10 Forgotten Facts About World War I


World War I is one of the most famous wars in history, but despite its significance, it often gets overlooked in favor of its more recent cousin, World War II. The Great War is especially less remembered as clearly by Americans, even though they played a large enough role that they should have felt more affected by it. Even many in Europe may remember well the contributions of themselves, or their closest allies, but some have forgotten the contribution of other less European allies, and many have simplified —  into somewhat erroneous legend — the reasons for the war and the ensuing political ramifications.

10. Flamethrowers Made Their First Appearance In World War I, And Were Found Wanting

Flamethrowers are a popular weapon in various video games, where they are especially good at taking out hordes of enemies. In some games, the enemy literally becomes helpless to fight you anymore once they burst into flames. In reality, when the Germans first tested the flamethrower in World War I, they found initial success, but only because they had the element of surprise. They attacked the British at Flanders and managed to push back the British line and inflict fairly heavy losses, but the British stabilized that same line within a couple days.

After that, the French and British not only started experimenting with their own, but they also started targeting anyone who carried one — operators stuck out like a sore thumb because of their gigantic backpacks and slow movement. To make matters worse, the flamethrower canister can explode under pressure, and many didn’t want to volunteer to use them because the enemy would gun for them. While flamethrowers have a niche use in certain applications, they may not be as good as video games suggest.

9. Germany’s Complaints About The Treaty Of Versailles Are A Whole Lot Of Nonsense

While we can only get so in depth on the Treaty of Versailles in a top 10 article, we will do our best to go over some of the most important myths. The biggest one is that the Allies were asking for a ruinous amount of money from Germany (a lie Hitler repeated constantly), but the allied powers were only asking the Germans to pay for civilian reparations. This was something that had been asked for in the past — and given — when Germany had won previous wars.

It is important to note, as well, that some claim the initial expected amount was 132 billion marks, but historians say that the Allies only expected the Germans to pay 50 billion marks, which was one billion less than the Germans had offered — presumably to round it down and give them some cushion. To drive a final stake in the heart of Hitler’s lie, the Germans never even fulfilled the obligation they agreed to — their economy was just mismanaged.

8. Britain And France Combined To Recruit Close To 150,000 Chinese For Manual Labor

During World War I, both China and Japan were rising powers who wanted to show their clout to the rest of the world. While neither of them really fought on any major front, they still had significant involvement in the war. The Germans had taken a city called Qingdao in Shandong Province, which gave them their own little permanent presence in China. The Chinese were neutral at the time and offered 50,000 troops to help the British take the city, but they didn’t feel it was important at the time. The Japanese retook it in order to establish their own presence in China and joined the Allies.

Now, with the Japanese part of the Allies, the Chinese tried to join in combat and found themselves rebuffed. The Allies would only allow them to fight if the Japanese would allow it as well — it had to be all Allies. And, unfortunately, the Japanese saw the Chinese as direct rivals and wanted all the glory for themselves. In order to still use the war to their advantage to show the world their strength and perhaps gain future favors, the Chinese sent roughly 150,000 non-combat helpers to join the British and French on the frontlines, doing all sorts of important work like repairing tanks, and digging and repairing trenches and other key fixtures.

7. The Story About The Sandwich Leading To The Start Of World War I Is Apocryphal

June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo was a day that will forever live in infamy. Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which many consider to be the straw that broke the camel’s back of all the tension in Europe and finally led to the start of World War I. Today, most know that the assassin only succeeded because of a sandwich. The story goes that the Archduke’s planned tour route actually was changed due to an attempted bombing and this flummoxed Princip, who had missed his chance at his target, so he went to get something to eat. While he was eating the Archduke stopped at the same sandwich shop, and Princip took his lucky chance and ended the royal’s life.

However, the folks at the Smithsonian Magazine have looked over this legend and found several major problems. For starters the legend only first appeared in 2003, and to make matters more silly, a sandwich is just not something that would have been eaten in a restaurant in Sarajevo in the early 1900s. The final stake in this silly story’s coffin is that the Archduke’s planned tour route did, indeed, go by the restaurant.

6. Some Blame Mutual Defense Treaties, But Tensions Had Been Simmering For Years

While all the causes and tensions leading up the World War I would be hard to fit in an entire top 10 article, much less one entry, the important myth that we want to talk about is that of mutual defense treaties. Many people think that World War I started largely due to many countries — who didn’t even want to fight — being dragged in by mutual defense treaties, against their will. Some even argue that this shows the weakness of such treaties, as they can force countries into unnecessary or unjust wars they didn’t want to be a part of in the first place.

However, that excuse doesn’t really work when many were clamoring for war to begin with and the tensions had been simmering for years. The truth is that when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, it didn’t force anyone to declare war — it was used as an excuse for war by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and others. Furthermore, many of the major players never invoked any particular mutual defense treaty as their reason for getting involved, and most of the smaller players joined (again) not because of treaties, but because they were looking for a share of the glory. The reality was that nearly every major (or minor) power had been trying to expand their empires, and eventually this was going to lead to a seriously major clash.

5. Many Tend To Forget That Modern Chemical Warfare Debuted In World War I

Many people forget, in all the chaos and brutality of World War I, that this was the war where chemical warfare debuted in a truly major way. In fact, many historians now refer to the Great War as “The Chemists’ War” due to all the efforts by the major powers to experiment, with no regard for ethics, with all sorts of horrific chemical agents like chlorine and mustard gas as a way to damage an opponent’s front line, distract them, and push them back.

It started, perhaps unsurprisingly to some, with the Germans, who discretely prepared tanks of chlorine on their defensive line at Ypres in Belgium, and then released 160 tons of chlorine gas into the air, calculating the wind patterns so it would float into the enemy trenches. The effect was devastating, and after that, it was on. All the major, richer powers started experimenting with chemical weapons and testing them on enemy trenches. It was during the Great War that the military started testing all sorts of new attempts at creative gas masks, and some soldiers found that they could protect themselves partially from certain chemical attacks by wearing rags soaked with urine wrapped around their faces.

4. For The United States It Wasn’t That Big A Deal, But Europe Was Changed Forever

When President Trump decided to forego a visit to a memorial for the Armistice Day, on its 100th anniversary no less, many in Europe were quite disappointed, although many may not have been that surprised. What seemed to bother many Europeans a bit more is that most Americans didn’t seem that outraged or bothered by President Trump’s unintended snub. However, the reason for this is likely because Americans (not out of disrespect) just have trouble seeing World War I with the same significance that Europeans do, and with the same significance that they see World War II.

There are quite a few reasons for this. For starters, the United States was only in World War I for a couple years, and their contribution led to a lot less American deaths, a lot less American economic pain at home, and generally much less stress than World War II. The other big reasons are political and economic. The United States was much more isolationist at the time, so even after the war, people were more interested in moving on rather than focusing on war glories, and the Great War didn’t make the United States the economic powerhouse that World War II did. For Europe, however, it was a long slog and a horrific loss of life.

3. Even In Europe, Many Forget The Close To 2.5 Million Muslims Who Assisted The Allies

Today in Europe, there’s a lot of tension with regard to Muslims, who come as refugees from war torn nations in hopes of finding a better life. This tension is partly because there is a lot of overcrowding in some cities, partly because people are worried about there being enough resources for everyone, a little bit because people don’t tend to assimilate quite as much when moving to a European country as they do when moving to America, and sometimes because of racism.

However, some historians feel that if Europeans understood the full, volunteer accomplishments of the Muslims who came from their homes in the Middle East — many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice for the dream of a free Europe — there would not be as much tension or hard feelings over all of the migration. While this is a history that has been largely untold, researchers who have done an incredible amount of digging in recent years estimate somewhere close to 2.5 million Muslims who came to help either in battle or with general labor. Now, this contribution has been forgotten, and when their descendants come to Europe asking for a little help, many wish they would just go away.

2. People Degrade The Leaders Of World War I, But This Was A Time Of Changing Warfare

One of the old sayings from World War I is that the men who fought in the war were “lions led by donkeys.” However, there is good reason to believe that this saying is wrong. The truth was that the men in charge of the war were pretty much all seasoned veterans on all sides who were quite experienced, but it was a massive war, all around the globe, at a time of greatly changing technology and rapidly growing infrastructure.

The commanders weren’t stupid, but trying to adapt to, deal with, and experiment with multiple different new technologies and advancements that were changing the game completely, right in the middle of the worst conflict any had seen in their entire lives. Conflicts like the Battle of the Somme are unfortunate for the heavy losses they inflicted, especially early on, but it wasn’t due to incompetence on the parts of the commanders. The were dealing with untested waters, and were doing the very best they could with the understanding and knowledge they had.

1. Turkey Is Still Trying To Cover Up The Ottoman Empire’s Genocide Of The Armenians

The Ottomans (now modern day Turkey with less territory) had long hated the thriving Armenian ethnic minority, but it was during World War I when they truly moved against them in a massive way. When the Armenians made moves to help the Russians, they called all Armenians enemies and used it as a excuse for genocide. Men, women, and children were ripped from their homes and forced to walk death marches in the desert — if you stopped to take a rest you were shot. Some managed to make it out of the country alive, simply by being forced out, and some escaped, but the majority were taken by surprise by the brutality and organization of the genocidal campaign of the Ottomans.

While it is hard to ever be sure of exact numbers, historians place the number lost during the genocide as anywhere between 600,000 and 1.6 million — the disparity is because it is hard to know how many were killed and how many escaped alive, as the survivors scattered all over the world. While it is hardly talked about anywhere in the world, and illegal to talk about in Turkey, Armenians have found an unlikely champion in Kim Kardashian, who has used her Armenian roots and celebrity to champion more acknowledgment of the genocide against her people.

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