WWI Centenary

Jutland: The Day Before

The Grand Fleet, pictured the next morning, steaming for Jutland.

May 30 1916, London–For the last month, Admiral Scheer had been planning to use Hipper’s battlecruisers in a raid on Sunderland to draw British battlecruisers into a U-boat trap.  Delays due to bad weather and repairs forced this to be a sortie into the Skagerrak instead, so that the trap could be sprung before the U-boats ran out of fuel.  The British, however, were well aware that the Germans were up to something, even before Hipper departed.

Room 40 was able to decode a large amount of German wireless traffic that gave clear indications as to the German plans.  Over the last few days, the sheer number of messages between U-boats at sea and the mainland was notable.  At 9:52 AM on May 30, Scheer ordered the High Seas Fleet to assemble in the outer reaches of the Jade basin.  At 10:08 AM, the U-boats were warned to “reckon with [undeciphered] forces at sea” on May 31 and June 1; whether the message referred to British or German forces did not much matter; something was clearly afoot.  At 3:36 PM, Scheer signaled “31 G.G. 2490″; Room 40 took the 31 to refer to May 31, and the latter portion some highly secret written order.

At 5:16 PM, the Admiralty ordered Jellicoe and Beatty out to sea, telling them a half hour later “Germans intend some operations commencing tomorrow morning leaving via Horns Reef.  You should concentrate to eastward of Long Forties ready for eventualities.”  The Grand Fleet began to leave Scapa Flow at 9:30 PM, as Beatty’s force left Rosyth.  In all, they had 28 dreadnoughts and nine battlecruisers; the original Dreadnought herself was guarding the Thames Estuary along with some pre-dreadnoughts.  One of those dreadnoughts was the Collingwood, aboard which was Prince Albert (later King George VI); at the time, he was recovering from an incredibly severe hangover.

Jellicoe was eager to take advantage of aerial reconnaissance to find the Germans, but the aircraft carrier Campania somehow did not get the order to raise steam and was left behind by accident.

The Germans did not set out themselves until later, with Hipper’s battlecruisers not departing until 1AM and Scheer’s 16 dreadnoughts not leaving until 2:30 AM.  Tomorrow, they hoped, would be Der Tag, the day they finally met some sizable portion of the British fleet in battle.

Today in 1915: King’s African Rifles Attack Across Lake Nyasa

Sources include: Patrick Beesly, Room 40; Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel.



Today, 100 years later, we remember the courage of the men who fought for our country on the home and the fighting fronts (as well as the women who served as medics and munitionettes) and mourn as a nation for the people who lost their lives between 1914 and 1918.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” - Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 1914


The British Army Mobilises

British mobilisation began in earnest on the 5th August, unlike its European counterparts who fielded massive conscript armies the British Army was made up of long-serving professional soldiers who volunteered to join the army.  The result was an extremely professional, well trained and disciplined force. The regular army in 1914, amounted to some 247,500 soldiers, of which approximately half were posted to overseas garrisons across the British Empire from India to South Africa. It is fair to describe Britain’s army in 1914 as a colonial one, best suited to campaigns in far flung corners of the Empire where lightly equipped, small, mobile forces were needed.  It was dwarfed in comparison to the massive continental armies of France, Germany, Russia and Austria. 

In addition to the regular army the British Army could call upon an additional ~470,000 reservists who made up the Territorial Force and the Special Reserve.  The average infantryman enlisted for seven years and if he decided not to stay with the colours at the end of his enlistment he would spend another five years as a reservist.  In 1907, these reserve forces had been reorganised by the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act.   By 1914, the Special Reserve was made up of 101 infantry battalions, 33 artillery regiments and two engineer regiments numbering some 64,000 men by August 1914.  Members of the Special Reserve spent an initial six months training full time following which they would train for a month each year.

These reserves were coupled with Regular Army units to whom in time of war they would supply drafts of replacements in time of war.  On paper the Territorial Force consisted of some 269,000 men making up 207 battalions of infantry and 55 regiments of yeomanry (cavalry) with a further 190 batteries of volunteer artillerymen with various branches of the artillery.  These units were grouped into 14 regional infantry divisions and a further 14 regional yeomanry brigades. Every Territorial Force battalion was attached to a regular army regiment and the men trained in the evenings and one weekend a month.  This gave the average British Army regiment a theoretical establishment of two regular battalions (on paper numbering 970 men - one of which was invariably deployed on active colonial service), a Special Reserve battalion and one or more Territorial Force battalions. 

When the general mobilisation was called on the 5th each reservist was responsible for making his own way to his regiment’s barracks.  His reporting instructions were printed inside his army identity papers, instructing him to make his way to his regimental depot to be issued with uniform and equipment.  He would then make his way with a railway warrant to his mustering battalion.  If the reservist did not have enough money to reach his regiment’s depot he could report to the nearest post office and request a subsistence allowance of five shillings.  This system proved surprisingly well organised with the first reservists reaching their battalions on the 6th August, just two days after the declaration of war.

On the 7th August, third day of the mobilisation, the first British troops arrived in France.  These soldiers were support troops who would prepare the way, readying lines of communication and camps. The British Expeditionary Force’s main force began crossing the Channel on the 12th, but they would not reach Belgium and be ready for action until the 20th.

The majority of the British troops joining the expeditionary force were transported south for at least part of their march by train with 1,800 trains dedicated to the task in the first five days of the mobilisation.
Two railway lines terminated in Southampton, the main embarkation port, with another was built in just three days connecting Southampton Station to the harbour terminus.   Approximately 20,000 tons a day were moved to the ships at the docks.  At the peak of the mobilisation 90 trains a day arrived at the port’s terminus to off load troops. It took just ten days to transport the BEF across the Channel but all of Britain’s ports would continue to be busy throughout the war transporting men, equipment and supplies back and forth.

The British Expeditionary Force had originally been intended to sail for Europe with six infantry divisions, however fearing a surprise invasion of Britain by German forces the sixth division was held in reserve.   As such the BEF arrived in France with five infantry divisions, one division of cavalry and 430 guns including 13-pounders of the Royal Horse Artillery and 18-pounders, 4.5 inch howitzers and several heavy 60-pounders of the Royal Artillery brigaded with the infantry.  On paper each division should have been equipped with 24 machine guns with each battalion fielding two this gave the BEF a total of just over 140 Vickers Machine Guns in the field, far short of the massive number fielded by the German Army.  

On paper the BEF numbered ~110,000 men in reality the infantry numbered some 66,000 while the cavalry had a sabre strength of 7,600 the rest of the men were support and logistical troops.  Each infantry division was made up of three brigades with each brigade numbering approximately twelve battalions of infantry. The cavalry division was made up of twelve regiments grouped in four brigades.  Almost every regiment in the British Army which had a battalion based in the British Isles was represented in the expeditionary force.  The BEF was commanded by Field Marshall Sir John French who had broad instructions to assist the French and Belgian armies in resisting the German invasion.  The expeditionary force was split into two corps, one commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig and the other by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien while the independent cavalry division was commanded by Major General Edmund Allenby

By the 18th August, the BEF was advancing into Belgium, communications with their French allies on their right flank were poor and after a short meeting between Field Marshal French and General Charles Lanrezac commanding the French Fifth Army it was decided the two armies would advance in tandem.  The 23rd August found the British army holding a line along the Mons–Condé Canal.  It was at Mons that the British army first engaged the enemy holding them off but eventually being forced to fall back when their flank was exposed by Lanrezac’s retreating Fifth Army which had failed to inform the BEF that they were retiring.  The retreat from Mons saw the British begin a 175 mile, two week long fighting retreat before falling back on the River Marne with the French.  

By November 1914, approximately 90% of the original British Expeditionary Force had been killed or wounded with the official number of casualties standing at 89,864, most of them infantry.  The cream of the professional British Army of 1914 had been killed in just four months fighting.  Their places were filled by a new army of volunteers stirred by patriotism and an eagerness to fight in late 1914 and early 1915.  Between September 1914 and December 1915, millions of volunteers answered the call but the toll of war was too great and by January 1916, the British government was forced to introduce conscription.  The men of the BEF who embarked for France in the first weeks of August 1914, would have hardly recognised the British Army of 1918.

Image Sources:

Image One Source - 1st Battalion, Irish Guards fill their webbing with their 150 rounds of ammunition and prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster on, 6th August 1914. The Battalion arrived in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force on 13th August 1914. (IWM)

Image Two Source - The 1st Life Guards prepare to leave Hyde Park Barracks and head to war, on 15th August 1914 (IWM)

Image Three Source - A dismounted cavalry draft of the 1st Life Guards (IWM)

Image Four Source - Reservists of the Grenadier Guards re-enlisting on the outbreak of War, queue for a medical inspection at Wellington Barracks, Chelsea, London. Picture by Mrs Broom, dated as 5th August 1914. (IWM)

Image Five Source - A mounted cavalry draft of the 1st Life Guards with Captain Gerrard Leigh in the foreground (IWM)

Image Six Source - The Harrogate Territorials marching to the station en route to York on 5th August, 1914

Image Seven Source - Men of The 1st Battalion, Monmouthshire Regiment march down Stow Hill Newport on being mobilised at the outbreak of War

Image Eight Source - British Infantry at Birmingham New Street Station

Image Nine Source - King George taking the salute of the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards as they passed Buckingham Palace returning from a route march in August 1914

Image Ten Source - Crowds watch as troops of the Queen’s Royal Regiment board a train at Dorking station, 5th August 1914


1914: Fight the Good Fight, A. Mallinson, (2013)

Tommy, R. Holmes, (2004)

Britain & Her Army, C. Barnett, (1970)

The Making of the British Army, A. Mallinson, (2009)

The Old Contemptibles: The British Expeditionary Force, 1914, R. Neillands, (2004)


French Infantry: 1914

On the 1st August the French Army and Navy began a general mobilisation that called up over 1 million Frenchmen.  The French army used a system of conscription which saw men eligible for recall after their initial period of three years of conscription had ended.  In 1914, men aged between men 20-23 were conscripted and serving, men aged between 24-35 formed the reserve of the active army - these men were immediately mobilised and mustered to active units.  Older men aged between 35-41 years formed the Territorial Army and those aged 42-48 years make up the reserve of the Territorial Army Reserve.  As a result of this system of conscription and reserves the French army had over 1,000 battalions forming 173 Infantry Regiments available for action in 1914.

While the French Army was one largest in Europe in 1914, the uniform at the outset of the Great War was possibly the most striking and arguably most archaic of all the major powers.  The French infantryman or Poilu is famous for his red pantaloons which a French War Minister Eugène Étienne once described as quintessentially French.  But along with the venerable red trousers he also wore the 1877 pattern greatcoat over a blue tunic, which was buttoned back when on the march.  The average French infantryman also wore the traditional 1886 pattern red Kepi hat which was covered by a grey-blue cover when in the field.

The personal kit included the model 1852 mess tin and 1893 pattern pack, regulations stipulated that the mess tin be strapped in place on top of the pack above the soldier’s head.  This did nothing to improve the already high profile of the Poilu in the field.  Leather webbing supported two ammunition pouches and a bayonet frog.  The standard issue rifle of the French army at the outbreak of war was the Lebel M1886/93 rifle, one of the longest rifles of the war measuring 1.3 metres long.  It fed from an 8-round tube magazine beneath the barrel, firing a 8×50mm rimmed cartridge.

The French soldier looked much as he had during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and before.  His colourful uniform fast became a liability during the early months of the war.  The distinct red and blue uniforms made the troops highly conspicuous against the green fields and woodland of north eastern France.   While it had been planned to adopt a blue-grey service dress in June 1914, the French would not switch to a less conspicuous uniform late 1915.  

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French Cuirassiers on the march (source)

Even more conspicuous were the uniforms of the French Cavalry and the Zouave Regiments whose clothing and equipment were even more archaic.  The French Cuirassiers went to war wearing helmets and breastplates the likes of which had been worn since the Napoleonic era. However, they were issued with canvas breastplates and helmet covers in the field.  They were not officially withdrawn from service until late 1915, by which time they had already stopped being worn in the field.  

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Men of the 4th Régiment de Zouaves, not the prominent position of their mess tins (source)

Similarly the Zouaves were uniformed in a gaudy arabian style which dated from the mid 19th century.  The uniform was composed of a short embroidered tunic worn open over a vest with a pair of baggy trousers known as saroul.  Around the waist a 13 foot long sash was wrapped and a chechia (a tasseled red cap) was worn on the head. Unsurprisingly the Zouaves outlandish uniform was abandoned by late 1914.


Image One Source - Artist’s impression of a French Infantryman, 1914

Image Two Source - Artist’s impression of a French Infantryman, 1914

Image Three Source - French Infantry c.1914

Image Four Source - French Infantry, Paris, c.1914

Military Uniforms in Colour, P. Kannik, (1968)

More on the French Army here


#WWI100 Recap 

This post is a roundup of all the major pieces posted so far from the #WWI100 project.  Everything from in-depth looks at the political crisis which led to the war to each nation’s preparations for war.  Posts on the first early battles of the First World War, the destruction wrought on Belgium and a look at how the world’s media covered the outbreak of war.

While the posts below aren’t an attempt at an overview of the entire war as it unfolded, I have tried to cover as many of the major and less well known aspects as possible.  There will be much more posted about the First World War in the coming weeks. 


Below are all of the major articles posted, in chronological order:

Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Funeral of Archduke Franz Ferdinand & Sophie

The Austro-Hungarian Ultimatum to Serbia

July 28th 1914: Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

The British Grand Fleet Mobilises

The Crowds Gather: The Public Reaction to War

Kaiser Wilhelm’s Balcony Speeches

37 Days & The July Crisis

Germany’s Declaration of War on Russia

France Mobilises

Peace in 1914: The Trafalgar Square Peace Demonstration

Belgian Communique to Allied Governments Following the German Invasion

The British Army Mobilises

1914: Europe’s Armies Mobilises

HMS Lance Fires The First British Shot of the War

Front Pages: World War One Begins

Belgian Infantry at the Battle of Liege

Battle of Liege: 5th – 16th August, 1914

Japanese Ultimatum To Germany

1914: Armies of the Western Front

Western Front: The Battle of the Frontiers

Battle of Mons

The Burning of Leuven & the Rape of Belgium

Battle of Le Cateau

Quotes of the Day:

You can find all of the quotes relating to the beginning of World War One here

You can browse the #WWI100 tag here for more content, quotes, historical trivia and photographs


July 28th 1914: Austria-Hungary Declares War on Serbia

The front page of The Washington Times above reports that following the unsatisfactory Serbian response to Austria’s July Ultimatum the Austro-Hungarian Empire have declared war on Serbia.  

The Ultimatum had been drafted to be unacceptable and while Serbia had agreed to all but one of the ten demands Austria took the opportunity to declare war on the small Balkan state on its southern border.   With Germany and Austro-Hungary declining to take part in suggested mediation talks. The declaration of war would suck Russia, Serbia’s ally, into the conflict forcing them to mobilise their forces.  

The resulting mobilisations snowballed Europe into a total war the likes of which it had never seen.  Following Germany’s declaration of war on Russia war between the rest of Europe’s major powers was inevitable.

Image One Source

Image Two Source

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Edith Cavell, 1915.

On this day, 100 years ago, British nurse Edith Cavell was executed in Brussels by a German firing squad for helping soldiers on both sides during World War One, as well as helping around 200 or so allied troops escape from Belgium whilst it was occupied by the German Army. She is commemorated on this memorial in St Martin’s Place, London, unveiled in 1920.

French Reach Roof of Fort Douaumont

The already shell-pocked Fort Douaumont pictured from the air two days before the French assault.

May 22 1916, Douaumont–The loss of Fort Douaumont in the first days of Verdun had been a distinct embarrassment for the French.  General Mangin, le mangeur des hommes,” commanding the French troops now across from the fort, was determined to retake it.  On May 22, after shooting down German observation balloons and conducting their own precise artillery barrage, Mangin launched his attack just before noon.  The barrage failed to make a dent on what was still the strongest fortress in the world, and the attackers took horrific casualties from multiple sides as they approached the fort.

Nevertheless, a substantial number of French soldiers survived the first eleven minutes of the attack and made it successfully on top of the fort.  However, once up there, they were no closer to capturing the fort itself, now beneath them.  The entrances via moats and windows that the Germans had used in February had long since been sealed off or destroyed, leaving the French separated from their goal by multiple feet of concrete or a few extremely well-defended access points.  Exposed to artillery fire from both sides and repeated sallies from Germans inside the fort, the few remaining French troops were forced to surrender in 36 hours.

The attacks made on either flank of the fort were even less successful, taking fire both from the fort and from the intact trenches ahead of them.  Major Lefebvre-Dillon was one of the few to make it to the German lines successfully, but soon found his men completely isolated: “How on earth is my poor battalion, crushed, decimated, going to manage to hold?” He told his officers that he would “fight, fight, right to the end, wait for reinforcements or a counterattack from our lines.  There can be no question of surrendering.”  However, that night, after suffering 70% casualties, the major surrendered his battalion.  Over 48 hours, Mangin’s division would lose 5500 men, just under half its strength.

Today in 1915: Rail Disaster at Quintinshill 

Sources include: Ian Ousby, The Road to Verdun; John Mosier, Verdun; Paul Jankowski, Verdun.

Remembering WWI in Eastern Europe

The destructive influence of the largely Western European and Russian war on Eastern Europe, especially in the battlefields of modern-day Poland and the Balkans, where Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary fought on a larger front than in Western Europe, is often forgotten in contemporary commemorations of World War I.

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz (University of Wroclaw) discusses the role of competing nationalisms and communism in the commemoration of WWI in Eastern Europe.

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Read more in “The foreign war”, F.A.Z. (in German), August 11th, 2014.

Source: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, image credit: Picture Alliance/ZB.


The Crowds Gather: The Reaction to War

The photographs above depict the crowds which gathered in the major cities of Europe as war was declared across the continent.  With the ink on declarations of war still drying jubilant crowds took to the streets fired by patriotic fervour to celebrate the beginning of what they believed would be a short, sharp war. 

On 1st August 1914, German army officers took to the streets to read out the Kaiser’s mobilisation order, crowds quickly gathered to listen - many of them no doubt members of Germany's Reserve, Landwehr and Landsturm.  With the declaration of war crowds began to gather across Berlin, one focal point was at the residence of the German heir to the throne Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife Duchess Cecilie in Unter den Linden.  In the photograph above the crowds can be seen cheering the couple as they wave from a balcony.  Another photograph from Unter den Linden shows jubilant crowds carrying portraits of the Kaiser and Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.  The fourth photograph shows Kaiser Wilhelm himself addressing crowds from a balcony of the Berliner Schloss.  He did this several times during the first days of the war telling the citizens gathered below that:

“A fateful hour has fallen for Germany.  Envious peoples everywhere are compelling us to our just defence. The sword has been forced into our hands.”

The most famous photograph to be taken of crowds gathered in Munich and shows a buoyant crowd at the Odeon Platz - the photograph which was later used in Nazi propaganda during the Second World War purportedly features a young Adolf Hitler among the crowd.  The next photograph shows a group of residents of Budapest gathered around reading a newspaper reading about the Austro-Hungarian mobilisation

Similarly, large crowds of thousands of people also took to the streets of the capitals and cities of the allied nations.  In Britain the attitude towards possible involvement had initially been mixed with many preferring the country to remain neutral.  When news of the invasion of Belgium reached the British people the enthusiasm for war grew.  While there was significant anti-war demonstrations held in the days preceding the declaration of war they were vastly outnumbered by the crowds who took to the streets to celebrate.  In the next photograph crowds of boater hat waving men congregated in Trafalgar Square.

In the seventh photograph we see a thick crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace cheering King George, Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales who, like the Kaiser in Berlin, greeted the crowds from a balcony following the Declaration of War on 4th August.

In St Petersburg many people gathered expectantly outside the Winter Palace in the days leading up to the declaration of war, the photograph above shows the crowd gathered on 28th July when the Tsar ordered a partial mobilisation against Austria-Hungary.  In France Parisians gathered with tricolours flying to wave off reservists leaving for their muster depots from the Gare de Paris-Est train station. 

Interestingly what is a clear common thread between all of photographs from across europe is the constant presence of the boater hat.  At the time it was the fashion across Europe for the middle classes to replace their ubiquitous bowler hats with straw boaters in the summer months.   When examining these photographs we must consider the makeup of the crowds, we cannot infer from them that support for the war was total and complete.  We must question how many in the photographs were simply caught up in the moment, and how many of them truly understood the consequences of war.  

Image Sources:

Berlin Image One Source

Berlin Image Two Source

Berlin Image Three Source

Berlin Image Four Source

Munich Image Source

Budapest Image Source

Trafalgar Square Image Source

Buckingham Palace Image Source

Russia Image Source

France Image Source