December 22, 2023 | Rachel Seigel

Harrowing Facts About WWI


“In Britain and Europe, no event is less forgotten than WW1, or 'The Great Battle,' as it was called until 1939” -Michael Korda

WW1 took place between 1914 and 1918 and is known as the “First World Battle”, “The Great Conflict”, and “The Battle to End All Wars”. It was a global conflict originating in Europe and involved more than 70 million army personnel. Over 16 million deaths resulted from the conflict, including 9 million army people and 7 million civilians. It was one of the largest and deadliest wars in history and caused major political change in the countries that were involved, and some of the unresolved issues from the conflict contributed to WWII just two decades later. Here are 42 harrowing facts about the Great Battle.


42. Jet Flames

Modern flamethrowers were first used in WWI by the German forces in an attack against British at Hooge in Flanders. The earliest flame throwers dated back to the 5th century, but the Germans refined the designs that were used in the battle.

world war i

41. Trigger for Conflict

The execution of Archduke Ferdinand was not the sole cause for WWI, but it was considered to be the trigger that started it. The execution was orchestrated by a group of Serbian nationalists who lived in the Balkan territories belonging to Austria-Hungary, and who felt that they should become part of the Serbian nation. Austria Hungary blamed the Serbian government, and once they were assured of Germany’s support, declared battle on Serbia. Within a week, multiple European countries had entered the conflict, officially launching WWI.

Franz Ferdinand FactsWikimedia Commons

40. Alliances

One of the reasons that so many European countries entered into WWI were the mutual defense agreements that had been made between various countries. The treaties stated that if one of the countries in the treaty were under attack, the other countries were obligated to defend them. The conflict began with Austria-Hungary attacking Serbia, and a chain reaction began. Russia entered to defend Serbia. Germany entered to defend Austria-Hungary. France was allied with Russia, Britain was allied with France and Belgium, and Japan was allied with Britain. Eventually, the United States entered the battle and fought with the allied countries.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

39. Battle Poem

In Flanders Field was written in 1915 by a Canadian officer and surgeon named John McCrae, who wrote it in honor of his friend who lost their lives during the Second Battle of Ypres. The battle was the first time the Canadian Expeditionary Force had seen any action in the battle, and McCrae told his mother in a letter that his impression of battle was “of a nightmare". The poem also helped make the red poppy a symbol of remembrance.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

38. German Atrocities

In August 1914, the German army orchestrated a mass execution of Belgian civilians in Liege. The inhabitants were rounded up from the nearby villages and shot. Any who survived the execution were ended with bayonets. There were a few reasons for the massacres. First, they were retaliation for setbacks suffered by the German army during their invasion of Belgium. Second, much of the German army believed that the locals were actually civilian snipers who were attacking them. Third, the German army were executing a battle policy known as Schrecklichkeit, meaning frightfulness, which was intended to frighten the civilians in the occupied areas to prevent rebellion.

World War I Facts

37. Sonic Boom

During the battle, while the army were fighting in the trenches, a group of miners were secretly digging tunnels 100 feet below the ground in order to place mines below enemy trenches. At Messines Ridge in Belgium, over 900,000lbs of explosives were detonated at the same time in across 19 tunnels, destroying a large portion of the German front line. The explosion was so powerful it was heard by the British Prime Minister over 140 miles away.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

36. Canadian Contribution

The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place over four days beginning on April 9, 1917. For the first time, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as one group, and it was a key moment for Canada as a nation and in the battle.

World War I FactsFlickr

35. Gendered Tanks

The tanks used in WWI were delineated as male and female. The male tanks had cannons, and the female tanks had heavy machine guns. One of the first tanks used in WWI was named “Little Willie,” built in 1915.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

34. A Productive Industry

Battle-related manufacturing was a highly productive industry. Each of the involved nations organized workers to supply enough equipment to the army and led to government intervention in Britain. The industry was ultimately able to produce 4 million rifles and over 170 million rounds of shells, as well as planes, rifles, tanks and artillery pieces by the end of the battle.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

33. Remembering

WW1 is memorialized each year in a variety of rituals around the world on the day of the conflict’s end.  Remembrance Day is observed in all Commonwealth nations (including Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand) on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour and signifies the formal end of the . The most common tradition includes a minute or two of silence, as well as the bugling of the battle call “The Last Post". Other countries including the United States have their own memorial traditions, separate from the British Commonwealth countries.

World War I FactsPublic Domain Pictures

 

32. Facing Danger

At the start of WWI, journalists were banned from the frontline because the Government insisted on controlling what information came out about the conflict. In their eyes, reporting on the battle was equivalent to helping the enemy, and the journalists who reported the truth about the realities of conflict were risking their lives. If caught, they faced execution.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

31. Spanbroekmolen Crater

Before the conflict, Spanbroekmolen was a windmill located in the Belgian province of West Flanders. It sat on the site for over 300 years until it was destroyed by the Germans in November of 1914. Throughout the battle, it became a site of intense fighting between the Germans and the British, and in June 1917, was the site of the Battle of Messines. Leading up to the battle, the British had been digging mines beneath German lines on Menses Ridge. On June 7, 1917, they exploded the mines, leaving a crater approximately 250 feet wide and 40 feet deep. In addition to destroying the German forces, it also ended several British army man.  Today, it is recognized as a memorial of the battle, and is known as the Pool of Peace.

World War I FactsFlickr

30. The Red Baron

German Pilot Manfred von Richthofen was the most successful German fighter pilot during the battle. He quickly rose through the ranks and was leader of the Jasta 11 before becoming leader of a larger fighting wing known as “The Flying Circus”. He shot down 80 planes, which was more than any other pilot. He was nicknamed the Red Baron because of the bright red color of his aircraft, and his noble background. He was shot down in 1918 while flying over Morlancourt Ridge and was thought of as a hero in Germany.

Fighter Pilots FactsFlickr

29. New Ideas

The battle led to several innovations in manufacturing, chemistry, communications, and army tactics. WWI was the first time that aircraft were used in battle, and it meant that the army and civilians could be attack from above. Advances in medicine also meant that for the first time, British deaths in battle outnumbered number by disease.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

28. Nursing Sisters

During WWI, more than 3,000 nurses served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, 2,504 of which were overseas. They were nicknamed the Bluebirds because they wore blue uniforms with white veils. While they did not work directly on the frontlines, they would meet the trucks of wounded army man and assist with surgery and post-operative care. Of those who served, 53 passed from disease or enemy fire. On June 27, 1918, a German U-Boat sank the Canadian Hospital Ship the Llandovery Castle, ending all 14 nurses aboard. Often referred to as “Angels of Mercy” or “Sisters of Mercy”, they are memorialized in the Canadian Parliament’s Hall of Honour.

World War I FactsFlickr

27. Unknown Warrior

As part of the British Remembrance Day ceremonies in 1920, David Railton, a chaplain who had served on the Western Front proposed that the body of an unknown soldier, sailor or airman buried in an unmarked grave be returned to England to be buried in Westminster Abbey. The unknown soldier would become a symbol of all who had passed in the battle, and whose passing or burial site was unidentified. On November 11, 1920, the body was taken in procession to the Abbey and buried. The site is now one of the most visited conflict tombs in the world.

World War I FactsWikipedia, Mike

26. Treaty of Versailles

Although the fighting was technically over in 1918, the conflict didn’t officially end until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. The treaty was negotiated by the Allied powers, and reassigned German borders and made them liable for reparations. Germany initially agreed to the terms, but the plans were cancelled in 1932, and Adolf H. rise to power negated the rest of the terms of the treaty.

Government Officials Drafting the Terms of the Treaty of Versailles.Getty Images

25. Lethal Gas

The Second Battle of Ypres began on April 22, 1915, when German army attack the allied army along the Western Front by releasing 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas at Ypres in Belgium. It was the first introduction of poison gas as a weapon in the battle, and immediately after the battle, France and Britain began developing their own chemical weapon and gas masks.

World War I FactsWikipedia

24. You Sunk Our Passenger Ship!

Less than one year after the start of WWI, a German U-Boat sank the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania, ending 1,100 of the 1,900 passengers and crew on board. The torpedoing of the ship was a key factor in turning the public against Germany.

World War I FactsWikipedia

23. Entering the Fray

When WWI broke out in 1914, then US President Woodrow Wilson promised to maintain a neutral position in the conflict. However, Britain was one of their closest trading partners, and when American ships traveling to Britain were damaged or destroyed by German mines, relations with Germany became tense. In 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted battle in conflict-zone waters, resulting in the US breaking diplomatic ties. Just a few hours later, Germany sunk the American liner Housatonic, and the process of preparing for battle began. In March of 1917, Germany sunk four more US merchant ships, and four days later, the US officially entered the battle.

World War I FactsFlickr

22. Trench Battle

Trench battle was a style of fighting during WWI that involved opposing armed forces attacking, counterattacking, and defending from trenches dug into the ground. The trenches would make it virtually impossible for forces to advance and could extend for several miles. By the end of 1914, both sides had trenches running from the North Sea and through Belgium and France. After the battle, both sides swore never to use that tactic again.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

21. Chinese Labour Corps

As the battle progressed, manpower became an issue. The use of trench battle necessitated an increased use of ammo and supplies, which left factories, depots, and workshops short of labor. Their most important task was digging trenches, and between Britain and France, 140,000 workers were recruited from China. They became known as the Chinese Labour Corps.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

20. No Man’s Land

Between the trenches was an open space that became known as No Man’s Land. It was a barrier that no soldier would cross for fear of being attack by the enemy. Due to the wet climate in France and Belgium, the zone became quite muddy, and the people could disappear into the mud and never come out.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

19. A Christmas Truce

In a rare goodwill gesture between the Allied and enemy forces, a temporary truce from fighting was called on Christmas Day in 1914. On that day, the battle was put aside, and army celebrated the holidays in the trenches. Beginning on Christmas Eve, the German and British army came out of the trenches, sang Christmas Carols to each other, and wished each other Merry Christmas in their native languages. Some even shook hands with enemy army. The truce was never repeated for the rest of the conflict.

World War I FactsWikipedia

18. Staggering Losses

The casualties suffered at the Battle of Somme were some of the worst ever experienced in battle. The battle lasted for five months and approximately 1.2 million men were ended or wounded. On the first day of battle, 57,000 British men were ended or wounded as they tried to reach German lines, and 700 army man of the First Newfoundland Brigade were gone in the first half-hour. At the end of the day, only 68 of the 801 members of the army were able to answer roll call.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

17. Russia Out.

On March 3, 1918, the new Bolshevik government of Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire to end their participation in WWI. By that time, the Russian army was depleted, the Germans had advanced into Russian occupied Poland and Lithuania, and the new regime wanted to get out of the conflict. The terms of the treaty forced Russia to give up nearly half of its European territory (including Poland), and Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, and parts of Latvia became independent states under German protection. Russia also gave up a large portion of agricultural land, over 80% of its coal mines, and half of its other industries. As part of the follow-up agreement in August of 1918, the country also had to agree to pay six billion marks in restitution.

Russian Revolution FactsGetty Images

16. Salad Bowls

Before 1915, British army going to battle only had a cloth cap for protection. In 1915, Brodie helmets were introduced, which while uncomfortable, were far better than the cloth caps. John Leopold Brodie designed and patented the helmet and was modified by Sir Robert Hadfield to be made of a stronger steel than the original concept. The helmet was nicknamed the Tommy helmet or Tin Hat in Britain, the Doughboy in the U.S., and was called the Salad Bowl by the German Army.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

15. Blue Benches

The injuries caused by machine g*n fire in WWI were horrific. The people would often lose entire parts of their face, often resulting in almost complete isolation. In England, benches near the Veteran’s hospital were painted blue, signifying that it would be extremely upsetting to see any man who was sitting there.

World War I FactsGeograph

14. The Man in the Copper Mask

Repairing the soldier’s injured faces was virtually impossible in the days before plastic surgery and transplants, so the solution most often used was to create masks. Some of the best masks were made by sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd who would take plaster casts of a soldier’s face and attempt to re-create the missing part of the face. She would make the masks out of copper and paint it to match the skin while it was being worn. The mask would be tied to the head with a string or hung from eyeglasses. Eventually, Ladd was able to create the masks from images or photos. In 1925, she was made a Chevalier (knight) of the Legion of Honor for her work.

World War I FactsWikipedia

13. Conscientious Objectors

As with any battle, there were a number of dissenters who refused to cooperate with the army and fight in WWI. Of the men who were drafted in England, approximately 16,000 became conscientious objectors to the conflict. In Britain, many of these men were either sent to lock up or assigned to civilian jobs. Some were handed white feathers as an implication of cowardice, and as an attempt to shame them into fighting. In many other European countries, the conscientious objectors were imprisoned or executed. In the US, those who refused to carry out any form of service were sentenced to hard labor in prisons like Alcatraz and Ft. Leavenworth.

Creepiest Place FactsFlickr

12. Battle Pigeons

During WWI, pigeons were found to be a reliable way of sending messages, and as a result, came to play a crucial role in the battle. They had an amazing homing ability, and flew at such a high speed, that take them down was almost impossible. Over 100,000 pigeons were used during the battle, with a success rate of over 95% in delivering their messages.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

11. Cher Ami

One legendary story about pigeons from the conflict is that of a pigeon nicknamed Cher Ami. As the story goes, in October of 1918, American army found themselves trapped by the Germans, and cut off from other Allied forces with no working radios. Their only chance of being rescued was to send out a message by pigeon, alerting the Allies to their location. The pigeon Cher Ami reportedly flew 25 miles from behind German lines to American headquarters in just 25 minutes. German forces apparently shot the pigeon in the chest, but it continued to fly home and successfully delivered the “Lost Battalion’s” coordinates to the Americans. A rescue was launched, and 194 men were saved. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm for its incredible feat.

World War I FactsU.S. Army Reserve

10. Food Price Fixing

Prior to WWI, Edwardian society was one of lavishness and luxury for the wealthy classes, but during the early months of the battle that trend reversed as shortages came into play. Food prices rose drastically as stockpiling occurred and the newly formed Cabinet Committee on Food Supplies was forced to fix maximum prices for food. At the same time as the price fixing was put in place, the luxury food demand experienced a major drop due to a lack of entertaining.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

9. As Dark as the Middle Ages

Fuel also was in short supply during the battle, forcing Britons to dim the street lamps and put up blinds which were to be kept drawn at night. These new laws led one lady to quip that by the end of the battle, Britain was “almost as dark as the Middle Ages". By 1915, coal was also in short supply, and newspapers began printing advice on how to save fuel while cooking or cook without it entirely.

World War I FactsShutterstock

8. Conflict to End All Wars

H.G. Wells was the first to use the term “The Conflict to End All Wars” to describe WWI. With casualties of up to 15 million people and the absolute destruction it caused, Wells, along with many others, hoped that it would teach the world that battle was not a solution for settling political conflict. In the end, this hope pcroved idealistic, and less than three decades later, the world entered into another global conflict.

World War I FactsWikipedia

 

7. Zimmerman Telegram

In January 1917, a telegram was intercepted by British forces from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman trying to pull Mexico into the battle by offering them bordering US territories. This message, along with the sinking of US ships, helped draw the Americans into the conflict.

World War I FactsWikipedia

6. Big Bertha

Big Bertha was the name of a 48-ton howitzer (giant weapon) used by the Germans during WWI and was named after the designer’s wife Bertha. It could fire a 2,050lb shell approximately 9.3 miles and took a crew of 200 men and six hours to put one together. Altogether Germany had 13 of these “wonder weapon”.

World War I FactsFlickr

 

5. Humanity Is Mad!

The 21-year-old French Lieutenant Alfred Joubert’s diary became an important eyewitness account of the battle. In his diary, he wrote “Humanity is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a barbarism. What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Underground cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!” Joubert was ended by a German artillery shell just one day after writing that entry.

World War I FactsShutterstock

4. Finding a Way

At the beginning of the battle, some Americans were angry with the United States’ decision to remain neutral and not enter the conflict. Anxious to contribute, many of them joined the French Foreign Legion or the British Canadian army. The Lafayette Escadrille was part of the French Air Force but was formed by a group of American pilots. They became one of the best fighting units on the Western Front.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

3. Lawrence of Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence was a British diplomat, archeologist, Army officer and writer who gained legendary status during WWI. He was known for his participation in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during WWI and became known as Lawrence of Arabia. In 1962, a film of the same name detailed his activities during the battle.

World War I FactsWikipedia

2. A Unlawful Offense

As shortages grew, rations also became stricter. Chocolate and candy sales halted entirely, horses, cows, and pigeons were rationed, and throwing rice at weddings became a unlawful offense. The government advised people to “eat slowly” and “keep warm” so that they would need less food, but no suggestions on how to keep warm with limited fuel and no fat in their diet was offered.

World War I FactsPicryl

1. Canary Girls

Both the staining color of their product and its hazard side effect of jaundice became a problem for the UK women who made TNT during WWI. These women were called canary girls, because being exposed to TNT was bad, and it turned their skin the same orange-yellow color as the canary. Munitionettes was another nickname for the women. Despite the endearing nicknames, almost one in four canary girls lost her life from the hazard effects of their work.

World War I FactsWikimedia Commons

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35


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