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The First Week of World War I: August 2 – 8, 1914

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The Outbreak of War

Reported 100 years ago in Scientific American

Searchlights of the German fleet turn night into day. Scientific American, August 15, 1914

The invasion of Belgium by the German army, in a bid to outflank French forces, led to Britain declaring war on Germany this week a century ago. The outbreak of a widespread war in 1914 took many people by surprise. That reaction was evident in the following comment from our editorial in the issue of August 15, 1914 (we had a lead time of about 10 days between news and printing, which was incredibly quick in those days):

The War and Our Dilemma

It is very difficult for the American to realize that the great European war, which has been dreaded for a generation, is actually taking place. The calamity is so appalling that it seems to stretch beyond the reach of the imagination. The desire of the President, although impotent, to avert hostilities is voiced in every American breast. It was useless to offer mediation—there was no question to mediate. There was only the gaunt figure of brute force against brute force. After the great wave of distress for the terrible calamity which has befallen Europe has been expressed, the thought naturally turns upon what will be the effect of such an upheaval upon our own country, and what lesson can we learn from it. For years the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN has preached the necessity of the upbuilding of our merchant marine. The story of our present poverty in merchant ships is too well known to need mention at the present time, but now, at last, the lesson is driven home in a surprising and unexpected way. Some two hundred thousand Americans are practically marooned in Europe with no facilities for reaching their country. Battleships and cruisers, even were it practicable to put our line of defense to such a use, are not adapted in any way to passenger service, and such a method of solving the problem is almost out of the question. Of navy transports, we have hardly any.”

To see a full archive of our coverage of World War I—military, economic, social, technological—view our archive package, Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, at

Dan Schlenoff About the Author: Dan Schlenoff edits the “50, 100 & 150 Years Ago” column for Scientific American. He is a keen student of the role of science in history.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. msadesign 7:15 am 08/8/2014

    We never learn.

    Link to this

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