WWI Centennial: An Overview

Frank Hurley/Getty Images
Frank Hurley/Getty Images

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. For the last six years we’ve been covering the causes and major events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. All the entries in the WWI Centennial blog are available in reverse chronological order, along with other stories about the war, here.

With the final climactic year underway, we’re also providing a (relatively) condensed version so new readers can catch up and long-time readers can refresh their memories.

1914: THE CONFLICT BEGINS

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb nationalists in Sarajevo, the leaders of the ailing Austro-Hungarian Empire decided to use the murder of the heir to the throne as a pretext to crush their troublesome neighbor, the Kingdom of Serbia, once and for all. With support from their powerful ally Germany, they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia with demands so outrageous it was guaranteed to be rejected, giving them an excuse to declare war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary’s clumsy efforts to “localize” the conflict went off the rails in the “July Crisis.” After Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, on July 30 Serbia’s Slavic patron Russia mobilized against Austria-Hungary and Germany. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and its ally France, and on August 4 Britain declared war on Germany after German troops violated Belgian neutrality as part of the Schlieffen Plan.

As war rippled across the planet, fighting defied expectations on both sides. France’s attempt to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine ended in bloody defeat during the Battle of the Frontiers, while the Germans overcame the odds to destroy the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg, and Austria-Hungary suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Serbs at Kolubara. In September Germany’s invasion of northern France failed decisively at the “Miracle on the Marne,” and the exhausted Germans retreated north and dug in, marking the emergence of trench warfare.

The opposing armies now tried to outflank each other again and again, without success, in the “Race to the Sea,” leaving parallel lines of trenches behind them, eventually reaching the North Sea in Flanders in western Belgium. Here the Germans made one last push to break through the Allied lines at Ypres (fated to be the scene of two more titanic battles in the years to come). As 1914 drew to a close, the horrific casualties shocked the world, and the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers in November just spread the bloody stalemate further.  However there was a brief moment of good cheer with the famous Christmas Eve Truce.


Erik Sass

1915: GALLIPOLI AND THE GREAT RETREAT

The following year was marked by more disappointments and surprises. Frustrated on the Western Front, Britain and France tried, and failed, to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war with a long shot attempt to “force” the Turkish straits with warships, followed by amphibious landings, resulting in an even worse defeat at Gallipoli.

Although the Turks held off the Allied attacks, the threat to the Turkish homeland, along with the fact that some Armenian Christians were helping their Russian co-religionists invade the empire, prompted the Ottoman “Young Turk” triumvirate to unleash the Armenian Genocide, killing around 1.5 million by 1917. At the same time, after a year of heated debate Italy—thinking Gallipoli was going to be a big Allied victory—finally joined the Allies with a declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, but immediately became bogged down in trench warfare as well.

In spring 1915 Germany outraged public opinion with two brutal new weapons: poison gas and submarine warfare. The German Fourth Army unleashed chlorine gas on Allied forces at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, causing horrific casualties but ultimately failing to achieve a breakthrough, thanks to the bravery of Canadian troops; This set the pattern for the rest of the war, as both sides used poison gas to amplify the effects of artillery bombardments on enemy trenches—with terrible but rarely decisive effects.

Meanwhile Germany’s decision to mount unrestricted U-boat warfare brought her to the brink of war with the United States, the world’s most powerful neutral nation. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 infuriated the American public and pushed the U.S. towards the Allies (although there was also anger at the Allied blockade of the Central Powers, which hurt U.S. business interests). The Germans backed down, but remained determined to cut the Allies off from American industry, the key to sustaining the Allied war effort.

The summer of 1915 brought the first major breakthrough of the war on the Eastern Front, with the Central Powers’ rapid conquest of Russian Poland during the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign. The Russian Great Retreat, as it came to be known, was a huge setback, prompting Tsar Nicholas II to take over personal command of the Russian Army—meaning he would be held responsible for future defeats. And worse was to come for the Allies: in October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and helped crush Serbia. The remnants of the Serbian Army managed to escape through Albania, and were subsequently evacuated by Allied ships to the island of Corfu. Eventually the Serbian Army was redeployed in Salonika in northern Greece, reinforcing Allied troops recently evacuated from Gallipoli in a belated effort to help Serbia from the south.


Erik Sass

1916: CATASTROPHIC CASUALTIES

Some of the biggest battles in human history occurred in Europe the following year, beginning with the incredible German onslaught at Verdun in February 1916. A cold-blooded German plan to “bleed France dry” through simple attrition, Verdun soon spun out of control, resulting in almost as many casualties for the Germans as the French. The failure led to the firing of chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn, replaced in September 1916 by Paul von Hindenburg (aided by his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff).

In June 1916 the Russians launched their most successful offensive of the war by far, orchestrated by General Alexei Brusilov, a pioneer of “combined arms,” in which attacks by artillery, infantry and airplanes were carefully coordinated to punch holes in widely separated portions of the enemy front at once. The Brusilov Offensive, as it became known, resulted in the almost total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian armies in Galicia by September 1916, forcing Germany to withdraw troops from other parts of the front to prop up its beleaguered ally, at which point the Russian offensive sputtered.

The summer of 1916 was a grim time for the Central Powers, as the British also launched their biggest offensive of the war to date at the Somme. The Allies inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans but also suffered breathtaking losses, with 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day alone (July 1, 1916). In the weeks to come the British scored more victories, pushing the enemy back again and again, but the Germans were always able to dig into new defensive positions; the battlefield debut of tanks in September 1916 spread terror in the German ranks but failed to provide a decisive advantage.

In another case of bad timing, in August 1916 Romania—encouraged by Russian success in the Brusilov Offensive and the British advance at the Somme—joined the Allies in hopes of conquering Austria-Hungary’s ethnic Romanian provinces. However this soon proved a disastrous mistake, as Germany rushed more reinforcements to the Balkans and swiftly crushed the Romanians with help from the Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks, occupying Bucharest by winter.


Erik Sass

1917: THE U.S. ENTERS THE WAR

The fourth year of the war started and ended with upheaval. Leading the way was the Russian Revolution in March 1917, when workers and soldiers overthrew the Romanov Dynasty and seized power on behalf of the Duma, or parliament. However the new Provisional Government was always weak, forced to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, a socialist assembly representing soldiers and workers, and leftist radicals in the Soviet, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks, wanted to overthrow the Provisional Government too.

The radicals got a boost with the failure of the disastrous offensive ordered by War Minister Alexander Kerensky in July, followed by an abortive military coup led by a conservative general, Kornilov, which undermined popular support for the new regime. After their own failed coup attempt in July, the Bolsheviks finally succeeded in overthrowing the Provisional Government in November, supposedly seizing power on behalf of the socialist Soviets—but in reality for themselves. The Bolsheviks would soon take Russia out of the war, a huge setback for the Allies.

This wasn’t their only problem. In March 1917 the Germans made a surprise withdrawal to formidable new defenses on the Western Front, known as the Hindenburg Line, in order to shorten their line and free up forces to fight elsewhere. Following the bloody defeat of the French spring offensive on the Western Front, half the French Army mutinied in May 1917, paralyzing the French war effort. Although General Philippe Petain, the hero of Verdun, set about improving conditions and restoring order, it would take months before the French Army was able to mount a major offensive. To take the pressure off their weakened ally, the British launched a gigantic offensive at the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, which achieved some gains, but again ultimately failed to break through the German lines. The stunning Italian defeat at Caporetto then forced the British to halt the offensive to reinforce the Italian front.

Fortunately for Britain and France, an even bigger ally was rumbling into action. Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare in February 1917, followed by the revelation of the Zimmermann Telegram, in which the Germans secretly encouraged Mexico to declare war on the U.S., outraged American public opinion so much that President Woodrow Wilson got Congress to declare war on Germany on April 4, 1917. But it would take time for the U.S. to build an army big enough to make a difference in Europe.


Erik Sass

After the Bolsheviks agreed to an armistice in December, Russia’s exit from the war and descent into civil war spelled bad news for the Allies. As 1917 drew to a close, the big question was whether the Germans would be able to transfer troops from the Eastern Front and crush the overstretched British and French before American troops started arriving in large numbers? This was the final race that would decide the outcome of the war.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

The Ingenious Reason Medieval Castle Staircases Were Built Clockwise

Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images
Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or medieval programs in general, you’re probably familiar with action-packed battle scenes during which soldiers storm castles, dodge arrows, and dash up spiral staircases. And, while those spiral staircases might not necessarily ascend clockwise in every television show or movie you’ve watched, they usually did in real life.

According to Nerdist, medieval architects built staircases to wrap around in a clockwise direction in order to disadvantage any enemies who might climb them. Since most soldiers wielded swords in their right hands, this meant that their swings would be inhibited by the inner wall, and they’d have to round each curve before striking—fully exposing themselves in the process.

Just as the clockwise spiral hindered attackers, so, too, did it favor the castle’s defenders. As they descended, they could swing their swords in arcs that matched the curve of the outer wall, and use the inner wall as a partial shield. And, because the outer wall runs along the wider edge of the stairs, there was also more room for defenders to swing. So, if you’re planning on storming a medieval castle any time soon, you should try to recruit as many left-handed soldiers as possible. And if you’re defending one, it’s best to station your lefties on crossbow duty and leave the tower-defending to the righties.

On his blog All Things Medieval, Will Kalif explains that the individual stairs themselves provided another useful advantage to protectors of the realm. Because the individual steps weren’t all designed with the same specifications, it made for much more uneven staircases than what we see today. This wouldn’t impede the defenders, having grown accustomed to the inconsistencies of the staircases in their home castle, but it could definitely trip up the attackers. Plus, going down a set of stairs is always less labor-intensive than going up.

Staircase construction and battle tactics are far from the only things that have changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, people even walked differently than we do—find out how (and why) here.

[h/t Nerdist]

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