CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Fierce Fighting in the Ypres Salient;

Corpses, Corpses, and More Corpses.

Special to The Great War Project

(20-21 October) Fighting intensifies on the “Ypres salient.”

The trench lines dug by both sides around the Belgian city of Ypres, create an extension or salient, and ignites some of the fiercest fighting so far in the war.

British troops in the Ypres salient, October 1914

British troops in the Ypres salient, October 1914

But neither side yet understands just how important the fighting here is. General John French, one of the British top commanders, writes to Lord Kitchener, the British minister of war on October 21, “In my opinion the enemy are vigorously playing their last card and I am confident they will fail.”

“That last card,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “proved to be far more than a series of cavalry skirmishes.”

The fighting reveals a German effort to drive the British out of the Ypres salient altogether, Gilbert writes, “as part of a wider strategy aimed at breaking through to the North Sea and Channel coast.”

The action at the Ypres Salient is only a part of a wider German effort along the Western Front “to push the British back…But….

“the German grand design was nowhere within sight of success”…..

“The war of rapid movement was over,” writes Gilbert. “The struggle had become one for villages, hills, and roads.”


Germans Misread Russian Forces, Losing War in the East.

In West, British Retake Ypres.

Special to The Great War Project

(18-19 October) On this dreary exhausting day one hundred years ago, there is much action on both the Western and the Eastern Fronts, at key strategic locations, Ypres in Belgian and Warsaw in Poland.

In the West, British forces recapture the strategic Belgian town of Ypres from the Germans.

Damage to medieval buildings at Ypres, caused by German artillery shelling.

Damage to medieval buildings at Ypres, caused by German artillery shelling.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, “the British now planned to push the Germans back through Belgium.” But after just a few miles in retreat, the Germans firm up resistance and halt the British advance. The Germans quickly reinforce their units.

The British get wind of the reinforcements from Belgian refugees fleeing the city and from British air reconnaissance.

The Germans occupy the town of Menin, just twelve miles from Ypres, and the British commander in the field, General Henry Rawlinson, decides not to press the attack, despite receiving orders to “move on Menin.”

On the same day the British retake the French town of Armentieres.

British troops in the trenches, First Battle of Ypres, October 1914

British troops in the trenches, First Battle of Ypres, October 1914

Among the British soldiers killed at Armentieres is Norman Leslie, Winston Churchill’s cousin. Still evoking the glory of the war, Churchill, at this time the head of naval operations in his capacity as First Lord of the Admiralty, writes a letter of condolence to Leslie’s mother.

“The British army has in a few weeks of war revived before the whole world the glories of Agincourt and Blenheim and Waterloo,” Churchill writes. “and in this Norman has played a part.”

On the Eastern Front, a battle is shaping up for Warsaw, the capital of Russian-occupied Poland.


A Sea of Mud.

Belgian Walled City Protects Supply Lines for Allies.

Special to The Great War Project

(16-17 October) On the Western Front the ancient walled Belgian city of Ypres and the river that runs through the city, the Yser, is “the last strip of Belgian territory not occupied by the Germans,” reports historian Michael Neiberg.

(Pronounced EE-prah, but the British soldiers look at the spelling and name it “Wipers.”)

The area around the city, labelled the Ypres Salient, “held the key to the defense of the critical supply bases on the French side of the English Channel.”

These are the cities of Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne. “Without those ports,” Neiberg reports, “the British Expeditionary Force could not easily resupply itself.

Mud and muck at the First Battle of Ypres, October 1914

Mud and muck at the First Battle of Ypres, October 1914

“Thus Ypres had to be held, even if it was difficult terrain to defend.”

It is indeed difficult terrain to defend. This is one of the dreariest landscapes in Western Europe, writes war historian John Keegan, “a sodden plane of wide, unfenced fields…overlying a water table that floods on excavation more than a few spadefuls deep.”

Ypres and the area around it sits below sea level, so…

…digging trenches turns the terrain into a sea of mud, pulling and sucking soldiers into the muck.

It is here that the Germans, and the British, French and Belgians, square off to protect one of the most strategic spots in the war so far.


Expanses are Vast; Fighting is Chaotic

Special to The Great War project

(14-15 October) While by mid-October 1914 the Western Front was hardening into a stalemate of trenches, barbed wire, and artillery shelling, the Eastern Front looked quite different.

Refugees fleeing the fighting on the Eastern Front.

Refugees fleeing the fighting on the Eastern Front.

“In the immense expanses of the east,” writes historian Max Hastings, “a war of movement continued. In a world of few roads and fewer railways, large forces moved only as fast as could a marching man. When rain and mud descended, that pace became slow indeed.” Hastings observes that “distances were so vast that neither side could maintain continuous lines.”

Although the Russian side experiences some disastrous defeats, especially at Tannenberg at the beginning of the war, the Russian army is so large and so relentless that its primary adversary, the Austro-Hungarian forces, is “now recognized by both sides as the sick man of the conflict,” writes Hastings. By mid-October a century ago, “The Russians were committed to simultaneous efforts to finish off the Austrians and to reverse the outcome of their disastrous August campaign in East Prussia.”

But the fighting on the Eastern Front is chaotic, with each side misinterpreting the actions of the other.

The obligation to support the Austrians falls on the Germans, a task they fail to consider at the beginning of the war. But the Germans have no choice. In Poland and Galicia, they are now facing “the prospect of a wholesale Austrian collapse.”

Listening Post

Searching for Uncle Theo, Killed in WWI

The rifle volley shattered the quiet in the cemetery and made me jump. Immediately, the synchronized snick of bolts being worked, empty shells clinking on the ground, and the order, “Ready, fire!” and another cracking volley.

I was ten at the time.

I scrambled between adult legs to snatch one of the still warm brass casings. I hardly noticed that the volley was being fired over the grave of my great uncle, Theodore Williams, who was killed in WWI.

Theodore Colley Williams

Theodore Colley Williams

Each year of my 1940’s childhood in tiny Thomaston, Maine, a military unit along with marching band formed up on Armistice Day (Nov. 11) and marched through town to the cemetery. I thrilled to this little martial spectacle. The street was lined with crowds, and we kids ran along beside, dodging through grown-ups wearing red paper poppies, the symbol of remembrance of those who died in the Great War. (Not until 1954 was Armistice Day changed to Veteran’s Day).

My great aunt, Theodore Williams’ sister, lived with us and told me that her brother had been killed in the war, but she provided no details, and I didn’t pay much attention. This was shortly after WWII ended, and my best friend and I were engrossed in playing with a trunk full of Wehrmacht memorabilia brought back by his wounded brother. And movies like John Wayne’s The Sands of Iwo Jima had focused my interest on WWI’s sequel.

But as we embarked on The Great War Project, I began to wonder about the death of this great uncle I never knew.

It turns out that he was involved in two of the most significant battles of the war. One of them was the first major engagement fought by Americans and the second, in which he was killed, is viewed by many historians as the hinge point in the war.

Remembering WWI in a Small Town in Scotland

Editor’s Note : In much of Europe, commemorations of World War I already are kicking into high gear. Cori Princell, an American independent radio producer living with her family in Oban, Scotland, discovered just how vivid memories of the war are in that town.

I moved to Oban, on the west coast of Scotland, in late October. A few weeks later it was November, and the town was blanketed in red poppies. I soon learned that’s the symbol for war remembrance here. Poppies bloomed in the fields of battle, and red, of course, symbolizes blood.

Maybe it was just Remembrance Sunday, but I had formed the impression that the World Wars are more present here. I’d read articles in the local newspaper about an island war memorial getting fixed up by school pupils, and a new war monument being built in a nearby village – even now, 100 years on. I thought I’d learn more at the Oban War and Peace Museum, so I stopped in yesterday.

Volunteers at Oban War and Peace Museum

Volunteers at Oban War and Peace Museum

One of the volunteers said he hoped I was coming in to learn something, not to just get in out of the rain. But when I told him I was there to learn about World War One, he frowned. Oban was critical in the World War Two effort, but the first world war? “The ones that would tell the stories are dead.”

As we talked, though, stories did come. One remembered a disabled World War One vet in his neighborhood when he was a boy. Another knew his father had been wounded and carried out of a trench on his best friend’s shoulders.

That generation didn’t talk much about hardship, but they ran businesses in town and raised children, who had children of their own. And as we talked, I began to see Oban as they do – a small town where people know one another and one another’s families, in some cases going back many years. One of the men, now in his 60s, said he’s still known as “Toadie’s grandson”– though his grandmother is long gone, she’s quite alive in him.

I thanked the men and left the museum. It had stopped raining, so with the old pictures and stories in my mind, I set off down the seafront to Oban’s war memorial. I thought I might quickly count the names.

Oban WWI monument

WWI Monument in Oban, Scotland

But I soon realized, though I’ve walked past the monument many times, I had never really looked at it. A few battered red poppies beat in the wind near the base, and I looked up at the names of war dead, 1914–1918, on the side of the war memorial that faces Oban. Then I turned and saw that the list continues along another side. Then I turned, and turned again. This old stone monument, in a small Scottish town, is wrapped on four sides with the names of war dead.

One of the men I had talked to in the museum remembered seeing a photo from 1923, soon after the monument was built. “Hundreds of folk round it, just literally hundreds.” And I realized they’d given me my answer – why even now, this old war feels more alive here.

Those names on the monument?
“Local people,” he said simply.