Little known facts of WW1

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. “Little Willie” was the first prototype tank in WWI. Built in 1915, it carried a crew of three and could travel as fast as 3 mph (4.8 km/h). To disguise their secret weapon, the British called them Water storage tanks, and this is how ‘tanks’ got their name.

“The Siege of the Fray Bentos Tank” –

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. During WWI, American hamburgers (named after the German city of Hamburg) were renamed Salisbury steak. Frankfurters, which were named after Frankfurt, Germany, were called “liberty sausages,” sauerkraut was renamed ‘liberty cabbage’, and dachshunds became “liberty dogs.” In Britain, German Shepherd dogs became known as ‘Alsatians’ in 1919 because people didn’t want to own dogs they thought were German. The English Kennel Club didn’t reinstate ‘German Shepherd’ as an official name until 1977. 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. On the 18th July 1917 anti–German sentiment forced George V to change the Royal Family’s name from Saxe–Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. Many road names in Britain were changed too.

5.  WW1 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. Splints, plasters, anethestics, antiseptics, and X rays were all pioneered in World War One to help treat wounds. There were also improvements in hospital practices, hygiene and understanding of new psychological trauma, such as dealing with ‘shell shock’ and ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’.

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. Famous people who served include the writers AA Milne, creator of Winnie The Pooh, Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, sculptor Henry Moore and the actor Basil Rathbone who played Sherlock Holmes.

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. The 369th U.S.Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters”, was the first all black regiment. It served with distinction and helped change American public opinion on African American soldiers.

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 when he enlisted in the East Surrey Regiment, in August 1915. He later served with the Machine Gun Corps at the Battle of the Somme aged only 13 years old.

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.  Food Restrictions

In 1917 food shortages at home, caused by the loss of British shipping to German U–boats, meant the government banned the use of rice at weddings and the feeding of pigeons. Sugar was the first item to be rationed and Sugar Cards were issued to every householder in October 1917. The first place where rationing was imposed on civilians in Britain was Pontypool, in Wales. It came into force on 17 December 1917 and extended the existing sugar card to cover tea, butter, margarine, cheese and lard. On 1 January 1918 rationing was introduced for 300,000 people in the Birmingham area. Other parts of the country followed very swiftly. Wednesdays were also fixed as meatless days to overcome shortages in supplies.

12. The use of Animals 

A sergeant of a Royal Engineers signals section puts a note into the cylinder attached to the collar of a messenger dog in August 1918.

Animals played an important part of the war, saving thousands of lives and even altering the course of battle – an estimated 100,000 pigeons were used to drop into enemy lines by parachute and were sent back by soldiers with messages, 95% of which delivered their messages successfully. In 1918 one pigeon called ‘Cher Ami’, saved 200 US soldiers who had been cut off, when it delivered a message to rescuing forces, despite being injured by a bullet. Glowworms were used by soldiers to brighten trenches.

Over 8 million horses died in the war. Dead ones were melted down for fat, which was later used for making explosives. The British Veterinary Corps treated 2.5 million wounded horses and returned 75% to service.

About 1 million dogs also died in service during World War 1.Dogs were used to carry messages and lay down telegraph wires. Terriers were put to work hunting rats. Dogs were first used as Guide dogs for the blind in World War One. A US pit bull dog called Sergeant Stubby, became the most decorated dog of WW1, capturing a German spy, rescuing wounded and outranked its owner. The term ‘dog fight’ originated during World War 1. It occurred when a pilot had to turn his engine off mid flight so it did not stall, which when restarted sounded like dogs barking.

13. The Defence Of The Realm Act 1914

included stopping Britons from talking on the phone in a foreign language, buying binoculars or hailing a cab at night. Alcoholic drinks were watered down and pubs had to close at 10 pm.

14. Baby Boom

When soldiers returned there was a baby boom. Births increased by 45 per cent between 1918 and 1920. But the 1918 influenza pandemic killed more people worldwide than the war.

15.  Gas Warfare

France, not Germany, was the first country to use gas against enemy troops in WWI. In August 1914, they fired the first tear gas grenades (xylyl bromide) against the Germans. In January 1915, Germany first used tear gas against Russian armies, but the gas turned to liquid in the cold air. In April 1915, the Germans were the first to use poisonous chlorine gas.

16. A fake Paris was built to fool the Germans. 

Fearing aerial bombardment, French Leaders built a fake Paris from wood and lanterns, north of the city, to confuse German bombers. The unfinished replica was located some 15 miles from the real city and featured streets lined with electric lights, wooden buildings and even came complete with a copy of the Gare du Nord and Champs Elysee.

17. ‘Homes fit for Heroes’

The most ambitious estate built to reward soldiers and their families after the war was the massive Becontree estate in Dagenham which was to become the largest council housing estate in the world. Work by the London County Council on the estate started in 1921. Farms were compulsory purchased and by 1932, over 25,000 houses had been built and over 100,000 people had moved to the area. The new houses had gas and electricity, inside toilets, fitted baths and front and back gardens.  The estate expanded over the Essex parishes of Barking, Dagenham and Ilford with nearly 27,000 homes in total creating a virtual new town with dwellings for over 30,000 families.

18. Passports were invented

Before the war there were no passports and few travel restrictions. A travel ticket was usually enough to enter a new country. However, with security concerns trumping ease of travel, governments imposed strict new controls on movement, and they proved unwilling to relinquish those powers once peace returned. In 1920, the newly formed League of Nations called an “International Conference on Passports, Customs Formalities and Through Tickets”, which effectively invented the passport as we know it. From 1921, the conference said, passports should be 15.5cm (6in) by 10.5cm, 32 pages, bound in cardboard, with a photo. The format has changed remarkably little since.

19. The First British Casualty

Pte, John Parr, 14196, 4th Middlesex Regiment, killed on the 21st August 1914, aged 17, is believed to be the first British soldier killed in the First World War. He was the youngest of eleven children of Edward and Alice Parr, 52 Lodge Lane, Finchley, North London. He had left school at the age of twelve and worked as a Butcher’s boy and golf caddy. Like many other young men of the time, he was attracted to the army as a potentially better way of life, and one where he would at least get two meals a day and a chance to see the world. The 5’3″ tall Parr, joined the 4th Middlesex Battalion in 1912, aged 15, but claimed to be 18 years and one month old, to meet the minimum age requirement. Private Parr was a reconnaissance cyclist, riding ahead to uncover information then returning with all possible speed to update the commanding officer. At the start of the war in August 1914, Parr’s battalion was shipped from Southampton to Boulogne, France. With the German army marching into Belgium, Parr’s unit took up positions near a village called Bettignes, beside the canal running through the town of Mons approximately 8 miles (13 km) away. On 21 August, Parr and another cyclist were sent to the village of Orboug, just north east of Mons, and slightly over the border in Belgium, with a mission to locate the enemy. It is believed that they encountered a German cavalry patrol, and that Parr remained to hold off the enemy whilst his companion returned to report. He was killed in the ensuing rifle fire. Parr is buried in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery, just southeast of Mons and his age is given on the grave stone as twenty, the army not knowing his true age of seventeen. Coincidentally, his grave faces that of George Edwin Ellison, the last British soldier killed during the Great War. On 21 August 2014, the 100th anniversary of Parr’s death, a memorial paving stone was ceremonially unveiled in the pavement outside 52 Lodge Lane. The ceremony was attended by about 300 people, including local dignitaries and Parr family members.

See also

Henry Hadley, a British civilian, sometimes said to be the “first British casualty” of the war, died on 5 August 1914 after being shot by a German soldier two days earlier.

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