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Soldiers wearing WW1 gas masks

28 little known facts about WWI

Soldiers wearing WW1 gas masks | Image:

Most of us are fairly well versed on many of the facts of Word War I with great battles such as the Somme and Battle of Passchendaele but there are some that are so quirky that they have failed entirely to make the schoolbooks. Here are some little known facts about World War I that might just come as a surprise to you.

1. Tanks had genders

At the beginning of the war, tanks were grouped according to their 'gender'. The male tanks had cannons attached while the females carried machine guns. The prototype tank was named Little Willie.

2. Women's skin turned yellow

WWI saw many women join the working forces. Those who worked with TNT saw their skin turn yellow as a result, as they suffered from toxic jaundice.

3. Explosions in France were heard in London

A team of miners worked in secret to dig tunnels under the trenches during the war in order to plant and detonate mines there. The detonations destroyed much of the German front line and were so great, the prime minister then heard the sound in London, 140 miles away.

4. 'Liberty sausage', 'liberty cabbage' and 'liberty dogs' were born

In America, suspicion of the Germans was so high that even German shepherd dogs were killed. The names of frankfurters, hamburgers, sauerkraut and dachshunds were all changed to American names, German stopped being taught in schools and German-language books were banned. Before the war, it had been the second most widely spoken language in the US.

5. WWI saw pioneering advances in modern medicine

Inspired by the sight of soldiers' faces ravaged by shrapnel, many of which remained covered by masks, Harold Gillies established the field of plastic surgery, pioneering the first attempts of facial reconstruction. As well as this, blood transfusions became routine to save soldiers, with the first blood bank established on the front line in 1917.

6. Dr. Doolittle was created

The Dr. Doolittle stories were born of Hugh Lofting's aversion to writing his children about the true horrors of the war and trench life. Instead, more creative letters were sent.

7. Franz Ferdinand's licence plate was the cause of a strange coincidence

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated on June 28th 1914, an event which led to the beginning of the war. Strangely, the Archduke's number plate read: A 111 118, a series that can be read as, Armistice 11 November '18.

8. Both Native Americans and African Americans served during the war

Despite the fact that they weren't granted citizenship in America until 1924, nearly 13,000 Native Americans fought during the war.

Over 200,000 African Americans also served, but only 11% in combat and this in segregated divisions.

9. The youngest authenticated combatant to serve was only 12

Many young men faked their age in order to sign up early. The youngest to do so was Sidney Lewis, who was only 12 years old at the time.

10. Woodrow Wilson ran his campaign for a second presidential term with an anti-war slogan

"He kept us out of war" was the slogan Woodrow Wilson adopted when he ran for his second term in office. However, he immediately reneged on this concept when he was sworn in, declaring war on Germany only around a month later.

11. A plaque for the dead

Britain issued a large bronze memorial plaque to the next-of-kin of every soldier killed during the war or who died of their wounds afterwards. The resemblance to an old-fashioned penny earned the plaque the rather macabre nickname ‘Dead Man’s Penny’. 1.35 million were issued in total.

12. French rations were very French

While everyone else had to make do with water and a tiny daily ration of rum, French troops were issued with 0.25 litres of wine a day. By the end of the war, this had been upped to 0.75 litres a day.

13. The salad bowls

At the start of the war, British soldiers were not equipped with helmets. Following a catastrophic number of head injuries, the iconic ‘Brodie helmet’ was introduced in 1915. The Germans nicknamed these new helmets ‘salad bowls’ due to their unique shape.

14. The indestructible pigeon

Despite being shot through the breast, losing an eye and having one leg hanging on by just one tendon, carrier pigeon Cher Ami managed to fly through a hail of bullets to deliver a message that saved over a hundred American troops. The pigeon was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honours.

15. Improvised gas masks

Astonishingly, soldiers were not issued with gas masks at the start of the war. Until they became standard issue, men stuffed rags and socks soaked in urine into their mouths to try to prevent the inhalation of deadly fumes.

16. Boys will be boys

Unofficial brothels sprung up behind the frontlines during the war. Despite the best efforts of the military authorities to stop their men from visiting these premises, 400,000 British soldiers were treated for venereal disease.

17. The war elephant

The heaviest and largest recruit of the war was Lizzie the Elephant. Conscripted in 1914, Lizzie was used to cart scrap metal, machinery and munitions around the city of Sheffield to aid the war effort.

18. The last veteran

The last surviving veteran of the war from any country is thought to be Florence Green. She served as an officers’ mess stewardess in the Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 110.

19. An expensive escape

After war was announced, American tourists holidaying in Britain were so worried about getting caught up and possibly killed in the fighting that several of them clubbed together and purchased a ship called The Viking to take them back to the safety of the United States.

20. Don’t look too closely

At the start of the war, recruiting sergeants in Britain were paid the equivalent of £10 in today’s money for every infantryman they signed up to fight. As a result, they looked the other way when very young-looking lads turned up at the recruiting office claiming to be 19.

21. Kitchener Blue

With so many men signing up at the start of the war, there were not enough uniforms to go around. A solution was eventually found - dark blue uniforms known as ‘Kitchener Blue’, which were said to have been made from an over-order of cloth for postmen’s uniforms.

22. A not so Merry Christmas

The Christmas Truce of 1914 is one of the most famous incidents of the war. What’s less well-known is that the Germans attempted another one in 1915. This time, following the sinking of the Lusitania earlier in the year, the bombardment of coastal settlements in England and the already huge loss of life in France and Belgium, their calls of ‘Merry Christmas’ were met with hours of artillery bombardment.

23. Defence of the Realm

Just days after the start of the war, the British government pushed the Defence of the Realm Act through parliament. This made it illegal to fly a kite, buy a pair of binoculars and feed bread to ducks.

24. Upping the stakes

At the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the British fired more artillery shells in 35 minutes than they had for the entirety of the Boer War. Despite this massive bombardment, the British were still unable to break through German lines.

25. Buried treasure

Soldiers digging trenches in the fields of Flanders often came across weaponry from the Duke of Wellington’s Waterloo campaign of 1815. They also found muskets from even further back in time - from the War of the Spanish Succession of the 1710s.

26. Close to home

Because the war was fought practically on Britain’s doorstep, soldiers regularly received parcels and gifts from home, such as freshly-baked cakes. The upmarket London department store Fortnum & Mason made a small fortune delivering hampers to officers in the trenches.

27. Lions led by donkeys

One of the myths of the war is that the generals were safely ensconced miles behind the frontlines while the ordinary soldiers fought and died in the mud and blood of the trenches. While it is true that many senior officers never saw active duty, this wasn’t always the case. Over the course of the war, 78 British generals were killed.

28. Let them eat turnips

The combination of the failure of the 1916 potato crop and the successful blockade of the German coast by the Royal Navy led the following year to be nicknamed the ‘Turnip Winter’. With virtually no fuel to deliver anything anywhere, a large percentage of the German population had nothing to eat but turnips in 1917.