The Hidden World of World War One

When photographer Jeffrey Gusky was given exclusive access to records all but forgotten of the underground cities of World War One lying beneath private farms in France, he had no idea what to expect or the impact it would have on others. Now captured in thousands of striking images, Gusky has titled the collection The Hidden World of WWI. The beautiful art and emotionally charged inscriptions, carved in stone by WWI soldiers, have been virtually untouched for almost 100 years. They are a direct human connection between then and now.

Jeff GuskeyGusky, a Dallas emergency physician, fine-art photographer and explorer, is believed to be the first person to bring to light the large number of underground cities beneath the trenches of WWI. The Hidden World of WWI reveals the artifacts, sculptures and evocative graffiti left behind by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Landowners determined to preserve the past have zealously protected these underground treasures for decades.

Messages to the Future

“Seeing these subterranean cities for the first time was one of the most moving experiences of my life,” Gusky says. “Finding hundreds and hundreds of messages to the future, written by soldiers in their own hand, made time seem to stand still. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the people who trusted me enough to share their secrets about these places. It was also amazing to realize that while some people knew about some of these spaces, no one knew about all of them.”

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The Post Office Rifles Regiment of World War One

It was one of the largest conflicts in history and World War 1 claimed the lives of a vast number of military personnel and civilians. 16 million people perished with a further 20 million wounded.

To commemorate the centenary year of World War 1 the Post Office Shop blog team have been researching the General Post Office’s participation in the Great War and the lives of the Post Office employees that were involved.

The Post Office’s contribution to military operations during the war was on a scale that had never been seen before, with 75,000 Post Office employees serving in some of the most hostile environments during World War 1 and 8,500 of these employees lost their lives fighting for their country.

Post Office RiflesThe Post Office actively encouraged their staff to join in the war effort. Of the 75,000 men who left their jobs with the Post Office on our home shores 12,000 of these brave men joined the Post Office Rifles Regiment which had been in existence since 1868. (Pictured: The Post Office Rifles marching in London, 5 July 1919. Click to enlarge).

During the Great War the Rifles fought at many of the major battles including Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele which were fought with the intention of strategically restricting the supply of munitions to the army of the German Empire.

Many stories of the individual soldiers who fought these battles will have been sadly lost in the carnage of these hostile battlefields. However, one of these soldier’s stories made it home and is still remembered today due to the kind deed of a German soldier. During a battle near the town of Longueval, 300 Post Office Rifles were killed. The wife of one of these men by the name of Captain Home Peel, was sent a letter by the German Soldier E.F Gayler informing her of his death so his fate was not left unknown on the frontline.

One member of the Rifles, Alfred Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for a series of brave maneuvers. One of these maneuvers included the daring act of capturing an enemy machine gun position by taking on 12 German soldiers, killing three of them and causing the rest to flee the melee.

These brave soldiers who contributed to winning the Great War and their stories are being commemorated by the Post Office with a series of blog posts on the Post Office Shop blog and a range of commemorative products.

Brook Chalmers

Sarajevo and the resonances of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination

The conspirators who spread out along Sarajevo’s Appel Quay on the morning of 28th June 1914 – trying not to fiddle with the pistol and the bomb under their jackets, wondering about the cyanide dose that they had been given – have become tokens of world politics. One token, in fact, as we only remember the one who fired the successful shots, and not the other angry young men like Cabrinovic and Cuprilovic. (Does it help that it was the one with the short name who got lucky? Would our memory of twentieth century history be different if the Archduke’s car had happened to stop instead in front of Mehmedbasic – who was also, incidentally, the Muslim among the conspirators?)

Gavrilo PrincipGavrilo Princip’s father was a peasant rebel whose neighbours laughed at him because he refused to drink and swear, and who didn’t want Gavrilo (pictured) to go to primary school. Photos of him in traditional peasant dress seem more than a generation away from the cheap urban sophistication of Gavrilo in his suit.

Young Princip almost went to Austro-Hungarian military school, but took a different path, perhaps prompted by the epic poetry he’d been given as a school prize. He was 18 when he was expelled from school for threatening other students who didn’t want to go on a protest with him. He was still a teenager as he stood by the Miljacka river, waiting for destiny to come chugging round the corner, and watching for the police agents he’d so far avoided during his weeks in Bosnia.

Nedeljko Cabrinovic was doubted by his fellow-conspirators; his bomb was taken away from him the day before the assassination attempt. Walking to his assigned position during the morning of the 28th he met a friend, had his photo taken, flirted with some girls. But he’d also given away his possessions to his family; money to his grandmother and to his sister. Teenagers; idealists – recruited and fired up by older, wiser men who stayed in the shadows and were not risking their lives that morning.

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The Sinking of the Lusitania – a summary

On the 7 May 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.

LusitaniaThe ‘Great War’ was still less than a year old. On 18 February 1915, in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany, the Germans announced that it would, in future, be operating a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. In other words, German U-boats would actively seek out and attack enemy shipping within the war zone of British waters. Even ships displaying a neutral flag, they announced, would be at risk – the Germans being aware of the British habit of sailing under a neutral flag.

The Lusitania was certainly not the first victim of Germany’s new policy – on 28 March 1915, the British ship RMS Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland. 104 people were killed, including one American. Continue reading

The Gallipoli Campaign – a summary

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.

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Fritz Haber and WWI Gas Warfare – a summary

On 22 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, French and Algerian soldiers, fighting together, noticed a strange yellow-grey-coloured 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. Click to enlarge).

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The Debate on the Origins of World War One

Beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Dr Annika Mombauer explores the opposing debates about the origins of World War One. Is it possible for historians to arrive at a consensus?

The hundred-year debate

How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. How did Europe get from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife to the situation at the beginning of August when Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain? Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years, and arriving at a convincing consensus has proved impossible.

Cupidity‘Cupidity’, a satirical drawing showing the hands of men from countries involved in World War One, arguing for control of the world.

The need to fight a defensive war

Establishing the responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis into a European war – and ultimately a world war – was paramount even before fighting had begun. The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary tried desperately to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed to fight this war could not be summoned for a war of aggression. Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy, and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. Populations would only rally and make sacrifices willingly if the cause was just – and that meant fighting a defensive war.The French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs and British were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to revenge the death of Franz Ferdinand. Germans were assured by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and their Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, that Germany’s neighbours had ‘forced the sword’ into its hands.[1] In 1914, Germans were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war? Continue reading

Karl Lody – a summary

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.


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John French – a summary

John French spent much of his early military career, like many of his contemporaries, in Africa and India. He was part of the failed 1884/5 mission to relieve General Gordon in the Sudan; and from 1891 served in India.

John FrenchIn India French first met his future rival, Douglas Haig, then a captain. Indeed, Haig later lent French a large sum of money to help the latter stave off bankruptcy. While in India, French had an affair with the wife of a fellow officer. The scandal almost ended his career.  He survived and went on to serve with distinction as a cavalry officer during the Boer War where, most notably, in 1900, under the stewardship of Frederick Roberts, he lead the force that relieved the British garrison besieged in the town of Kimberley.

French was appointed Britain’s army chief-of-staff in 1911 and given command of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF. In 1913, French was promoted to the rank of field marshal.


With the outbreak of war in 1914, the BEF crossed the Channel, landing on the continent on 7 August. (Consisting of little more than 90,000 men, only half of whom were regular soldiers; the other half being reservists, the BEF had famously, and allegedly, been dismissed by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, on 19 August, ordered his army to ‘exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’ Hence British soldiers took pride in calling themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’.) French’s orders, from Horatio Kitchener, minister for war, were to work alongside the French but not to take orders from them. The BEF first saw action during the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, Britain’s first battle in Western Europe since Waterloo ninety-nine years before.

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Thomas Highgate – first British soldier executed during World War One

On 5 September 1914, the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War.

Shot at Dawn memorialThe only son of a farm worker, Thomas Highgate was born in Shoreham in Kent on 13 May 1895. In February 1913, aged 17, he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. Within months, Highgate fell foul of the military authorities – in 1913, he was he was upbraided for being late for Tattoo, and ‘exchanging duties without permission’. In early 1914, he was reprimanded for having a rusty rifle and deserting for which he received the punishment of forty-eight days detention.

(Pictured is the ‘Shot at Dawn’ Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire).

First Battle of the Marne

On 5 September, the first day of the Battle of the Marne and the 35th day of the war, Private Highgate’s nerves got the better of him and he fled the battlefield. He hid in a barn in the village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes by a gamekeeper who happened to be English and an ex-soldier. Quite where Highgate obtained his civilian clothes is not recorded but the gamekeeper spotted his uniform lying in a heap nearby. Highgate confessed, ‘I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it’.

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