It’s been more than a century since the First World War ended in 1918, though even today, some of its most fascinating parts have been shrouded in mystery. Despite the wealth of information and research available on the topic, most of these mysteries would likely never be solved, as much of the evidence now lies under decades of, well, other wars like WW2.
10. Private John Parr
Born in 1898 in north London, John Parr joined the British war effort as a reconnaissance cyclist. It was his job to ride out ahead and gather intel on enemy positions, though unfortunately, his life would come to an end merely 17 days after Britain entered the war. Private John Parr would be the first British soldier killed on the European front during WW1, though till today, we don’t know exactly who killed him, or how.
Parr was last seen before the Battle of Mons in August 1914. According to accounts from the battlefield, he was most likely killed by rifle fire from a German cavalry patrol, and it probably happened during the battle. However, no one saw it happening, and his partner returned to the camp from their reconnaissance trip unharmed. Moreover, German units hadn’t reached British positions until well after his estimated date of death, so there’s a chance that Parr was killed by a local, or worse, one of his own comrades.
9. The Lost Romanov Treasure
Before the First World War broke out in 1914, Russia had the third largest gold reserve in the world after the US and France. Much of it was transported out of the country by the anti-communist White Army – led by Admiral Alexander Vasilievich Kolchak – that seized power after the Russian Revolution of 1918. It could be traced right up until 1920 when the White forces were decisively defeated by the Bolsheviks, with all of their treasures seized and returned to the Russian government.
When they checked, though, more than 1,600 tons of the gold was missing, and we still don’t have a clue where it could be. One theory says that it’s buried in several sites inside the city of Omsk, as that’s where the White Army was positioned in the largest numbers. It could also be at the bottom of Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, making exploration rather difficult.
8. Nurse Maule’s Suitcase
Back in February 2013, a mysterious suitcase was discovered in the psychology department of Abertay University, Scotland. It was filled with items from the First World War, including photographs, postcards, and letters. While we now know that it belonged to a nurse working at the Dartford War Hospital in Kent named Margaret Maule, that’s really all we know about it.
We don’t know how it ended up at Abertay, or why it was never claimed by any of Maule’s relatives in the past. There are no records of Maule ever having visited Abertay, and some speculate that it may have been donated to the university by a family member who didn’t realize its significance, or simply left behind by an ex-student related to Maule in some way. While the suitcase’s contents are fascinating and provide a rare first-person glimpse into the so-called Great War, there’s still quite a bit of mystery surrounding exactly how it ended up where it did.
7. USS Cyclops
The USS Cyclops disappeared in early March 1918, making it one of the first mysteries to emerge out of the now-infamous Bermuda Triangle. It was a collier, or a type of ship used to transport large quantities of coal, as well as one of the largest ships in the US Navy at the time. Its loss – along with more than 300 sailors aboard – remains a mystery to this day. Curiously, two of its sister ships – the USS Nereus and the USS Proteus – disappeared somewhere in the same area years later in 1941.
Theories range from German submarines to huge sea monsters, though most of them fall flat due to lack of evidence. The sheer size of the vessel, combined with the lack of distress signals or signs of wreckage, has led many to believe that something unusual happened to the ship and its crew. Some of their descendants have continued their own investigations into the incident, though to little success.
6. The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen, more famously known as the Red Baron, was one of the most renowned pilots of World War I. He was a German flying ace, credited with shooting down 80 enemy aircraft during his career as a fighter pilot. His death in April 1918, however, has been shrouded in mystery ever since.
We know that it happened in the Somme region in France, where he was engaged in a high stakes fight against the Canadian ace Wilfrid May, though it’s unclear exactly who shot his plane down. We also know that the killing bullet was fired from an Australian Vickers machine gun, which entered his right lateral chest and exited through his left chest. While many British, French and Australian soldiers had fired at him with similar weapons – and a few have even come forward to claim it in the years since – we still don’t know who made the fatal shot.
5. Bela Kiss
Bela Kiss was a Hungarian serial killer drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. While he was gone, rumors about his death on the front led his landlord to go to the house and clear it out for the next tenant. There, he found 24 dead bodies in various stages of decomposition, resulting in a large-scale search operation across Hungary and nearby countries.
Kiss was never found, as the wartime chaos in Europe made it impossible to precisely locate him. According to one account, he was almost caught in Serbia later that year, though he reportedly escaped by placing a dead soldier in his place as a decoy. In the years since his disappearance, Kiss has been allegedly spotted in various locations around the world, including Romania, Turkey, and even New York City.
4. The Mystery Sketch Diary
Some time in the 1970s, a mysterious diary was found in the archives of the University of Victoria in Canada. Filled with sketches from the front lines of the First World War, the only initials found on it were ‘J.M.’, and we still don’t know who that was.
The contents of the diary are varied, depicting landscapes, buildings, and people caught in the war in various ways, often in great detail. The dedication on the first page reads “To my daughter, Adele,” and the diary features the emblems of the British Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery units, which is assumed to be where J.M. served during the war. That has led some people to believe that he was a British soldier serving in France or Belgium, though his precise identity remains largely unknown.
3. The Florentine Diamond
At 137.27 metric carats, the Florentine Diamond was easily one of the largest diamonds ever mined. It was acquired by the Portuguese Governor of Goa, Ludovico Castro, in the late 16th century, and eventually ended up in the hands of the Medici family in Florence. It was passed on to the Habsburg dynasty after the Medicis died out, where it stayed right up until Austria’s defeat in the First World War.
The stone was last seen in 1918 as a part of an exhibition in Vienna, and has since completely disappeared from public view. One theory says that it was taken by someone close to the Austrian imperial family and smuggled out of Austria, possibly to South America or the United States. Another suggests that it was sold to a collector in Europe, and the stone has been in their private collection ever since.
2. The Sea Monster
In October 2016, the remains of a German submarine from WW1 were discovered off the coast of Scotland. Sonar scans and videos taken by underwater drones revealed the wrecked U-boat lying nearly upright on the seafloor, raising many questions about what happened to it. According to marine archaeologist and historian Innes McCartney, it could have been a UB-85 submarine, though that’s really all we know about it.
Per accounts of the German crew manning the submarine, this particular UB-85 was attacked by a giant sea monster when it was at the surface recharging its batteries during the war. It was severely damaged in the fight, forcing the crew to abandon it before it sank into the depths of the Atlantic. The British forces in the region, however, claimed that it was instead sunk by their patrol boat – the HMS Coreopsis – on April 30, 1918, though the incident has never been officially confirmed by either side.
1. Who Started The War?
For a war that changed the world in more ways than we can count due to its sheer scale, it’s surprisingly difficult to pinpoint exactly who started it. The answer is not as straightforward as one might think, as while we know the immediate trigger – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist – we still don’t know how that turned from an international incident to one of the largest wars in human history.
Different historians have different takes on the topic. While some believe that Germany was squarely responsible, others say that it was the collective imperial interests of Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and Austria-Hungary that ultimately led to the carnage. Some have even blamed Serbia, owing to the Serbian state’s complicity in the assassination that started it all.