44 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About World War I

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The First World War, which spanned 1914 – 1918, easily qualifies as one of the most tragic global events of the 20th century. It was the cause of much loss of life, destruction of resources and property, and an increasingly strained set of international relations. Though most of us have some idea of what transpired during WWI, the following facts are rarer titbits of information not everyone knows about.

Flamethrowers

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Weapons that could shoot jets of fire up to 40 meters ahead, flamethrowers were first used by the Germans during the war.

African-American Displacement

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During WWI, a large-scale population shift took place where African-Americans shifted from southern states to the north.

Russian Troops

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Russia had managed to mobilize the largest body of troops during WWI. More than 75% of the 12 million Russians who were enlisted died, got wounded or were never found.

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The British lost nearly 60,000 troops in one day, which is the single largest wartime casualty to occur in their history.

Spanish Flu

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Around 33% of the troops who died in WWI were victims of the Spanish Flu.

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The most decorated American officer from WWI was Alan Cullum York, who not just led an attack against the Germans, but managed to capture 132 soldiers, kill another 28, and even round up 32 machine guns.

Civilian Deaths

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In August 1914, the German army killed 150 civilians at Aerschot with the express purpose of terrifying them so they wouldn’t rebel.

The Messengers

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Pigeons and dogs were used as messengers between those at the front line and those at the headquarters.

The Explosion

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According to witness accounts, explosives being used on Messines Ridge in Belgium in 1917 could be heard 220 km away in London.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

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Trench warfare had such a massive impact on millions of soldiers who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which caused uncontrollable diarrhoea, whimpering, twitching and so on.

The Best Pilot

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Rittmeister von Richthofen is often deemed the best pilot to have fought in WWI. He shot down 80 enemy planes which is the highest recorded achievement by a single person.

Hello Girls

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Women were enlisted as telephone operators in Europe to serve Pershing’s forces. American soldiers called them “Hello Girls”.

The Devil Gun

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The French army had a gun which, at 75mm, was accurate up to 4 miles. The Germans called it the “Devil Gun”.

Early Entrants

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When USA initially refused to join the war, some American individuals joined the British or Canadian Army and even the French Foreign Legion.

Gas Tragedies

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Gases were also used as a means of exterminating the enemy and over 90,000 individuals across countries died due to exposure to toxic gases

Woodrow Wilson’s Campaign

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Woodrow Wilson got elected to office for the second time on March 1917, his campaign was based on the slogan “He kept us out of war”. Ironically, about a month after his election, USA joined the war.

Machine Guns

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The WWI saw the usage of machine guns in a big way. Most such weapons used were based on the maxim design, patented in the US in 1884.

US Supplies Support

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The US shipped over 75 million tons of supplies over to France, including horses, mules, locomotives, trucks and freight cars, to support the Allied Forces’ military effort.

Food Provisions

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In order to generate adequate food supplied for sustaining the war, 20 million Americans planted personal gardens for produce.

Preventing Gas Intoxication

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Before 1918, when the military helmets did not provide adequate protection against toxic gases, soldiers used urine-soaked clothes to cover their mouths and prevent intoxication/death.

Dogfighting

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A term that came into vogue during the WWI was dogfighting. It was a form of air combat where pilots, on turning planes sharply, had to shut the engines to prevent stalling. On restarting these, the engines produced a sound akin to dog barks.

French Gassing

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The French and not the Germans were the first to begin chemical warfare. They first used tear gas grenades in August 1914

Empires Destroyed

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Post the WWI, four major world empires – The Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire and German Empire – witnessed a downfall.

Many Names

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The WWI has been variously termed as “The Great War”, “The War of the Nations” and the “War To End All Wars”.

The 6th Most Deadly Conflict

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Though the First World War took a great toll on human life, it is actually the 6th most deadly conflict of the world.

War Locations

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Most of the WWI was fought in Europe. The combat also touched every ocean across the world and almost all continents too.

Trench Quality

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The Germans had very elaborate trenches equipped with faucets, lights, doorbells, bunk beds and other amenities. British trenches were far more functional and bare.

Tanks Categorization

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British tanks were categorized as “Male” or “Female” based on the equipment they carried. “Female Tanks” carried machine guns, while “Male Tanks” carried cannons.

Pool Of Peace

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Belgium’s “Pool of Peace” fills a 12 m deep crater created by the explosion of 45 tons of explosives commissioned by the British.

Big Bertha

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Amongst other war technology, Germans also had 13 huge guns called Big Berthas which could fire 930-kg shells and required a crew of 200 men for 6 hours to be fired.

Mata Hari

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With suspicion and treachery being so widely prevalent, several individuals on both sides were accused of being double agents. Margaretha Zelle a.k.a. Mata Hari was executed by the French in 1917 on the same grounds though she never agreed to being a spy.

A Dying Man’s Impression

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Just before dying, a French Second Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire recorded his impression of WWI in his diary claiming that “Humanity is mad…Hell cannot be so terrible”.

Germany Egging Mexico

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A telegram sent by Germany to Mexico was deciphered by British Cartographers. They believed the Germans had been egging Mexico to invade the US.

War Costs

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It goes without saying that WWI drained numerous economies of their financial and other resources. The USA, which fought the war for only a year and a half, incurred expenditure of 30 billion dollars.

Hamburger Renamed

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Since “hamburger” has German roots, the Americans renamed their burgers as “Salisbury Steaks” during WWI.

Native American Troops

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Even as the US government had not granted citizenship to Native Americans, nearly 13,000 people of this community fought in the war.

Christmas Peace

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In 1914, Christmas Eve came with a truce on both sides of the Western Frontier that no combat was to take place. Soldiers even sang carols to each other. The next year however, orders were to shoot anyone who tried the same thing again.

The Benign Nurse

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An extremely devoted British nurse who helped soldiers on both sides, Edith Cavell was executed by the German Army by being shot by a firing squad.

Largest Military Power

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With its involvement in WWI, the US established itself as the largest military power in the world.

Medical Advancement

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The experience of WWI led to medical advancement in that doctors gained more proficiency with wound management and setting of bones.

The Treaty of Versailles

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Amongst the various peace treaties that aided the war’s end, The Treaty of Versailles gave Alsace and Loraine back to the French, further stating that Germans were responsible for the war

Death Toll

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Archival records suggest that a whopping 65 million soldiers from 30 countries fought in the war which led to a death toll of almost 10 million fightes.

Independent States

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With the end of the first World War, several nations including Poland, Latvia, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania emerged as independent nation states

Peace Negotiations

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The WWI gave rise to the institution of the League of Nations for maintenance of world peace. However, after another war, it was replaced by a stronger body, i.e. the UN.

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