Herr Professor?” I asked anxiously.

Einstein looked at me, raised his right fist, and replied: “This will govern.”

Nevertheless the battles roll on.

The young Einstein spent the war in Germany, opposing the fighting.

The young Einstein spent the war in Germany, opposing the fighting.

On November 18th a century ago on the Eastern Front, a huge battle is emerging at the Polish city of Lodz. A quarter of a million German troops nearly surround the city, defended by 150,000 Russian troops.

“The battle for Lodz was on a gigantic scale,” writes Gilbert. The Russians set a trap for the Germans, but the Germans break out. The Germans are unable to counter with their own unsuccessful trap for the Russians. “The energies of both armies flagged, worn out by defeats, fighting, and the vileness of the swampy country.”

Nature becomes the decisive factor. That should not be a surprise.


Casualties Uncountable; An Epitaph for the War.

Editor’s note: This Blog of World War One will take a week’s break. It will return at the end of next week.

Special to The Great War Project

(10-11 November) At Ypres on the Western Front a century ago, the Germans try again to mount a huge offensive meant to leave the medieval Belgian town in German hands.

The Germans count this as the 22nd day of the Battle for Ypres, “a battle in which death had become a familiar comrade,” writes war historian John Keegan.

British troops at the Battle of Ypres, date uncertain.

British troops at the Battle of Ypres, date uncertain.

The focus of the German attack is just four miles from the town of Ypres, at a Belgian village called Nun’s Wood.

This town is not spared the destruction of war. “Already,” writes Keegan, “the magnificent Gothic buildings of the ancient wool town, the Cloth Hall, the Cathedral, the merchant weavers’ houses, were falling into ruin under the weight of heavy German artillery fire.”

The countryside “was taking on the pockmarked, denuded look that would characterize its landscape for years to come.”

Keegan reports, “a direct hit on Hooge chateau, two miles from Ypres, had killed many of the staff” of British forces in the area.

A battle rages there all day on this November 11th. There is no final victory for either side. The stalemate continues.

The battle for Ypres is not over. But the fighting there is subsiding – for the moment.

“Everywhere the Germans held the high ground,” writes Keegan, “dominating the shallow crescent of trenches the British, who were to be its guardians for most of the coming war of attack and defense, would call ‘the Salient.’”

The mounting casualties – the dead and wounded – are almost impossible to count on both sides. The Germans lose at least 41,000 Keegan reports. “The British survivors,” according to Keegan, “were less than half of the 160,000 which the British Expeditionary Force had sent to France.”

Many historians use this date, November 11th, a century ago as the end of the Battle for Ypres.

But it is not the end. There will be two more battles for Ypres in the coming four years. And on this very day, four years later on November 11th, 1918 the war will indeed end, and then there will be a final count of the dead. It will number in the many millions, and this day will be called Armistice Day in Europe, Veterans Day in the United States.

Memorial at the Menin Gate in Belgium near the town of Ypres.

Memorial at the Menin Gate in Belgium near the town of Ypres.

An epitaph for today, two lines from poet John Maxwell Edmonds:

When you go home, tell them of us and say

For their tomorrow, we gave our today.




First British Naval Defeat in a Century;

No Port is Safe.

Special to The Great War Project

(8-9 November) The war at sea is spreading and rapidly claiming more lives.

The Indian Ocean is the battleground.

The German raider Emden destroyed near Australia, November 1914.

The German raider Emden destroyed near Australia, November 1914.

On November 9th a hundred years ago, writes historian Martin Gilbert, the first Australian wartime naval encounter takes place in the Indian Ocean. The Australian cruiser Sydney attacks with guns and torpedoes and beaches the German raider Emden after a German landing party destroys a British wireless station on Direction Island off the coast of Australia.

More than 130 of the German crew are killed.

It is a fortuitous action. Over the previous two months, “the Emden had captured eight unarmed Allied merchant ships and sunk fifteen, sending to the bottom cargoes of coal, tea, rubber, cattle, and even racehorses.”

In Penang Harbor in the Dutch East Indies, the Emden sinks “a Russian cruiser and a French destroyer.” In October she reaches the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. According to Gilbert, a Frenchman living there greets the German raider with fresh eggs and vegetables.

Listening Post

Searching for Uncle Theo, Killed in WWI

The rifle volley shattered the quiet in the cemetery and made me jump. Immediately, the synchronized snick of bolts being worked, empty shells clinking on the ground, and the order, “Ready, fire!” and another cracking volley.

I was ten at the time.

I scrambled between adult legs to snatch one of the still warm brass casings. I hardly noticed that the volley was being fired over the grave of my great uncle, Theodore Williams, who was killed in WWI.

Theodore Colley Williams

Theodore Colley Williams

Each year of my 1940’s childhood in tiny Thomaston, Maine, a military unit along with marching band formed up on Armistice Day (Nov. 11) and marched through town to the cemetery. I thrilled to this little martial spectacle. The street was lined with crowds, and we kids ran along beside, dodging through grown-ups wearing red paper poppies, the symbol of remembrance of those who died in the Great War. (Not until 1954 was Armistice Day changed to Veteran’s Day).

My great aunt, Theodore Williams’ sister, lived with us and told me that her brother had been killed in the war, but she provided no details, and I didn’t pay much attention. This was shortly after WWII ended, and my best friend and I were engrossed in playing with a trunk full of Wehrmacht memorabilia brought back by his wounded brother. And movies like John Wayne’s The Sands of Iwo Jima had focused my interest on WWI’s sequel.

But as we embarked on The Great War Project, I began to wonder about the death of this great uncle I never knew.

It turns out that he was involved in two of the most significant battles of the war. One of them was the first major engagement fought by Americans and the second, in which he was killed, is viewed by many historians as the hinge point in the war.

Remembering WWI in a Small Town in Scotland

Editor’s Note : In much of Europe, commemorations of World War I already are kicking into high gear. Cori Princell, an American independent radio producer living with her family in Oban, Scotland, discovered just how vivid memories of the war are in that town.

I moved to Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, in late October. A few weeks later it was November, and the town was blanketed in red poppies. I soon learned that’s the symbol for war remembrance here. Poppies bloomed in the fields of battle, and red, of course, symbolizes blood.

Maybe it was just Remembrance Sunday, but I had formed the impression that the World Wars are more present here. I’d read articles in the local newspaper about an island war memorial getting fixed up by school pupils, and a new war monument being built in a nearby village – even now, 100 years on. I thought I’d learn more at the Oban War and Peace Museum, so I stopped in yesterday.

Volunteers at Oban War and Peace Museum

Volunteers at Oban War and Peace Museum

One of the volunteers said he hoped I was coming in to learn something, not to just get in out of the rain. But when I told him I was there to learn about World War One, he frowned. Oban was critical in the World War Two effort, but the first world war? “The ones that would tell the stories are dead.”

As we talked, though, stories did come. One remembered a disabled World War One vet in his neighborhood when he was a boy. Another knew his father had been wounded and carried out of a trench on his best friend’s shoulders.

That generation didn’t talk much about hardship, but they ran businesses in town and raised children, who had children of their own. And as we talked, I began to see Oban as they do – a small town where people know one another and one another’s families, in some cases going back many years. One of the men, now in his 60s, said he’s still known as “Toadie’s grandson”– though his grandmother is long gone, she’s quite alive in him.

I thanked the men and left the museum. It had stopped raining, so with the old pictures and stories in my mind, I set off down the seafront to Oban’s war memorial. I thought I might quickly count the names.

Oban WWI monument

WWI Monument in Oban, Scotland

But I soon realized, though I’ve walked past the monument many times, I had never really looked at it. A few battered red poppies beat in the wind near the base, and I looked up at the names of war dead, 1914–1918, on the side of the war memorial that faces Oban. Then I turned and saw that the list continues along another side. Then I turned, and turned again. This old stone monument, in a small Scottish town, is wrapped on four sides with the names of war dead.

One of the men I had talked to in the museum remembered seeing a photo from 1923, soon after the monument was built. “Hundreds of folk round it, just literally hundreds.” And I realized they’d given me my answer – why even now, this old war feels more alive here.

Those names on the monument?
“Local people,” he said simply.