CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


German Offensive in West a Ruse;

Russians in East are Main Target.

The War in Verse

Special to The Great War Project

(18-20 May) Over the course of the past two weeks a century ago on the Western Front, fighting intensifies at the Belgian city of Ypres.

It’s being called the Second Battle of Ypres.

French troops wearing  primitive gas masks at Second Battle of Ypres, May 1915.

French troops wearing primitive gas masks at Second Battle of Ypres, May 1915.

The Germans launch another assault on the British and French forces there. But this is a ruse, according to historian Michael Neiberg. The Germans mount their main attack against the Russians on the Eastern Front. But “in order to make their plans work effectively,” writes Neiberg, “the Germans decided on a limited attack in the west to disguise their real intentions.”

They hide their intentions under an enormous cloud of poison gas. “They opened the offensive with 168 tons of chlorine gas,” reports Neiberg, and the French troops on the Allied side fled “in understandable terror.” The Germans also use the gas to compensate for their troop strength at Ypres, which is significantly smaller than the Allied forces there.

This is the first battle in the war where poison gas is used on a large scale.

The plan is for the German troops to attack through the greenish-yellow lethal cloud, “but,” reports Neiberg, “lacking any kind of protection, they refused the orders or at least moved with extreme caution.”

So in the end, the Second Battle of Ypres is not decisive. It “did not produce any major gains for the Germans, but it did throw the Allies off balance and prevented them from detecting the transfer of German units to the east.”

There the German army routs the Russians and forces them into a devastating “Great Retreat.”

Neiberg points to one additional significant result of the Second Battle of Ypres. “It also led all of the great powers to increase the number of resources they put into both gas weapons and gas masks. Now that the Germans use poison gas in great quantities, the Allies “decided to follow suit.”

“The Western Front was about to receive a new and deadly threat.”


Retreating Russian Troops Burn Towns, Farms;

Thousands of Non-Russians Uprooted

Special to The Great War Project

(15-17 May) On the often ignored Eastern Front, the German army is engaged in an enormous attack on the Russian forces in control of much of western Ukraine and Poland.

“In May 1915,” observes historian Adam Hochschild, “on the one section of the front where the Tsar’s armies had won substantial territory from the lackadaisical Austro-Hungarians, the Germans stiffened their ally with a strong infusion of troops and artillery and began methodically pushing the Russians far back into their homeland.”

German troops in their trenches on Eastern Front in Poland 1915.

German troops in their trenches on Eastern Front in Poland 1915.

This is territory the Russians capture in the winter of 1914-1915. The Germans and their Austrian allies are at first defeated as much by the mountainous terrain and frigid weather as by the prowess of the Russian army.

But now, five months later, like everything in war, things have changed. “The land had dried out,” writes historian Norman Stone, “and there would be no repetition of the calamitous…doings in the snows.”

Over the course of ten days at the end of April and the beginning of May a century ago, the Germans mass 100,000 men and 1,000 guns east of Cracow in present day Poland. Stone writes…

The Russians are in serious trouble. “Their entire position was about to explode.”

One big problem for the Russians: they move their troops more slowly than the Germans do. German railroads are far better and run more efficiently than the Russian system. One of the problems is horses. The Germans are moving far fewer horses than the Russians are.

And Russian communications are far more primitive than German communications.

Map of German, Austrian attacks, spring 1915.

Map of German, Austrian attacks, spring 1915.

“Everything, strategic and tactical, was in place for one of the great disasters of Russian military history,” Stone observes.

On May 2nd the Germans open up with an enormous artillery barrage on Russian positions, involving a thousand artillery pieces. “Quite soon,” observes Stone, “the Russian positions are reduced to rubble.”

Many of the Russian troops are raw and even over-age. They panic and run away over open ground. One-third of the Russian defenders are wiped out, according to Stone.




Special to The Great War Project

(12-14 May) This is a particularly dismal moment – a crisis really — for the British and their allies.

A century ago, on both the Western Front in France and the Turkish Front at Gallipoli, the British and their allies are facing significant losses.


Allied troops at Battle of Vimy Ridge, May 1915.

The British, French, and their allies launch attacks at Vimy Ridge and Aubers Ridge in northern France. “Both failed,” writes war historian John Keegan, “with heavy loss of life for little or no gain of ground.”

The Vimy Ridge assault, according to historian Martin Gilbert, “was part of the first combined Anglo-French attempt to break through strongly fortified German trench lines.” The Allied forces advance a thousand yards, reaching the first German line. An artillery barrage fails to open a breach in the barbed wire defenses.

German machine-gunners open fire on the allied soldiers. Then the Germans pull back.

At that point the British and French forces are hit by their own artillery. Among the losses suffered that day is a regiment of the French Foreign Legion – nearly two-thousand dead.

At Aubers Ridge, the preliminary artillery barrage also proves ineffective, leaving the British and Indian forces exposed as easy targets. “After the first assault had failed to breach the German line,” reports Gilbert, “men who had been wounded in No-Man’s Land were killed by a forty-minute British artillery bombardment of the very shell holes in which they found shelter.”

The tragedy of this attack is heart-wrenching. British troops turn and begin running back to their own trenches, taking fire from German machine-gunners. The British soldiers have taken some German prisoners, and they are running toward their own trenches with the prisoners. “They were thought by the British to be an enemy counter-attack, and were fired on from the British trenches as well. Few could survive the crossfire,” reports Gilbert.


Wilson is Silent on Lusitania disaster;

New Allied Losses on Western Front

Special to The Great War Project

(8-11 May) In the aftermath of the Lusitania disaster, many questions arise that do not yet have answers.

One of the most important, and most controversial, is why the British Admiralty offered no convoy to protect the ship when it neared the British Isles, where it would be most vulnerable.

A newspaper cartoon depicting American anger at German attack on the Lusitania.

A newspaper cartoon depicting American anger at German attack on the Lusitania.

One of the suspicions that takes hold is that the Lusitania disaster is part of a British plan to get the United States into the war, on the side of the Allies of course.

This is certainly on the minds of both American and British leaders. In fact President Wilson’s closest confidante, Colonel Edward House, is in London on the very day the Lusitania is attacked. He meets with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey.

“We spoke,” House writes in his diary, “of the probability of an ocean liner being sunk and I told him if this were done, a flame of indignation would sweep across America, which would in itself probably carry us into the war.”

Later that day, House meets with King George at Buckingham Palace. The two also consider the possibility that a German submarine might sink a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. House reports in his diary that the King proposed another chilling possibility:

“Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers on board?”

This is precisely what occurs just a few hours later off the coast of Ireland, and it is no exaggeration to say that it shocked the United States.

“The sinking of the Lusitania,” writes historian Arthur Link, “had a more jolting effect upon American opinion than any other single event of the war…. It confirmed what the minority of pro-Allied extremists had been saying all along – that Germany had in fact run amuck and was now an outlaw among civilized nations.”

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.”