Gallipoli – a brief outline

In November 1914, the Ottoman Empire, entered the war on the side of the Central Powers and on Christmas Day went on the offensive against the Russians, launching an attack through the Caucasus. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II sent an appeal to Britain, asking for a diversionary attack that would ease the pressure on Russia. From this came the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign.

Naval Assault

Gallipoli mapThe British planned its diversionary attack, to use the Royal Navy to take control of the Dardanelles Straits from where they could attack Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. By capturing Constantinople, the British hoped then to link up with their Russian allies. The attack would, it hoped, have the additional benefit of drawing German troops away from both the Western and Eastern Fronts.

The Dardanelles, a strait of water separating mainland Turkey and the Gallipoli peninsula, is sixty miles long and, at its widest, only 3.5 miles. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, insisted that the Royal Navy, acting alone, could succeed. On 19 February, a flotilla of British and French ships pounded the outer forts of the Dardanelles and a month later attempted to penetrate the strait. It failed, losing six ships (three sunk and three damaged), two thirds of its fleet. Soldiers, it was decided, would be needed after all.


Lord Kitchener put in charge Sir Ian Hamilton, but sent him into battle with out of date maps, inaccurate information and inexperienced troops. A force of British, French and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corp) troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April 1915. The Turks, who, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had had time to prepare, were waiting for them in the hills above the beaches and unleashed a volley of fire that kept the Allied troops pinned down on the sand. The ANZACs managed to gain a foothold on what became known as ‘Anzac Cove’ but under sustained fire and faced with steep cliffs, were unable to push inland. The British, likewise, were unable to make any headway. Continue reading

Battle of Verdun – a brief summary

As 1914 drew to a close, the Western Front had become a permanent fixture of trenches stretching 400 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. Stalemate ensued. A year later, the situation was no better. Each side looked for a ‘Big Push’ that would break the opposing line of defence and bring about victory. Rupert Colley summarises one such push – the Battle of Verdun.

‘France will bleed to death’

At the end of 1915, the German commander-in-chief, Erich von Falkenhayn, decided that Germany’s ‘arch enemy’ was not France, but Britain. But to destroy Britain’s will, Germany had first to defeat France. In a ‘Christmas memorandum’ to the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, Falkenhayn proposed an offensive that would compel the French to ‘throw in every man they have. If they do so,’ he continued, ‘the forces of France will bleed to death’. The place to do this, Falkenhayn declared, would be Verdun.

An ancient town, Verdun in northeastern France, was, in 1915, surrounded by a string of sixty interlocked and reinforced forts. On 21 February 1916, the Battle of Verdun began. 1,200 German guns lined over only eight miles pounded the city which, despite intelligence warning of the impending attack, remained poorly defended. Verdun, which held a symbolic tradition among the French, was deemed not so important by the upper echelon of France’s military. Joseph Joffre, the French commander, was slow to respond until the exasperated French prime minister, Aristide Briand, paid a night-time visit. Waking Joffre from his slumber, Briand insisted that he take the situation more seriously: ‘You may not think losing Verdun a defeat – but everyone else will’.

‘They shall not pass’ Continue reading

Douglas Haig – a brief biography

Douglas Haig, Britain’s First World War commander-in-chief from December 1915 to the end of the war, is remembered as the archetypal ‘donkey’ leading ‘lions’ to their death by the thousands. But, almost a century on, is this a fair judgement?

Born in Edinburgh, 19 June 1861, Douglas Haig was the eleventh son of a wealthy whiskey distiller. An expert horseman, he once represented England at polo. In 1898, he joined the forces of Lord Kitchener in the Sudan. Asked by Kitchener’s superiors in London to report back in confidence on his commander, Haig did so with relish, taking delight in criticising the unsuspecting Kitchener. In 1899, Haig served under Sir John French in Kitchener’s army during the Boer War in South Africa.

At the outbreak of the First World War, in August 1914, Douglas Haig served as a deputy to John French who had become commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Haig’s actions at the Battle of Mons and the First Battle of Ypres earned him praise while, conversely, John French’s fortunes plummeted as the British failed to make any headway on the Western Front. Haig helped manoeuvre the mood-swinging French out of power and was appointed by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith as French’s replacement in December 1915.

Cavalry man

A Presbyterian and firmly believing that God was on his side and therefore his decisions had to be right, Haig insisted on full frontal attacks, convinced that victory would come by military might alone. Still a cavalry man at heart, he believed the machine gun to be a ‘much over rated weapon’. It is one of the criticisms levelled at Haig – that he was adverse to new technology. The evidence is contradictory. Almost a decade after the war, Haig still believed in the use of cavalry: ‘I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse—the well-bred horse—as you have ever done in the past.’

But Douglas Haig did champion the new ‘landship’, as the prototype tank was originally known. On 15 September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Haig had insisted on their use, despite advice to wait for more testing. He got his way and the introduction of 32 tanks met with mixed results – many broke down but a few managed to penetrate German lines. Haig was impressed and immediately ordered a thousand more. Continue reading

Kaiser Wilhelm II – brief biography

Arrogant, extremely vain, and always seeking praise, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany enjoyed a life of frivolity. His former chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, once remarked that the Kaiser would have liked every day to be his birthday.

Hot head

Wilhelm II, King George V of Britain and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were all cousins. George and Wilhelm were both grandsons of Queen Victoria, and Nicholas’s wife, the Empress Alexandra, was Victoria’s granddaughter. They met, as a threesome, only twice. Winston Churchill described Wilhelm as a ‘very ordinary, vain but on the whole a well-meaning man’. Queen Victoria’s judgement was somewhat harsher, calling her grandson ‘such a hot-headed, conceited and wrong-headed young man’.

Much to Wilhelm’s delight, however, Victoria made him an honorary admiral of the Royal Navy. Gushing with thanks, Wilhelm promised he would always take an interest in Britain’s fleet as if it was his own.

Born on 27 January 1859 with a paralyzed left arm, considerably shorter than the right, Wilhelm needed help with eating and dressing throughout his life, and went to great lengths to hide his disability. He had, for example, a specially made fork to help him with his food. He owned over 30 castles throughout Germany and would visit them all occasionally, indulging in socialising and hunting – he was capable of killing a thousand or more animals in the course of a week-end’s hunt.

A lover of all things military and a collector of uniforms (he owned 600, many he designed himself), Wilhelm’s knowledge of military matters was little more than that of an over-enthusiastic schoolchild. His knowledge of political matters was equally shallow, having neither the enthusiasm or attention-span to read lengthy or detailed reports.

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Karl Lody – a brief biography

Karl Lody was a German spy and the first to be executed in Britain during the First World War.

Karl LodyBorn in Berlin on 20 January 1877, Karl Hans Lody spoke perfect English with an American accent, having been married to an American and lived in Nebraska. Having obtained a US passport under the name Charles A. Inglis, which allowed him to travel freely, Lody arrived in Edinburgh on 27 August 1914. Staying in a hotel, he hired a bicycle and cycled each day to the docks at the Firth of Forth and Rosyth’s naval base, both of strategic importance during the First World War, in order to observe and take notes.

Snow on their boots

MI5, who had been monitoring letters sent abroad, intercepted Lody’s very first message back to the Germans. The address in Stockholm that Lody had used was well known to MI5, instantly arousing their suspicions. But they did not arrest him immediately, preferring, instead, to monitor his activities. Lody’s letters were usually signed ‘Nazi’, an abbreviation of the name Ignatz, the German form of Ignatius, and nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party which did not come into existence until after the war. (‘Nazi’ was also a generic term for an Austro-Hungarian soldier, akin to ‘Tommy’ for a British soldier or ‘Fritz’ for a German one.)

Many of Lody’s letters, some of which were coded, contained misleading information, which MI5 were more than happy to allow through. One example was Lody’s assertion that thousands of Russian troops had landed in Scotland on their way to the Western Front, which may have led to the infamous ‘snow on their boots’ rumour that gained popular currency in wartime Britain.


On 29 September, fearing his cover was about to be blown, Lody moved to Dublin. He travelled via Liverpool and while there made notes describing the Liverpool docks and the ships he saw. This letter, sent without coding, revealed pertinent information. It was at this point MI5 decided Lody had to be stopped. Continue reading

Franz Ferdinand – a summary

On Sunday, 28 June 1914, the 50-year-old heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Countess Sophie, paid an official visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, to inspect troops of the Austrian-Hungarian army. And it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on this day in this city that would unleash a chain of events that rapidly escalated into the most devastating war the world had seen – the First World War.

Archduke in love

The Emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire, Franz Joseph, had ruled since 1848, and was to do so until his death in 1916, aged 86, a rule of 68 years. When his nephew and heir presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand announced his desire to marry Sophie Chotek it sent shockwaves through the royal family. For Sophie, although a countess, was a commoner. But the archduke was in love and no amount of family pressure would dissuade him from taking her hand. They married on 28 June 1900. Sophie, as a non-royal, would never become queen, and the archduke had to sign away the right of his future children to succeed him. To add to the indignity, Sophie was barred from attending royal occasions, the only exception was in regard to the archduke’s position of field marshal when, acting under his military capacity, he was allowed to have his wife at his side. (Pictured the archduke and Countess Sophie moments before their assassination).

The Black Hand

Bosnia had been a recent and unwilling addition to the Habsburg Empire. Resentful Bosnian Serbs dreamt of freedom and incorporation into the nation of Serbia. The 28 June was also a significant day for Serbia – it was their national holiday. Only in 1878, after five hundred years of Turkish rule, had Serbia gained its independence – but not the Bosnian Serbs who remained first under Turkish rule, then, from 1908, Austrian-Hungarian rule. Nationalistic groups formed, determined to use violence to strike terror at the heart of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. One such group, the sinisterly named Black Hand, included among its number a nineteen-year-old named Gavrilo Princip. And it was in Sarajevo that Princip would change the world.

Each armed with a revolver, a hand grenade and, in the event of failure, a vial of cyanide, the would-be assassins joined, at various intervals, the mass of spectators lined along a six-kilometre route and waited for the six-car motorcade to come into view. The first lost his nerve, whilst the second, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw his bomb causing injury to a driver and a few spectators but leaving the Archduke and his wife unharmed. Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide and jumped into the River Miljacka behind. But the poison, so old, failed to work and the river only came up to his ankles. Arrested, he was attacked by several bystanders. Meanwhile, Princip, witnessing the failure of the mission, traipsed to a local inn.

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Fritz Haber and WWI Gas Warfare

On 22 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, French and Algerian soldiers, fighting together, noticed a strange yellow-greycoloured cloud floating across no man’s land in their direction. As it descended over them, many collapsed, coughing and wheezing, gasping for air, frothing at the mouth.

Men nearby watched as their colleagues fell to the ground in agony yet there were no gunshots to be heard and they appeared not to be visibly wounded in any way. Seized by panic, they bolted, throwing away their rifles, and even their tunics so that they might run faster, leaving a hole some four miles wide. But the Germans, wary of stepping into the cloud of poison gas protected only by their crude gasmasks, felt unable to exploit the opportunity. This, with 400 tones of chlorine gas, was the world’s first successful chemical weapon attack, resulting in the deaths of some 6,000 Allied soldiers.

GassedThis new terrible weapon was inhumane, cried the Allied generals, only to be using it themselves within five months. Britain’s first use of chlorine gas, at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, was not a great success. Sir John French and the British commanders had banned the use of the word ‘gas’, believing it too provocative a word; instead they called it the ‘accessory’, a vague euphemism if ever there was one. Having waited for a favourable wind, they released the gas from cylinders. But the wind turned and the gas ended up causing greater causalities among the British than it did the Germans. (Pictured, segment of the painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent).

Fritz Haber Continue reading

Edith Cavell – a brief biography

When the First World War broke out, Edith Cavell was working as a matron in a Brussels nursing school, a school she had co-founded in 1907 and where she’d helped pioneer the importance of follow-up care. But at the time, July 1914, she was on leave, holidaying with her family in Norfolk, England. On hearing the news of war, her parents begged her not to return to Belgium – but of course she did.

Following the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell refused the German offer of a safe conduct into neutral Netherlands. She continued her work and in the process hid refugee British, Belgian and French soldiers and provided over 200 of them the means to escape into the Netherlands from where most managed the journey back to England. With the Germans watching the work of the hospital, and its comings and goings, her arrest was inevitable. It duly came on 3 August 1915. Edith Cavell, arrested by the Germans, readily admitted her guilt.

‘Patriotism is not enough’

Cavell was remanded in isolation for ten weeks, not even being allowed to meet the lawyer appointed to defend her until the morning of her trial, a trial which lasted only two days. Cavell, along with 34 others, was found guilty. Her case became a cause célèbre but the British government, realising the Germans were acting within their own legality, was unable to intervene. However, the Americans, as neutrals, pointed to Cavell’s nursing credentials and her saving of the lives of German soldiers, as well as British, but to no avail. Along with her Belgian accomplice, Philippe Baucq, the nurse was found guilty and sentenced to be shot. Continue reading

Winston Churchill and the First World War

Winston Churchill rather enjoyed war. In July 1914, as Britain prepared for the oncoming catrastrophe, Churchill, at the time the First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to his wife, ‘I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’ And in 1916, in a letter to David Lloyd George’s daughter, Churchill admitted: ‘I think a curse should rest on me — because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment, and yet, I can’t help it, I enjoy every second of it’.

Winston Churchill 1904Churchill had been appointed to the Admiralty in October 1911, and had continued the policy established by his predecessor of keeping Britain ahead of the Germans and strengthening the navy by expanding the number of Dreadnoughts, the most powerful battleship of the time.

But despite these preparations, Britain suffered a number of setbacks during the first months of the First World War – on 22 September 1914, the German navy sunk a number of British ships at Dogger Bank (sixty miles off the east coast of England in the North Sea), killing 1,459 sailors; and on 16 December, German ships penetrated close enough to British shores to attack Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby causing 137 fatalities. Churchill, in his role at the Admiralty, took the brunt of the blame and the public’s anger.


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