CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Arab Fronts Multiply; Germans Want Control;

British and Turks Eye Offensive for Palestine.

Special to The Great War Project.

(13 August) Now for an update on the war in the Middle East, where by this time a century ago, war has spread to two fronts, and is threatening to spread even further as the Ottoman Turkish forces occupying much of the Arab world are facing collapse.

“As of August 1917,” writes historian Eugene Rogan, “General Edmund Allenby, [commander of British forces in the Middle East] was securely in command of a two-front campaign to defeat the Ottomans in Syria and Palestine.”

Troops of the Arab Revolt attack Aqaba, July 1917.

“He turned his attention toward the Palestine front and prepared his army for a third attempt at Gaza.” Two earlier attempts to seize Gaza from the Ottoman Turks had not been entirely successful.

Ottoman Minister of War, Enver Pasha.

The British are also hailing the seizure of Aqaba on the Red Sea just a month earlier. This has shocked the Ottomans, and they are fearful the victory of the Arab revolt may spread quickly to other parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Earlier, reports Rogan, “the Ottoman minster of war, Enver Pasha, convened his army commanders in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.” They come from far and wide, from Mesopotamia (now Iraq), from Gallipoli in western Turkey, from the Turkish front in the Caucasus, and from Syria.

Convening such an unusual gathering of Turkish commanders, is not “an everyday affair,” observes Rogan. The Turkish supreme commander proposes a “bold new initiative.” It involves the Germans.

He proposes to seize Baghdad from the British, who had conquered that city earlier in 1917. The German General, Erich von Falkenhayn, would be in command. Falkenhayn had failed to seize Verdun from the French the previous year, but had lead a victorious offensive in Romania.

According to Rogan, the Germans commit five million dollars in gold – an enormous sum at the time — to prevent Ottoman failure in the Middle East.

German commanders do not welcome Enver’s proposal. In fact, according to Rogan, “the Ottoman commanders were stunned by the plan. Offensive operations to recover Baghdad seemed foolhardy when the empire was threatened by attack on so many other crucial fronts.”


No One Knows for Sure,

But American Servicemen Soon Carry the Moniker Proudly

Special to The Great War Project

(6 August) More and more American troops, known as Doughboys, are arriving in France. One question on many minds, how did the American troops come to be known by the nickname Doughboy?

“It is far from clear,” writes historian Gary Mead, “why the four million officers and men who served in the AEF – the American Expeditionary Force — came to be known as doughboys.

The American doughboy.

It’s a sobriquet, he observes, “which has not been favored by the passage of time.”

Mead writes, during the war, “the word carried connotations of battlefield heroism, grit, toughness, and physical endurance.”

Later the word would turn up, Mead sniffs, as “the brand name of an oven-ready bread mix.”

“French and British soldiers were initially at a loss to know what to call their new comrades. They soon hit on the nickname ‘Sammie’ after Uncle Sam.”

That failed to catch on.

The official Army magazine waged a strong campaign in favor of doughboy and turned up its nose at Sammie in a sharply worded  editorial: “When in the fullness of time the American army has been welded by shock and suffering into a single fighting force…the American soldier will find his name….He does not know what that name will be.

“He simply knows it won’t be Sammie.”

The doughboy’s outfit.

But why doughboy?

It could refer, Mead speculates, to the size of the soldier’s pay. An American soldier received $30 a month, and in wartime France, that’s about ten times what a French soldier is paid.

Reports historian Mead, American soldiers felt loaded with dough.

Others believe it is a nickname picked up by American soldiers in Mexico during American operations there several years earlier. Possibly from the description of the adobe huts the American soldiers lived in during those days.

Some look even further afield, to the Philippines and American operations there.

According to one editorial in an American military magazine, “the word ‘doughboy’ originated in the Philippines. After a long march over extremely dusty roads, the infantrymen came into camp covered with dust. The long hikes brought out the perspiration, and the perspiration mixed with the dust to form a substance resembling dough; mounted soldiers called them doughboys.”


Fighting and Dying in The Low Countries.

Seeking a Breakthrough Where None Exists.

Special to The Great War Project.

(31 July) Passchendaele. A tiny village in Belgium. Soon to be the site of a new British offensive a century ago.

This in and of itself does not distinguish the clashes there from so many other battles on the Western Front. “There were plenty of guns to be heard,” writes historian Adam Hochschild. “More than 3000 of them firing off more than four million shells.”

The muck and the mud landscape at Passchendaele.

This artillery bombardment resembles so many other British offensives in this corner of Europe, feeding the hope that it can score a significant breakthrough.

At Passchendaele, there is no such hope. Reports Hochschild, “No new strategy or weapon of any sort distinguished this attack.”

“But there followed,” writes Historian Norman Stone, “one of the most extraordinary episodes of this or any war.”

Rain. Rain fell for seven straight days, with no letup.

“In the end, what separated Passchendaele from the great paroxysms of bloodshed that preceded it was one gruesome fact no one had planned for: in addition to falling victim to German fire, thousands of British soldiers, nowhere near the sea, drowned.”

Hochschild explains: “It was for good reason that this part of Europe had long been known as the Low Countries. The water table is less than two feet below ground in much of Belgium.”

It seems the British command had given no thought to the way a British bombardment would wreck canals and drainage ditches.

“And,” Hochschild explains, “this leaved tens of thousands of craters that soon filled with water.”

The area is covered in mist, Hochschild reports, “as the assault began in the early morning of July 31st a century ago. The mist soon turned into non-stop rain,” the heaviest in years, it was reported, “the heaviest in some thirty years.”

Horses sink up to their haunches.

“Observation aircraft could not take to the sky, weapons jammed, and the clay soil of the watery moonscape of craters became sticky. Guns could barely be moved, and mules and horses pulling ammunition wagons sank up to their stomachs and had to be dug out.”

“Ambulances carrying wounded soldiers skidded off slippery roads.”

A British soldier’s greatcoat is not waterproof. “It absorbed mud and water like a relentless sponge, adding thirty-four pounds to its weight. As the battle continued, one single day saw 26,000 casualties.”

Writes one officer: “The mud is not so much mud as a fathomless sticky morass. The shell holes, where they don’t actually merge into one another, are divided only by a few inches of this glutinous mud. The gunners work thigh deep in water.”


Germans Fire A Million Gas Shells.

Mustard the Poison Gas of Choice.

As Near to Hell on This Earth.

Special to The Great War Project.

(23 July) From mid-July a century ago, the German use of powerful mustard gas is becoming a major component of the German war machine..

“German mustard gas attacks,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “have been continuous on the Western Front.”

“The British medical services worked at full strength to try to cope, but the mortality rate was high.”

Gases are colored, yellow for mustard gas, green for phosgene and chlorine.

One British officer in charge of a mobile laboratory “noted of one typical case: exposed to mustard gas on the morning of 28th July, 1917. Admitted to casualty clearing station on the evening of 29th July, suffering from severe conjunctivitis and superficial burns of face, neck, and scrotum. Respiratory symptoms gradually developed and…

…death occurred about one hundred hours after exposure to gas.’

Mustard gas victims.

Reports Gilbert, “in the six weeks following July 12, just over 19,000 British soldiers were incapacitated by mustard gas, many of them being blinded, and 649 dying within a week or ten days after the attack.”

These are the first use of the mustard gas seen by the British. “More than 50,000 shells were fired, and more than 2000 Allied soldiers affected by the gas….

“In the next three weeks the Germans fired a million gas shells,

…killing five hundred more soldiers, and incapacitating several thousand, but they were unable to break through the British lines.”

The British respond in kind, firing 100,000 gas shells containing chloropicrin, resulting in numerous German casualties.

The experience of gas attacks like these lead to some of the most extraordinary writing of the war, written by Wilfred Owen.

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”