How much do you really know about the First World War? In this bite-sized A-Z guide, the Imperial War Museum reveals a number of surprising facts about the 1914–18 conflict, alongside need-to-know details of the key battles, personalities and wartime tactics…
The original Allies in August 1914 were Britain, France and Russia – the members of the Triple Entente (and hence alternative designation: ‘the Entente Powers’). They were joined later that month by Japan, Britain’s ally since 1902, and Serbia and Montenegro. In May 1915 Italy joined the Allies, and the following year, in March and August respectively, so did Portugal and Romania.
Tiny San Marino became the smallest Ally when it declared war on Austria-Hungary on 3 June 1915. In 1917 Greece, politically divided and with Allied troops already encamped along the Salonika Front, formally sided with the Allies.
The United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917 but as an ‘Associated Power’ rather than an Ally, a distinctive status that it shared with Belgium. Eight Latin American countries also declared war on Germany, although only Brazil made a significant contribution – a naval one – to the Allied cause.
Many of these later arrivals had more of an eye on possible political advantages than on fully engaging with the war effort. In the far east, Siam (modern Thailand) declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on 22 July 1917, and sent a token expeditionary force to the western front. Liberia, then one of only two independent states in Africa, declared war the following month, as did China, which was already making a significant contribution in the shape of 140,000 men who undertook non-combatant roles on the western front.
A is for… Austria–Hungary
Who caused the war? The question is still being debated, but the first declaration of war was by Austria-Hungary against Serbia, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. To the amazement of many, the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian empire entered the war almost united. Mobilisation, in which orders were given in 15 languages, was completed without dissent, and the empire’s 52 million citizens appeared to rally around their ageing emperor, Franz Joseph.
But by November 1916, when Franz Joseph died, the picture was very different. War on three fronts – against Serbia, Italy and Russia – with huge losses had brought the empire near to military, political and economic collapse. ‘Shackled to a corpse’ came to describe Germany’s ill-balanced entanglement with its weaker neighbour. A poor harvest in 1914 and the Allied blockade created food shortages in Vienna and elsewhere; another bad one in 1916 brought near starvation to the Austrian capital.
Despite this, the government failed to draw up a centralised food policy or to properly organise rationing. The bad winter of 1916–17 brought industrial output to a virtual standstill, except for the tools needed to prosecute the war. The new Emperor Karl failed to enthuse his peoples, and all his efforts to shore up the monarchy and to obtain peace ultimately failed.
January 1918 saw a cut in the flour ration, strikes and riots, and ominously President Wilson’s promise of “autonomy for all the peoples of the Austrian empire”. By the autumn of 1918, the empire was falling apart, with Czechoslovakia proclaiming independence at the end of October. An armistice was signed on 3 November and Karl abdicated eight days later.
B is for… Blighty
The term ‘Blighty’ was first used by British soldiers stationed in India during the 19th century. It derives from the Hindi word Bilayati, meaning ‘foreign’ or ‘far away’, and so the soldiers serving the Raj adopted it to refer to their homeland of Britain.
By the First World War it had started to be used more widely in the British Army. Its uses were extended, so that a Blighty wound was one serious enough to get the victim invalided back to Britain, but not so serious that it was life-threatening. Indeed, getting a Blighty wound was often considered desirable – a means to escape the trenches – and some soldiers sought one out.
There were various methods to incur a Blighty (or ‘Blightie’) – from the straightforward, but illegal, shooting oneself in the foot, to poking a leg or hand above the trenches to draw sniper fire or perhaps even some stray shrapnel. Clearly, the risk had to be carefully judged.
When, after heated debate, parliament passed the Military Service Act in January 1916, conscription became a fact of British life. But there was provision in the legislation for the exemption of those men with a ‘conscientious objection’ to bearing arms.
Between March 1916 and the end of the war, 16,000 men registered as conscientious objectors. They included 6,000 ‘Absolutists’, like the five sons of hatter George Arthur Dunn, who had a total objection to any form of war service, while the remainder were ‘Alternativists’ who, though they refused to fight, were prepared to accept substitute forms of service such as agricultural work.
More than 2,000 tribunals were established to consider appeals on the grounds of conscientious objection and to appraise the sincerity of those like Howard Marten, who not only refused to fight but also objected “to having one’s life directed by an outside authority”. They were a diverse group, some impelled by religious scruple, such as Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, others by radical politics or other concerns. They could find themselves rubbing shoulders in one of the prisons, such as Dartmoor, that had been given over to wartime duty as work camps.
Conscientious objectors were almost universally despised. Signs were displayed in many shops that ‘conchies’ would not be served, and there were several ugly incidents, as at Knutsford in 1918 when some were physically attacked. And even those people sympathetic to their cause could find them, as did Beatrice Webb, “saliently conscious of their own righteousness with their claim of ‘we are the only ones whose eyes are open’”.
D is for… Dogs
Dogs made a multifaceted contribution to the war serving with many of the armies, whether as messengers, ‘ratters’ (to catch rats), sentry dogs, scouter dogs or mascots. Many breeds were used, but the most popular were two German native breeds: Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds, because of their good trainability, high intelligence and guard-dog capabilities. Their dark coats and agility also allowed them to access enemy territory and carry messages without detection. Terriers, though, were used as ratters.
By 1918, Germany had 30,000 military dogs; Britain, France and Belgium had more than 20,000, and Italy 3,000. By contrast, the United States did not use many dogs, though one of the most decorated dogs in military history was American: ‘Sergeant Stubby’, a stray Boston terrier. He became the only canine to be promoted sergeant through combat.
H is for… Hun
War generates easy stereotypes of the enemy. In 1914–18, the Germans were sometimes ‘Fritz’ or ‘the Bo(s)che’, but the most pointed designation was ‘the Hun’. In August and September 1914, almost as soon as stories began to appear alleging German atrocities against Belgian and French civilians and cities, the word ‘Hun’ was being used to describe the perpetrators. Its overt association was with the feared fifth-century Attila, whose Hunnic empire (which included the lands of Germany and Austria-Hungary) was threatening the declining Roman empire and the Christian Franks in France.
More immediately, in 1900 the kaiser had himself likened German retribution to that of Attila, as a response to the violence unleashed against Germans (and other Europeans) by the Chinese nationalist ‘Boxer’ sect. He declared: “Just as the Huns, 1,000 years ago under the leadership of Attila, gained a reputation by virtue of which they still live in historical tradition, so may the name of Germany become known in such a manner in China, that no Chinese will ever again dare to look askance at a German.”
It was an unfortunate comparison. In August 1914, Rudyard Kipling warned in a patriotic poem that “The Hun is at the Gate!” After a false report of the destruction of Reims Cathedral later that year, readers of The Times were informed that the scene of destruction “is hallowed ground to the modern Attila and to every Hun”.
Increasingly, ‘Hun’ came to be favoured by British (and later American) recruitment and propaganda campaigns. The word would have a long and potent life.
K is for… Knitting
All kinds of knitwear were sent in quantity to the men at the front. Women sent articles directly to their loved ones, but they also knitted (from around the world) for organisations such as Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild, which in turn sent on the socks (718,388 pairs), balaclava helmets, mittens and many other articles it received. The beneficiaries included not only men on active service, but also their families, the wounded, refugees, prisoners of war (PoWs) and even civilians who had lost their jobs as a result of the war.
Surviving letters of thanks reveal how gratefully received these comforts often were. However, it was not always a chorus of approval. One officer in 1914 complained in a letter that “bales” of well-intended knitwear were jamming up the postal system, and took a dim view of the “heel-less sock”. Stockings without heels figured largely among the knitted garments needed in hospitals. They were especially wide to allow room for splints and bandages, and pattern booklets for such hospital garments were readily available, including items ranging from bath gloves to eye bandages.
L is for… Lice
Body lice were an unpleasant but pervasive problem in the trenches. The men tended to live and sleep in close proximity, often without adequate washing facilities or sufficient spare clothing. This created an environment ideal for lice to thrive, laying eggs on the inside surface of clothing, which would hatch after a week or two, whereupon the young lice could immediately start feeding – on their host’s blood.
The bites could be extremely irritating, especially if the lice were crushed and their juices entered the wound. Worse, though, was the fact that lice could transmit disease through their faeces – notably typhus and the aches, lesions and sores of ‘trench fever’ and ‘relapsing fever’.
Given that a female body louse reaches maturity in around a week and can lay up to 300 eggs in the remaining 3–5 weeks of its life, controlling lice was naturally difficult on the front line. Where possible, British troops were bathed, using soap made with paraffin or cresol, and their underclothes and service dress uniform were placed in a disinfestor and treated with steam or hot air at a temperature of around 80°C, in order to kill any lice or eggs present.
Both mobile and stationary disinfestors were employed – at hospitals, bathing establishments, special disinfesting stations, laundries, rest camps and leave billets.
M is for… Mata Hari
The story of Mata Hari (1876–1917), with its mixture of espionage, sex, money and war, was made to intrigue. This Dutch exotic dancer and mistress of important men was executed by the French in 1917, after being tried as a German spy. She was blamed for the deaths of many Allied soldiers. Yet murk and mystery still surround her.
Born Margaretha Zelle, she spoke several languages and travelled frequently, helped by her status as a neutral. In 1903 she left Holland and her marriage to pursue a dancing career in Paris, equipped with shimmering veils and a metallic bra. Sexual allure and money became inextricable, as her lifestyle depended to a large extent on the favours of lovers.
When war came she had been performing for several months in Berlin and enjoying the attentions of German officers, too. She made her way back to France, via Holland and England, but not before accepting money to spy for the Germans (whether she did spy for them is not known) and arousing the suspicions of the British, who interrogated her.
Back in Paris, she was desperately in love with a Russian officer and needed French permission to visit him, near the war zone; and she was deeply in debt. To solve both problems she agreed with the French head of counter-intelligence, Georges Ladoux, to use her freedom of movement and seduction skills to spy for France in return for money. He later claimed this was his ruse to trap her, for she was already under surveillance.
Her arrest came on 13 February 1917. At her trial, her dealings with a German officer in Spain were alleged to be, not pro-French espionage as she claimed, but working for the enemy. She was found guilty and thrown into a dismal prison cell, before being shot in a muddy field on 15 October 1917.
Was she a spy who ensured the deaths of thousands of soldiers? Or was she simply a larger-than-life personality who craved love, attention and money? Her guilt is still debated.
P is for… Poetry
In Britain, a century on, the popular impression of the First World War owes much to the widespread influence of the emotive poetry written by soldier-poets such as Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and, perhaps the greatest of them all, Wilfred Owen. Indeed, historians have often lamented the degree to which poetry has ‘colonised’ impressions of the war.
Yet the first of the poets to capture the public’s imagination was Rupert Brooke. His war poems, in complete contrast to Sassoon’s and Owen’s, epitomised a romantic and idealised view of warfare held by many in Britain in 1914:
‘Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, /
And caught our Youth, and wakened us from sleeping.’
Brooke joined the Royal Naval Division, and in April 1915 met a tragically early death (from illness) en route to Gallipoli, so he did not experience the war’s terrible attrition. Two years later, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est was written, bringing home the bitter realities of war and challenging Brooke’s patriotic idealism:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
S is for… Slang
Military slang abounded in the war, and the British army and navy – with their rich imperial heritage – had a broad seam to draw on. Hindustani (Hindi) gave Blighty and khaki, along with pukkah meaning ‘real’ or ‘proper’ and burgoo, meaning ‘porridge’.
Soldiers had their own customised versions of rhyming slang too, so, for example, babbling brook was a ‘cook’, France and Spain was ‘rain’ and Uncle Ned referred to ‘bed’. There were inter-service variations, so, for example, soldiers had buckshee for something that was free of charge, while sailors used the term Harry Freeman’s. Interestingly, swaddy, to describe a British soldier, was originally a sailor’s term; it caught on and was used throughout the war by soldiers too, until its spelling changed to squaddie sometime during the Second World War.
Servicemen had slang for every conceivable aspect of their experiences. The ammunition hurled at them acquired its familiar turns of phrase, so that a 77mm shell was a whizz-bang and a German stick grenade was a potato masher; in return, the British threw pineapples (Mills bomb grenades) and plum puddings (trench mortar shells).
The best-known slang, though, was that used to describe the enemy and the sometimes unpronounceable places in which the squaddies found themselves. The Germans were Fritz or – as much favoured in propaganda – the merciless Hun. But they could also be the Boche or even the Alleyman, both derived from the French. (“Take me over the sea, / where the Alleyman can’t get at me’, as one trench song had it).
Ypres was Wipers, Montaubon was Monty Bong, and the Flemish town of Poperinghe, where soldiers often rested out of the line, was – mercifully – just Pop.
T is for… Toys
Toy-making did not stop when war broke out; indeed, the war generated a whole new market, and children were generally spoilt for choice when it came to war-themed toys and games. In Britain they might play Wartime Happy Families, with cards portraying ‘Lucy Atkins the Soldier’s Daughter’, or indulge in a game of Trench Football, or admire dolls and figures of patriotic personalities such as Kitchener.
Such toys were marketed as being British-made and British-designed, to push home the patriotic message (and to increase sales), and they encouraged children to engage with the war from an early age. Soldiers made toys, too, for personal and patriotic purposes. Injured soldiers at convalescent hospitals across Britain were employed in toy-making as part of their rehabilitation: from a health point of view, the machinery could help in building up wasted muscle, and wounded soldiers still able to provide for their country was an uplifting message to convey.
No less creatively-minded, German and Turkish PoWs also made toys, including beaded snakes and animal or human figures, created with their loved ones in mind or simply as a means to keep occupied.
X is for… X-rays
In 1895 the German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered a kind of ray that could travel through the human body and produce photographs of bones. He called these mysterious phenomena ‘x-rays’, and within a month doctors were using them. Surgeons could now see where a bullet was lodged rather than having to probe for it, making it much easier to remove.
Both the Germans and British soon proved the value of X-rays in military surgery, and by the First World War x-ray machines were in regular army use. The Royal Army Medical Corps had six mobile x-ray units, and the famous Polish-French scientist Marie Curie set up mobile x-ray units in converted vans, which travelled to the front where they became known as petites Curies (little Curies). In her words, “The use of the x-rays during the war saved the lives of many wounded men; it also saved many from long suffering and lasting infirmity.”
Z is for… Zimmermann telegram
The Zimmermann telegram (16 January 1917) was a coded diplomatic note by German under-secretary of state Arthur Zimmermann to the German minister (ambassador) in Mexico. But this bald description belies its real importance, for it was a catalyst of war.
British intelligence intercepted the message, deciphered it and recognised its explosive nature: the question was – how to use the information? In the telegram, the German minister was asked to investigate the chances of a German–Mexican military agreement in case the United States entered the war; it proposed German funding for Mexico and support for a Mexican effort to regain territories that had been incorporated into the United States.
British intelligence did not want to reveal they were listening-in to German cable traffic, so they managed to plausibly claim the telegram was obtained from a spy in Mexico. It was passed to the United States in February 1917.
Together with Germany’s renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare, the telegram had a fundamental effect on US public opinion and helped to mobilise US support for war. That decision was taken by President Wilson and the US Congress in April 1917. The affair was a major coup for British intelligence.
The First World War A–Z, published by the Imperial War Museum, is out now. To find out more, click here.
This article was first published on History Extra in December 2014