The Great War

In the academic years, 2014-2016, many books, articles, movies, etc.
are remembering and commemorating The Great War's outbreak in the summer of 1914.

This war, coming after a century of "brush-fire" wars (discounting the slaughter
of either the Crimean War or the Civil War,) was a game changer, a paradigm shift:
according to Scott Anderson, Europe became an abbatoir, "a slaughtering pen into which,
over the next four years, some ten million soliders, along with an estimated
six million civilians, would be hurried forward to their deaths" (9%).
Anderson describes how France suffered 270,000 casualties in the Franco Prussian War, but surpassed
that number in the first three weeks of the Great War. Between 1914 and 1918, Germany lost
13% of its male population; the life expectancy of French males dropped from fifty years
to twenty-seven; General Sir Douglas Haig commented at the end of the first day
of the Battle of the Somme that fifty-eight thousand casualties "cannot be considered severe" (9%).

For the origins of the hostilities, visit < >
The page cites and details the causes of the war; it also summarizes the battle strategies of
the European participants and provides the outcome on the Western Front
in the first months of the war.

[ The Great War Assignments ] [ 20th Century Maps ]
***Visit < >***
About twenty years ago, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wanted to educate their children
and produced a TV series, Young Indiana Jones, in which a young Indy participates
in many events of the early 20th century, including World War I;
visit the Youtube clip below for Indy at the Battle of Verdun--you'll learn something

< >
Moving documentary on The First World War (9 parts)
< >
Alliances and Outbreak
< >

Work your way through the WWI page (including the youtube dramatizations)

sides in the Great War:
The Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, joined by the Ottomans and Bulgaria
The Allies: France, Britain, Russia, Japan ( joined by Italy, 1915; USA 191; China, 1917; Russia dropped out; 1917)

Germany prepared for the two-front war one front at a time by devising the Schlieffen Plan to defeat France in six weeks--the length of time it would take Russian troops to reach Germany--and then whip those victorious units East to confront the Russians. The Schlieffen Plan required 7/8 of the German army to sweep through neutral Belgium, seizing the Channel Ports (before Britain could get there,) and enveloping Paris--"Christmas in Paris"! The Plan demanded that the Kaiser retain his "nerves of steel" and never (under any circumstances) split the army: he must allow the Russians to penetrate deeply into East Prussia (as indeed they did,) but wait until France fell to deploy troops to the Eastern Front! It didn't quite work out that way.
From the vantage point of a century+ later (fall, 2015,) it seems inconceivable, but the "lads" from all the belligerent nations marched gaily off to fight, believing, "We'll be home for Christmas." In 1964, Philip Larkin wrote in his poem MCMXIV, "Never such innocence again" (Scott 3). Indeed, the Great War unleashed an unimaginable slaughter previously unknown in the annals of either warfare or civilization. On the Western Front, fought primarily on French and Belgian soil between Germans on the one hand against British and French on the other, the killing and dying went on and on and on and on.

On the Western Front, for months on end, the soldiers lived in their trenches, amidst rats, filth, and stench. During the rainy months, they stood knee deep in mud. For gripping scenes of the horrors of life in the trenches, see the 2004 film, A Very Long Engagement. Other movies that chronicle the horrors of the Great War include All Quiet on the Western Front and Joyeux Noel.

< >

Trench scene from Paths of Glory < >
powerful slide show of trench images from German perspective

In the winter of 1914-1915, the war was scarcely six months into its four year nightmare. Young Brits formed "Pals' Battalions" and signed up en masse. General Henry Rawlinson came up with the idea that they would be more willing to volunteer if they could serve with boys and men from "home." Even by Christmas, 1914, casualty and death statistics mounted on both sides of "no man's land" on the Western Front. On Christmas Eve, something amazing happened: German, French, and Scots' units began singing Christmas carols to one another across the sixty or seventy yards that separated them, land strewn with barbed wire, bomb craters, and dead bodies. (For dramatization of the "Christmas Truce," see 2005's Joyeux Noel.)

image source < >
A Saxon regiment raised small Christmas trees with lighted candles along their parapets, with a placard, "No shoot tonight, Jock! Sing tonight!" British units hoisted banners, "Merry Christmas!" In the spontaneous cease fire that resulted, unarmed Brits, French, and Germans walked across the dead bodies and barbed wire to shake hands, exchange cigarettes, cigars, wine, brandy, cognac, jam, bully beef, beer, and chocolate. They took photos of one another, and played an impromptu game of soccer.

image source/right < >
Officers agreed to prolong the truce so that both sides could bury their dead. A Scottish minister read a burial service over the fallen, beginning with the words of the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd...."

The Christmas Truce of 1914 remains highly controversial. The British and French commanders were against it, prevented it from happening again by ordering a "Christmas Offensive" during the remaining winters of the war. The Germans used the Christmas Truce for propaganda purposes. The 2005 movie, Joyeux Noel, portrays a fairly accurate picture of what happened (however, the love story is preposterous)

image source < >

Visit this youtube site for the scene when the Scots, Germans, French agreed, for one night, to halt the war
and sang Christmas carols to one another (it's a little cheesy, but I was moved by it)
< >
The soccer game from Oh, What a Lovely War
< >
For more on "The Christmas Truce," visit
< > Wikipedia rated this article as "good"

Back to the "Pals' Battalions": In Liverpool, enough young men signed up to form four battalions (approximately 2000 men.) The results of recruitment were appalling: at the Battle of the Somme, 750 out of 900 "Leeds Pals" died. Of the 720 "Accrington Pals," 540 were killed, wounded, or missing. The "Grimsby Chums" lost half of their complement. On the one hand, "pals" or "chums" could serve with familiar faces, perhaps friends from home, making the horror of the trenches less terrifying. On the other hand, when almost whole units were wiped out, it devastated families, towns, and villages back home.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Britain endured 60,000 casualties (20,000 of them deaths.) Percy Holmes, brother of an Accrington Pal wrote, "...[A]n epidemic of grief swamped the country" (Robinson). After weeks of endless fighting, the Brits had gained a few yards of no-man's land.

image source < >

The Somme, a British docudrama that graphically and chillingly tells the
story of those July days in 1916

< >
newsreel footage, not dramatic recreations
< >
The Battle of the Somme
< >

The Battle of the Somme (July-November, 1916) took thousands of lives. Immediately below and right, German soldiers prepare to fire their machine guns at the advancing British "tommies." Meanwhile, the British await their orders to "go over the top." In addition to the almost incomprehensible slaughter, trench life (for all the combatants--British, French, Germans) continued its horror of noise from artillery bombardments, stench from putrefying corpses in "no man's land," marauding and predatory rats--not to mention stupifying fear. By the winter of 1916-1917, discipline began to crack.


< > (left) < > (right)

A graphic, black and white, record of the Somme is captured below. British "sappers" tunneled for days underneath "no man's land," laying mines set to go off under the German trenches. Explosions were so loud they could be heard behind the lines at the channel ports. At the same time, artillery bombardments laid waste to "no man's land" and (from the British point of view) the German trenches. The photographs below barely convey how awful it must have been, whether for the British or for Paul Baumer and his friends on the other side (reference All Quiet on the Western Front.) Sebastian Faulk's novel, Birdsong, captures the terror and horror of the Battle of the Somme. For the French, their Armeggedon was the simultaneous Battle of Verdun.


< http://www.worldwar1/foto/fww1500.jpg > < http://www.worldwar1/fotomhq074.jpg >
(Alas the image sources have flown away into cyberspace)

The aftermath of a shelling, such as the one that preceded the Battle of the Somme, produced an eerie moonscape of desolation. After the bombardment, the troops marched across "no-man's land," hoping to reach the German trenches before the Germans got back to them in time to set up their machine guns. "No-man's land" refers to the wasteland between the Allied and Central Powers' trenches--crisscrossed by barbed wire, pock-marked with shell craters, planted with land mines--that stretched for more than 300 miles from the English Channel to the Alps.

< http://www.worldwar1/foto/gb109.jpg > < http://www.worldwar1/foto/gb105.jpg >
(image source no longer available--darn)

Perhaps you can imagine the slaughter as this scenario repeated itself day after day, week after week, month after month. The Western Front was a charnel house.* Tens and hundreds thousands of pals, chums, and countless others paid--on both sides--with their lives. The casualty statistics were, literally, unbelievable and led the home governments either to hide them or lie about them. The totals (wounded, killed, missing, dismembered, or lost) numbered in the millions.

image source < >
On the eve of an attack, the British offensive at the Somme for example, British heavy artillery blasted for hours or days at the German trenches, hoping to destroy the barbed wire, to obliterate the trenches and the German troops defending them. British "tommies" knew an attack was planned when trucks arrived behind their lines loaded with coffins, and when those same trucks carried additional supplies of brandy or rum to give them "false courage." At the exact split second that the bombardment ended, the British troops went "over the top," i.e. poured out of their trenches and advanced across no-man's land, intending to seize the German trenches. Meanwhile, the Germans tried to anticipate the exact split second of the end of the bombardment, scurry back into their trenches, set up their machine guns, and mow down the approaching Brits.


< http://www.worldwar1/foto/090.jpg > < http://www.worldwar1/foto/tww091.jpg >

The Battle of the Somme was one of the costliest and deadliest of the war. A German soldier, Friedrich Steinbrecher, reflected in 1916, "'Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.'"

image source < >

What napalm and Agent Orange were to the Vietnam war, poison gas was to World War I. "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling,/fitting the clumsy helmets just in time..." (Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen [1893-1918]). The graphic (right) depicts the devastating effects of a gas attack. To learn more about mustard gas
< >

image source < >
Gas was only one of several technologies developed during the Great War. Both sides began to use airpanes, first for reconnaissance, then for throwing grenades out of the cockpit, then dropping bombs, and then (as shown) in aerial combat known as dogfights.

image source < >

As casualties mounted in staggering numbers, and as the stalemate persisted on the Western Front, British engineers expanded the technology of the Hornsby Tractor with its "caterpillar" treads by adding armor--hence the tank.

image source < >


The young men who enlisted in the various armies went off to fight and die in huge numbers. These graphics show the high price many of them paid.

image source/left < >
image source/right < >

In some families or villages, the young male population was literally annihilated. At the end of the 19th century, my grandfather, Alexander Carswell, immigrated to the United States from Scotland, but his brothers and nephews were killed in the Great War. His next oldest brother, John Dingwall Carswell, a major in the Black Watch, fell in Loungeval in 1916, at the age of 36; a younger brother, Archibald Carswell, of the Royal Scots Greys, died in France at the age of 24 in 1915; William Alexander Carswell, a captain in the Black Watch, was killed in 1918, also at the age of 24.
When the French "held" at the Marne, and both sides "dug in," the Allies (mainly Britain) and the Central Powers (mainly Germany) developed strategies to break the stalemate on the Western Front. The British enforced a naval blockade of German ports, while the Germans declared unrestricted submarine warfare (the u-boat campaign.) The Lusitania Incident, which took 128 American lives in May, 1915, almost brought the United States into the War on the Allied side. Germany called off the policy, for the time being.

image source < >


image source < >



As well, both the Allies and the Central Powers tried to widen the conflict and force the enemy to weaken its forces on the Western Front. The British sent the ANZACs (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) to Gallipoli to attack the Ottomans in the Dardanelles (at the same time fomenting an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule by encouraging the Hashemites--Hussein, Faisal and Abdullah--with post-war promises.) Map (left) shows the Gallipoli Peninsula and Strait of the Dardanelles where the Allies tried to open a new front.

image source < >

Meanwhile, in northeastern Ottoman territory, the Armenian Christian minority hoped to leverage sympathy if not support for Russia into post-war independence. What the Turks began as rounding up and deporting hundreds of thousands of Armenians (see image left) turned into a tragic massacre, the "first genocide" of the 20th century. As he developed his own genocidal policies in 1942, Hitler observed laconically, "Who now remembers the Armenians?"

image source < >

Germany retaliated by smuggling weapons to Celtic, Catholic Irish nationalists in the Easter Uprising (yet another "bloody Sunday") in 1916. Various organizations such as The Gaelic League, The United Irishmen, The Irish Republican Brotherhood, and Sinn Fein (We Ourselves) were determined both to resist the extension of the draft into Ireland and to continue their agitation for Home Rule. The Royal Irish Constabulary, aided by 50,000 regulars from the Western Front crushed the rebellion and hanged its leaders. Image (left) shows Dublin in the weeks after Easter.

image source < >
information above from < >
  Hosted and designed by the Ó Tnúthghail
On the home front, propaganda drummed up patriotism as governments took advantage of new means of communication, including posters, movies, and radio. Songs, such as the American hit, "Over There" by George M. Cohan caught the popular imagination. Women stepped up to the plate, taking over men's jobs, for example in munitions factories, as you might remember from "The Girls with yellow Hands." Middle and upper class women joined the nursing corps. The British nurse, Vera Brittain, shown here, described her war time experiences in a moving biography, Testament of Youth.

image source < >

The Great War produced poets whose lacerating (and often posthumous)
descriptions of the war instructed future generations on its horrors.
Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" is one of the most famous;
equally moving is John McCrae's "Flanders Field."

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

< >
slide show commemorating the Great War
includes image for poppy field above

Unlike the Canadian John McCrae, who urged his comrades to continue the struggle, Wilfred Owen's poem offered a scathing indictment of the war. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori literally translates to "how sweet and proper it is to die for your country." Owen, who fell in the last days of the war, meant the phrase in the bitterest sarcastic way, really meaning, "how dare the government send its youth to die in this senseless, useless, endless horror."


The Great War was a world war in every sense of the word, although much of its literature focuses on the European theatres.

The French deployed troops from Senegal and French West Africa, who saw combat on the Western Front. The British recruited auxiliaries from their African colonies (Nigeria, Rhodesia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Gold Coast) and from the Caribbean (Barbados, the Bahamas, Jamaica.) African "colonials" fought in Europe, and in East and West Africa as well. A French officer commented in his memoir that France's Senegalese and Soudanese [sic] troops performed "with excellence," and had been traditionally "the best instrument of our colonial expansion"
A recent book, Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, chronicles the British and French machinations with the Arab sheiks and against the Ottomans as they planned how to divvy up the "spoils" of war. The European allies behaved badly towards each other and towards the Arabs. The image (left) shows T.E. Lawrence in full desert regalia. I recommend the book for its thorough coverage of the Great War that does not focus on the Western Front.

image source < >


1,000,000 Indians from the British "Raj" donned the uniform and served both in Europe and the Middle East. They were encouraged by posters and other propaganda to enlist in the British army, fulfilling a long tradition of military service by Sepoys, Gurkhas, Sikhs, Guides. Unlike the Chinese who performed manual labor, the Indians saw heavy fighting! See below for an Indian grenadier (left) and troops marching to Ypres (right.)


Approximately 100,000 Chinese were shipped as labor battalions to France to dig trenches and construct fortifications for the allies. They were not given weapons.


As noted above, ANZACs supported the British, many of them serving at Gallipoli. Lawrence (of Arabia) implemented British foreign policy initiatives in the Arab Revolt. Japan lived up to its treaty obligations to Britain and occupied German-held leaseholds in the Pacific (Marshalls, Marianas, Carolines) and the Shandong Peninsula in China Proper.

For more on the global dimensions and an incredibly rich site on many,
many aspects of The Great War, see
< >

European young men who marched off to war in the summer of
1914 anticipated a short sharp war, as noted above. Their leaders pledged that it would be
over by Christmas. Some statistics are worth noting/repeating:
13% of German males of military age died;
Serbia lost 15% of its population;
the life expectancy of French males dropped from 50 to 27 years;
the Battle of the Somme counted 58,000 British casualties on the first day
(Anderson 9%/Kindle version).

The dreadful winter of 1916-1917 marked a nadir for all the combatants: France, with a population of 20,000,000 calculated that 5% (1,000,000) had died! On the Eastern Front, Russian troops "voted for peace with their feet," deserted, picked up their weapons, and headed for Petrograd to join striking revolutionary workers. As the Eastern Front collapsed, the German High Command (Hindenburg and Ludendorf) moved troops to the Western Front for a final assault. At the same time (early 1917,) Germany risked American entry into the war by resuming unrestricted submarine warfare and sending the Zimmermann Telegram. America entered the war in April, 1917. In image, Hindenburg, the Kaiser, and Ludendorff plan strategy.

According to NYT columnist Richard Rubin, the Germans "...had a distinctive technological edge. They also had better weapons, better trained soldiers, better generals, better spies, better maps, better barbed wire,... Their strategy was better..." (1, 6). They lost the war, probably, because the Americans arrived in the "nick of time." American officers, who are perhaps more famous for their exploits and leadership in World War II, gained valuable combat experience during the Great War. Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur (left) led the 42nd "Rainbow Division." Marshall and Pershing also held leadership positions.

image source < >


When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and sent the Zimmermann Telegram, an enraged President Woodrow Wilson and Congress declared war. My father, Harold Algeo (seen to your left) and his brother (my "Uncle Ed") enlisted in the AEF in 1917, upon America's entry into the conflict. They served as officers in the Army Corps of Engineers of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force,) saw combat on the Western Front, and survived the war. Captain Harold Algeo served in The Great War and in World War II. He fought in the "Battle of the Bulge" in World War II and was on his way to the Pacific when atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war.

George M Cohan's wartime song "Over There" was immortalized in the
James Cagney film Yankee Doodle Dandy

"Over there" < >
< >

The Russian Revolutions of February/March and October/November, 1917, brought a total collapse of the Eastern Front. However, American entry as an Ally proved decisive. The Kaiser abdicated in the fall of 1918, and a newly constituted German republic sued for peace on the basis of Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. The Armistice commenced at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month--11:00 am, November 11, 1918. Georges Clemenceau (France,) David Lloyd George (Britain,) and Woodrow Wilsom comprised the Big Three peacemakers who met in Versailles in 1919.

image source < >


While World War II and the Holocaust continue to fascinate, it is
The Great War that caused many to question basic assumptions
about human nature and Western Civilization!
Scott Anderson writes, " the killing dragged on with no end in sight,
horror [gave way] to a kind of benumbed despair."American historian

David Kennedy echoed Scott Anderson, "...the conflict had been a dreadful
catastrophe, a blood-spilling, man-killing, nation-eating nightmare of
unprecedented horror" (381).


* charnel house. "a building, vault, or room where the bones or bodies of the dead are placed."

Works Cited

Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia.


The Bharat-Rakshak Project. "The Indian Army in World War I, 1914-1918." Online Available.
< > gone

barbed wire: gone

Iavarone, Mike. "Trenches on the Web." Photo Archive, 1996-2000

Kennedy, David. Freedom from Fear. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Robinson, Bruce. "The Pals Battalions in World War One." World War One. Online Available.
< >

Rubin, Richard. "Where the Great War Ended." Travel: the New York Times.
28 December 2014.

Ruggenberg, Rob. "The Heritage of the Great War," 1996.
< >

Scott, A. O. "A War To End All Innocence " Arts and Leisure: The New York Times. 22 June 2014.

Scott, Emmett. "The Negro Soldiers of France and England." The American Negro in the World War.
Online Available. < >

Sides, Hampton. "Dark Voyage." Book Review: The New York Times. 8 March 2015.

Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August.