2017 marks almost a century since the ‘Great War’ ended in 1918. Ironically, the four-year-long struggle was at that time dubbed ‘the war to end all wars.’ But although the First World War was certainly not the last major conflict the world would have to endure in the decades that followed, it was truly unlike anything that had ever come before or afterward.
The death toll in WWII may have been greater than the first, but trench warfare in World War 1 was by far the most abominable and devastating mode of fighting the world had ever seen. The battlefield was a scene of pure horror, and the inhumane conditions endured by soldiers for months on end created psychological trauma that ravaged lives forever and went on to inspire haunting poetry.
But aside from what you may already know about WWI, ranging from the horrors of life in the trenches, to the poetry and countless films about the grisly conflict, there may be some facts that surprise you about the First World War. Did you know, for example, that a young Walt Disney was among one of the famous volunteers during the war effort? Or that one carrier pigeon helped to rescue nearly 200 men? These and 13 other incredible facts are listed below. Take a look at the 15 things you probably never knew about WWI.
15 An Explosion In France Was Heard In London
A group of miners working in secrecy dug a multitude of tunnels 100ft beneath German trenches. They had planned to plant enough explosives in tunnels beneath enemy lines to destroy most of the German front and they definitely succeeded during one mass detonation on June 7th, 1917. When more than 900,000 lbs of explosives detonated simultaneously across 19 underground tunnels at Messines Ridge in Belgium, the blast was so loud that it was heard 140 miles away in London!
Unsurprisingly, the use of almost a million pounds of explosives successfully destroyed most of the German front line and was destructive enough to catch the ear of the British Prime Minister at the time, David Lloyd George. 10,000 Germans died instantly in the blast, killing an estimated 25,000 German soldiers in total in the days and weeks that followed. Long before the birth of the nuclear bomb, this was known to be the largest man-made explosion in history.
14 Walt Disney (Among Others) Volunteered With The Red Cross
Years before they found worldwide fame and success, some famous figures actually volunteered during WWI as part of the war effort. The most famous name perhaps was a young Walt Disney (pictured above) who found work as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross at the age of 16. He had initially tried and failed to sign up for the war, but was rejected for being underage.
Other high profile WWI volunteers included the iconic crime writer Agatha Christie, who nursed soldiers at a Torquay hospital for the entire duration of the war and novelist Vera Brittain who worked as Red Cross nurse. Brittain wrote about her time as a war nurse in a number of diaries and these would later become her much-loved memoir Testament of Youth published in 1933. (Brittain’s memoir recently got the Hollywood treatment in the 2014 film of the same name, starring Alicia Vikander and Game of Thrones star, Kit Harrington).
13 The Youngest British Soldier Was 12 Years Old
The jingoistic war poetry and the strong sense of patriotism during the early months of the war was a pretty infectious combination for many boys and young men. For them, taking part in the Great War promised adventure and glory and an escape from dull home life. A big motivation for underage recruits was also the notion that the war would be a short undertaking.
Among the many naive, underage boys eager to sign themselves up for the war was 12-year-old Sidney Lewis. Desperate to play his part in the war effort, Lewis lied about his age and was soon serving in the East Surrey regiment with hundreds of adult soldiers. At the tender age of just 13, Lewis spent six weeks fighting in the Battle of the Somme - the worst and bloodiest battle in British history - before his mother wrote to the War office with his birth certificate.
12 A Replica Of Paris Was Made As a Decoy to Fool German Pilots
In an attempt to trick German pilots in the event of a bomb attack upon Paris, the French went so far as to construct a decoy city of Paris, complete with buildings and roads to ensure the real city would be spared. The fake French capital was located about 15 miles outside the real Paris and featured fake railways, an Arc de Triomphe, a Champs-Elysees and other iconic landmarks to make it look like the real deal.
At a time before sophisticated radar technology, German bombers could have quite easily mistaken the fake Paris for the real thing, especially since the fake city was so expertly detailed. Colored lamps were lit at night to mimic machines in operation and translucent paint was used on certain buildings to create the impression of dirty factory roofs. In the end, the fake city never got a test run - the German bombing raids ended before most of it was completed.
11 Generals Were Banned From Going Over The Top
You may have heard the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ in reference to the supposed incompetence of British generals during the First World War. For the most part, this is an unfortunate and unfair stereotype still pinned upon military leaders long after the conflict. The stereotype is that the brave and heroic soldiers were led by indifferent and unfeeling generals who preferred to sit out the war while thousands lost their lives.
The fact is, many generals were actually eager to get closer to the front line and fight alongside their men, but they were ultimately banned from fighting, especially if it meant going over the top since so many men were killed this way. Losing an experienced and accomplished general was too valuable a loss in the midst of warfare and so even those desperate to fight were forced to stay far behind enemy lines. What many took to believe as cowardice and a desire to ride out the war in comfort and safety was not always the case for some generals.
10 'Dazzle Camouflage' Was Used To Confuse The Enemy
Traditionally, camouflage is supposed to conceal things from the enemy, but the artist and Royal Navy volunteer, Norman Wilkinson, had other ideas. During WWI, merchant ships carrying food and military supplies to the front were at constant risk of being targeted by German U-boats before they could reach the men in need. But instead of hiding behind conventional camouflage, Wilkinson had the reverse idea.
Wilkinson proposed the idea of ships being covered in bold shapes and bright patterns in order to confuse the enemy - it was known as ‘dazzle camouflage’. As stupid as it may sound, warships decked out in ‘dazzle’ paint and patterns may have actually thrown off the enemy. This is because the contrast of light and dark colors and hypnotizing patterns had a way of distorting the ship’s shape at different angles, making it look as if the ships were traveling in different directions. The idea may not have caught on, but we like Wilkinson’s style!
9 French Troops Took Taxis To The Front Line
Within a few months of war breaking out, the German army was advancing at a scary speed towards France. By September 1914, German troops were only 30 miles East of Paris. Having lost a staggering 27,000 men only the month before in just one day, the French army needed thousands of more troops and they needed them fast. Men were conventionally taken to the front line by train, but even this wasn’t enough. So France used the one form of transport they had in abundance - taxis.
France had thousands of taxi cabs at their disposal and these were reportedly used to take around 5,000 men to the front line. The taxi fare would have cost around £280,000 ($347,732) in today’s money, but it turned out to be money well spent. The reinforcements sent by taxi helped to halt the German advance, which was in danger of closing in around Paris. One of the original taxi cabs is still on display at the Museum of the Great war in Meaux, near the Marne battlefield where the hold-off took place.
8 The War Effort Turned Some Women Yellow
With the majority of the male population out to war, women played a vital role in preserving industry by taking the place of male jobs in places like munition factories. Before long, some female factory workers had earned the nickname ‘Canary Girls’ (although, not for a particularly cute or flattering reason!). The female workforce in munition factories would work long hours with TNT and other chemicals that would result in toxic jaundice and cause the skin to turn yellow.
Over a million women took jobs in ammunition factories and for many, this turned out to be fatal. TNT poisoning would cause some women’s skin and hair to turn yellow as a result of pouring dangerous chemicals into shells in awful factory conditions. The jaundice effect was so powerful that some factory workers even went on to have babies that were born with yellow-tinged skin, known as the ‘Canary Babies’ of WWI - (again, this sounds a lot cuter than it should!).
7 Battalions Were Created Especially For Shorter Soldiers
The requirements to be a soldier in the First World War were pretty strict, particularly when it came to a soldier’s height. Men looking to join the British Army in August 1914 had to be at least 5ft 3 inches tall. For even shorter men that were eager to sign up, this proved to be a bit of a problem, but they were soon given a break when a new type of battalion was introduced that allowed short men to enlist.
Recruitment posters and materials at the time didn’t hide the fact that the British Army needed all the help they could get, encouraging men young and old to help ‘fight the good fight’. As a result, some regiments created ‘bantam battalions’ for shorter men - many of these were coal miners which made them invaluable for tunnel work. The bantam battalions were short-lived, however, (excuse the pun) when conscription was introduced in 1916.
6 Women Kept Football Alive
To any man who likes to belittle female sports figures and their achievements in the sporting world, it might be a shock to learn that women are essentially the reason that one of the world’s biggest sports (football) is still around today. After the start of the war, football clubs in the UK were dwindling and were hard to maintain with so many men off to war. Enter female munition workers or ‘munitionettes’ as they were known who helped keep it going.
Munitionettes were female factory workers who formed into football teams and would often play against rival factories around the country. Before long, Munitionette football had gained a pretty loyal following and in time some matches were even held on the grounds of professional football clubs. When peace was restored, the munitionettes sport enjoyed a few years of success until 1921, when women were banned from playing in the Football League altogether. Gratitude!
5 Wilfred Owen Wasn’t Known Until Long After The War
Now largely considered to be the defining poet of the First World War, if not one of the finest poets in history, the author of such works as ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ was relatively unknown after the war. Wilfred Owen’s work focused on the horrors and depravity of warfare, but his opinion was largely in the minority. It wasn’t until as late as the 1960’s that Owen’s views were agreed upon as an entirely authentic depiction of trench life and the war itself.
Popular war poetry during Owen’s time was very patriotic and jingoistic to encourage young men to join up and fight with honor for King and country. It was progressive poets like Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who were trying in vain to point out that there was no honor to be found in the needless slaughter of millions. Wilfred Owen tragically died within a week of peace being declared.
4 Rudyard Kipling’s Way of Honouring Unknown Soldiers
Of the 11 million soldiers killed in battle during WWI, thousands went unidentified. Thanks to the much-loved writer and Nobel Prize winner, Rudyard Kipling, these scores of unknown soldiers were rightly celebrated and remembered with Kipling’s poetic words “A soldier of the Great war known unto God.” These immortal words appeared on the gravestones of the unknown dead soldiers to ensure every casualty of the war was shown the respect and honor they deserved.
Ensuring the unknown war dead were honored was an issue close to Kipling’s heart, since he lost his own son John in 1915, whose body was never found. John Kipling was eager to enlist in the army, despite suffering from extremely poor eyesight. After failing medical exams and being rejected twice from signing up, John turned to his father’s celebrity to help pull some strings. It got him in, but it also got him killed when he was hit by a German shell during the battle of Loos in 1915.
3 A Single Carrier Pigeon Saved 198 US Soldiers
Pigeons were used throughout both World Wars to send urgent messages due to their speed and homing ability. Many were actually presented with medals for their part in the war effort (although, these might have been a little too heavy for their necks!). One particularly heroic carrier pigeon in WWI was a blue check hen named Cher Ami (meaning ‘Dear Friend’) who survived bullet fire on route to saving 198 US soldiers.
The American soldiers were trapped behind enemy lines and had already sent a number of carrier pigeons to the US Army to inform them of their whereabouts, but every bird was shot down - until Cher Ami. This brave and determined little homing pigeon persevered through treacherous conditions and managed to deliver the message despite being shot through the breast or wing. She delivered the message in October 1918 on what turned out to be her last ever mission and the 198 trapped US soldiers were rescued soon afterward.
2 People Offered Up Their Homes As Hospitals
As the war raged on, hospitals up and down the UK unsurprisingly found themselves overflowing with wounded soldiers. They would have been at breaking point if it weren’t for the kindness and community spirit of ordinary civilians who gave up their homes to admit some of the sick and wounded troops. The Joint War Committee (made up of the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John) was inundated with kind offers from the public to use their homes and any other owned buildings as makeshift hospitals.
As the need became greater, injured soldiers and other servicemen were being treated in temporary hospitals everywhere from town halls and schools to private houses in towns and the countryside. The most suitable homes for medical treatment became established auxiliary hospitals and offered the Red Cross staff a homely and less crowded place to treat the war wounded. The informal atmosphere of a home hospital no doubt helped with soldier morale too.
1 WWI Pioneered Plastic Surgery
We now associate plastic surgery with the likes of Kim Kardashian and other vain celebrities looking to put off the aging process for as long as possible. It’s easy to forget that the original aim of plastic surgery is to restore and reconstruct the human body, not to cosmetically enhance (or in many cases, ruin) what we already have. The devastating facial injuries suffered by men during WWI called for a new kind of facial reconstruction process - the birth of plastic surgery.
A surgeon named Harold Gillies was a pioneer in this new field of facial reconstruction surgery, as he was tasked with treating the horrific facial injuries of soldiers. Unlike the relatively straightforward wounds that a long range bullet could inflict, the impact of shrapnel flying through the air after heavy shelling could tear a face off. Gillies treatment of restoring faces utterly obliterated by shell fragments was the start of plastic surgery as we know it.
Sources: History Extra; The Telegraph; BBC News; Red Cross.