Here, Seán Lang reveals 10 lesser-known facts about the First World War you (probably) weren’t aware of…
The alliance system didn’t cause the war
Many people assume that the war resulted directly from the alliance structure that bound all the European great powers together before 1914. Germany was allied to Austria-Hungary and Italy; Russia was allied to France, and both countries had an entente (a diplomatic agreement) with Britain.
The alliances certainly contributed to the prewar build-up of tension between the great powers but, perhaps surprisingly, none of these alliances actually produced a declaration of war.
In July 1914 Germany gave Austria-Hungary a sweeping guarantee of support known as the ‘Blank Cheque’, which went far beyond the terms of their formal alliance. The French came in because Germany launched a pre-emptive strike against them; Britain declared war not because of the entente agreements but because the Germans invaded Belgium, and Italy first kept out of the war and then came in against its own allies!
There were special battalions for short soldiers
The minimum height requirement for the British Army was 5ft 3ins, but many shorter men were caught up in the recruiting enthusiasm of August 1914 and were keen to enlist.
Rather reluctantly the War Office established a number of ‘bantam battalions’, attached to more conventional regiments. Many bantams were coal miners, and their short height and technical expertise proved a great asset in the tunnelling work that went on underneath the western front.
However, bantams were not particularly effective in battle, and by the end of 1916 the general fitness and condition of men volunteering as bantams was no longer up to the standard required. It wasn’t easy to maintain recruitment: increasingly the bantam battalions had to accept men of ‘normal’ height. And there’s not much point in a bantam battalion that is largely made up of taller men, so after conscription was introduced in 1916 the bantam battalions idea was quietly dropped.
Munitions girls kept football going
The Football League suspended its programme after the 1914–15 season (although the FA continued to allow clubs to organise regional competitions), and amateur tournaments were difficult to run with so many men in the army, so women stepped into the breach.
Munitions workers – ‘munitionettes’, as they were known – formed football teams and played against rival factories. Munitionette football attracted a wide following, and many matches were played at the grounds of professional clubs. When peace came, however, the female players had to hang up their boots and go back to the domestic lives they had been leading before the war. But the sport continued to enjoy success until women were banned from playing in Football League grounds in 1921.
Portuguese troops fought in the war
Like many neutral countries, Portugal was angry at German U-boat attacks on its merchant shipping. The Portuguese were also worried that the German military campaign in Africa might move into their colonies in Mozambique and Angola.
In March 1916, Germany declared war on Portugal. As well as patrolling the oceans and strengthening their border controls in Africa, the Portuguese also sent a military force to the western front. The Portuguese won the respect of their more battle-hardened allies, and put up a particularly stubborn fight against the great German offensive of spring, 1918.
The Russians first solved the problem of trench warfare
Launching a successful attack against a heavily fortified enemy trench was one of the most difficult problems facing military commanders on both sides: barbed wire and machine guns gave a considerable advantage to the defender. Even if an attacker did break through, the attacking force usually ran out of steam just as the defenders brought up reinforcements.
The man who solved the conundrum was the Russian general Alexei Brusilov, who in 1916 launched a massive offensive against the Austrians in co-ordination with the British and French attack on the Somme. Brusilov realised that offensives on the western front were too heavily concentrated on trying to ‘punch a hole’ through the enemy line at a particular point, so the enemy knew exactly where to send his reinforcements.
By attacking over a much larger area, Brusilov was able to hide the direction of his main attack from the Austrians, so they never knew which points to reinforce and which to abandon. Of course, Brusilov’s approach needed the sort of huge numbers of men that were the Russian army’s speciality, and after its initial success the attack petered out because the supply system for food and ammunition couldn’t cope.
British soldiers lined up in a narrow trench. “Launching a successful attack against an enemy trench was one of the most difficult problems facing commanders on both sides,” says Seán Lang. (Photo by Getty Images)
The war produced Britain’s worst rail disaster
On 22 May 1915 a troop train carrying men of the Royal Scots Guards and the Leith Territorial battalion south to embark for the Gallipoli campaign crashed into a stationary local train sitting outside a signal box near Gretna Green. Moments later the Glasgow express crashed into the wreckage of the two trains, and the whole scene was engulfed by fire.
Some 226 people were killed, 214 of them soldiers, and 246 were seriously injured. It remains to this day the biggest loss of life in a railway accident in Britain.
The crash happened through the carelessness of the two signalmen, who were found guilty of criminal negligence and sent to prison. They had shunted the local train onto the main line instead of a siding and had been too busy chatting about the war to change the signals to warn the approaching troop train.
Wartime demand for rolling stock was so high that trains were using old wooden-framed carriages, which caught fire with terrifying speed. The crash was another unwanted by-product of the First World War.
Japan came to the rescue of the British in the Mediterranean
Britain’s only formal alliance before 1914 was with Japan, and it was designed to relieve the Royal Navy of some of the burden of defending Britain’s Asian colonies, and to enable Britain and Japan to help one another safeguard their respective interests in China and Korea.
When war broke out, the Japanese attacked German possessions in the Pacific and China, but in 1917 Britain requested Japanese assistance with escort duties in the Mediterranean. The region was vital for supplying Allied armies in Italy and Greece, and for maintaining communications with Africa, but the Allied navies faced threats from German and Austrian submarines.
The Japanese, operating from Malta, provided escorts for Allied merchant and troop convoys, and a search-and-rescue service for the crews of torpedoed vessels. Japan’s important role in the war strengthened its claim to be accepted by the Americans and Europeans as a fully fledged great power.
The Chinese worked on the western front
Who actually filled all those sandbags we see in photographs of the trenches? Who loaded the guns, ammunitions and food onto lorries or trains? Who cleared up after a train was derailed or a headquarters building shelled?
The answer was the Chinese Labour Corps. They were volunteers from the Chinese countryside who were sent to Europe to fulfil a vital, but almost completely overlooked role in making an Allied victory possible. They were paid a pittance, and were generally regarded by both the British and French as expendable ‘coolies’.
They mostly served behind the lines, which limited their casualties from enemy action, although they suffered very badly from the ‘Spanish’ flu epidemic of 1918.
The war dragged on two weeks longer than you think
Although we mark the Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, as the end of the First World War, it actually lasted two further weeks in Africa.
The German commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, had become a national hero in Germany through his ruthless guerrilla campaign against Britain’s imperial forces in East Africa, forcing Africans to act as his porters and devastating the economy of the local villages as he did so. Vorbeck had been forced into Portuguese Mozambique by November 1918, but he still had some 3,000 troops under his command and he was still launching raids into Southern Rhodesia when news reached him of the armistice in Europe.
Unlike the German army in Europe, Vorbeck could regard his own force as undefeated, and he decided to end the African war at a time of his own choosing. He formally surrendered to the British in Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) on 25 November, two weeks after the Armistice in Europe.
Kipling’s words were tragic
The words that appear on the gravestones of unidentified soldiers of the First World War, “A soldier of the Great War known unto God”, were written by the celebrated writer and Nobel Prizewinner, Rudyard Kipling.
Commissioning leading figures like Kipling was a way of showing that Britain honoured its war dead. The words on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, built by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, even calls them “The Glorious Dead”. The words were chosen by Kipling, but there was a cruel irony in this commission.
Kipling’s own son John had been taken into the army despite his appallingly weak eyesight, and was killed by a German shell in 1915 at the battle of Loos. His body was never found, so he too became, in his father’s words, “a soldier of the Great War known unto God”.
Seán Lang is the author of First World War for Dummies (2014).
This article was first published on History Extra in August 2014