CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


British Army Faces New Challenge – What’s Real Nervous Breakdown?

Soldiers Put on Trial; Face Death Sentences.

Special to The Great War Project.

(17-20 July) By this time a century ago at the Battle of the Somme on the Western Front, the British military is facing another daunting problem.

“As the fighting at the Somme continued,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “thousands of men left the battlefield with their nerves shattered. Reporting sick and being asked what had happened, most would answer – shell-shock.”

Signs of shell shock. Date and place unknown,

Signs of shell shock. Date and place unknown,

Shell-shock, a term that the First World War introduces, proves to be an enormous problem for the British army. “With some,” reports Gilbert, ‘this was clearly the case, but for the medical authorities it was not necessarily so.”

According to Gilbert, “the official medical history writes: To explain to a man that his symptoms were the result of disordered emotional conditions due to his rough experience in the line, and not as he imagined to some serious disturbance of his nervous system produced by bursting shells, became the most frequent and successful form of psychotherapy.”

In many cases the soldier experiencing shell-shock needed two weeks of rest and then officers sent thousands of soldiers back to the line.

Still thousands of soldiers do experience real shell-shock.

Signs of shell shock, date and place uncertain.

Signs of shell shock, date and place uncertain.

“It was during the Battle of the Somme, that because of the intensification of nervous breakdowns and shell-shock, special centers were opened in each army area for diagnosis and treatment.”

“The view of the military authorities, as the official medical history emphasizes, was that the subject of mental collapse was ‘so bound up with the maintenance of morale in the army that every soldier who is non-effective owing to nervous breakdown must be made the subject of careful inquiry.”

“In no case is he to be evacuated to base unless his condition warrants such a procedure.”

This is not an easy distinction to make.

“Simply put,” writes historian Adam Hochschild, “even after the most obedient soldier had had enough shells rain down on him, without any means of fighting back, he often lost all self-control.


The Ugly Aftermath of Battle, for Victor and Vanquished Alike.

“German, Austrian, Russian, Lay There at Peace, in a ‘Brothers’ Grave.”

Special to The Great War Project.

(13-16 July) The murderous fighting at the Somme continues, bringing with it the randomness of death.

Many soldiers write home with tragic stories about the randomness of death.

The dead at tje Somme, summer 1916

The dead at the Somme, summer 1916

One British soldier writes. “Our sergeant had just given us our rum ration and gone to the shell hole where the gun team were, and..

…here unfortunately one gas shell found its mark, landing in the center of the gunners. Poor lads, it wiped the whole of them out.”

Soldiers on both sides send home hundreds of thousands of letters from all fronts of the war. “Often,” reports historian Martin Gilbert, “they are letters that describe to a wife or a parent the fate of his or her loved one.”

Wounded British soldiers at the Somme, summer 1916.

Wounded British soldiers at the Somme, summer 1916.

They are terribly painful.

“About halfway across No-Man’s Land,” writes one British soldier, “whilst waiting in a shell-hole for one of our own barrages to lift, I became aware of the fact that Joe was in the next hole to mine, and we smiled encouragement to each other.”

“Enemy machine guns were sweeping the whole place with explosive bullets, and there was a fearful noise, and speech was impossible.”

“The streams of death whistled over our shell-holes coming from the left flank, and Joe’s hole being to the left of mine, he received the bullet in his side.

He slipped away quietly – just a yearning glance, a feeble clutching at space, and then a gentle sinking into oblivion, with his head on his arm.”


British Commander Reasons, High Losses Bring Victory,

Means Equal Losses for the Germans.

Special to The Great War Project

(9-12 July) The blood-letting on the Western Front at the Somme shows no sign of ending.

Although the British five-day artillery bombardment does cut through some of the German barbed wire defenses, it is not so thorough and clean as the British commander, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, would prefer.

British barbed wire defenses, date and place uncertain.

British barbed wire defenses, date and place uncertain.

In the meantime, the Germans work furiously to replace their damaged front line wire. “The Germans’ best weapon remained barbed wire,” writes historian Adam Hochschild. “They were bringing 7,000 tons of it up to the front every week, in long rolls stacked on railway cars two layers high.”

German machine gun unit at the Somme, July 1916.

German machine gun unit at the Somme, July 1916.

“And both sides were using tough new types of wire, some of which had a sharpened prong every inch or two.”

Reports Hochschild, “As fighting continued, the gains were minimal – a half mile here, a few hundred yards there, and in some places nothing at all.”

But Haig’s optimism and belief in his plan does not waver.

Despite the shocking carnage of the Battle at the Somme, it appears the battle does achieve – albeit to a limited extent – its primary mission, according to Hochschild, “to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.”

But despite the diminished threat to Verdun, “Haig doggedly, unyieldingly sent out order after order for more attacks at the Somme.”

These would continue “for an astonishing four and a half months.”

Haig believes that high casualties are a valuable measure  of success or failure. In Haig’s mind, he “trumpeted the Somme as successful…because of what it was costing the Germans in dead or wounded.”

Haig reasons that if British losses are high, then German losses must be equally high.

British wounded at the Somme.

British wounded at the Somme.

“This perverse logic,” reports Hochschild, “sometimes led Haig to fly into a rage when he thought British losses – and so by association German ones – were too low.”

So Haig continues to issue orders sending wave after wave of British soldiers into the maelstrom of battle. “What made it so easy for Haig to demand high casualties was that he chose not to see them.”


President Wilson Seeks Neutrality; Some Call It Non-Neutral

Democrats Nominate Wilson for Second Term

Special to The Great War Project.

(6-8 July) The bloodletting at Verdun and on the Somme strengthens the forces in the United States – including President Woodrow Wilson – who feel the United States must stay out of the war.

“For most Americans,” writes historian Matthew Davenport, “the bloodshed and thunder of the first two and a half years of the Great War was no more than a distant noise.”

Support Wilson button, 1916.

Support Wilson button, 1916.

“Only tragedies that touched home – the death of 128 Americans aboard the Lusitania and injuries to two dozen more aboard the Sussex when each was torpedoed by German U-boats – raised voices of outrage.”

“But still few desired war.”

“This lack of belligerence was not surprising,” writes Wilson’s biographer John Milton Cooper. “Newspaper and magazine coverage of the carnage on the Western Front and the recent use of poison gas left no room for illusions about the horrors of this war.”

The details left few Americans clamoring for war.

Nine months of fighting a century ago at Verdun, “had cost the French Army more casualties than either side in fighting the entire American Civil War.”

News reports of these enormous incomprehensible losses convince most Americans to stay away.

That is certainly the view of President Wilson mid-June, 1916, a century ago. Reports Davenport, “Wilson stressed that the United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these times that are to try men’s souls.”

Why this demand? Because many see Wilson’s policy toward the war as non-neutral neutrality.

Non-neutral neutrality? What does that amount to?

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”