CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Germany Issues Warning: Passengers Travel at Own Risk

Ship’s Owners Say No Contraband on Board

Special to The Great War Project

(30 April—1 May) On May 1st a century ago, the luxury ocean liner Lusitania is ready to set sail from New York, bound for Liverpool, England.

Lusitania docked in New York, preparing for an Atlantic crossing.

Lusitania docked in New York, preparing for an Atlantic crossing, date uncertain.

The ship is one of the few grand passenger ships of the Cunard line working the New York-to-Liverpool Atlantic crossing. It carries some 1200 passengers and another 700 crew. The crossing takes six day. It is a fast run.

It is a British ship and flies a British flag. It will sail through some very dangerous waters when it reaches the coast of Ireland and the seas near Britain.

German submarines are lurking, seeking any ships they can torpedo and sink.

In February Berlin informs the world it is undertaking unrestricted submarine warfare against any and all ships.

No exceptions.

The Germans are well aware of the Lusitania’s schedule. They issue a warning. On the day the ship leaves New York the German embassy in the United States places a notice in the New York newspapers.

The German warning to the Lusitania, published in New York newspapers, May 1, 1915.

The German warning to the Lusitania, published in New York newspapers, May 1, 1915.

The message is simple and chilling. “Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable for destruction,” the notice reads.

It adds a warning: Passengers traveling on board “do so at their own risk.”

The announcement is not directed toward any specific ship, but the operators of the Cunard line have no doubt the warning is addressed to the Lusitania.

Nevertheless, Cunard views the German warning as an empty threat. The Lusitania may be one of the world’s largest ocean liners, but it is the fastest civilian ship in the world.

Cunard issues a formal response. “The truth is,” Cunard’s statement reads, “that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the seas. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”


ANZACs Face Strong Turkish Defense, Terrible Terrain,  Incompetent British Leadership

Special to The Great War Project.

(26-29 April) In these days a century ago, the British continue to pour troops onto the beaches of Gallipoli Peninsula in western Turkey.

The Turkish forces defending the beaches from cliffs above put up unexpectedly strong, indeed fierce resistance.

“By nightfall on April 26” [only the second day of the Gallipoli invasion] “more than 30,000 Allied troops were ashore,” reports historian Martin Gilbert. “The number of dead and wounded in the first two days of battle exceeded 20,000.”

Allied troops waiting to land at Gallipoli, April 1915

Allied troops waiting to land at Gallipoli, April 1915

They are mostly troops from Australia and New Zealand known as ANZACs.

“The ANZACs knew the importance of getting high quickly,” writes war historian John Keegan, “and after an almost unopposed landing, began climbing the ridges in front of them as fast as their feet could take them.”

The attacking soldiers soon discover just how inhospitable the terrain is — in Keegan’s view, “as hostile as any defending force.”

“Organization dissolved in the thick scrub and steep ravines”…

…” Keegan writes, “which separated group from group and prevented a coordinated sweep to the top.”

Gallipoli terrain

ANZAC troops face daunting terrain on the ridges and cliffs of Gallipoli, April 1915.

Sadly, Keegan writes, “The ANZACs, clinging lost and leaderless to the hillsides, began, as the hot afternoon gave way to grey drizzle, to experience their martyrdom.”

The ultimate aim of the Gallipoli invasion is to capture the Dardanelle Straits, the narrow strategic waterway that protects the Ottoman capital, Constantinople.

Despite all the forces the Allied invasion brings to bear on Gallipoli, the invasion is not successful. “From first to last,” writes Gilbert, “the Narrows remained under Turkish control, not even threatened by infantry assault.”

Gilbert is withering in his criticism of the British generals who conceived and ordered the soldiers into the battle.

“There were moments, when incompetent and confused leadership at Gallipoli made a mockery of the bravery and tenacity of the Allied troops”

The Turks, with German generals leading the defense, “were able to keep the invading force pinned down to its two beachheads.”


British Underestimate Ottoman Forces, Turkish Resolve

Thousands of Allied Troops Killed on the Beaches

Special to The Great War Project

(25 April) In the hope of a swift victory, the Allied powers on this day a century ago, land some 50,000 troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in northwestern Turkey, on the northern shore of the strategic Dardanelle Straits.

The landing takes place in two zones. One at Cape Helles at the southern tip of the peninsula, and another further north. The first landing occurs at dawn on what is designated Z Beach.

Allied troops landing on Gallipoli beach, April 1915

Allied troops landing on Gallipoli beach, April 1915

The troops come from Australia and New Zealand. They are initially designated for the Western Front, writes historian Martin Gilbert, but then are diverted to the Gallipoli landing for the “quick and easy battle against the Turks.”

The goal is to break the Turkish control of the strategic waterway, then seize Constantinople, and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

In March the British attempted a naval attack, without significant support from army troops, on the Straits. That was a resounding failure.

Now the British put the plans squarely on the shoulders of the army.

Front the start things go wrong. In the first landing “possibly because of a navigational error, they were put ashore not at their original landing place…from where they might have advanced on almost level ground” across the narrow central part of the peninsula. Instead the landing takes place at a smaller cape further north “below the precipitous heights” of a different sector.

Said the commander of the landing, “Tell the Colonel….that the damn fools have landed us a mile too far north.”

Still, reports Gilbert, “The landing itself was virtually unopposed.” But within a few hours, the Turks on the high ground unleash an artillery barrage of the Allied troops on the landing beach below.

With some success, the Australians push further toward the crest of the cliffs, as the Turkish troops are running out of ammunition. New guns arrive and the Turks reposition them. Then more Turkish troops arrive, “coming in the thousands,” reports an Australian scout. The officer in charge replies, “I didn’t dream they’d come back.”

The battle becomes heated. “Successive waves of Turks,” writes Gilbert, “hurling themselves on their adversary, were killed by machine-gun fire as they clambered over the bodies of the previous wave.”

“More and more Australian wounded are falling back to the narrow beach. “There was no rest, no lull,” writes one Australian soldier, “while the rotting dead lay all around us, never a pause in the whole of the long day that started at the crack of dawn…How we longed for this ghastly day to end!”


 The Gruesome Details; Thousands of Cultural Leaders Killed

An Armenian Day of Mourning

Special to The Great War Project

(23-24 April) On April 24th one hundred years ago to the day, the head of the Armenian Church in the Ottoman Empire appeals to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to intervene in the slaughter of Turkey’s Armenian population. Wilson does not respond.

Of this photo, the US ambassador wrote "Scenes like this were common all over the Armenian provinces in the spring and summer months of 1915. Deaths in its several forms."

Of this photo, the US ambassador wrote “Scenes like this were common all over the Armenian provinces in the spring and summer months of 1915. Death in its several forms.”

It is a day when the systematic murder of Armenians is spreading rapidly. Tens of thousands are now forced out of the eastern Turkish town of Erzurum and into the mountains and desert of Mesopotamia (now Iraq).

It is the day when the Ottoman War Minister Enver Pasha issues deportation orders, according to historian Sean McMeekin, “that the Armenian population in problem areas must be reduced to less than ten percent.”

The murder of Armenians is so terrible that even Germany, ally of the Ottomans, is embarrassed.

“In Constantinople,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “the German ambassador went to the Turkish Foreign Ministry and expressed his hope that anything that ‘might look like Christian massacres’ would be avoided. He was told that the Turkish garrison in the Province of Van [where deportations are savagely underway] consisted of poorly trained conscripts and that ‘excesses’ might not be entirely avoidable.”

“The killings continued.”

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.”