CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


The Stench of Death; Fears of Being Buried Alive

A Rescuer is Rescued.

Special to The Great War Project

(29-31 July) The deadlock continues on the Gallipoli Peninsula in northwest Turkey.

The defending Turks and the attacking allied troops of Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand dig miles of barbed-wire protected trenches. This transforms the landscape and brings stalemate to the war for Gallipoli.

The scream and shudder of artillery is a constant for both sides, but they both find new and more effective means of killing.

Allied troops dug in at Gallipoli, circa 1915.

Allied troops dug in at Gallipoli, circa 1915.

Among them, digging mines under the enemy’s trenches. “To kill from below,” in the words of historian Eugene Rogan.

According to Rogan’s account of the fight for Gallipoli, one French soldier recalls later that he “was awakened around midnight, his ear to the hard ground in his dugout, by the distinct sound of digging in the ground beneath him.”

“The one thing I fear is to end my days blown sky high over the trenches.”

It is no surprise that similar fears infect the Turkish side as well. One Turkish officer who keeps a diary “was more afraid,” according to Rogan, “of being buried alive by an explosion than of being blown sky high.”

“There is no worse death than that,” the Turkish officer writes. “My God, spare everyone from such a fate.”


Buried Alive or Burned, Many Die in Fight for Mine Crater

Special to The Great War Project

(26-28 July) Despite the deadlock on the “quiet” Western Front, there are still occasional savage clashes. Some 300 soldiers die each day.

One attack of particular note is the battle in southern Belgium for the Hooge Crater.

It takes five and a half weeks of digging before the British can lay a mine near the town of Hooge (pronounced HOO-J). As they dig one tunnel collapses, and a second has to be excavated.

The Hooge crater, 1915.

The Hooge crater, 1915.

The crater, reports historian Martin Gilbert, is the result of a huge mine explosion that precedes a British attack on German trenches. After the explosion, the crater left is 120 feet wide and twenty feet deep.

Among the casualties, at least ten British soldiers die when they are hit by debris from the explosion.

“Ferocious struggles took place between the confronting armies,” reports Gilbert.

“A crater such as this was a prized objective,” observes Gilbert, “giving as it did an element of shelter to the troops whose army captured it, and a relatively protected spot from which to fire on the enemy.”

The Germans use extraordinary means to prevent the British from seizing the crater.

“The Germans made use of their dreaded heavy mortar shell,” according to Gilbert, “known to the British as ‘Minnie’ or ‘Moaning Minnie.’”

“This was the most alarming frightfulness that our fellows had as yet knocked up against,” writes one British officer present during the attack. “Apart from the number of people it had blown to bits, the explosions were so terrific that anyone within a hundred yards’ radius was liable to lose his reason after a few hours.”

According to this officer, several men “had to be sent down the line in a state of gibbering helplessness.”

Making matters worse, according to Gilbert, none of the men involved in this attack and others nearby had fought in that part of the front line before. It is unfamiliar ground.


Nasiriya Falls to British; Eye al-Kut Next

Ottoman Forces Retreat in Face of British Juggernaut

Special to The Great War Project

(23-25 July) The British offensive in southern Mesopotamia (now Iraq) gains another victory with the fall of Nasiriya.

British and Indian troops take control of the city on this date a century ago.

A British boat bridge at Nasiriya on the Euphrates, summer 1915.

A British boat bridge at Nasiriya on the Euphrates, summer 1915.

The success of the British offensive in Mesopotamia – and the weakness of Turkish resistance — encourage the British Expeditionary Force to probe deeper into the desert territory, despite the severe heat, disease, and the logistical challenge as supply lines lengthen to the breaking point.

The next target is the town of Kut.

The British offensive gains support from the indigenous Arab population of southern Mesopotamia. All spring and into the summer of 1915…,

Arab civilians rise up in open revolt against the occupying Ottoman forces.

The Turks are facing a myriad of battlefield challenges. “The Ottomans had fielded ill-trained and poorly supplied troops to face the Anglo-Indian juggernaut,” writes historian Eugene Rogan. “High rates of desertion among Iraqi recruits exacerbated losses through heavy battlefield casualties, leaving Ottoman forces severely under-strength.”


Lusitania Episode Takes Months to Resolve;

Kaiser Calls Wilson Impertinent.

A Hideous New American Weapon

Special to The Great War Project

(21-22 July) Relations between the United States and Germany are increasingly tense.

The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in May results in the death of nearly 1200, including 124 Americans. It splits President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet.

An artist's rendering of the sinking of the Lusitania.

An artist’s rendering of the sinking of the Lusitania.

Wilson takes weeks to fashion a response.

His goal: to force Germany to end its submarine warfare altogether.

Emotions run so high that Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan believes the president’s policy of neutrality is not neutral at all.

Bryan concludes Wilson is too pro-British, too anti-German.

Wilson's cabinet. Wilson, far left with Bryan right foreground.

Wilson’s cabinet. Wilson, far left with Bryan right foreground.

Wilson believes the United States should be permitted to trade with all sides in the conflict.

But as a result of Britain’s very effective blockade of Germany, in fact the trade that the US does with the belligerents favors Britain.

US weapons sales and huge bank loans are quite clearly meant to help the British war effort.

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.”