12 Facts About the First World War That You Might Not Know

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Soldiers inside of a German trench during the Battle of the Somme in the First World War in July 1917. You can see a soldier keeping look out as others sleep.
British soldiers in a German trench during the Battle of the Somme, July 1916. IWM // Public Domain

From 1914 – 1918, Europe and the rest of the world watched as millions fought in the First World War (WWI). This war marked a turning point in modern history and it is estimated that approximately 40 million military and civilian deaths occurred as a result. Described as ‘the war to end all wars’, the teaching of WWI is common in most people’s education. However, here are a few facts that may not have quite made it into the curriculum. 

1. WWI and the ‘Butterfly Effect’

WWI is an example of what is known as the ‘butterfly effect’, a theory that suggests that chaos and destruction can occur from just one small deviation from a plan. On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated after already surviving a failed assassination attempt earlier that day. This event had an enormous impact on the political landscape of the rest of Europe and, ultimately, led to the outbreak of the war. 

Women working at Chilwell ammunition factory in Nottinghamshire, UK in 1917 during World War I
Women working at Chilwell Ammunition Factory in Nottinghamshire, United Kingdom, July 1917. IWM // Public Domain

2. The Canaries

The role of women is rarely mentioned when discussing this war. In fact, women played an integral role in supporting both the troops and industry. By 1917, factories employing mostly women made upwards of 80% of weapons. They handled TNT on a daily basis which, due to chemical poisoning, turned their skin yellow. As a result, they came to be known as ‘the Canaries’.

3. The ‘Battalions of Death’

These Russian battalions were headed entirely by women and were used in the war as a tactic to get any slacking soldiers to work harder. Consisting of over 2,000 volunteers, these groups were used as a shock tactic by the Russian government to inspire the soldiers to keep going as the war began to come to an end. Even though only one battalion fought on the front line, they were known for being fearless and ruthless in their approach to battle.

4. Soft Hats Versus. Helmets

At the beginning of the war, soldiers were mostly issued with hats made from soft cloth materials that offered no protection in battle. By the end, most were given helmets that were able to protect them far better. Although, this still goes to show how ill-equipped and unaware these military commanders were of what was going to unfold as the war went on.

Sergeant Stubby, veteran of the First World War in circa. 1920
Sergeant Stubby, a veteran of the First World War in circa. 1920.

5. Man’s Best Friend: Sergeant Stubby

Sergeant Stubby was a Boston Terrier that became the official mascot of the 102nd Infantry Regiment from 1917-18. Eventually dying of natural causes in 1925, Sergeant Stubby was a celebrated and respected war veteran by all that got the chance to stand alongside him. He spent months in the trenches and survived multiple grenade attacks. Following his death, Sergeant Stubby received an obituary in the New York Times.

6. Tough Cookies: The Army Biscuit

It is often argued that the British army ran entirely on biscuits because they often made up such a significant portion of their rations. The biscuits were produced by the government and were supposedly so tough to bite into that they had to be dunked in tea first before any fun was had. In fact, because of how sturdy these biscuits proved to be, Sergeant M Herring of the Army Service Corp famously crafted a photo frame out of them to display a picture of his family.

Cher Ami, the stuffed body of the most decorated pigeon of the First World War.
The stuffed body of Cher Ami. Public Domain

7. Cher Ami: The Most Celebrated Pigeon

Cher Ami was a 1-year-old female pigeon that was given to British troops after being trained by American pigeoners. The pigeon always remained committed to her job of delivering important messages to troops throughout the battlefield. She is most well known for continuing to deliver intelligence during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive whereby, despite serious injuries, she still preserved to help the troops. Nearly a century later, Cheri Ami was awarded the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery.

8. Art From the War

World War I was famously well documented by war photographers from all backgrounds, but it is worth investigating the paintings and drawings that also came out of these years of battle. John Singer Sergeant, perhaps the most celebrated artist of this era, produced countless paintings that were really able to capture the atmosphere and morale amongst the soldiers. 

9. British Body Armour

Prior to the outbreak of World War One, the British government had spent time actually developing armor for their soldiers and allies to wear. Similar to chainmail, they designed a garment that protected the body from shrapnel. Again, this just goes to show how out of touch the government was with the realities of this kind of battle. 

A soldier holding a krummlauf, a gun  from World War One that was supposed to be able to shoot around the corner.
The Krummlauf in action. Flickr // CC BY 2.0

10. Weird Weapons: The Krummlauf

Developed by the Germans, the Krummlauf was a gun that was designed to successfully shoot around corners. Of course, this would have been particularly useful given the level of trench warfare. Unfortunately for its designers, the Krummlauf was a failure and, most of the time, couldn’t shoot straight let alone around a bend. 

11. Drinking and the Trenches

Alcohol was offered, albeit rationed, to the troops by both sides as a way of boosting morale and improving mood in the trenches. In fact, men fighting in the trenches received a booze rationing that was twice what their counterparts elsewhere got. The allies primarily distributed rum and whisky throughout the trenches and more was offered following bigger attacks by the enemy. 

A poster from WWI encouraging food saving
A Canadian Poster from World War I encouraging people to not waste food. Library of Congress

12. Strange Rules Back Home

Whilst the troops were away fighting, rather strange rules were imposed in their absence. For example, people were banned from feeding pigeons any excess food. They were also prohibited from the tradition of throwing rice at a wedding. These rules were in place to control food shortages but it was probably welcomed when the war could end and these sorts of restrictions could no longer be enforced.

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