A selection of strange and interesting facts and World War I trivia, compiled by Alpha History authors. If you have an interesting fact for this page, please contact Alpha History.
In his retirement, Otto von Bismarck became a stringent critic of Kaiser Wilhelm and his aggressive foreign policy. Bismarck predicted the German Empire would “crash”, twenty years after his own death. This prophecy was fulfilled: Bismarck died in 1898 and in 1918 Germany surrendered and the Kaiser abdicated.
The years prior to World War I were particularly unsettled and dangerous. More leaders, politicians and members of noble or royal families were assassinated in the first 14 years of the 20th century than in the previous 150 years.
Tsar Nicholas II’s personal relationship with his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was initially rocky. After meeting Wilhelm in 1902, Nicholas wrote of him: “He’s raving mad!” Nevertheless, the two grew closer and later enjoyed several amicable meetings and family holidays.
Austrian emperor Franz Josef’s wife, Elisabeth of Bavaria, was assassinated in 1898 in rather bizarre circumstances. While boarding a boat, Elisabeth was ‘body-slammed’ by an Italian anarchist, who had hidden a thin blade in his clothing. Elisabeth was stabbed through the heart but failed to notice it for many minutes, due to the tightness of her corset. Like most royals, Franz Josef did not mourn long – he had a young mistress, 26 years his junior, to take his mind off his wife’s murder.
Franz Ferdinand was determined to marry commoner Sophie Chotek (1900) but the union was strongly opposed by most Austrian royals. Ironically, one of Franz and Sophie’s most vocal supporters was the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II. The pair ultimately agreed to a morganatic marriage, meaning Sophie would never share her husband’s royal titles and her children could never claim the throne.
Wilhelm was himself married twice and had seven children – however, his first choice of wife was his Russian cousin, Elisabeth Romanov. He proposed to her while a young student but she rejected his advances. Elisabeth was later killed by Bolshevik soldiers in 1918.
The Ottomans and the Germans did not sign a formal alliance until one day after Germany had declared war on Russia. The deal was finally secured after the British navy chased two German cruisers, the Goeben and Breslau, into Ottoman waters – and Berlin donated both ships to the Ottoman government.
The declaration of war prompted roaming gangs in Melbourne, Australia to attack German shop-keepers and businessmen. Confused about exactly who was the enemy and who was an ally, the gangs also attacked several Russians.
The outbreak of war caused a flurry of ‘de-Germanisation’ in Allied countries. King George V cast off his own Germanic surname (Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and adopted the more English-sounding name of Windsor. Town and street names were changed, while sporting teams who used the German Empire colours of red, white and black temporarily changed their strip.
The Prussian military’s distinctive Pickelhaube helmet was crafted from hardened leather, with a regimental crest on the front and a long spike on the top. Contrary to popular opinion, the spike was purely ornamental and was never used for piercing meat rations. Pickelhaube helmets proved useless for protecting the wearer from shrapnel so by 1915 were replaced with steel helmets.
The first shots by British Empire forces in World War I are believed to have been fired from the Fort Nepean battery on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Heads, on August 5th 1914. A German ship, the Pfalz, failed to stop as ordered, so had a warning shot fired across her bow from the fort’s small artillery. Ironically, the same guns are believed to have fired the first Allied shots of World War II, again at a German civilian ship.
One of the strangest naval battles of the war took place in 1915 in central Africa. A German gunboat, the Graf von Goetzen, harassed and fired on British positions on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The British carried three gunboats several hundred miles inland, rebuilt them on the shoreline then used them to capture Germany’s Tanganyikan ‘fleet’. This theatre of the war is shown in the 1952 film The African Queen.
Privates in the British army were paid 15p per day, or nine shillings per week. If soldiers were married or had specialist skills they received an additional amount. Australian soldiers were paid very well in comparison, receiving about five shillings a day, or four times that of their British counterparts.
As the need for soldiers increased, the British Army lowered its enlistment standards and formed ‘bantam units’: regiments comprised of men who fell short of the army’s minimum height requirement of 5’3″ (160 centimetres). Some ‘bantam soldiers’ were as short as 4’10” (125 centimetres), which was not much taller than standard-issue Lee-Enfield rifles.
A baboon named Jackie served in the South African army on the Western Front. Initially a mascot, Jackie was later given messenger and watch duties – as well as his own uniform, paybook and rations. Jackie’s right leg was amputated after a shell blast in 1918. He was later promoted to corporal and given a medal for bravery.
Allied machine-guns became so hot during firing that the water in their cooling systems reached near boiling point. There were reports of some soldiers firing short bursts of machine-gun fire so they could heat water for their tea or soup.
The first dog to become a Hollywood star, Rin Tin Tin, was found in a trench in France shortly before the end of the war. The German Shepherd pup was adopted by an American serviceman and returned to the United States, where he starred in more than 20 films during the 1920s.
According to estimates, more than 1.2 million horses and 50,000 dogs were killed on the Western Front during World War I.
Pope John XXIII (1958-63) was conscripted into the Italian Army during the war, where he served as a stretcher-bearer and rose to the rank of sergeant.
On average, approximately 230 soldiers were killed for every hour of World War I.
Some Western Front soldiers suffered fatal internal injuries or heart failure caused by shell percussion. They were found dead without any bleeding or obvious wounds.
Approximately a quarter-million British soldiers underwent limb amputations as a result of war injuries.
During 1916 there was heavy fighting between Italian, Austrian and German troops in the mountainous Tyrol region. In December 1916 around 9,000 men died in avalanches, some of which were deliberately set off by enemy troops further up the mountains.
In the first year of the war, France lost more soldiers than the United States’ total death toll in all 20th century conflicts. It has been estimated between 10 and 11 percent of the French population perished during World War I.
The heavy use of artillery at Verdun scattered the battlefield with so many mangled bodies and body parts that French troops called it the ‘Verdun meat-grinder’. The battle is now commemorated by the Douaumont Ossuary, which displays the jumbled bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers.
The war’s high numbers of blinded soldiers led to rapid advances in the training and use of guide dogs. Germany opened the first guide dog training school in 1917.
One of the strangest war poets was Julian Grenfell, a British army officer who took delight in bullying his own men and killing the enemy at close quarters. Grenfell once refused a transfer away from the front, preferring to remain in battle. He once wrote, “I adore war, it is like a big picnic”. Grenfell was killed in May 1915.
The anti-war song I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier was later mocked and parodied in several pro-war songs, including I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Coward and I Didn’t Raise My Dog to be a Sausage. Another topical parody of the time was I Didn’t Raise My Girl to be a Voter.
Written in 1914 by American Lena Guilbert Ford, Keep the Home Fires Burning (Till the Boys Come Home) was one of the most popular British songs of World War I. Ironically, Ford was killed by a German air raid on London in March 1918.
In December 1917, an overloaded train filled with French soldiers returning from Italy derailed near Modane, France. Approximately 700 soldiers were killed in what was then the world’s deadliest train accident.
German foreign minister Arthur Zimmerman not only meddled in US-Mexico relations. Zimmerman helped supply 20,000 rifles to Irish Republican rebels prior to the 1916 Easter Rising; he assisted a Hindu group plotting against British colonial rule in India; and he was instrumental in facilitating Vladimir Lenin’s return to Russia in April 1917, an event that led to the Bolshevik Revolution in October that year.
With 26 confirmed ‘kills’, Eddie Rickenbacker was the United States’ most successful flying ace. Rickenbacker was the son of German-Swiss immigrants. At the outbreak of the war, he changed his surname from the Germanic-sounding ‘Rickenbacher’.
During the March 1918 offensive, the Germans unveiled a massive new weapon: the Kaiser Wilhelm Gun. It was used to fire shells at Paris – from a distance of 120 kilometres. Around 250 Parisians were killed by this shelling.
Both the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II (1917) and the November 11th armistice agreement (1918) were signed in railway carriages. After conquering France in 1940, Adolf Hitler would insist the French sign the instrument of surrender in a railway carriage.
Harry Truman, later US president, was a platoon commander on the Western Front in 1918. On hearing news of the armistice, Truman expressed regret that he could not advance into Germany, “cut off some hands” and “scalp some old men”.
Almost 900 British and British Empire soldiers were killed in the six hours between the dawn signing of the November 11th armistice and the ceasefire later that morning.
American soldier Henry Gunther charged German positions at 10.59am on November 11th, just one minute before the armistice was due to come into effect. German soldiers, who had already stopped firing, had little option but to shoot him. Gunther was the last soldier of any nation killed before the armistice – however at least three others were killed in error after 11.00am.
Woodrow Wilson’s journey to Paris for the post-war peace conference was the first visit to Europe by a serving US president.
A survey of post-war Great Britain discovered 34 ‘thankful villages’: towns or villages whose fighting men had all returned from the war. Ironically, one of these ‘thankful villages’ was named Upper Slaughter.
The Paris peace conference shot down a proposed clause on “racial equality” for all nations and individuals, to be inserted into the Covenant of the League of Nations. The clause was proposed by Japan but strongly opposed by Australian prime minister Billy Hughes, while Britain and the US refused to back it. It was not adopted, despite obtaining an 11-17 majority.
Many national leaders were pessimistic about the eventual outcomes of the treaties of 1919. Lloyd George said that “we shall have to fight another war in 25 years time”, while the French leader Clemenceau described the treaties as “no peace, merely a 20-year armistice”.
The Lochnagar Mine (1916) contained 24 tons of ammonal and produced one of the largest explosions of the war. The mine produced a 110-metre deep crater which still exists today. It is marked by a memorial and receives thousands of visitors each year, particularly on July 1st (the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme).
Designated areas of French land are still out of bounds due to unexploded mines and munitions. Wandering sheep and cattle are occasionally killed after they trip mines. Some pockets of land also remain saturated with poison gas residue. Several French farmers have been injured after coming into contact with pockets of mustard gas.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “World War I trivia” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/world-war-i-trivia/, 2017, accessed [date of last access].