CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


A Catastrophe for US Munitions Factories

French Morale ‘Cracking’

A Secret Deal to Bring the U.S. In

Special to The Great War Project.

(28-30 November, 1-3 December) As the end of 1916 approaches, Britain is going broke.

“Not even J. P Morgan,” writes historian Thomas Fleming, “could come up with enough money to keep pace with Great Britain’s expenditures in the United States.”  British borrowing from Morgan’s bank to purchase military weapons and supplies is leading to British financial ruin.

J.P. Morgan, the father.

J.P. Morgan, the father.

Drastic action has to be taken.

Morgan informs the British, reports Fleming, that…

“henceforth all loans would have to be on a short-term basis, against collateral.”

These terms are far more onerous than those the British enjoyed up till now in the war. The gold that Britain keeps in its vaults is disappearing, and Britain no longer has enough to pay Morgan back.

Soon it is apparent “that Britain was reeling toward bankruptcy.”

J.Pierpont Morgan, the son.

J.Pierpont Morgan, the son.

Fleming reports: “Secretary of State Robert Lansing told Woodrow Wilson of a warning from Ambassador Page [the US Ambassador in London] that the “collapse of world trade and of the whole of European finance” is imminent.

“This breakdown,” reports Fleming, “would mean the cessation of all war orders in hundreds of U.S. factories, a day of reckoning that would have a catastrophic impact on the American economy.”

The crisis is not only one of financing the war. At the same moment in the war, a century ago, Wilson’s closest confidante, Colonel Edward House, receives letters from American embassy staffers in Paris and London.

They warn House, according to historian Fleming, that “French morale was in danger of cracking.

House takes this information immediately to President Wilson and tells him, “If France should cave in before Germany, it would be a calamity beyond reckoning.”

Col. House (right) with President and Mrs. Wilson.

Col. House (right) with President and Mrs. Wilson.

There is no doubt where House’s allegiances lie. “If we intend to help defeat Germany…it will be necessary to begin immediately,” he tells Wilson.

It appears that around this time, one hundred years ago, Wilson concludes that it will be necessary for the United States to go to war to defeat Germany.


The Battles End, Killing Continues

British ‘Wastage’ and Charges of Cowardice

Special to The Great War Project

(21-26 November) It may be that only the great battles of the First World War get named and garner the focus of history.

But as historian Adam Hochschild notes, “the air above the Western Front was also filled with bullets, mortar rounds, shrapnel bursts, and deadly clouds of poison gas even when no named battle was raging.”

“The toll from these constant skirmishes,” writes Hochschild…

“was part of what British commanders chillingly referred to as ‘normal wastage’ of up to 5,000 men a week.

For soldiers, minor engagements, never mentioned in a newspaper, could be every bit as fatal or terrifying as a major battle.”

Hochschild points to the events “during the frigid predawn hours of November 25, 1916 (precisely a century ago) in a supposedly quiet sector of the front,” to the north where the battle of the Somme is drawing to a close.

One of the numerous craters that litter the battlefield of northern France.

One of the numerous craters that litter the battlefields of northern France.

At this moment, the front line runs through a place the British troops call King Crater. In the middle of that night, a century ago, a British officer is inspecting front line trenches. Almost immediately the officer and a small patrol run into a company of German raiders.


As Somme, Verdun Battles End, Shocking Losses.

Wilson Re-Elected, Seeks Peace.

Special to The Great War Project

(14-20 November) The battles of the river Somme and Verdun, on the Western Front in northern France are coming to an end.

The last Allied offensive takes place on these days a century ago. Snow falls on the battlefield on November 17th and the following day, the Anglo-French force advances a thousand yards.


The Somme battlefield, late 1916.

“It was much hampered by mist and snow,” writes history Martin Gilbert.

“After four-and-a-half months of suffering, struggle, and advance,” Gilbert observes, “there was no concluding victory.”

Indeed, the end of the battle of the Somme is hardly a victory for either side. “One British divisional history recorded that two companies which had taken part in the assault on November 18th had disappeared ‘entirely, being overwhelmed by machine-gun fire.’”

Both sides are planning new offensives for 1917. At the same time, they are taking stock of their losses and where things stand after nearly five months of fighting at the Somme.

Both sides are counting the dead. The British have lost nearly 96,000 soldiers killed, the French more than 50,000 dead.

A dead German soldier in a French trench, circa August 1916.

A dead German soldier in a French trench, circa August 1916.

The German dead is even greater: more than 164,000. Some 70,000 Germans are taken prisoner, removed from the battlefield and taken to prisoner-of-war camps monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

There are more numbers and they are mind-numbing. After more than four months of fighting at the Somme, “The British line had moved forward [a mere] six miles, but this was still three miles short of Bapaume,” which was the original goal of the attack back in July at the beginning of the Somme offensive.

Gilbert observes: “In this massive exercise of human effort, several hundred thousand soldiers had been killed.”

More numbers. These are from the battle at Verdun, also in northern French. In these nearly five months of battle at Verdun, (the actual Verdun battle lasts some months longer than the Somme), but “more than 23 million shells were fired by the two contending armies, on average more than a hundred shells a minute.”



Secret Talks Between Russia and Germany

But the War Sees No End.

‘It is Butchery…and Useless Butchery’

Special to The Great War Project.

(12 September) Let’s take stock of the Great War, in Russia, by mid-November a century ago, two-and-a-half years into the war.

On the Eastern Front, the Russian offensive is running out of steam. “The Russian offensive had reached its limit,” writes historian Martin Gilbert. And so the offensive ends by this moment in the war, undermined on the home front by the withdrawal of support from soldiers and civilians alike on the home front.

Civilians and soldiers alike protest the war, date uncertain.

Russian civilians and soldiers protest the war, date uncertain.

“Nearly 200,000 Russian workers were involved in an estimated 177 political strikes,” Gilbert reports. “Whether any further Russian military initiative might be possible was cast in doubt when the Tsar was warned [in November]…that there were only sufficient reserve troops for a further five months’ fighting.”

Reports Gilbert: “At the end of the month a Russian army censorship bureau reported that…

…soldiers were saying: “After the war we’ll have to settle accounts with the internal enemy.”

The roll call of death is astounding. “On the last day of October 1916, Russian losses were estimated at 4,670,000 killed and wounded, more than 1,000,000 missing,” and more than 2,000,000 taken prisoner.

Russian POWs seized by German troops, date and place uncetain.

Russian POWs seized by German troops, date and place uncetain.

Shortages plague the Russian war effort, “impeding any hope of a renewed Russian success,” writes historian Gilbert. Adds one military observer in his diary on November 5th, “The plain truth is that without aeroplanes and far more heavy guns and shell, and some knowledge of their use….it is butchery…and useless butchery…to drive Russian infantry against German lines.”

So did all this butchery change the balance on the battlefield? Hardly at all, and “essentially inconclusive.” Under the best of conditions, Germany and Austria-Hungary would combine their forces and smash the Russian war effort.

But faced with stubborn resistance on the Western Front – Verdun and the Somme tying the Central powers down for most of 1916 – the Allies destroy Germany’s hope of making significant progress.

In an attempt to break the stalemate, the Germans decide to create a new German-controlled state in Poland. Coming with it is a new army that the Germans can throw against the Russians.

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”