World War I Facts

    In commemoration of the Centennial of World War I (1914-2014), we will be sharing interesting facts about the Great War. A new fact will be provided each week over the four year centennial.

    A Battle of Grenades

    On July 26, 1916 at Poziers, the British and Australians battled it out with the enemy for over twelve hours using only grenades. Over 15,000 hand grenades were thrown in that time.

    That's A Lot of Guns

    During the Third Battle of Ypres, the Allies employed over 3,000 artillery guns. Considering each artillery piece required an average of 6 operators, at least 18,000 artillerymen were used in this battle alone.

    The Paris Gun

    Germany's Paris Gun was a long-range artillery gun that could fire a 210lb shell over 80 miles. The fired shell would travel to an altitude of over 25 miles, making this the highest flying manmade object of the day. Each shell traveled over 3,600 mph. The super-sized weapon was more of a psychological terror than the game-changing weapon Germany hoped for. On March 21, 1918 Paris was bombed, killing 256 civilians and wounding 620 more. The large gun was a maintenance nightmare as it took 80 artillerymen just to operate one gun.

    Male and Female Tanks

    Early British tanks had two versions, male and female. The female tanks carried only machine guns while the male tanks featured six pounder guns.

    Pigeons... Again

    Early tanks featured no wireless capabilities. Like other parts of the war, communications had to be made by carrier pigeon.


    Germany's U-35 was the most successful submarine of World War I. Between 1915 - 1918 she sank 226 ships or 538,498 tons. The second most successful was U-39 with 154 ships sunk or 406,325 tons.

    ANZACs Answer the Call

    Nearly 40% of Australia's male population aged between 18 and 45 enlisted for military service during World War I. 42% of New Zealand's military age men enlisted.

    Battle of Cambrai

    The Battle of Cambrai (November - December 1917) was the first battle in history where tanks were used in large numbers to spearhead an offensive. over 300 tanks were used in the initial assault.

    Bad Gas

    During World War I, over 30 different types of gases were used. France was the first country to use gas in combat. They used tear gas against the Germans in August, 1914.

    Gas Exposure

    Despite popular belief that gas was highly deadly on the battlefield, only 7.5% of all men who were gassed during WWI were killed as a result.

    Salisbury Steak and Liberty Sausages

    During World War I, Germany became an enemy of America. As such, many everyday cultural ties to Germany were altered to express a more American or patriotic feel. For example, hamburgers, which were named for the German city of Hamburg, were changed to Salisbury steaks. Frankfurters, named for the German city of Frankfurt, became known as "liberty sausages." Although "liberty sausages" faded into history, Salisbury steak continues to be a popular food in America.

    The Pool of Peace

    Today, a large water filled crater can be found just outside the Belgian town of Ypres. It is remembered as the "Pool of Peace" and remains as a memorial to the soldiers of WWI. Just prior to Third Ypres, The Battle of Messines began when Allied forces set off 19 mines, devastating the German forces nearby. The explosions were so loud, they could be heard as far away as Dublin. The crater that would become the "Pool of Peace" was created when a 91,000 lb ammonal explosion detonated on June 7, 1917.

    'Little Willie' - The First Tank

    During WWI, Britain developed the tank as a safer way to pound through German defensive lines. In 1915, a prototype of the Mark I was produced and tested. It was nicknamed "Little Willie." Topping out at around 3 mph and never used in combat, Britain's earliest tank paved the way for further development of the Mark I series and all modern tanks that continue to dominate ground assaults today! "Little Willie" was preserved after the war and history's first and oldest tank can be seen at Bovington Tank Museum in Dorset, South West England.

    Wrist Watches and the Great War

    To many of us, the wrist watch is an old technology that seems to have always been around. In truth, the wrist watch was first widely used during World War I. Before the Great War, most men used large pocket watches, pulling them from a waist pocket as needed. The war and its demand for coordinating quick and precise attacks changed this popular trend. To help commanders watch the time with gun in hand, the pocket watch was shrunk and strapped to the wrist. When the war ended, the trend simply continued.

    Gallipoli's Sphinx

    A towering geographical feature near ANZAC cove at Gallipoli was dubbed the "Sphinx" by ANZAC soldiers due to its resemblance to Egypt's famed ancient sculpture of the same name. Today, Gallipoli's Sphinx still stands as a reminder of the sacrifices made during the infamous assault to gain control of the Dardanelles.

    Armenian Genocide

    During World War I, the Turks deported millions of Armenians who they believed were potentially loyal to Russia due to their Christian ties. It is estimated that six hundred thousand to over one million Armenians were killed during the deportation due to famine and massacre. Debate continues over the impact and purpose of the Armenian deportations, but many consider the atrocities the 20th century's first genocide.

    The Deadly Skies

    It is estimated that nearly 15,000 airmen were killed during World War I. No doubt restrictions on the use of parachutes contributed to the death toll. Both sides feared that pilots would abandon their planes at the first sign of danger if they were wearing parachutes. Instead, they ended up with many avoidable deaths.

    One Smart Fokker

    Anthony Fokker was a Dutch engineer who designed some of the best planes of the war. Coming from a neutral country, Fokker chose to lend his talents to the Germans. Throughout the war, the Allies made attempts to lure Fokker to their side (see Attack of the Hawkmen). Perhaps his best remembered invention is the synchronization gear that allowed pilots to fire through their propeller blades.

    A War of Loss

    Devastating artillery resulted in horrific injuries to thousands of soldiers. It is estimated that over 500,000 amputations were performed over the course of World War I.

    Sinking the Lusitania

    The sinking of the RMS Lusitania proved to be a costly mistake for Germany. Although a British civilian ship, the liner was carrying over 128 Americans who died when the ship was sunk by Germany's U-20. The death toll of nearly 1200 civilians appalled the Allies, prompting Germany to quickly agree to the Sussex Pledge. However, their desperation to continue attacking neutral and civilian ships crossing the Atlantic would eventually lead to the Zimmerman Telegram that would push America to join the Allies.

    A Dangerous War

    It is estimated that 19 million soldiers were wounded over the course of World War I.

    The Somme Offensive

    For the Battle of the Somme, the British assembled 500,000 soldiers and the French assembled 150,000 soldiers. The battle would ultimately prove very costly for the inexperienced British Army, losing nearly 60,000 soldiers on the first day of fighting alone.

    Edith Cavell

    Edith Cavell was a British nurse who was working in Belgium before the German occupation. Remaining in Belgium, Cavell helped wounded Allied soldiers and POW's escape to Britain through the Netherlands. Germany eventually learned of her escape network. Cavell was arrested, tried, and shot. Her death, however, proved to be a valuable propaganda tool for the Allies.

    Spying - A Deadly Game

    During World War I, modern espionage and the age of the spy was born. Each side was desperate to gain an upper-hand and spies were the way to accomplish this. Hidden compartments, codes and ciphers, invisible ink were all common parts of the Great War. Over the course of the war, Britain executed eleven people for spying for Germany.

    Lessons from Verdun

    In the years before World War I, the French had constructed very strong and modern fortresses along their Eastern border. During the Battle of Verdun, France's brave soldiers were ultimately pushed out of their own fortress, Douaumont. Once out, however, the French realized just how well they had built their own fortress because they found it almost impossible to get back in. Year later, when France was constructing its Maginot Line, the walls facing France were purposely left thinner than those facing Germany. In the event that the modern fortress fell, the French could more easily fight their way back in through the weaker walls. A valuable lesson learned from Douaumont.

    Deadly Zeppelin Raids

    On October 31, 1915 a German zeppelin loomed over London. As ordered, the crew began dropping their incendiary bombs upon the city. When the raid ended, 71 people were dead. This attack remains the deadliest of all airship attacks.

    Deadly U-boats

    During the first year of the war, German U-boats were sinking an average of nearly two merchant ships per day.

    Zeppelin Raids on Allied Cities

    During the war, German Zeppelins were used to bomb Allied cities like Paris and London. Much like Hitler's strategy in World War II, the Germans hoped to garner a surrender by taking the war to the enemy's home front. The campaign's success is debatable, but the British resolve to win the war was strengthened by the attacks on their homes. In the end, the zeppelin's days of domination ended when incendiary or explosive rounds were developed.

    British Casualties at Ypres

    Despite no major battles, an average of 5,000 British casualties per month occurred at the Ypres salient during 1916.

    Chemical Warfare

    World War I is notorious for its use of chemical warfare or gas attacks. It is often assumed that millions of deaths during the war were caused by gas. While gas attacks were greatly feared by all, the death toll from poison gas is approximately 88,500... a very small percentage when compared to the millions of deaths caused by the war.

    The Sussex Pledge

    After sinking the RMS Lusitania, Germany realized they came dangerously close to bringing America into the war. Hoping to pacify the Americans, they agreed to the Sussex Pledge, where they promised to no longer attack civilian or neutral ships. Of course this agreement hampered the German war effort in the Atlantic, thus Germany quietly looked for a way to resume their unrestricted submarine warfare. The result was the infamous Zimmerman Telegram that did result in America joining the Allies.

    La Voie Sacree

    During the Battle of Verdun, French troops were running dangerously low on supplies and their defeat seemed imminent. French General, Philippe Petain stepped in and had a road made. This road, known as the Voie Sacree or the Sacred Way, enabled the French to gain the supplies needed to hold their ground and ultimately defeat the Germans.

    Convoys Turn the Tide

    During World War I, the Germans used their U-boats or submarines to terrorize military and merchant ships. By 1917, Britain was losing merchant ships at an alarming rate, especially considering they were importing much of their food supply. Fearful of being starved into submission, Britain developed the convoy system to protect their merchant ships from U-boats. Convoys are essentially merchant ships surrounded and protected by ships of the Royal Navy. Although convoys mitigated the U-boats impact, it was the U-boat that emerged victorious with 5,000 Allied merchant ships sunk compared to 178 U-boats destroyed during the war.

    World War I and the Cold War

    World War I resulted in Russia's Czar, Nicholas II, being overthrown and ultimately executed along with his family. The era of communism and what would become the Cold War has its roots in the events of World War I.

    The Brusilov Offensive

    Russia's most successful campaign of the war was the Brusilov Offensive of 1916 which pitted them against Austria-Hungary. Although Russia lost an estimated 500,000 men, Austria-Hungary suffered approximately one million casualties resulting in their loss and having their ally, Germany, take command of their forces.

    Verdun and the Somme

    The Battles of Verdun and the Somme are among the most well known of World War I. Did you know that the Battle of the Somme resulted out of Verdun? Due to the harsh fighting at Verdun, the French and British planned a diversionary assault at the Somme, hoping to pull German forces away from the Verdun region. Despite this attempt, Verdun raged on becoming the war's longest battle, lasting from February - December, 1916.

    The Australian Lighthorse

    The Australian Lighthorse were known for their bravery throughout World War I. The Lighthorse mostly consisted of mounted infantry or troops who rode into battle and then dismounted to continue the advance on foot. In 1917, the Lighthorse earned a place in history when they performed the last successful cavalry charge during their attack on the city of Beersheba.

    Deception in the Middle East

    Hoping to defeat the Ottoman Empire from within, the British promised to support the Arabs in forming a post-war independent state if they encouraged and supported rebellion against the fledgling Ottoman Empire (Turks). Despite their promise, it turned out the British were secretly double dealing with the French. The infamous "Sykes-Picot Agreement" revealed Britain's true intention of betraying the Arabs and dividing much of the Middle East with France at the conclusion of the war... which they did.

    The Christmas Truce of 1914

    During Christmas, 1914 troops from both sides met in "no man's land" and engaged in an unofficial truce. Because it was still early in the war, the enemies found common ground in their longing for family and friends during the Christmas season. The festivities included gift exchanges and even a friendly soccer match.

    The Death Toll Rises

    By 1916, only two years into the war, some 5 million soldiers on all sides were either killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or missing. The casualties were higher than previous wars due to the burgeoning era of mechanized warfare.

    America's First African-American Fighter Pilot

    America's first African-American fighter pilot was Eugene Bullard. The son of a slave, Bullard left behind the prejudices of America and moved to France. When World War I broke out, he joined the Lafayette Escadrille where he became one of their most decorated fighter pilots. When America joined the war, Bullard was not allowed to serve in the US Army Air Service because of his race. He served out the remainder of the war in the US infantry.

    US Aid to the Allies and Central Powers

    By April, 1917 US banks had lent the Allies some $2.3 billion to bolster their ability to wage war. By comparison, the US had lent Germany a mere $27 million by the same date.

    The Fall of Antwerp

    Despite no less than 48 fortresses surrounding the city, Antwerp fell to the Germans in October, 1914 and remained under their control until the Armistice in 1918.

    A Costly War

    The industrialization of war brought about new, deadly weapons. For the first time in history, thousands of soldiers could be killed in minutes thanks to the advent of machine guns, gas, and rapid-firing artillery. Casualty rates were very high during the war. Below are some casualty percentages from World War I.

    • Russia- 76%
    • France- 73%
    • Austria-Hungary- 90%
    • Germany- 65%

    End of an Era

    Many of the major dynasties that had ruled over Europe and Asia for hundreds of years were swept away because of the Great War. These include: the Romanovs in Russia, the Hohenzollerns of Germany/Prussia, the Habsburgs of Austria, and the Ottoman sultanate. The antiquated monarchies were replaced with new governments, many of which were democracies destined to fail and set the stage for future conflict.

    House of Windsor

    Britain's King George V adopted the name Windsor for the royal family during World War I. As anti-German sentiments grew in 1917, the British royal family decided to shed its original Germanic name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Germany's use of Gotha bombers to raid London played a large role in the decision to change the royal name. Queen Elizabeth II is currently the head of the House of Windsor.

    The Royal Air Force

    Britain was the first nation to create an independent air force. They merged all army and naval aircraft under the new Royal Air Force in 1918. The RAF remains Britain's air force today. The United States would not create an independent air force until 1947.

    Britain's Bloodiest Day

    The Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916. After a week long bombardment of German lines, the British believed their advance would go unopposed. Only hours later, Britain had suffered over 57,000 casualties, including over 19,000 dead. Despite the realities of failure, the British High Command refused to accept the blunder of the Somme Offensive and continued the battle for another five months.

    French Poilus's

    During World War I, French soldiers were commonly known as poilus which means "hairy ones." This term referenced the thick beards and mustaches favored among the French soldiers at that time.

    Who Needs Field Telephones?

    World War I is well known for being caught between traditional and modern warfare. Although field telephones and telegraph lines were found across the battlefields, there was still reliance on more simple means of communication... the carrier pigeon. It is estimated that half a million pigeons were used by the fighting nations of WWI. It also estimated that 95% of all pigeons carrying messages during the war successfully made it to their destinations.

    Horrible Gas

    Although chemical warfare was widespread during the Great War, only about 89,000 deaths are attributed to gas. Despite these low numbers (in the scope of the war), gas would still cause many horrific injuries to the unprotected. The fear and memories of chemical warfare kept both sides from using gas during World War II. The only exception was Japan's use of chemical weapons against the Chinese.

    The Somme & British Artillery

    It is estimated that the British fired over 6.5 million artillery shells during the Battle of the Somme (July-September, 1916). The vast majority of these shells failed to detonate upon impact or they completely missed their targets.

    The Red Baron's Last Words

    When Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. the Red Baron, was finally shot down on 21 April 1918, both the Allies and Central Powers were in shock. The man who was already a legend, managed to land his plane shortly after being fatally shot in the chest. Australian Sergeant, Ted Smout reported that Richthofen's last words were "kaputt" or "broken."

    The Tragedy of Britain's PALS Battalions

    To encourage army recruitment, Britain created the PALS Battalion. This meant that friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even athletes could enlist and remain in the same battalions together. The scheme worked and recruitment soared in Britain. At the Somme (1916), where casualties on the first day reached 60,000 alone, the mistake of PALS Battalions was realized. Some British towns lost their entire youthful male population due to the PALS.

    Miles and Miles of Trenches

    Over the course of the four year war, some 25,000 miles of trenches were dug along the Western Front alone. That's a single trench long enough to wrap completely around the Earth at the equator.

    Trench Slang

    Some of our commonly used words and expressions came from the trenches.

    • Cootie- body lice (term originated in Malaya)
    • Crummy- lice eggs, which looked like bread crumbs. Hence the associated term, lousy!
    • Funk- excavated holes in trench walls where soldiers would stay when off duty. Hence, the expression, "I'm in a funk."

    Dogs of The Great War

    Dogs were often employed during the Great War to carry messages between the lines of trenches. Their speed and agility were obvious factors in their use as "runners." A more morbid reason was their ability to navigate quickly through areas frequented by enemy snipers. Plus, let's face it, a dog is less likely to understand the real danger it's in... making it a valuable and courageous messenger. Dogs were also used to help run telegraph wire between trenches.

    Early Gas Masks- Cloth and What?

    Before the advent of the gas mask, soldiers often placed urine-soaked cloth or handkerchiefs over their mouth and nose to neutralize the effects of certain gasses (chlorine). Although gas masks would replace this method of protection, it still proved somewhat useful in a pinch.

    Sawdust Bread

    By 1918, food supplies and resources were so scarce for the German populace and army, sawdust was often mixed into flour when making bread. The flour was typically made from beans and peas. Widespread food shortages led to many other products being replaced with substitutes. Butter, for example, was often made from curdled milk, sugar, and yellow food coloring.

    Lord Kitchener Wants You

    In 1914, Britain's Lord Kitchener was named Secretary of State for War. Already known for his military exploits, he oversaw heavy recruitment for the British Army. One of the most famous and replicated propaganda/recruitment posters of all time displayed Kitchener pointing at the viewer demanding he "Wants You" to join the Army. Since that time, countless posters, i.e. Uncle Sam, have been created around the world imitating the "I Want you" finger point.

    Winnie-the-Pooh & World War I

    During World War I, it was common for regiments to have mascots. The Lafayette Escadrille was known for its two lion cubs, Whiskey and Soda. Another well known mascot was Winnie, a black bear smuggled from Canada to London by Lt. Harry Colebourn. Winnie was named for Lt. Coleburn's home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before heading to the Western Front, he left Winnie at the London Zoo, where she would playfully greet guests for the rest of her life. One young man who enjoyed seeing Winnie at the zoo was A.A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin who consequently changed the name of his teddy bear to Winnie, inspiring his father's stories about Winnie-the-Pooh.

    Metal Helmets

    The tremendous amount of artillery fire during World War I led to many battlefield innovations. The biggest change was the trench warfare that came to define WWI. Another lasting change was the advent of metal helmets. In 1914, when soldiers first entered combat they continued to use the leather helmets of their forefathers. After countless deaths from head injuries caused by shrapnel, the French switched to metal helmets. The other belligerents quickly followed suit, and the metal helmet has been with us ever since.

    Shell Shock

    The mass destruction and relentless bombings of WWI pushed troops to the limit of their senses. The human mind can only see so much death and destruction before it cracks and when it does, the result is post-traumatic stress disorder or "shell shock." Many commanders, not understanding the gravity of shell shock, had soldiers afflicted with shell shock executed for treason and refusal to obey orders. Today, we take great care to help our soldiers deal with the psychological stresses of combat. Yet another lesson from World War I.

    The Tank & World War I

    The British invented the tank and used it for the first time at the Battle of the Somme, 1916. Used with marginal success during the war, tanks would not prove their full value until the Battle of Cambrai, 1917. Early tanks topped out at around 3 mph!

    Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

    World War I was sparked by the assassination of Austria-Hungary's Archduke, Franz Ferdinand. A Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip fired the fatal shots that resulted in millions of deaths, billions of dollars spent, the rise of Adolf Hitler, World War II, the Holocaust, the seeds of the Cold War, the Bolshevik Revolution, putting a man on the moon and so much more!

    A Costly War

    On average, World War I took the lives of at least 6,000 soldiers a day. At the conclusion of the war, more than nine million soldiers would be dead. The vast majority of deaths and injuries came from artillery explosions and not machine guns.

    Zimmerman's Blunder

    Arthur Zimmerman, Germany's Foreign Minister, wrote the infamous telegram that dragged America into the war and ultimately led to the German defeat. Did you know that Zimmerman admitted to writing the telegram? Had he not, Britain's Room 40 would have been hard-pressed to confirm or prove the message originated in Germany and was not a forgery.

    Winston Churchill & the Dardanelles

    Winston Churchill is best remembered for his valiant leadership of Britain during World War II. Did you know that during World War I, Churchill served as First Lord of the Admiralty where he planned the ill-fated Dardanelles (Gallipoli) Campaign of 1915? This event ruined Churchill and it seemed his political life was over until Hitler's rise in the 1930's.