A Slice of Turkey

The letter that sat on the desk of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, had been eagerly awaited.

Addressed from France’s Ambassador to Britain, Paul Cambon, the contents of the letter were the result of nearly five months of negotiations between Britain and France to reshape the Middle East after the hoped-for fall of the Ottoman Empire.  Despite the failings of the Entente to make progress on the battlefield, diplomats Sir Mark Sykes of England and François Georges-Picot of France had sought out success at the negotiating table, slicing and dicing Turkish lands.

What would become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement would first unite, and then embarrass the Entente, while setting the foundation for the next 100 years of engagement between the Middle East and the West.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement – the final map of the Middle East after World War I wouldn’t be much different

100 years earlier, Europe had seemingly settled most of the map of the world with the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna.  The result had ultimately satisfied no one, with most of the attendees echoing the parting words of Britain’s Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who regarded the final treaty as little more than “a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense.”  For Stewart’s heirs across the various powers, the Great War seemed a grand opportunity to re-draft the map of the world for another century.

From the war’s first shots, both the Entente and Central Powers had cast their eyes onto their rival’s territories with hopes of expansion.  Whether it was the British and French trying to digest German African colonies, or the Ottomans seeking to expand their Empire to Persia, millions were dying or being maimed for the right to claim sections of the globe most the warring power’s citizens didn’t even know existed.   Continue reading

The Strafexpedition

For an operation that the Dual Monarchy had hinged on careful coordination, seemingly nothing had gone according to plan.

The scale of the forces involved could hardly be concealed.  400,000 men, complete with nearly 2,000 pieces of heavy artillery, had sat nestled into the Austrian Alps for months on the Italian/Austro-Hungarian border.  Record snowfall had kept the men confined to their trenches as whatever element of surprise the Austro-Hungarians once held slowly melted as surely as the white powder around them.

Having been on the defensive in Italy for a year, the Austro-Hungarian troops were now fed promises of dealing their hated Italian enemies a crushing blow.  General Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Dual Monarchy’s Chief of Staff, had labeled the coming offensive a Strafexpedition or “punitive expedition” against Italy.  While the tactical goal was ideally to cut off the Italians from the majority of their armies to the south in the Isonzo river valley, the more honest strategic purpose was simply to raze as much of Italy as possible for having joined the Entente.  At last, the Dual Monarchy was finally prepared to have their revenge.

On May 15th, 1916 the Austro-Hungarian army wasn’t looking to beat Italy, but to punish her.

The ruins of Asiago. The city, deep in what is now northern Italy, then closer to the border, was devastated by the Austro-Hungarian offensive

Long before Italy had cast it’s lot with the Entente, the simmering hostilities between the Dual Monarchy and Rome were well known among the diplomats of Europe.  France’s ambassador to Italy, Camille Barrère, defined the relationship between the two nations as “enemy-allies.”  Despite each nation’s participation in the Triple Alliance with Germany, the Austrians resented their defeats within the Italian Risorgimento and the Italians longed to acquire territory at the Dual Monarchy’s expense.  As late as 1911, the Austro-Hungarians were contemplating a preemptive assault against their nominal Italian allies.   Continue reading

Éirí Amach na Cásca

The halls of the Irish General Post Office in Dublin, An Post, were quiet at noon on April 24th, 1916.  The day, Easter Monday, was a holiday in Ireland, leaving the gigantic Georgian building practically empty save perhaps for a few support staff who weren’t taking Easter Week off.

As such, there was no resistance as 400 armed men stormed past the An Post‘s pillars and burst through the front doors.  The men, members of the armed Socialist trade union the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), raised two Irish Republican flags and began reading from the prepared pamphlets they had printed in secret – a proclamation of an Irish Republic.

Across Dublin, 1,200 Irish volunteers representing a cross-section of the various rebellious groups constituting the Irish Resistance spread out, occupying most of the significant buildings of the city.  Despite ample intelligence forewarning of Irish intentions, the British were taken completely by surprise.  For the next week, one of the hottest battlefields in the Great War would be in the heart of the Entente.

“Ireland is too great to be unconnected with us, and too near us to be dependent on a foreign state, and too little to be independent.”  Future Prime Minister William Grenville to the Duke of Rutland, December 3, 1784


Monday, Bloody Monday – a British barricade in Dublin during the Easter Rising

If one is to talk of the seeds of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, there are no shortage of dates that can be chosen from which to start.  Did it begin with the Norman Invasion of the 12th Century?  The Tudor conquest in the 16th?  The overthrow of the Catholic parliamentary majority in 1614?  The Acts of Union of 1800, which ended semi-Irish independence as the country was politically absorbed into the British Parliament?    Continue reading

Moscow on the Mediterranean

Marseilles was awash in pomp and circumstance on April 16th, 1916.  Military bands played marching songs and patriotic music, as throngs of French citizens flocked to the waterfront, eager to meet the arriving vessel the Himalaya.

Thousands of wide-eyed young men trampled off the causeway, many with musty uniforms and salt-corroded brass – remnants of the group’s more than two-month journey to the Western Front.  While all of these young men had been born and raised in an urban, industrialized environment, for most of them it was their first trip to a foreign country.  The experience was overwhelming for men who just months earlier hadn’t even been in military service, and were now showered with attention from local French dignitaries and beautiful French women.

Only these weren’t French soldiers.  Or British.  Or even colonial troops from one of the Western Allies.  The nearly 9,000 men marching through Marseilles were the soldiers of the Russian 1st Special Brigade – the first of nearly 50,000 Russian troops who would serve on the Western Front.

The Russians Are Coming! – the arrival in France.  They had gone East from St. Petersburg, making an arduous two-month journey out of the Pacific port of Vladivostok to France

The vast expanse of the Eurasian Steppe had long conjured the image that within the Russian Empire were multitudes of men ready, willing, and able to serve the Tsarist military machine.  The “limitless” manpower of Russia had been so ingrained in Western popular opinion, that it came to be believed as well by the country’s ruling elite.  Despite the monstrous losses incurred on the Eastern Front in just a year and a half, few in St. Petersburg, London or Paris feared that Russia would – or could – reach a breaking point when it came to fielding an army.    Continue reading

Death by Committee

What had been a roar of artillery weeks earlier had quieted to a trickle of distant, infrequent thuds.  Where the men of the Russian Second Army had charged forward over snow-capped passes days earlier, on March 31st, 1916, survivors now limped back through a morass of mud and blood at Lake Naroch, in what is now modern Belarus.

It should have been a momentum-changing victory for Russia and the Entente.  Eager to recover from their rout in the summer of 1915, 373,000 Russian soldiers had attacked only 82,000 Germans holding one of the weakest portions of the Eastern Front.  887 pieces of field artillery had pounded the German line for two days – an eternity by Eastern Front standards – under a battle plan crafted by the Russian Imperial Army’s own Chief of Staff.  The Russians had optimistically believed they were about to achieve their breakthrough.

Instead, it was yet another major Russian defeat.  Only this time, it had the fingerprints of the rest of the Entente all over it.

Lake Naroch carried all the hallmarks of early Russian defeats – bad intelligence, terrible tactical execution, and overconfidence.  The difference was the Russians thought they had addressed these issues before the battle

The seeds of the Russian debacle at Lake Naroch had been planted months earlier in the French city of Chantilly.  Indeed, many of the Entente defeats of 1916 could trace their lineage to the Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly in December of 1915.    Continue reading

Knights of the Sky

The Great War had made unlikely alliances since the first shots had been fired.  And in the spring of 1916, there were few stranger alliances circulating through the Entente’s halls of power than the triumvirate of William Thaw, Norman Prince and Edmund L. Gros.

The trio of Americans had all arrived in France at the start of the conflict with the motivation of aiding a beleaguered Entente, albeit with vastly different strategies.  Thaw and Prince were military dilettantes; the children of some of the most wealthy individuals in the world.  Thaw had served with the French Foreign Legion while Prince was flying with the French Air Corps.  Gros had been interested in saving lives, working as a field director for the American Field Service (AFS), a volunteer effort providing medical services to the French trenches.  Together, they had lobbied (thus far, unsuccessfully), to create an all-American volunteer air wing.

The group had much working against them.  While the Germans were pioneering airpower as a means of attack, the Entente still viewed the biplane’s principle role as observational.  And considering those lobbying for an expansion of France’s air force included one pilot, a soldier with terrible eyesight who wanted to fly, and a doctor with no military experience, the odds appeared long that the group’s proposed “Escadrille Américaine” would ever come to be.

But the French Air Department saw the propaganda value of American volunteers fighting against the Kaiser and renewing the spirit of the centuries’ old alliance between France and America.  On March 21st, 1916, what would become the Lafayette Escadrille was born.

The Lafayette Escadrille – yes, those are lions in the picture, the squadron’s mascots

The concept of aircraft influencing the outcome of wars was as revolutionary in 1914 as flight itself.  Orville and Wilbur Wright had only achieved heavier-than-air human flight nine years earlier.  The first commercial use of aircraft had only actually happened months before the Great War started – a brief 23 minute flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida.  And in terms of combat, the first bombs dropped by plane had no impact on the outcome of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 – why would they now?    Continue reading

Down Mexico Way

One would have to search hard to find the tiny village of Columbus, New Mexico on a map in the modern era.  It wouldn’t have been any easier on March 9th, 1916.

The quiet hamlet on the Mexican/American border had grown in recent years thanks to the train stop, adding a general store, a saloon and even a school, in addition to several hundred new residents.  Signs of the village’s growth were everywhere as four new hotels sprang up and even a local newspaper.  Guarded by a few hundred soldiers, Columbus probably felt as safe as any location in the United States.

The sounds of gunshots and battle cries surprised both civilian and soldier alike.  Cutting through the cold desert night, 500 Mexican guerrillas loyal to famed rebel Pancho Villa, (or Villistas, as they were known) had invaded the village, pillaging and shooting anything they could.  Desperate for supplies in their long-running war against Mexican authorities, Villa and his men had mistakenly been told the village was all but unprotected (rumors persist into the modern era that Villa had come to Columbus to buy guns from an American arms dealer).  Instead, 270 U.S. soldiers, and several Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine guns, lay just over the border.  By the time dawn broke, Columbus had been burnt to the ground, with at least 90 Villistas, 8 U.S. soldiers, and 10 U.S. civilians dead.  Elements of Columbus’ garrison defied orders and chased Villa 15 miles into Mexico, killing a few more of his men.

The United States had resisted entering Europe’s war, even amid hundreds of American casualties.  But blood had been spilled on American soil from across the Mexican border – and not for the first time.  America was going to war in Mexico.

Pancho Villa (middle) and Gen. John J. Pershing (right) in 1913.  A young George S. Patton looms over Pershing’s shoulder

The turbulent political background in Mexico had seen an ever-changing series of alliances, with the United States intermittently intervening and then withdrawing, unwilling and/or uninterested in creating permanent relationships with the variety of figures and governments in Mexico since 1910.  Despite a sizable American military presence on the border, rebels continued to cross into the U.S., trading fire and casualties.  Coupled with political paralysis from Washington, which dithered between antagonizing Mexico and trying to quell the violence, the situation on the border had significantly deteriorated by the beginning of 1916.    Continue reading

“Men are Mad!”

The citadel of Verdun had stood outside the city walls since the early 1600s – a relatively new addition in the Gallic city with a history reaching back to the 4th Century.  For nearly 300 years, Verdun had represented the strength of the French nation; it’s surrender to the Prussians in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War had symbolically (and somewhat practically) closed the chapter of French dominance over the continental affairs of Europe.

The French were determined to never let Verdun fall again.  A massive defensive redesign in the 1880s produced a bulwark without rival in Europe, or likely the world.  28 fortresses produced a double-ring of defense, each with 8-feet of steel-reinforced concrete, covered further in sand and earth.  1,000 pieces of artillery, with another 250 in reserve, were supported by a gigantic maze of trenches, bunkers and even an underground rail system.  Verdun had been deemed, before the war, “artillery-proof.”  If the famed citadel would ever fall again, it would be due to the weakness of the men inside, not the steel that protected them.

On the morning of February 21st, 1916, that theory would be put to the ultimate test.  808 German guns, firing for ten straight hours, lobbed over 1 million shells against the fortifications of Verdun.  The barrage could be heard 100 miles away.

For the next nearly 10 months, one of the worst battles in human history would slowly unfold, consuming lives on an industrial scale that exceeded anything the Great War had previously seen.  78% of the entire French army would eventually serve at Verdun.  The Germans would dub the battle the “blood-pump of the world.”  And anywhere from 973,000 to 1.25 million lives would be maimed or claimed before it was over.

French troops at Verdun.  Even today, the name “Verdun” conjures the worst images of the Great War

If there is a battle that encapsulates the entirety of the First World War, it might be Verdun.  The crushing weight of artillery; the human wave attacks; the obstinance of commanding generals – all were embraced at Verdun.  The scale of the battle can be seen even today.  Despite the Great War pounding the earth repeatedly at a number of locations, only in sections of Verdun does nothing grow 100 years later.   Continue reading

The African Lion in Winter

Dawn hadn’t even fully broken over the small town of Taveta in British East Africa (now Kenya) when the artillery barrage began on February 12th, 1916.

By the standards of the Great War, the two-hour shelling of German Schutztruppe holding the small strategic lookout (Taveta was near Mount Kilimanjaro and had been seized by Germany early in the war) was little more than a pleasant morning wake-up call.  But by the standards of the war in Africa, it was part of a full-blown massive offensive by a combination of Boers, Brits, Rhodesians, Indians and Africans – well over 73,000 men – to wrestle away East Africa from the Kaiser’s grip.

The 6,000 men of a South African brigade, supported by Indian-based artillery, charged at Taveta up Salaita Hill, where British intelligence had suggested that the artillery had been pounding the front-line of a few hundred black African German troops.  In reality, the artillery had landed behind the front-line and instead of a few hundred defenders, 2,300 men awaited the Entente attack.  Knowing discretion to be the better part of valor, the South Africans quickly retreated with minimal casualties.

Salaita Hill would be another reversal for the Entente in an endless campaign against the forces of German Gen. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – a campaign that would last beyond the end of the First World War.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: The “Lion of Africa” – the picture is from his years after the war, but he’s still dressed in his distinctive uniform and slouch hat

The voracious appetite of the Entente for German colonies defined the earliest months of the war in Africa.  German possessions in central and southwest Africa fell with relative ease as trained British regulars were able to beat German Schutztruppe (protection forces); often little more than ill-equipped black volunteers or aging white settlers.  Coupled with the introduction of forces from South African Boers and British Indians, the conquest of German Africa appeared to be proceeding as a neat and orderly little war.    Continue reading

The Last Million Men

The debate in the House of Commons had raged for several weeks.  The failures of the coalition government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith – Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, the failure of the British offensives of the fall of 1915, and a shortage of munitions in the spring of the same year – had been thrown at the PM’s feet.  The conservatives in Asquith’s coalition had begun calling for his head, as men he had dismissed from the War Cabinet, like Churchill and Lord Kitchener, attempted to speak directly to the public about what they deemed the PM’s lapses in judgement.

The measure before the House of Commons had been intended to blunt such criticisms.  It was a measure Asquith had fought against, both publicly and privately within the War Cabinet.  Asquith had tried for months to stall such a vote, commissioning studies in the vain hope of proving it unnecessary.  Instead, Asquith’s commissions had proven the opposite.  Placed between his principles and his ability to prosecute the war, Asquith chose the war.

The vote wasn’t even close.  By a margin of 383 to 36, the Military Service Act of 1916 passed on January 27th.  The proud tradition of the small, professional British Army had vanished.  Britain had joined the rest of Europe in embracing conscription.

The Promise of a “New Army.”  Millions of Britons flocked to the call in 1914 and 1915

Since the Battle of the Marne in the fall of 1914, most British authorities – both civilian and military – had understood that the British system of volunteerism had reached its logical limitations in a modern war.  The only question was the best way forward.    Continue reading

Erzurum Peace

Blanketed in snow, the fortress at Erzurum looked almost peaceful.  In reality, with 235 pieces of field artillery, and 11 different forts and gun batteries, after Constantinople, Erzurum was the most heavily defended city in the Ottoman Empire.  Indeed, it was one of the most heavily defended cities in all of the Great War.

Within the forts sat 40,000 Ottoman soldiers; a mix of veterans from the Caucasus campaigns of early 1915 and young recruits.  Behind them sat another nearly 90,000 Ottoman troops of the massive Third Army.  Nestled in the safety of one of the most complex defensive systems in the world, and surrounded by snow banks as high as four feet in some places, the last thing the Ottomans worried about on January 10th, 1916 was a Russian attack.

A month later, Erzurum would be in Russian hands and 15,000 Turks had been left behind.

Russian troops with captured Turkish guns at Erzurum

At the beginning of 1916, the confidence of the Ottoman army was high and growing higher.  After starting the Great War with a failed offensive against the Suez Canal, and a debacle against the Russians in the Caucasus, the fortunes of the 600-year old empire had markedly improved.  They had won tremendous victories against the British in Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, and were in the process of capturing an entire British/Indian army at Kut.    Continue reading

Simson’s Circus

Sunday morning services had already concluded by the time the small British torpedo boats the HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou had left their port on the massive freshwater Lake Tanganyika in the Belgian Congo.  Having changed out of his Naval dress uniform and back into his usual garb of short-sleeves and a skirt (which he wrongly thought was a kilt), British Captain Geoffrey Spicer-Simson began hunting his intended prey – the German gunboat Kigani.

But the Kigani had been on its way to intercept them, and was surprised to see the small British “fleet” racing out to meet them.  In 11 quick minutes, the Kigani had been critically damaged; a shell having ripped through her deck, killing the gunboat’s captain and petty officers.  The Kigani withdrew her colors – a sign she intended to surrender.  Not content with his prey’s brief battle, Simson ordered the small wooden Mimi to ram the metal gunboat.  The Mimi‘s bow was significantly dented; Simson’s ego definitely was not.

Returning to shore, Simson, wearing a German officer’s ring he stole from one of the dead, proclaimed himself the “Horatio Nelson of Africa.”  The day after Christmas in 1915, the battle for Lake Tanganyika – the second largest freshwater lake in the world by volume – was almost over.  The battle for historic acclaim from one of the most eccentric (and incompetent) British officers in the Great War had begun.

Graf von Gotzen’s crew loads her 4-inch deck gun.  The weapon dwarfed anything the British or Belgians could wield in East Africa

Despite some of the first shots in the Great War being fired in Africa, the Entente had made little progress in removing the German threat to their colonial possessions.  In German East Africa, Lt. Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who would soon become famous for his prolonged defense, had gone on the offensive, attacking and defeating the Indian Expeditionary Force sent to subdue him with an army eight times Lettow-Vorbeck’s size.   Continue reading

The Barren Crescent

The inhabitants of the sleepy Mesopotamian village of Kut al Amara (or Kut for short), might have felt like strangers in their own homes on December 7th, 1915.  Situated on the banks of the Tigris river 100 miles south of Baghdad, the 6,500 residents of Kut were certainly used to people passing through, albeit usually via the river.  But the latest visitors to Kut had mostly arrived by land – well over 13,000 of them – and were starting to make themselves at home.  Trenches and bulwarks were being created overnight; tents flooded the village and surrounding river banks.

The newest guests to Kut were a collection of British and Indian troops who had last passed through the village attempting to claim Baghdad, and all of Mesopotamia, for the Crown.  Now in headlong retreat, the British and Indians had chosen to dig in and allow themselves to be surrounded by their Ottoman pursuers.  It had been the the brainchild of an arrogant British Indian Army General who preferred taking his orders from New Delhi than London, and was being executed by a British General whose claim to fame had been enduring a similar siege in Pakistan years earlier.

The strategy to conquer Mesopotamia had been ill-conceived and hastily implemented.  Now it was about to become, in the words of one British military historian, “the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history.”

The Siege of Kut – many of the troops that held Kut for 147 days would never return home

Had the War Office in London gotten their way, Britain’s involvement in the so-called “Cradle of Civilization” would have ended in November of 1914.    Continue reading

The Western Frontier

The ships had arrived silently in the night at the small Egyptian port city of El Salloum (or Sollum), their cargo carefully unloaded by the few Bedouin residents who had abandoned their nomadic ways and settled the city.  Overseeing the Bedouin workers were thousands of Senussi men, a Sufi-Muslim order of tribesmen from Libya.  A largely nomadic people, like the Bedouin, the Senussi hadn’t come to El Salloum to trade or rest.  The Senussi had come to meet their shipment of thousands of rounds of ammunition, machine guns and even light artillery from Germany and the Ottoman Empire.  The Senussi had come to wage a jihad against the West.

On November 23rd, 1915, in the deserts of Egypt, the Great War had become a Holy War.

The Senussi on the march. Thousands of Senussi, aided by Bedouin allies, tried to force the British out of Egypt

Through the lens of the early 21st Century, the Senussi appear nearly pacifistic.  An off-shoot of the more mystical Sufi-Islamic faith, the Senussi had been founded in the mid-1800s in Mecca as a relative liberal interpretation of Islam.  The movement’s leader, Sayyid Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi (or Grand Senussi; a title that survived him), had rebelled against what he perceived as the more conservative orthodoxies of the Ottoman officials in Mecca.  Senussi preached that his followers live lives of voluntary poverty and resist fanaticism in the name of the faith.  Branded by a fatwa condemning his teachings, Senussi moved from Mecca, eventually finding acceptance in the Bedouin communities of the desert.   Continue reading

The Black Soldier’s Lament

Amid the scores of concerns that clouded France’s Chamber of Deputies in the fall of 1915, the status of some of the empire’s colonial citizens would not have seemed a priority.  Despite decades of colonial demands to codify the citizenship status of France’s African subjects, in some cases stretching as far back as to the revolutions of 1848, the issue had been deflected by French government after government.  For the African subjects of the Fourth Republic, broadly known then as the Senegalese originaires (even though few of them were actually in French Senegal), their rights and ability to elect representation floated in a Schrödinger’s cat state of unrest – they were both citizens and not-citizens, sometimes the beneficiaries of French law, and sometimes bereft of it.

But for a war bleeding France white, black soldiers became one potential solution to the manpower shortage.  A mass conscription of Senegalese oringinaires could provide thousands of men at arms.  But conscription also conferred citizenship.  France could have her thousands of black soldiers, if colonial Africa could have a seat at the table in French political affairs.  The demands of the trenches outweighed the colonial fears of the French ruling class.  Black Africans were no longer broadly defined as Senegalese subjects – they were now French citizens.  Over 200,000 would fight for France; 30,000 would never return home.

The debate over the status of colonial subjects was occurring in all the capitals of the Entente.  The Great War was only just over a year old, but was already remaking European society.

French Senegalese troops – the term “Senegalese” was given to pretty much all central African French subjects, and the “oringinaires” only referred to the coastal population of those colonies

The bugle called and forth we went
To serve the crown our backs far bent,
And build what ere that must be done;
But ne’re to fire an angry gun
No heroes we no nay not one.

With deep lament we did our job
Despite the shame our manhood robbed.
We built and fixed and fixed again,
To prove our worth as proud black men
And hasten sure the Kaiser’s end…

Stripped to the waist and sweated chest
Midday’s reprieve brings much-needed rest

From trenches deep toward the sky.
Non-fighting troops and yet we die.

The Black Soldier’s Lament, George A. Borden


To the extent the Entente gave their colonies any considerations at the start of the Great War, it was in pursuit of German colonial possessions.  The rapid expansion of Europe’s colonial empires in the 19th century had left Britain and France in control of vast sections of the globe, with only a thin paste of shifting political allegiances and minimalist military power holding it all together.  Concerns over how the empires could consolidate their gains were secondary to the opportunity to once again enlarge their territories at Germany’s expense.    Continue reading


For over two months, the Isonzo river had been blissfully quiet along the border of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Little fighting echoed through the peaks of Mount San Michele or valleys of the Banjšice Plateau.  Following Italy’s exuberant entry into the Great War the previous spring, there had been little progress in the realization of Italia irredenta” as both sides had exhausted themselves by August of 1915.  Italy’s second major offensive of the war at Isonzo had halted just months earlier for literally running out of ammunition.

Supplies would not be the hurdle for Italy on October 18. 1915.  1,200 artillery pieces and 19 divisions worth of men would hurl themselves against the rugged cliffs and the Dual Monarchy’s trenches in the third of twelve eventual attempts to break the Austrian line.  For the Italian soldiers who were lead forward with cries of “Avanti!“, Isonzo would become less a war than a battle of endurance – against the elements, and Italian generalship.

Italian light infantry of the 1st Alpini Regiment on Monte Nero, during the Isonzo campaigns

There may not have been a more difficult place on the planet to conduct a major offensive than the Isonzo river valley.    Continue reading


By the tens of thousands, they marched through snow-capped mountains on the Serbian/Albanian border.  Most of them injured or riddled with disease, the survivors of Serbia’s resistance in the Great War, military or civilian, shuffled towards the faint hope of Entente salvation on October 7th, 1915.

The last chapter from the first act of World War I was in the process of being written.  That same day, the crushing weight of four armies – two Bulgarian, one German and one Austro-Hungarian – had broken the beleaguered lines of the Serbian defense.  The nation that had started the war had already seen tremendous hardship, enduring repeated assaults by the Dual Monarchy.  Now, the full weight of the Central Powers was being turned against them.  It would cost Serbia 27% of its entire population.

The evacuation of what remained of the Serbian nation would finally prompt the Entente to act, thus starting one of the longest, and strangest campaigns in the Great War – the Salonika Front.

A Front for the Whole Family – from left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian.  717,000 troops from 6 of the Entente coalition nations fought in Salonika

Despite its primary role in the conflict, neither the Central Powers nor the Entente seemed to give Serbia much of a priority.    Continue reading

Mob Mentality

It was designed to change the Entente’s fortunes in the Great War.

Across open fields clouded by chlorine gas, 6 divisions-worth of newly trained British soldiers threw themselves at the lightly defended (but heavily fortified) German line.  For the first time in 1915, the British were taking on a significant role in operations on the Western Front.  The young men who were leading the charge had answered the call from Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Horatio Kitchener, whose very image had surplanted the traditional “John Bull” (the British “Uncle Sam”) in rallying Britons to defend the Entente.  After a hard year of bloodletting from their French allies, “Kitchener’s Army”, or “Kitchener’s Mob” as his critics derided the volunteer recruitment effort, was to go into battle at the French town of Loos-en-Gohelle.

The Germans never saw the attack coming, and coupled with a surprise artillery burst and the first use of poison gas by the British, the Allied advance looked to be successful.

It ended in another wholesale slaughter.

The Battle of the Loos – the “mist” is 140 tons of chlorine gas

By the fall of 1915, Britain’s strategy to win the Great War had gone horribly adrift.   Continue reading

Die Hungerspiele

For hours, women had gathered in line at the farmer’s market in Cologne.  Before even daybreak, hundreds, and then thousands of German women had lined up to try and be among the first to buy badly needed supplies fresh from the nation’s farms.  The long lines, and limited food stuffs that awaited them, were nothing new.

But the prices were.  The cost of eggs, butter and fat had been raised yet again.  Indignant, the women began to argue with the market’s sellers.  The arguing quickly turned to shoving, as women pushed past farmers to grab what food they could.

Cologne’s police were quick to arrive, which only seemed to anger the women further.  “We want to eat,” the women chanted.  “Our men are fighting for the country, and we are starving!”  With the market’s supplies being overrun, the police drew their sabers and charged into the crowd.  Dozens were wounded as the women fled, trampling five of their fellow protesters to death.  For the next two days, thousands of Cologne’s women rioted in response, smashing the windows of shop keepers they accused of hiking prices, and attacking police units around the city.

In the fall of 1915, Germany and her allies might have been winning on the battlefield, but were losing the war at home.

A German Food Line – the initial effects of the blockade weren’t really felt until 1915 as the 1914 crops had already been harvested when the war began

While the Central Powers were experimenting with new technologies to try and win the war, unleashing poison gas and zeppelin raids, the Entente’s most powerful weapon had been among the simplest – starvation.    Continue reading

The Strain

By the beginning of September in 1915, Europe had been at war for over a year – a year of bloodshed and loss for the Entente.

The Western Powers of the Entente were locked in the static horror of the trenches.  The Russians were slowly losing their eastern European empire, en route to losing 2 million men in 1915 alone.  And the British were desperately throwing themselves against the Dardanelles while already contemplating a humiliating retreat.  Yet despite their victories, the Central Powers seemed no closer to ending the war than the Entente.  For both sides, their visions of victory – yet alone their rationales for fighting – were sinking into a murky morass of blood and mud.

But in the small village of Zimmerwald, Switzerland, a vision for the end of the war was beginning to form – a vision of revolution.

The Revolutionary in Obscurity – Vladimir Illyich Ulyanov in Switzerland in 1914

From September 5th to 8th, 1915 in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, the Great War was reduced to a war of words.  The combatants were not heads of state, military leaders, or even prominent civic leaders.  Rather, the attendees were there precisely because they lacked any real role among the warring governments.     Continue reading

Shell Shock

In September of 1914, at the very outset of the Great War, a dreadful rumor arose. It was said that at the Battle of the Marne, east of Paris, soldiers on the front line had been discovered standing at their posts in all the dutiful military postures – but not alive. “Every normal attitude of life was imitated by these dead men,” according to the patriotic serial The Times History of the War, published in 1916. “The illusion was so complete that often the living would speak to the dead before they realized the true state of affairs.”

It was blamed on asphyxia, the result of such powerful new high-explosive shells fired at massive intervals – 432,000 shells had been fired in 5 days at the Marne.  That such an outlandish story could gain credence was not surprising: notwithstanding the massive cannon fire of previous ages, and even automatic weaponry unveiled in the American Civil War, nothing like this thunderous new artillery firepower had been seen before.  The rumor emanating from the Marne reflected the instinctive dread aroused by such monstrous innovation.

Only the “frozen” men at the Marne were not actually dead.  Rather, what the survivors of the first days of the Great War were experiencing and witnessing was an issue that would dominate every major army for the next four years – shell shock.

Duck & Cover – the scale of warfare experienced by the men in the trenches was unlike anything any army had encountered before.  No army was prepared for how a largely conscripted, civilian-based military would react

“Shell shock,” the term that would come to define the phenomenon, first appeared in the British medical journal The Lancet in February 1915, only six months after the commencement of the war. In a landmark article, Capt. Charles Myers of the Royal Army Medical Corps noted “the remarkably close similarity” of symptoms in soldiers who had been exposed to exploding shells.  The first cases Myers described exhibited a range of perceptual abnormalities, such as loss of or impaired hearing, sight and sensation, along with other common physical symptoms, such as tremor, loss of balance, headache and fatigue.    Continue reading

The Great Retreat

For nearly a year, the Eastern Front had been something of a murderous pendulum.  The armies of the Central Powers and Russia had traded monstrous blows, racking up casualty figures in the hundreds of thousands battle after battle.  And despite the Front’s lack of the same sort of trench warfare that would define the Great War in the West, the battle-lines rarely shifted…and when they did, they often quickly shifted back.

The other constant was Russian blood.  Whether in victory (such as in the Carpathians) or in defeat (the Masurian Lakes), Russian soldiers died in biblical proportions.  At least 2 million rifles short, starving for food and being fed anti-Tsarist/anti-war Bolshevik propaganda, Russian troops were deserting in greater and greater numbers.  As a Russian Army report in the summer of 1915 suggested, “super-human efforts were [being] required to keep the men in the trenches.”

The Central Powers’ offensive that began on July 13th, 1915 held goals far more modest than being the decisive blow against the Russian Army.  Too many other battle plans had rested on such a notion in the previous 11 months and come up wanting.  The hope had been mostly to press on the gains made by driving the Russians out of Austrian Galicia that spring.  Instead, the Russian Army collapsed.

Tsarist Russia had been on the breaking point – she now appeared to be broken.

German troops enter Warsaw.  It would not be the last major city in the Russian Empire to fall

By any metric, Russia was not prepared for a prolonged, industrialized war.   Continue reading

Tinker, Tailor, Explosion, Spy

It was 11:40pm on July 2nd, 1915 and the U.S. Senate chambers were practically empty.  The senators had left to return to their States (Congress was out of session), and most of the building’s staff had not only gone home for the night, but were likely going to stay home for the 4th of July holiday.

Security was light – true to form for the era – and few (if anyone) took note of the thin gentleman who entered the Capitol and the U.S. Senate chamber’s reception room.  Even fewer probably noticed the man hurriedly exit the building.

The explosion that followed rocked more than the U.S. Senate chambers.  Despite America’s official neutrality in the war that was consuming Europe, the nation had just experienced a terrorist attack in the heart of their seat of government.

It was an informal beginning to Germany’s undeclared war of sabotage against the United States.

The remains of the U.S. Senate chamber’s reception room.  The bomber had hoped to set off the device in the Senate itself, although he appeared to time the explosion to ensure no one was around

The smoke was still clearing from the U.S. Senate chambers on July 3rd when a thin man approached the door of famed banker J.P. Morgan Jr. in Long Island, New York.  Forcing his way into Morgan’s home, the stranger shot Morgan – twice – before being subdued by the banker’s butler, who bashed the would-be assailant on the head with a piece of coal.  Such a bizarre assault was found to be stranger still – the assailant was the same man who had planted the bomb in Washington. Continue reading

Twenty-One Demands

With a world at war, and new nations joining the fight, the events of May 25th, 1915 would have seemed blessedly contradictory – two nations signing a peace treaty.

There was little drama or media fanfare as representatives from Japan arrived in Peking to meet with the Republic of China’s first (semi-democratically) elected President, Yuan Shika. The course of nearly five-months of bitter negotiations, and the threat of expanded war in Asia, had led to this meeting. At issue were Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” – a list of diplomatic concessions Japan wanted from China, including territories, industry, and most concerning for Japan’s fellow Western allies, de facto control of Chinese government ministers.

If accepted, China would become little more than a Japanese protectorate. If refused, the Great War would expand even further.

Japanese artillery at Tsingtao. A German-held Chinese port, Tsingtao was captured in 1914 by a joint British-Japanese invasion, setting the stage for further Japanese expansion in China

When we started this retrospective on World War I, we mentioned that it made sense after covering World War II since the conflicts “really were two different phases of the same war.”  And most assuredly, the seeds of Japan’s imperialist designs on China – and war against the United States and Britain – were firmly planted on May 25th, 1915.   Continue reading

Italy, Unredeemed

The enthusiasm was contagious in the Italian Chamber of Deputies.  As the 482 Deputies out of the Chamber’s 500 poured into their seats, the Deputies applauded were those who wore military uniforms.  Men hooted, waiving flags amid cries of “Viva Italia!”  For the dozens of diplomatic attendees, ranging from representatives of the Entente to neutral American observers, the atmosphere was more carnival than political.

A few minutes before the session began the Italian nationalist poet, Gabrielle D’Annunzio, appeared in the rear of the public tribune which was so crowded that it seemed impossible to squeeze in anybody else.  But the moment the people saw him they lifted him shoulder high and passed him over their heads to the first row.

The entire chamber, and all those occupying the other tribunes, rose and applauded for five minutes, crying “Viva D’Annunzio!”  Later thousands sent him their cards and in return received his autograph bearing the date of this eventful day.  Premier Antonio Salandra entered, followed by all the members of the Cabinet.  “Viva Salandra!” roared the Deputies, with the cheering lasting longer than anyone cared to count.  After the formalities of the opening of the Chamber, Premier Salandra, deeply moved by the demonstration, arose and said:

“Gentlemen, I have the honor to present to you a bill to meet the eventual expenditures of a national war.”

On May 23rd, 1915, Italy willingly chose to enter the horrors of the Great War.

The Triple Alliance – Italy was allied with the Central Powers before 1914, but felt very much the junior partner. The animosity was mutual – Austria was contemplating a surprise attack against Italy as late as 1911

For most of the combatants in the Great War, their entry into the conflict was, in some way or another, strategic.  Austria had to punish a nation which had assassinated a royal heir.  Germany couldn’t afford to be trapped in a two-front war against Russia and France, and thus felt it had to strike first.  Even Britain, ostensibly fighting for Belgian independence, joined the battle to keep Germany from dominating continental geopolitics.  But for Italy, the Great War was far more ideological. Continue reading