CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Food is Running Out, for Allies and Adversaries.

If U.S. Enters War, Germans Gamble American Help Won’t Reach Europe Soon Enough.

Special to The Great War Project.

(12-19 February) War exhaustion at this moment of the Great War a century ago is plaguing all the major combatants: Britain and France, Germany and Austria, and Russia.

It is early 1917 after more than two-and-a-half years of the most brutal blood-letting the world has ever seen, “despite the millions of soldiers killed and wounded,” writes historian Adam Hochschild, “nowhere along its entire length of nearly 500 miles had the front line moved in either direction by more than a few hours’ walk.”

Death on the Western Front.

Death on the Western Front.

“Military history,” he reports, “had not seen the likes of this before, and the Germans were no less frustrated” than the British and the French.

The big picture favors the Allies, not the Germans, but only by a hair.

“The German government was battling against opponents east and west,” writes Hochschild. “whose combined armies were significantly larger, and on the home front the situation remained dire.”

Freeziing on the Western Front.

Freeziing on the Western Front.

“In a country already desperately short of food, abnormally severe temperatures froze rivers and canals that usually delivered coal, and millions of city dwellers in the words of one historian “endured cold and hunger unknown since pre-industrial times.”

“Austria-Hungary was in even worse conditions,” reports historian Hochschild. And it was “militarily more of a burden to Germany than the ally it was supposed to be.”

“Its comic-opera army, rich in splendid uniforms, was weak in everything else, and its government was so inept that for the first eight months of war, it had not bothered to stop a Vienna trading firm from doing a booming business selling food and medicine – through neutral countries – to the Russian army.”

The battle for Verdun, nearly a year long, is over, and Germany has failed to take the French fortress city. As Hochschild writes, “That dashed any hopes Germany had for new frontal assaults against either the French or the British.”

The Germans resort to the return of unlimited submarine warfare as a way to break out of this bloody stalemate.


Russia In Turmoil; Alarm in Paris and London.

Special to The Great War Project

(8-12 February) The Germans are now preparing “to face the might of the United States,” writes historian Martin Gilbert.

But at the same time, their defensive actions on the Western Front – where the German war effort is potentially at serious risk – “was offset by…

…the continual news from Russia of military weakness and anti-war feeling” in the East.

Anti-war sentiment is growing, especially in Russia.

Anti-war sentiment is growing, especially in Russia.


One top German commander writes in his diary a century ago, ‘it would seem that [Russia] cannot hold out longer than the autumn,” writes Gilbert.

At this moment, hundreds of Russians are protesting the war in the streets of Petrograd. The British military observers with the Russian army report to London that as many as three million Russian soldiers have been killed.

“Recriminations among the Allies,” writes historian David Stone, “were especially bitter” in these days a century ago. The British and French want a Russian commitment to an early offensive on the Russian Front.

But the Russians keep putting off the planning.

There was “understandable alarm in Paris and London,” reports historian Stone, “which feared war weariness in Russia – understandably.”

The British observers report that Russia may not be able to field enough fresh troops to face expected military losses in 1917.

“There was little common ground,” reported Stone, “on which the two [Allies] could agree.”

Anti-war protest in Russia, 1917.

Anti-war protest in Russia, 1917.

Relations between the Allies and Russia are rapidly deteriorating.

Nevertheless, the Russian Tsar still has dreams of expanding the Russian Empire to annex Constantinople and the nearby waterway Straits, still under the control of the Ottoman Turks.

All the Allies are still maneuvering to acquire territories of their adversaries. In mid-February a century ago, secret agreements are still on the table.

“On February 12th,” writes historian Gilbert, “the Russian government sought a further secret assurance with regard to its western frontier. It proposed doing so by giving France a free hand with regard to the German frontier.”

At this moment a century ago, the Russians and the French are in agreement about territories they will occupy when the war ends. Gilbert writes: “On that day the Russian Government accepted, in strictest secrecy, that Alsace-Lorraine [occupied by Germany since 1871] would be restored to France.”


Secretly Temps Them To Join German Side.

Germany Sinks American Ship; U.S. Breaks Relations

Special to The Great War Project.

(6 February) A clandestine German plot is underway, designed to counter an eventual American decision to get into the war.

The plot is the handiwork of Dr. Arthur von Zimmermann, Germany’s newly appointed foreign minister.

Zimmermann and other German leaders are aware that the decision to expand submarine warfare can certainly provoke the Americans to enter the war. Unrestricted German submarine warfare, just begun on 3 February a century ago, is a dangerous move on the part of the Germans, and they are well aware of it.

There are bound to be American ships that are sunk and Americans that are killed.

Anti-German political cartoon, appealing to Mexico to join the war.

Anti-German political cartoon, appealing to Mexico to join the war.

Zimmermann “works out a scheme,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “whereby if unrestricted submarine warfare were to bring the United States into the war, Germany could win the support and active alliance of Mexico.”

In January, Zimmermann sends a secret telegram to the government of Mexico.

“With Germany’s generous financial support, he explained in a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico City…Mexico would ‘reconquer’ the territories it had lost seventy years earlier: Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.”

German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman

German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman

“Germany and Mexico would make war together,” the telegram proposes, “and make peace together.”

At this point a hundred years ago, the Zimmermann telegram remains secret. But another covert German initiative is underway.

The German ambassador in Washington is still working to keep the United States out of the war. He is Count Bernsdorff, and he “asks Berlin,” according to historian Gilbert, “for $50,000 to influence individual members of Congress.”

The ambassador wants to bribe members of Congress – to buy their votes to keep America out of the war.

The ambassador’s effort collapses on the rocky shoals of submarine attacks. “As a result of skillful British cryptography,” writes Gilbert, on February 3rd a century ago, the British learn of the ambassador’s secret bribes.

The German ambassador’s telegram to Berlin is intercepted and deciphered in London, Gilbert reports, “two days before it was received in Berlin.

Then the U-boats attack.


Casualties in the Millions; Enormous Desertions.

Revolution in the Air.

Special to The Great War Project

(15-21 January) The situation in the Russian army is precarious and desperate.

At this moment in the war a century ago, Russia had so far, writes historian Adam Hochschild, “suffered a staggering six million war casualties. “Its huge clumsy army had been repeatedly and embarrassingly beaten by far smaller numbers of German troops, who now held a wide swath of Russian territory.”

Dead Russian soldier, place and date uncertain..

Dead Russian soldiers, place and date uncertain..

“Its grain, coal, iron and other riches are feeding the German war effort.”

According to Hochschild, “British and French leaders were increasingly exasperated by the sluggishness of their ally.”

“After two and a half years of war,” reports Hochschild, “Russian soldiers still did not have wire cutters.”

Wire cutters are the essential weapon of choice to break through the barbed wire coils that are spread like snakes to defend the German trenches.

Writes Hochschild, “Expected to tear down German barbed wire entanglements by hand, some soldiers asked whether British troops did the same.”

Russian dead, caught on wire, dead and place uncertain.

Russian dead, caught on wire, date and place uncertain.

Of course the answer is no.

Conditions are growing desperate inside Russia. British visitors to Moscow in these days a century ago, witnessed the outbreak of food riots in the streets.

“Inflation was out of control and the government was printing banknotes so fast they did not even have serial numbers.”

Desertion is rampant. A British military attache visiting Petrograd at the time estimated that “a full million Russian soldiers had deserted the army, most slipping quietly back to their villages.”

According to the British military attache with the Russian army, Russia’s military capacity is dwindling. “More than a million men had been killed,” he too reports, “A further two million men were either missing (that is to say, dead) or prisoners of war. More than half a million were in hospital.”

But British intelligence from Russia rejected such dire reports, relying instead on wishful thinking, reports one British visitor. “There is a great deal of exaggeration,” he reports, “in the talk of revolution and especially about the alleged disloyalty of the army.”

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”