It was called “The Great War”, or “The War to End All Wars.” Today, we know it as World War I. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo the month prior. The resulting conflict destroyed empires, killed millions, and reshaped the world in a war that was meant to be the last.
World War I could be seen as the both the end and the beginning of differing styles of warfare, technologies, and outlooks towards war. The harsh reality of trench warfare, machine guns, and mustard gas put an end to the romantic notions and chivalry of 19th century wars. This was most evident, for example, at the onset of World War I, when the French cavalry rode into battle festooned exactly as they did during the Napoleonic Wars.
Many nations were ill-prepared for the harsh reality of modern warfare. Beyond the horrors unleashed by modern weaponry, there were some innovations designed for use in the war that have become household items today; these items include tea bags, wristwatches, or little vegetarian soy sausages. But those stories are the more mundane. There are many more unbelievable facts that arose from World War I to be told. There are tales of honor, bravery, treachery, and medical mysteries that are just too inconceivable to believe. Nevertheless, we have compiled a list of some that still amaze us today. Read on for 15 of the most incredible facts about World War I.
15. Zimmerman Telegram
Many historians will tell you that, despite their neutral policy, American involvement in World War I was inevitable by 1917. However, there is little doubt the United States was ultimately nudged towards warfare by an infamous letter written by German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman, eponymously referred to now as the Zimmerman Telegram. It was January 16, 1917; British code breakers were hard at work decoding German communications. An encrypted message was intercepted from Zimmerman that was intended for the German ambassador to Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The message was decoded and revealed a disturbing set of instructions: if the neutral United States joined the Allies in the war, Von Eckardt was to offer Mexico’s president a secret wartime alliance. The Germans would pledge military and financial support for a Mexican invasion of the United States; in exchange Mexico would be allowed to annex previously-held territories in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Also, Von Eckardt was instructed to use the Mexican government as an intermediary to induce Japan to join the war on Germany’s side. The decrypted telegram was turned over to the United States roughly a month later and soon its contents were headline news on the front pages of newspapers across the country.
President Woodrow Wilson had just been reelected based on his policy of neutrality, but the telegram was clear evidence of German aggression. Germany and the United States had cut formal diplomatic ties just the month prior due to unrestricted submarine warfare that was preying on American vessels. This was the last straw and caused many in the U.S. government to favor entering the war. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson abandoned his isolationist stance and asked Congress to declare war on Germany and the Central Powers. America was in the war.
14. Anti-German Sentiment Led to Names Changes
At the onset of the war, anti-German sentiment was so high that in America even German shepherd dogs were killed! The names of popular American foods like frankfurters (named after the German city of Frankfurt), hamburgers (named after the German city of Hamburg), and sauerkraut became liberty sausage, liberty cabbage, and Salisbury steak. Dachshund dogs became liberty dogs. German books were banned and the German language ceased to be taught in schools.
In England, they passed the Defense of the Realm Act of 1914. This prohibited anyone from speaking a foreign language during telephone conversations, hailing a cab at night, or even purchasing a pair of binoculars! Alcoholic drinks were watered down and pubs were mandated to close at 10 P.M. Anti-German sentiment was so great that England’s King George V, cousin to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, had to change the Royal Family’s name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to their current family name of Windsor. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the current Queen Elizabeth’s husband, was of the Battenberg family. His family chose to change their names to the more Anglicized Mountbatten. In addition, many road names in England were changed as well.
13. The Birth of Plastic Surgery
New military technology unveiled in World War I left medical science in a race to catch up. Surviving soldiers with injuries so severe that doctors were at a loss for treatments. Deadly shrapnel had left many with major facial injuries and primitive copper masks were fashioned to hide the deformities. These masks were held on by glasses and painted to match the wearer’s skin tone. Unlike bullet wounds, shrapnel could rip faces clean off. Disturbed by the injuries he was seeing, surgeon Sir Harold Gillies endeavored to create an early form of facial reconstruction to help these soldiers. Gillies was a London surgeon who left to serve in field hospitals in Belgium and France. His early form of plastic surgery was crude but his aim wasn’t for aesthetic pleasantry, but to restore the patients function and form. He used artists to created sculptures of what the patients had looked like prior to their injuries and he strove to restore them, as much as he could, to that original form.
His work in skin grafting was groundbreaking. Even though skin grafts had been performed in Germany and the Soviet Union, Gillies refined the practice and created techniques that could be reproduced by others. On one particularly gruesome day in July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Gillies and his colleagues saw around 2,000 patients. He published the before-and-after photographs after the war of those patients and revealed how incredibly, and often unbelievably, successful he and his team had been in repairing many of those destroyed faces. Gillies early Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department was a far cry from the posh plastic surgeons of today, but his work was revolutionary and helped many a returning soldier.
12. The King and Queen Who Fought on the Front Lines
He was Albert I, of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, King of the Belgians, a cousin to both King George V of Great Britain, and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. During World War I, he fought on the front lines along with his troops, as did his wife, Queen Elisabeth, who served as a nurse. At the onset of World War I, King Albert assumed command of the Belgian army and refused to comply with German demands to be allowed to march through their country to attack France. King Albert led his army through Antwerp and through the Battle of the Yser, where his forces were driven back to behind the Yser River. He held this position for four years.
The German invasion of Belgium was cause for Great Britain to enter the war as they were a guarantor of Belgium’s neutrality. King Albert’s position of defense allowed the British and French forces enough time to prepare for the famous Battle of the Marne. During this period, the King and Queen fought and served alongside their troops, sharing all the dangers. Stories spread throughout the German army about a king serving on the front. Rumors are that no German soldier dared fire upon King Albert out of respect for his rank. Possibly, they feared shooting him for fear of punishment by their own government for being the one who killed the Kaiser’s cousin.
You probably didn’t know this by heroin, the highly addictive drug, was discovered and manufactured originally by the pharmaceutical company Bayer. After the American Civil War, morphine was the go-to drug to alleviate the pain of soldier’s horrible injuries. Thousands of soldiers became addicted to morphine. Bayer refined morphine into the commercial product heroin. They heavily advertised it as being a non-addictive treatment for morphine addicts, as great for bronchitis, tuberculosis, and as a general cough remedy. In 1906, the American Medical Association approved heroin for the general public, recommending it be used in place of morphine.
This was until World War I, when New York City alone contained 200,000 heroin addicts. So much for being non-addictive! In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Act was passed to try to stop the abuse of cocaine, heroin, and cannabis. It became illegal to own, use, or even be addicted to these illicit narcotics. Doctors and pharmacies were required to register and pay taxes on all prescriptions. This was the beginning of drug abuse laws in America. Soon, even medical use was outlawed. After World War I, the League of Nations followed up with even more restrictions on the manufacture and exporting of heroin.
10. Germany Issued Back-Pay
During World War I, Germany had an army called the Schutztruppe, which literally means “protection force.” These were the colonial troops in the African territories of the German colonial empire. This force was made up of local African soldiers referred to as Askari. When the war began, the Schutztruppe, commanded by Colonel (later General) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, numbered around 1,100 Askari. This would swell through recruitment and conscription to about 11,000 by 1917. The Schutztruppe were highly successful against their Allied opponents as they fought across Portuguese East Africa and into Northern Rhodesia. Ultimately, news of the armistice ending the war in Europe reached them and the Schutztruppe formally surrendered at Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia, on November 25, 1918. 1,100 long-serving Askari were present at the surrender.
After the war, the Allies interned the remaining Askari in prisoner-of-war camps, where many died of influenza. Ultimately, the survivors were returned home, with no compensation or means of support. Many German Askari lived out their lives in poverty. Throughout this period, retired General Lettow-Vorbeck fought hard in Germany to get back-pay and pensions for his veterans. Finally, in 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, West Germany elected to give back-dated pay to all the surviving Askari who served in World War I. Of the 350 soldiers who showed up, only a handful were in possession of their 1918 army-issued certificates proving their service. One German bureaucrat present had an idea: each Askari was to step forward, be handed a broom stick, and then ordered in German to perform the manual of arms, basically a formal multi-stepped presentation of weapons. This would surely prove he served in a German unit. Not a single Askari failed the test.
9. The ANZAC-Turkish Truce
Gallipoli, 1915. The Allies hoped to pierce the Dardanelles and knock Turkey out of the war. After a failed naval attack, thousands of Allied troops, many of them ANZAC soldiers (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), were trapped by Turkish forces. Both sides had dug into trenches and exchanged heavy gunfire. After one particular unsuccessful bayonet charge, Allied troops were forced back into their trenches, except for one wounded soldier who remained on the battlefield. He couldn’t move and was calling for help but no one dared expose themselves to try. Then, suddenly, the Turkish troops ceased fire. A single Turkish soldier rose from the trench waving a white flag. He made his way to the wounded Allied soldier. He then carried him all the way to the Allied trench before making his way back to his own troops. The gunfire then resumed. Then, near daybreak one morning, a pack of Turkish cigarettes was thrown out of the trenches towards the Allies. It had a note tied to it, “A Nore Herox Ennemis,” misspelled French for “To Our Heroic Enemies.” In return the ANZAC soldiers threw over a few tins of beef, then some biscuits and jam. More cigarettes were thrown in return. Then each side waved to each other in thanks and the fighting resumed.
After a few months, the defeated Allied soldiers were evacuated but not after 43,000 had died. One of the Turkish soldiers present was Mustapha Kemal, who, twenty years later, would become Turkey’s president as Kemal Ataturk. He erected a statue dedicated to the fallen soldiers and issued a statement to all Allied mothers who lost sons in that battle, “You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. … They have become our sons as well.”
8. The Red Baron’s Death
Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, the Red Baron, so named for his bright red plane and the fact that he was, well, a baron, was a German fighter pilot during the war. He is considered the greatest ace of World War I, and is credited with 80 confirmed air combat victories. The Allies were both in awe and fear of his incredible aerial abilities and he was well-respected by both sides. On April 21, 1918, the Red Baron had penetrated deep into Allied territory pursuing a British fighter. He flew too near the ground during his chase and an Australian gunner was able to shoot him in the chest. He crashed his plane into a nearby field. His plane was not badly damaged and the first Allied soldiers at the site say the Baron was still alive when they arrived. Reportedly, he spoke his final words, “kaputt,” German for “broken,” before dying.
Souvenir hunters quickly dismantled his crashed plane but the No. 3 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps, the nearest Allied air unit, took responsibility for the Baron’s remains. The ranking officer organized a military funeral with full honors befitting their worthy adversary. The following day, six squadron officers served as pallbearers, while an honor guard fired a volley in salute. Allied squadrons stationed nearby presented memorial wreaths, one of which was inscribed, “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.” A video exists of this honorable tribute to a fallen enemy.
7. Talk About Paying Your Bills!
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles formally ended World War I. However, this only marked the beginning of Germany’s incredible financial burden. As part of the treaty, the Germany government took on a huge reparations debt. As part of the “War Guilt Clause,” Germany was judged responsible for the war and ordered to repay the Allies 132 billion gold marks, roughly just over $400 billion in today’s value. Of course, Germany was taken off the gold standard just after 1914, but nevertheless they were forced to print money to keep up with the payments. The nation defaulted many times before an American financier reasoned they could issue private bonds to raise the money to pay the debt.
Of course, those bonds still had to be repaid and, as many will tell you, the resulting animosity, financial burden, and hyperinflation, all contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler and World War II. Hitler cut off all reparation payments in the early 1930s, so the debt remained in arrears until the 1950s. At that time West Germany agree to restart payments and fulfill its pre-World War II bond obligations. Over the next several decades, Germany continued to pay down its foreign debt; however, some of the interest on the bonds continued to be outstanding until after the reunification of Germany in 1990. In 2010, Germany paid its final installment payment of $94 million; a full 91 years after the Treaty of Versailles.
6. U-28 Monster
Throughout the war, Germany’s U-boat fleet prowled the Atlantic Ocean harassing merchant shipping. One particular U-boat, U-28, sank 40 vessels in her career before she was sunk herself in 1917. Before that, on July 30, 1915, the U-28 had closed in on and sank a British steamer, the Iberian, off the coast of Ireland. The U-28’s captain, Commander Von Forstner wrote in his log book what he witnessed. He reported that the steamer sank so quickly that the ship’s bow heaved out of the water almost vertically into the air. The hull of the ship then disappeared under the waves. Once the ship slipped under the water, approximately twenty-five seconds elapsed before he witnessed an incredible explosion. He saw pieces of debris shoot out of the water. Within the debris that the explosion launched out of the water was something Commander von Forstner couldn’t believe – a gigantic creature. The animal was lifted out of the water to a height of approximately 80 feet.
Alongside Commander von Forstner were six of his officers, including the chief navigator, the navigator, and the helmsman. They all witnessed the creature, which they report was writhing and shifting among the debris. They couldn’t identify the animal but all agreed that looked like some immense crocodile, approximately 60-feet long. It had four limbs, a long, pointed tale, and a head that also appeared pointed. After approximately 10-15 seconds, the animal sank below the water out of sight. The officers were unable to get a photo. What was it? Could it have been as large as the crew believed? This wouldn’t be the last time the crew of a German U-boat reported some large creature in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, as you’ll see in the next listing.
5. U-85 Monster
The U-85 was a German submarine commanded by Captain Gunther Krech. In April 1918, a British ship came upon Captain Krech and his damaged U-boat sitting on the sea’s surface. Captain Krech immediately surrendered his damaged ship to the British. While being questioned, Captain Krech told an incredible tale. Captain Krech reported that the previous night he surfaced the sub to recharge its batteries. Then, without warning, his ship was attacked, not by an enemy ship, but by some sort of strange animal. Krech claimed it had a small head, with teeth that glistened in the moonlight. The size of the creature was immense and it caused the boat to list to one side. His crew were able to drive the creature away with small arms fire, but not before the sub was damaged. He explained that was why they weren’t able to submerge and flee from the approaching British patrol. Depending on reports the sub was then either scuttled or sunk by the British.
After awhile, the story passed into nautical folklore. That is until October 2016, when it was revealed that the U-85 might have been found. Workers off the coast of Scotland were laying a new power cable under the North Sea when they came across the infamous submarine. Sonar images show the U-boat to be mostly intact. Plans are being made to investigate further and we may soon finally discover what actually happened to the U-85. Was it really attacked by some unknown sea creature? What will we learn when they finally investigate the wreckage?
4. The Man Who Never Slept
Doctors will tell you that the human body can only go for a few days without sleeping before our body’s functions begin to become impaired, which could eventually kill you. Could you imagine not sleeping for a few days; some of us have done that. What about a week or two? How about a month or more? Without artificial stimulants, your body would eventually just shut down; you’d fall asleep whether you wanted to or not. Well, most of us, at least. One man, Hungarian Paul Kern, didn’t sleep a wink for 40 years! Not by choice, mind you, Paul Kern was unable to sleep. The American folk band, The Dimes, actually wrote a song about him, “Paul Kern Can’t Sleep.”
Kern was a Hungarian soldier who fought during World War I. He was serving on the front when he was shot in the head by a Russian soldier. He survived and was evacuated to Lemberg Hospital where surgeons were able to remove the bullet, which had damaged his brain’s frontal lobe. After he awoke from his injury he was never able to sleep again. At the University of Budapest, a professor attempted to treat Kern for his condition, but was never able to figure out the cause for the oddity. Paul Kern eventually died in 1955, not having slept a single night since he suffered that gunshot wound some 40 years prior.
3. The Hero Pigeon
Communication is key to armies in the field. Command, logistics, planning; they can all break down without adequate communications during combat. During World War I, two-way communications was not yet available. Field commanders often relied on carrier pigeons to transmit messages back and forth. Probably the most famous carrier pigeon of the war was Cher Ami, French for “Dear Friend.” Cher Ami served many months on the front lines in Fall 1918, flying 12 missions delivering important messages.
Cher Ami’s most important mission was on October 4, 1918. On the previous day, a battalion of the U.S. 77th Infantry Division was pinned down near a hill. Surrounded by the enemy, only 200 of the battalion’s 500 men were still alive. To try to alleviate the trapped battalion, nearby field artillery began to fire hundreds of rounds into the ravine onto the enemy German forces. However, artillery commanders didn’t quite know exactly where the trapped U.S. battalion was located and their shells were landing right on top of them. The trapped U.S. soldiers were doomed to be finished off by their own artillery. The battalion commander called for his final pigeon, Cher Ami. He wrote a simple note telling the artillery commanders that they were firing on his own men. Cher Ami was released and almost immediately became the target of German gunfire. Despite being wounded by the gunfire, Cher Ami bravely persisted and delivered her message, saving the battalion. Losing a leg and an eye in the journey, medics were able to save Cher Ami, fashioning a wooden leg. She was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for her bravery! Cher Ami died within a year of her wounds, but was preserved and her body is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
2. Sgt Stubby, the Hero Dog
Just like carrier pigeons, dogs were used during World War I as messengers. One such messenger dog was Sgt. Stubby. Stubby was a stray Pit Bull Terrier that was found wandering the parade grounds of Yale University, where a soldier named John R. Conroy was training with his unit for deployment in World War I. The unit was the 102nd Regiment, 26th Infantry Division, and Conroy adopted the dog on behalf of the unit, naming him Stubby. The soldiers soon learned that Stubby was incredibly smart and, from watching the troops train, learned the bugle calls, marching maneuvers, and could even salute superior officers. When it was time to ship out for France, Conroy smuggled Stubby onto the ship. Once discovered by the commanding officer, Stubby issued a salute, and was instantly allowed to be an official member of the unit, and ultimately the official mascot of the entire American Expeditionary Force.
During his tour of duty, Stubby participated in 17 battles and four major offensives. Stubby was shot, blown up by a grenade, and gassed by the enemy, but was too tough to kill. His heightened senses would alert the soldiers to impending gas attacks, artillery bombardments, and ground attacks. In between battles, Stubby would wander the battlefields searching for wounded. In September 1918, Stubby discovered a camouflaged German spy hiding out and mapping the Allied trenches. For his actions, Stubby was promoted to Sergeant. Sgt. Stubby returned home a hero and visited the White House twice, meeting three presidents and was the recipient of a special gold medal presented by General John J. Pershing. Sgt. Stubby died in 1926, but his body was preserved and is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
1. The Christmas Truce
During the World War I, soldiers hardly expected to celebrate the Christmas holiday on the battlefield, but it appeared that even the Christmas spirit couldn’t be dampened by war. In the very early morning hours on Christmas Day 1914, up and down many parts of the front lines, German troops emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines. At first the Allied soldiers were fearful it was some trick, but were met with German soldiers exclaiming “Merry Christmas” in bad English and extending their hands for a hearty handshake. Soon, the Allied soldiers emerged from their trenches and met the German troops in No Man’s Land (the area between the opposing front lines). The German and mostly British troops exchanged small gifts like chocolate, cigarettes, plum pudding, buttons, and national pins. In some locations, like near Ypres, Belgium, the German and British troops played football (Germany won 3-2). The troops sang Christmas carols together and proudly showed each other family photos.
Christmas came only a short five months after the outbreak of war in Europe. It was one of the final examples of old-world chivalry between enemies in warfare. The Christmas Truce lasted a week in some locations but was never repeated. Future attempts at holiday ceasefires were stopped by threats on both sides of disciplinary action, including shooting anyone who tried. However, that first truce was proof that, no matter how brief, even during a horrifying war, the fundamental humanity of the soldiers involved endured.