5 WTF Facts You Didn't Know About WWI
When you think about World War I, you probably picture machine gunners, gas masks, pointy little helmets, Snoopy mercilessly gunning down that Red Baron pizza guy ... but as is so often the case, it turns out that history class presented us with an extremely narrow, kinda boring viewpoint for one of the world's greatest conflicts. See, the Great War was also quite possibly the weirdest. That's because ...
Lances Were Used On The Same Battlefields As Machine Guns
Though it's often considered the first modern war, World War I went down while most of humanity still took the word "horsepower" literally. A WWI battlefield was an odd and terrifying blend of the old and the new. Take Germany, for example, which had a reputation of being fairly high-tech at the time: Their army launched into the earliest battles of the war led by Uhlans -- horse-mounted shock troops armed with 10-foot steel lances, then followed by the main units armed with machine guns and artillery.
This presumably inspired the Uhlans to ride faster.
"Let's hurry up, the fife players already got run over."
The British were the first to introduce armored vehicles, in 1916 -- the term "tank" was actually a code word intended to fool eavesdropping Germans into thinking they were discussing (inordinately deadly) water tanks. Even then, the Brits relied heavily on horses to move artillery and supplies, drafting more than a million of them to slog through the muddy trenches of Belgium and France. By the end of the war -- taking all sides into account -- more than 8 million horses had died on the Western Front alone. But where's their memorial, huh?
London Was Bombed By Gargantuan German Airships
Remember The Blitz during World War II, when the Nazis bombed London for the better part of a year straight? Well, it turns out that was the big-budget sequel to an oft-forgotten original performance, which featured motherfucking Zeppelins.
Any death metal bands out there need a sweet public domain album cover?
Germany's airships were the only aircraft capable of making it across the English Channel and far enough up the Thames to rain hellfire on London, and from 1915 to 1917, that's precisely what they did. Problem was, though they undoubtedly looked metal as hell, the airships were basically just giant, floating bags of ludicrously flammable gas. While they initially operated at a higher altitude than the Brits could reach, improvements in anti-aircraft artillery soon transformed them into history's biggest fireworks displays. And that's when they were replaced by heavy bombers.
Said heavy bombers looked like this, by the way:
One of the Wright brothers lived to see this. We're pretty sure it's not what he had in mind.
Remember, the airplane was still a fairly new technology, so the first bombers were basically scaled-up biplanes with a big hole in the floor through which bombardiers dropped bombs. By hand.
French Troops Took Taxis To The Battlefield
The Germans marched straight into Belgium and Northern France in August of 1914, opposed by only a small British force. German troops quickly reached the Marne River, just 35 miles east of Paris. German victory seemed imminent. Until General Joseph Gallieni (the military governor of Paris at the time) managed to strengthen the wavering Allied front lines by sending in waves of reinforcements.
Via all of the taxis, to be precise.
That's right: Gallieni hired 600 of the City of Light's considerable battalion of cabs, and for the next 24 hours, a steady convoy of taxis carried carloads of French reserve troops to the battlefield the same way your drunk ass gets carried to the Taco Bell late Friday night.
The White War Of The Alps Saw Ice Fortresses And Possibly Weaponized Avalanches
World War I offered more than its fair share of ways for a man to excruciatingly meet his maker, not the least of which includes poison gas. Since chemical weapons were a fairly new practice, history tends to focus a lot on their effects during the war, while ignoring the fact that simple snow killed far more troops. When Italy reluctantly entered the war in 1915, their nearest enemy was the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the north. The problem? Also to Italy's north are the goddamn Alps.
"So ... snowball fight?"
The fighting during this so-called White War was like nothing you've ever seen in a war movie. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers battled at breathless altitudes in inhuman conditions. These armies leveled peaks, installed cableways and telephone lines, and even constructed entire villages just for the fight. In the Dolomites, the Austrian Corps of Engineers hollowed out a bona fide ice city inside the belly of a glacier. Why we're not currently sipping hot cocoa inside the Official World War I Ice City Museum and Memorial, we haven't the slightest idea.
"And this is where we're gonna put the ice bar."
That's also where those deadly avalanches we mentioned came into play: More than 10,000 soldiers died on a single day, when someone apparently pissed in a Yeti's cornflakes on Dec. 13, 1916. There's even speculation that the combatants weaponized Mother Nature, intentionally triggering avalanches above their enemies by launching artillery into the snow. Of course, something like that is difficult to prove, seeing as how any eyewitnesses are, you know, currently buried in a glacier. That's not to say no evidence is forthcoming, however: Letters, journals, and, holy shit, freeze-mummified soldiers are gradually finding their way out of the ice to this day.
History Class Is Euro-Centric, But World War I Really Was A Global Conflict
Doesn't the first W in "WWI" seem like sort of a misnomer? It's an international conflict in the same sense that the World Series is an international contest: It should be called the Great European War instead.
Actually, despite Western education's tendency to focus on the more European parts of the conflict, the first declarations of war were by Austria-Hungary against Serbia, and by Germany against Russia. Japan was early to step in as an ally of Russia, sending 23,000 troops and six battleships to capture the German colony in Tsingtao, China, and later captured German-held islands throughout the South Pacific. South Africa invaded German Southwest Africa. Meanwhile, German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought a guerrilla war in British East Africa for four years, and couldn't even be assed to surrender until two weeks after the Armistice, still undefeated at the head of a standing army of locally recruited African troops.
Also, this happened.
The British had troops in the Middle East, battles raged in the Balkans, German U-boats sank merchant shipping vessels throughout the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean, and Germany even tried to spur Mexico into invading the United States, back before the U.S. had even entered the war.
The French brought in supplementary troops from their colonies in Indochina (modern-day Vietnam), as well as Tunisia, Senegal, and Sudan. And, of course, the British called in their colonial armies everywhere from Canada to Australia and New Zealand (the Anzacs, famous for fighting in the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey), not to mention laborers from around the world, including India and China. In mid-1918, even Costa Rica, Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras joined in against Germany.
So just, all of this.
That's a whole lot of words to say that, damn straight, World War I earned every last bit of its moniker. Hell, if Germany hopped in a giant balloon and went to the moon, the world would have fought those sons of bitches in space, too.
Bryan Johnson dedicates this article to his great-grandfather, Sgt. Maj. Sidney Markham, Royal Marines Light Infantry (Battle of Mons, First Battle of Ypres, Second Battle of Ypres, Third Battle of Ypres). He also has a website about the Great War.
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