CATASTROPHE, A Blog of World War One


Plan to Capture Baghdad Goes Sour;

Too Far from Reinforcements, A Humiliating Retreat

Special to The Great War Project

(19-22 November) At this moment in the First World War a century ago, the British press ahead with their apparent successful offensive in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq).

They see the success of attacks that seize the Iraqi towns of Basra, Kurna, Amara, and now Kut, on the Tigris River. Consequently they see no reason to change the strategy of their desert campaign.

On November 21st the commander of the Mesopotamia campaign, General Charles Townshend, “attacked the Turkish defenses of Ctesiphon (TESS-ih-fon),” on the Tigris River, writes historian Martin Gilbert, “as a prelude to what was intended to be a rapid march on Baghdad, a mere twenty-two miles away.”

Artist rendering of British column approaching the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon.

Artist rendering of British column approaching the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon.

Capturing the ancient ruins of Ctesiphon “would virtually guarantee the British control of the approaches to Baghdad and its eventual seizure,” writes historian Michael Neiberg. “Ctesiphon thus enticed the British forces, but it sat on good defensive ground and the Ottoman Empire had more men in the city than they had in past battles.”

British troops at battle for Ctesphon, November 1915.

British troops at battle for Ctesiphon, November 1915.

For the British, “the earlier good fortune of Basra, Kurna, Amara, and Kut was over,” observes Gilbert. Of the 8,500 British and Indian troops who went into battle at Ctesiphon, more than half were killed or wounded. Despite almost twice that number of casualties, the Turkish defenders, far from panicking and fleeing as they had in earlier battles, not only stood their ground but counter attacked.”

“Some of these troops,” writes Michael Neiberg, “were among the most experienced and elite soldiers in the Ottoman Empire.”


But the British have no respect for the Ottoman commander and, “they thought that Ottoman morale was low.”

Gilbert reports that the British, four hundred miles from the Persian Gulf, “could expect no reinforcements of any sort; the Turks could, and did call on the resources of Baghdad, only a few hours march away.”

British gunboats, deployed on the Tigris River, are also part of the battle, but they are forced to pull back because the river is heavily mined. The British battle plan is unraveling.


Muslims Fight for Germany, and for Britain.

The War for the World of Islam

Special to The Great War Project

Muslim and Hindu troops march past Alexandra Palace, in London during the First World War.


(16-19 November) World War One was not fought by Europeans or for Europeans alone.

Many Muslims fought the war as well, on both sides. In Ottoman Turkey, in the Middle East, and across the Muslim world, from Jerusalem to India. The Ottoman Turks were the allies of Germany, which sought to instigate jihad in the British Muslim colonies.

Muslims fought in Turkey, in Iraq and Syria, and in Persia. The British brought some 400,000 troops from India, many of whom were Muslim, to fight in Europe on the Western Front, far from their native lands.

Here are some photographs of those fighters and those actions.


Indian food

Muslim horseman sharing food with Arab civilian in the war in the Middle East.


The First World war was a war for Europe, and just as significantly a war for the Middle East and the Muslim world. Germany hoped its alliance with the Ottoman Empire — and the Islamic caliphate — would ignite a holy war against the British, putting in jeopardy British control over Egypt, the Suez Canal, Persia, and India.

But Germany’s plans for jihad were never successful. Despite several Ottoman attacks on the Suez Canal. And despite challenges to British forces in the war west of Egypt in Libya, most of the Islamic world sided with Britain. The Muslim world did not rise up against the Allies.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers and lancers and cavalry — a wide variety of warriors — stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain.

That war for the Islamic world a century ago set the stage for the current conflagration in the Arab world today.

Inidan Muslims

Indian Muslim troops , fighting for the British, face the threat of poison gas in the war for Europe.


A London cemetery for the Muslim soldiers who fell fighting for the British in World War One.


The Most Obscure Corner of the War; Desert Warriors Tie Down 30,000 British Troops.

Elsewhere, A Tale of Gallantry and Heroism   

Special to The Great War Project

(12-15 November) Now a story about what is without doubt the most obscure battlefield of the First World War…


A century ago, the North African territory of Libya is an Italian colony, Italian since the Kingdom of Italy seizes Libya from the Ottoman Empire in 1912, two years before the Great War breaks out.

Italian soldiers in advanced positions, Libya, circa late 1915.

Italian soldiers in advanced positions, Libya, circa late 1915.

The Ottomans along with their German allies are encouraging the Senussi Arab desert tribesmen to lead a Muslim jihad against the British and Italians. The goal: an invasion of neighboring Egypt from the west to spark insurrection there.

The Turks have their eye once again on the Suez Canal, which they are unable to wrest from the British in 1914.

It’s one of the least remembered war zones, according to historian Martin Gilbert, but of great strategic importance nevertheless.

On November 17th one hundred years ago, a local indigenous tribe and religious sect, the Senussi, rise up against the Italians occupying Libya and against their ally Britain in neighboring Egypt.

British soldiers (on horseback) with captured Senussi tribesmen, Libya, date uncertain

British soldiers (on horseback) with captured Senussi tribesmen, Libya, date uncertain

“Supported by the Turks,” writes Gilbert, “the Senussi opened fire at a British-Egyptian border post….Two days later 300 tribesmen occupied a monastery.”

“British troops were sent into action,” reports Gilbert, “but the tribesmen, with the desert as their hiding place, continued to cause considerable aggravation.”

The Senussi are able to cross the border into Egypt and attack the British shortly after German submarines attack and sink two British ships nearby. The Germans hand over the surviving crew members to the Senussi.

One British officer later writes of the Senussi uprising: “In some respects this was the most successful strategical move made by our enemies of the whole war, for these odd thousand Arabs tied up on the Western Frontier for over a year some 30,000 troops badly required elsewhere, and caused us to expend on desert railways, desert cars, transport etc. sufficient to add” far too much to the cost of defending the region.



Ivy League on the Front; The Supreme Experence

Special to The Great War Project

(8-11 November) At this moment in the war, a century ago, it is becoming quite clear that the US, although loath to get into the war, favors the Allied powers — Britain, France, and Russia.

“By late 1915,” writes historian Gary Mead, “the British government was increasingly confident that, despite US irritation with the British naval blockade [of Germany], and the interruption to free trade, it could depend upon American sympathies to lie much more with the Allies than the Central Powers” – Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The US is not at war with Germany, but Americans are fighting in the war nevertheless.


Poet Alan Seeger

“A crucial though unquantifiable ingredient,” observes Mead, “exercised by the significant numbers of young men who, partly out of a romantic attachment to the vision of France as the cradle of republicanism and liberty, went to serve in both combatant and non-combatant roles with the Allies.”

“The smell of war drifted slowly but surely across the Atlantic, seeping under the doors of their college dormitories. The natural wanderlust of late adolescence and the sense of collegiate comradeship enticed an estimated 25,000 Americans to fight in France on the side of the British and the French.”

According to Mead, Germany is losing an important battle, “not on the fields of Flanders but in the waters of the Atlantic, on the threshold of every newspaper-reading American home, and in the dormitories of America’s Ivy League colleges.”

In late 1915, Harvard graduate Norman Prince leaves his polo-playing behind and joins the Allied air service. He then receives permission to create an all-American volunteer squadron. “Before long,” reports Mead of the American volunteers, “their ‘death or glory’ escapades were so well publicized that a stream of would-be volunteers arrived on their doorstep in France.”

American Field Service ambulance driver, date and place unknown.

American Field Service ambulance driver, date and place unknown.

Many American volunteers reject the now widespread view that the war is pointless and unbearably tragic.

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”