WWI Centennial


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)

World War I army nurse Louise Marie Liers (pictured at the top) is just one of the women profiled in the DIY History project. Her volunteer-transcribed letters, originally sent from Nevers, France, to her family in Iowa, mostly implore her parents not to worry about her. Occasionally, however, the horrors of war make their way through.

“When I see their horrible wounds or worse still their mustard gas burns or the gassed patients who will never again be able to do a whole day’s work — I lose every spark of sympathy for the beasts who devised such tortures and called it warfare,” she wrote.


Thrilled to see our Louise Liers papers featured in this NBC blog article about transcription crowdsourcing!! For more info on the Iowa native and WWI Army nurse, see the links below:

IWA Tumblr: World War I collection sneak preview

IWA Tumblr: World War I centennial

Iowa Digital Library: Louise Liers papers and photographs


Breathtaking Photos of the Tower of London Adorned with 888,246 Ceramic Poppies to Commemorate WWI

To honor the centennial of Britain’s beginnings in World War I, a pair of artist teamed up to work on an incredible installation, which you can see in these stunning photographs.

Titled “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,” the display was put together by artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper, and when it’s all said and done it will consist of 888,246 red ceramic poppies surrounding the dry moat of the Tower of London. Each of the individual flowers represents a British or Colonial Military fatality.

The construction of the piece is being done by a number of volunteers over the course of the summer and is already well on its way to completion. The final flower will symbolically be set in its resting place on November 11th, Remembrance Day for the Commonwealth.

(Continue Reading)


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


July 28th marks one hundred years since the beginning of the Great War. World War I was one of the most violent and destructive events in history. It’s vital that we remember and mourn these losses, but also essential that we celebrate the incredible outpouring of stunning art that emerged from this tragedy. In remembrance of all the soldiers, their world, and the art they made, here are a few reading suggestions for the WWI Centennial.

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis

When Cecil Lewis joined the RAF to fight in WWI, he was older than the field of aviation itself. Yet by the end of the war, Lewis had mastered virtually every single engine plane available, served three tours of duty, and lived through a dogfight with the Red Baron. Lewis’s memoir depicts the joys of flying—the exhilarating feeling of soaring the skies only to fly into combat moments later. Told by a charming, young narrator, Sagittarius Rising draws a bittersweet line between the beauty and terror of flight.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

In Vera Brittain’s enduring memoir, the Great War encroaches upon the young author as she is at Oxford; the war claims her brother and her lover, and she, in turn, jumps into the fray by nursing the wounded. Unlike her lover and brother, Vera survives the war; she finds love again, but the battlefield still haunts her as she visits the graves of her loved ones and tours Germany and Italy—occupied and defeated.  Testament of Youth provides us with a compelling account of how the monstrous tragedy that was the First World War crept into Vera and her contemporaries’ lives and affected them beyond the trenches.

The George Sherston Trilogy by Siegfried Sassoon

The fictional autobiography of a young man, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Sherston’s Progress make up Siegfried Sassoon’s George Sherston Trilogy. Sherston, a young aristocrat, grows up prepared for a life of upper-class indulgence before the war intervenes. Based in part on Sassoon’s life, the Sherston trilogy portrays the world as it transitions from peaceful Edwardian naiveté to pure horror and its aftermath.

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

One of the first memoirs published about the Great War, Storm of Steel provides a graphic account of trench warfare from the perspective of a German soldier on the infamous Western Front. Jünger lucidly describes war, neither glorifying it nor protesting it, but offering an intensely emotional, realist account of what happened. Brutally honest yet lyrical and luminous, Storm of Steel is a beautiful memoir of terror.

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

War was not constantly explosive. Much time was spent sitting and waiting—fearing what was come. Featuring a group of men in the French Sixth Battalion, Under Fire gives an account of the terrible boredom, as the soldiers wait for what seems like an eternity to pass while the war hangs over their heads. A classic antiwar novel, Barbusse uses time in trenches to bring life to memorable characters, refusing to romanticize in his attempts to offer an authentic vision of war.

The Enormous Room by e.e. cummings

One of the most important poets of 20th century America, e.e. cummings also volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during WWI. Though best-known for his poetry, The Enormous Room displays cummings’s stunning command of prose. In this autobiographical novel, the poet’s service takes a more farcical turn when he is arrested for treason. With unexpected warmth and joy, cummings describes a quest for freedom indebted to Pilgrim’s Progress, all the while offering a series of brilliant and eclectic portraits of his fellow inmates.

Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb

Already suffering in the trenches, a group of French soldiers is sent on an impossible mission to attack an all-but-invincible German base. When the mission fails, the soldiers are considered cowards and are prosecuted for treason in a military tribunal. Famously adapted by Stanley Kubrick, Paths of Glory illustrates the difficulty, if not the absurdity, of the impossible demands that were put on ordinary men and how as factories began to produce weapons, the courts began to deliver injustice.

Death of a Hero by Richard Aldington

George Winterbourne is raised a typical patriotic Englishman. A failed businessman turned-artist and socialist, he enlists to avoid a worsening domestic crisis. And as his superiors quickly die out, George receives a spate of promotions. Yet he grows increasingly cynical about not only the war but also the England he serves. Death of a Hero is a biting critique of a British society that remains all but ignorant of the trials and tribulations of its soldiers on the battlefield.

Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Soldiers, wounded or discharged, eventually came home, and it was up to their families to take care of the shell-shocked men. Return of the Soldier provides a touching but crushing account of a traumatized soldier who believes he is in love with a working-class woman instead of his aristocratic wife. Concise and haunting, this novella examines what it means to heal a soldier–and what even constitutes healing, when health meant a return to the front.

Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos

Three Soldiers is a novel of war, but not one of combat. Dos Passos introduces three starkly different Americans fighting in France, each gradually and vividly brought to life through their interior lives. A modernist antiwar masterpiece, this novel grimly portrays the petty cruelties that kept the machine of war running, stripping soldiers of their ambition and humanity.

Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

Perhaps no artistic output from the Great War can equal the astounding quantity and quality of its poetry. From the trenches to the skies and the battlefield to home front, the setting and feeling of this poetry cover diverse territory. In this anthology, verses by poets such as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen are arranged thematically from topics such as propagandist patriotism to a deep yearning for peace.

Three Poets of the First World War

Bringing together Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, this collection provides a selection by three of War’s greatest poets. Gurney was a classical composer whose poetry retains a lyrical, musical touch. Owen, perhaps the quintessential soldier-poet, portrays the war’s horrors with great and brutal honesty. And Rosenberg, also a painter, composed some of the finest poetry to come out of the war in his Poems from the Trenches (make sure to read “Break of Day in the Trenches” and “Louse Hunting”).

Penguin Book of First World War Stories

Featuring a diverse selection of authors writing before, after, and long after the war, ranging from Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling to Katherine Mansfield and Julian Barnes, this collection of short stories illustrates the impact of the Great War on not only the soldiers, but also on British society, politics, and culture—all irrevocably altered by one of the most violent events in human history.

Little known fact: more Indians volunteered to fight alongside the British in WWI than all Scots, Welsh and Irish volunteers combined. And a third of those volunteers were Sikh.

One British historian remarks: “Like all of our best fighters, we started off fighting each other. And then when the battle was over, we realised the other side were quite good chaps, really.” Lol, ok.


#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

Rare footage of the 1914 Martian conflict

The History Channel’s created a bizarre secret history of a war against Martian invaders that’s an allegory for WWI. The accompanying video has a spooky resonance and plausibility that is not to be missed.

I’m fascinated by the centennial of WWI; for a long time, the consensus was that WWI was a pointless and brutal expression of ruling class greed (Piketty implies that its underlying cause was a squabble among great dynastic fortunes triggered by the exhaustion of new colonial territories to conquer and absorb). Today, as wealth disparity soars and the have-nots are once again sent to the front lines of a series of brutal battles that turn on control of oil fields and other sources of wealth for investors, the attempt to re-cast WWI as a noble adventure for king and country feels like a naked attempt to manipulate the public consciousness to legitimize the next round of sending the poor to die in order to secure the fortunes of the rich.

Read the rest…


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


WWI Now & Then: 1917-1919

The Guardian has unveiled its second set of ‘now and then’ photographs of sites on the Western Front of World War One.  They range from a bomb damage in Paris, to the destruction of Ypres and the building of the Cenotaph in London in 1919.  A number of the photographs show some of the less obvious impacts instead of a war torn French village one photograph shows wounded British and Indian troops convalescing. Others show the victory celebrations that took place in London and Paris.

Each contemporary photograph is juxtaposed with a recent photograph showing the two sites 100 years apart - some of the landscapes forever changed by war.

Click here to view the part one here and part two here


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

If ever there is another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.

This profoundly prophetic quote is attributed to Prince Otto Von Bismarck (in 1890), the first Chancellor of Germany. While Bismarck was correct he could not have know it would be a war perpetuated by a German government, albeit an expansionist one that had forced him to resign.

100 years ago today, the ‘damned silly thing in the Balkans’ materialised as the German-supported Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia.


1914: Armies of the Western Front

I’ve recently covered each of the armies of the Western Front as they were in August 1914, follow the links below for overviews of each of the armies, their mobilisation and their initial strategies. 

British Expeditionary Force

Deutsches Heer (Imperial German Army)

French Army

Belgian Army

You can also read about the mobilisation of all of the major powers here.


Belgian Infantry: 1914

At the outbreak of the First World War Belgium was in the process of reforming her military aiming to create a wartime establishment of some 340,000 men however, this was not due to be completed until the mid 1920s.  The reforms saw the introduction of conscription in 1909 with conscripts serving for fifteen months, new small arms including the excellent Mauser Model 1889 adopted and new uniforms were under consideration.  But by August 1914, no new field uniform had been adopted and the Belgian infantryman still wore more or less what his predecessors had worn since 1850.

Belgium began her mobilisation on the 1st August calling up its reserves and mobilising some 130,000 men including the regular army forming roughly 120 battalions and the less well equipped Garde Civique in the face of the invading German forces numbered approximately 600,000 troops.  While many of the front line troops of the Belgian Army were equipped with the Mauser M1889, with only 93,000 rifles available some reserve units were still carrying the M1882 Comblain Rifle, a single shot falling-block rifle.  In terms of artillery the Belgian Army was woefully equipped with just short of 400 obsolete field guns. Equally inadequate was the number of machine guns available with only just over 100 modern machine guns available, although the Belgians had an unconventional method of moving them employing teams of ’machine gun dogs’ to pull the guns and their ammunition.  
The average Belgian infantryman wore a dark blue single-breasted tunic beneath a standard issue dark blue double-breasted great coat. Blue-grey trousers were worn with books and canvas gaiters.  Uniquely the Belgian army still wore rigid shako hats with oilskin covers while grenadier regiments wore bearskins.  Personal equipment was supported by black leather webbing with aluminium mess tins, haversacks and packs and a central ammunition pouch.

Belgian Infantry and their Machine Gun Dogs (source)

The Belgian war plan was to gather its field army in the centre of the country behind the Gete River while the National Redoubt, a 95 mile long belt of defensive fortifications ringing Antwerp, would hold the Belgian left flank while forts at Liege and Namur would by the main field army time to mobilise.  One of the most concerning issues was that the Belgian Army had never in its history fought a single engagement, the country’s neutrality until now unbroken, had precluded this.  No Belgian general officer had ever commanded troops in the field and none of the troops, even the most seasoned veterans have ever fired a shot in anger or been fired upon. 

Despite the army’s shortcomings many in Europe were surprised by the vigour and determination with which the Belgians met the Germans. At the Battle of Liège the Belgian Army and forts fought a successful delaying action for almost two weeks.  Again at the Battle of Haelen on the 12th August Belgian cavalry fought another successful delaying action beating back elements of the German II Cavalry Corps inflicting heavy casualties.   However, as the German invasion progressed the forts at Liège and Namur were eventually overwhelmed by large calibre artillery bombardments which saw 1,000kg shells fired from 40cm ’Big Bertha’ howitzers, and the Belgian field army was forced to fall back south west.  Antwerp would eventually fall in October 1914 after several weeks of fighting.

In 1915, the Belgian Army, still holding a line along the Yser River in the western corner of the country, were re-equipped with new uniforms in the French style but of khaki wool similar to the British Army’s.


Image One Source - Artist’s impression Belgian Army c.1914

Image Two Source - Belgian Line Infantryman, 1914

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

Uniforms and Equipment of the Belgian Army in WW1, J. Reeve (source)

More on the Belgian Army here

First World War: The Story of a Global Conflict

In commemoration of the upcoming centennial of the outbreak of World War One The Guardian newspaper, historians from around the world and the British Academy have created an immersive interactive documentary looking at the First World War available in half a dozen languages.  The documentary involves audio and text contributions from ten historians from ten countries.  
The interactive documentary gives a brief overview of some of the conflict’s most important aspects as well as covering some of its lesser known facets such as the various ancillary fronts in the far east, Africa and southern Europe.  While the overview may be brief with each topic being addressed by a number of audio clips or several hundred words of text it is excellently presented and wholly immersive.  

The inclusion of historians from various fields and from around the world gives a broader spread of the historical discourse surrounding the history of the Great War and this in itself is to be commended.  The presentation of the documentary is unique with various interactive screens progressing the viewer through the conflict looking at mobilisation through to the wider aftermath of the war.  Each screen offers audio clips of both historians but also contemporary readings, songs and instrumental music.  Other sections offer contemporary footage as well as other primary sources such as scans of The Guardian’s original coverage of the war as well as rarer seen photographs.  

The documentary is roughly 30 minutes in length if you listen to its main stream of audio, but longer if you follow the links offered.  It is available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic or Hindi.

You can find the documentary here

I rule a nation, not a road
—  Attributed to King Albert I, King of the Belgians, on hearing of Germany’s intention to march through Belgium to outflank the French Army and strike south for Paris.  On the 3rd of August Belgium denied Germany free passage through her territory and to the surprise of some, Belgium offered a brave resistance with the British press dubbing the country ’Brave Little Belgium’.