16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts

Khalid Elhassan - August 18, 2018

November of 2018 will see the centennial of the end of World War I, optimistically labeled by some contemporaries as “The War to End All Wars”. It was history’s first truly global conflict, and a transformative event whose legacy shaped the twentieth century, and helped set up the geopolitical landscape of the world we live in today.

Following are 16 of that conflicts lesser known facts.

A Terrorist Organization Sparked the Conflict

Serbia’s Black Hand was a secret society that employed terrorism in a bid to free Serbs from Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, and unify them in a Greater Serbia. Austria-Hungary was the Black Hand’s main target, and the group sent terrorists across the border on operations to stir up trouble. Their greatest feat would be the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914.

The Black Hand’s founders first came together in 1903, when junior officers, led by a Captain Apis, launched a coup that culminated in the murder of the Serbian king and queen. Following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, an act Serbs resented, the 1903 conspirators met with senior Serb officials to found a secret pan-Serbian organization. It aimed to liberate Serbs living under foreign rule via a coordinated campaign of propaganda, sabotage, terrorism, and other clandestine means. A furious Austria-Hungary forced Serbia, under threat of war, to back off.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Logo of the Serbian Black Hand. Wikimedia

The Black Hand was established in 1911 to resume the campaign, oversee its activities, and establish and coordinate nationalist revolutionary cells in Bosnia. The organization trained guerrillas, saboteurs, propagandists, and assassins, and sent them into Austria-Hungary to destabilize it, and stir up nationalist resentment among its Serbian subjects.

Serbia became a full blown state sponsor of terrorism, as the Black Hand’s leadership was composed primarily of high ranking Serbian officials and army officers, including the crown prince. The Serbian government was kept well informed of the group’s terrorist activities. By 1914, captain Apis was a colonel in charge of Serbia’s military intelligence, and was the Black Hand’s primary mover and shaker. That year, he hatched a plot to send assassins to murder Austria’s successor to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Wikimedia

History’s Most Impactful Assassination

History’s most impactful act of terrorism was the Serbian Black Hand’s murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28th, 1914, after a comedy of errors entailing various failed attempts. The parade of follies included a terrorist who threw a bomb that didn’t kill its target, then attempted suicide by swallowing expired cyanide, and tried drowning himself in a river that was only inches deep.

One of the terrorists, Gavrilo Princep, gave up, and went to grab a bite at a cafe. To his astonishment, the Archduke’s convertible, whose chauffer had taken a wrong turn, suddenly came to a stop just a few feet away. As the driver attempted to reverse, Princep stepped up to the open vehicle and fired two shots, killing Franz Ferdinand and his wife.

A Rube Goldberg chain of events ensued, leading to a global conflagration. Austria declared war on Serbia. That dragged in Russia, Serbia’s protector. That in turn dragged in Germany, Austria’s ally. That brought in France, Russia’s ally against Germany. That prompted Germany to invade France via Belgium. German violation of Belgian territory brought in Britain, a guarantor of Belgian sovereignty.

Over 70 million men were mobilized in the ensuing war, and 10 million were killed. Four empires vanished, and the global center of power shifted from the Old World to the New. An age of aristocracy and traditional forms of government came to an end, and a fervent and fast paced era of democracies, juxtaposed with radical ideologies and totalitarianism, took its place.

Serbia suffered greatly for its sponsorship of terrorism. It stood off an initial Austrian attack, but was overrun in 1915. A fifth of Serbia’s population perished during the war – the highest percentage suffered during the conflict. Serbia’s government finally had enough of the Black Hand, which had grown too powerful and too meddlesome. In 1917, its leaders were arrested and tried on trumped up charges for conspiracy to murder the Prince Regent. They were convicted, sentenced to death, and executed, and the group was outlawed.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Germany felt hemmed in and encircled by a hostile France to the west and a dangerous Russia to the east. Maps.Com

Europe Was Sitting on a Powder Keg, Giving Off Sparks – German Fear of Russia

The war was sparked by Serbian terrorists’ assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, a general European war would probably have erupted sooner or later, as a result of numerous tensions and irreconcilable differences between Europe’s great powers. Even without the Archduke’s assassination, it is likely that another spark would have led to war.

The biggest source of tension was Germany’s fear of Russia, which launched a massive program of modernization and industrialization in the 1890s. Until then, German military planners were confident that backwards Russia was incapable of fighting a modern military like Germany’s. Russian modernization, coupled with Russia’s vast potential in manpower and resources, upset those calculations.

A powerful Russia was worrisome to Germany, which already had a formidable potential foe to her west: a revanchist France, eager to redress the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian war, and regain the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. The Germans were confident that they could handle France, but a France allied with a modern Russia was another story.

Fear of Russian modernization came on the heels of decades of warnings from German nationalist intellectuals about an inevitable showdown between menacing “Slavs” and fair “Teutons” for the mastery of Europe. As they presented it, the issue was a racial conflict that had been fought between Germans and Eastern Europeans, in one form or another, for centuries.

Experts in the German general staff calculated that Russian modernization would enable Russia to catch up with Germany by 1916, and steadily pull ahead thereafter. Thus, by 1914, the German military was advising the Kaiser that since war with Russia was inevitable, it had best be fought sooner rather than later, before Russia had fully modernized and realized her potential.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Austro-Hungarian troops hanging Serbs in 1914. Wikimedia

Europe Was Sitting on a Powder Keg, Giving Off Sparks – Russian Pan Slavism, Serbia, and Austria-Hungary

Even as German nationalists were whipping their public’s passions into a frenzy, Russian nationalists were doing the same in Russia. The latter advanced a theory of pan-Slavism, in which Russia was responsible for protecting Europe’s fellow Slavs – and most Slavs outside Russia’s borders were being oppressed or menaced by Austria-Hungary.

Russia sought (and still does) to present herself as champion of the Slavs, and in line with that, she promised to support Slav Serbia against Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, Russia was forced to back down in 1909 after Austria-Hungary and Germany threatened war. Russia was in no condition to fight at the time, and her French ally was lukewarm about going to war over the issue. The humiliation hardened Russian attitudes, and they determined to stand firm in the next showdown involving Russia’s status as protector of fellow Slavs.

In the meantime, Russia’s most turbulent fellow Slav state was Serbia, whose government sought to gather all Serbs and Serb speakers into a Greater Serbia. Unfortunately, most fellow Serbs lived not in Serbia, but within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the Serbian press engaged in virulent anti-Austrian agitation

Serbia became what would be considered today a state sponsor of terrorism, with Serbian government officials supporting terrorist activities aimed at destabilizing Austria-Hungary. Understandably, that did not sit well with the Austro-Hungarians, who grew increasingly eager for an opportunity to put an end to it by crushing Serbia once and for all.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
HMS Dreadnought, a revolutionary product of the naval arms race between Britain and Germany in the runup to WWI. ThoughtCo

Europe Was Sitting on a Powder Keg, Giving Off Sparks – Revanchist France, and a Wary Britain

Steadily mounting tensions in Eastern Europe between Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, and Russia, Serbia, and the region’s Slavs on the other, were matched by tensions on the Franco-German border. France had suffered a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870 – 1871), and to buy peace had to pay a huge indemnity, and surrender the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.

France got over the indemnity, but not over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. In the ensuing decades, a revanchist France rebuilt and reorganized her army, all the while nursing grievances against Germany and itching for a rematch. German diplomatic missteps gave France an opening in the 1890s to develop an alliance with Russia, and having secured a potentially powerful ally, French revanchism increased.

Having alienated France with the seizure of Alsace and Lorraine, then alienated Russia as well, the Germans set about alienating Britain. For centuries, Britain had followed a policy of aloofness from European continental entanglements. The British preferred to step in only to restore Europe’s balance of power when one side threatened to upset it, and in so doing become powerful enough to threaten Britain.

For centuries, that had meant siding against France, which became Britain’s hereditary enemy. Then Kaiser Wilhelm II sought to built a powerful naval fleet, as a statement of Germany’s rising power. However, such a fleet threatened not only British naval hegemony, but the security of Britain herself, which relied almost exclusively on the Royal Navy to keep enemies away from the British Isles. The German naval threat was powerful enough for Britain to reverse centuries of anti-French hostility, and morph from France’s hereditary enemy to her ally against Germany.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Gavrilo Princip outside a court during his trial. Wikimedia

The Guy Who Started the War Lived Until Its Last Year

Gavrilo Princep’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set in motion the chain of events leading to the outbreak of World War I. Considering the gravity of his deed, it might be assumed that Princep was immediately gunned down by the Archduke’s security, or that he was executed soon thereafter. Instead, Princep was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 20 years’ incarceration, dying in prison of illness in the war’s final year.

Gavrilo Princep (1894 – 1918) was a Serb born and raised in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a territory ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a teenager, he was radicalized by Serbian nationalists who called for a country unifying all southern Slavs (“Yugoslavia”), and joined an organization dedicated to freeing all Slavs from Austria-Hungary’s control.

Violent activism got him expelled from school in 1912 – he put on brass knuckles, and threatened fellow students who were lukewarm about joining him in a demonstration against Austria-Hungary. After the expulsion, he walked 170 miles to the Serbian capital, Belgrade, joined guerrillas who raided across the border into Austro-Hungarian territory, and was soon recruited by Black Hand terrorists.

The Black Hand trained, armed, and equipped Princep and a team of fellow terrorists, and sent them to assassinate Austria’s Archduke in June of 1914. Princep fired the fatal shots, then swallowed a cyanide pill immediately after. However, it had expired, and he was captured. In his subsequent trial, he declared: “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria“.

He was convicted, but he was only nineteen years old at the time – twenty seven days short of the twenty year old minimum age under Austro-Hungarian law for the death penalty. So he received the maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. He contracted tuberculosis in prison, and died of consumption on April 28th, 1918, three years and ten months after sparking the war.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
The Schlieffen Plan as intended, before it was derailed by the needless withdrawal of troops. Quora

The War’s First Major Battle on the Western Front Was its Most Important One

Germany almost won WWI in the first month of hostilities. The only reason it did not was because Germany’s chief of the general staff, Moltke the Younger, panicked in the first two weeks of fighting, and needlessly withdrew troops from the Western Front to reinforce the Eastern Front. If not for that, WWI would likely have been decided in Germany’s favor.

Germany planned to knock out France before her ally, Russia, fully mobilized. To that end, the Germans relied on the Schlieffen Plan, which envisioned a wheeling advance through Belgium and northern France in the shape of a sickle. The sickle’s tip would advance to the west of Paris, then swing back inwards and eastwards to bag the French armies in a giant sack.

However, Russia mobilized sooner than expected, and struck into Eastern Prussia. Moltke panicked, and despite advice by the Eastern Front’s commander that reinforcements were unnecessary, he transferred two corps from the Western Front to Eastern Prussia. They came from the right wing of the German wheeling advance into France. Before they arrived, the Battle of Tannenberg, the decisive battle of the Eastern Prussia campaign, had already been won by the Germans.

On the Western Front, withdrawal of the two corps weakened the German right wing, and a gap opened between the two rightmost German armies – a gap where the two corps sent to Eastern Prussia had been. Entente armies struck into the gap, and to close it, the German rightmost army was forced to wheel in early, east of Paris, instead of to its west as per the Schlieffen Plan.

Turning east of Paris exposed the German right flank to attack from troops in that city. That brought about the war’s most decisive battle, the First Battle of the Marne, when Entente armies attacked the Germans across the Marne River. The two rightmost German armies were threatened with encirclement and destruction, and Moltke had a nervous breakdown upon hearing the news.

His subordinates ordered a retreat, shattering German hopes of an early victory. Instead, Germany would end up fighting a war of attrition, in which the Entente would steadily bring their superior resources to bear, and steadily stack the deck against Germany. The Germans would never come as close to victory as they had during that first month of fighting.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Japanese troops shelling the German settlement in Tsingtao. David Doughty

Japan’s Opportunistic Entry Into the War

In 1914, Japan had little interest in, and cared even less, about the great power entanglements and network of alliances that had led to the outbreak of a general war in continental Europe. However, as a rising power in East Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese government realized that its interests were best served by joining the Entente powers.

Accordingly, Japan approached Britain, with whom it had an alliance treaty, and proposed joining the war in exchange for Germany’s Pacific possessions. The British, who wanted Japanese assistance in combating German naval raiders, accepted. So Japan declared war against Germany on August 23rd, 1914, and against Austria-Hungary two days later.

On September 2nd, 1914, Japanese forces landed in China’s Shandong province, and placed the German settlement in Tsingtao under siege. It surrendered on November 7th. Simultaneously, the Japanese Navy sailed to and seized Germany’s Pacific possessions of the Marianas, Carolines, and Marshall islands. Having fulfilled its part of the bargain by suppressing the Germans in the Far East, and chasing the German East Asiatic Squadron out of the Pacific, Japan spent the rest of the war making the best of it.

By 1917, millions had died on the Western and Eastern fronts in Europe, and there seemed to be no end in sight to the slaughter. In Japan itself, however, the conflict barely registered with the public. Instead, Japan experienced a wartime boom, as Japanese industry and Japanese factories went full blast in producing goods for her insatiable allies.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
A contemporary artist’s depiction of British and German troops exchanging presents on Christmas, 1914. Wikimedia

German and British Troops Struck a Truce on Christmas, 1914

By Christmas eve, 1914, the war had been raging on the Western Front for five months, and combined casualties already numbered in the millions. That evening, British troops in some sectors of the front heard German soldiers in opposing trenches singing carols. The Tommies soon joined in the singing, and before long, both sides were shouting “Merry Christmas!” at each other.

At the break of dawn of Christmas day, unarmed German soldiers, with hands upraised and shouting Season’s greetings, came out of their trenches and slowly started crossing no man’s land. The Tommies suspected that it was a trick at first, but upon realizing that it was not, they two came out of their trenches, and met their foes between the trenches.

As one British described it in a letter: “I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o’clock this morning, I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German waving his arms, and presently, two of them came out of their trenches and sauntered towards ours. We were just going to fire on them, when we say they had no rifles. So one of our our men went out to meet them, and in about two minutes, the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas“. The soldiers exchanged gifts of cigarettes and chocolate, buried their dead, and even played an impromptu soccer match in no man’s land.

It was a touching moment, but also a troubling one from the perspective of commanders, as the last thing generals want is for their troops to fraternize with the foe. Both high commands realized that such incidents were bad for morale, and undermined their soldiers’ fighting spirit. Strongly worded orders prohibiting fraternization were issued, and to ensure against a repeat, artillery was ordered to shell opposing trenches the following Christmas, and every Christmas thereafter.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
A victim of the Wire of Death. Imgur

The ‘Wire of Death’ Killed Thousands Along the Dutch-Belgian Border

In World War II, Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium in order to get at France from the northeast, but in WWI, the Germans invaded only Belgium, and the Netherlands remained neutral. That left a lengthy border through which smugglers, spies, and saboteurs, slipped back and forth, and prisoners of war escaped to freedom. By the end of 1914, over a million Belgians had crossed into the Netherlands as refugees.

Guarding the porous Belgian-Dutch border tied many German soldiers, who were desperately needed elsewhere. Early in 1915, an electric fence had been set up along a stretch of the Swiss border to isolate some Alsatian villages from Switzerland, and it proved effective. So the Germans decided to replicate it on a grander scale, along the Belgian-Dutch border.

Construction commenced in the spring of 1915 of a 5 to 10 foot high electric fence with 2000 to 6000 volt wires running through it, and covering over 125 miles of the Belgian-Dutch border from the Scheldt River to Aix-la-Chapelle. Those caught within 100 to 550 yards of the fence who could not explain their presence were summarily shot.

By war’s end, about 3000 people had been killed along what came to be known as “The Wire of Death”, and newspapers in the southern Netherlands carried almost daily reports of unfortunates who had been “lightninged to death”. Nonetheless, while the fence reduced border crossings, it did not eliminate them. Many crossed the border using creative methods such as tunneling beneath the fence, using extra high ladders, pole vaulting it, or tying porcelain plates to their shoes in order to insulate them.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
A Q-Ship, with hidden platform for gun and torpedoes. Pintrest

The British Used Decoy Ships to Bait and Sink German U-Boats

In an attempt to defeat the German U-boat menace, the British Royal Navy used special decoy vessels known as Q-ships, which were heavily armed merchant ships carrying concealed weapons. Intended as bait to lure enemy submarines, the seemingly unarmed Q-ships would unveil their guns and sink the U-boats once they emerged to make a surface attack.

Before Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 and began sinking ships without warning, U-boats used to hail civilian vessels, allowing their crews an opportunity to take to their lifeboats. They would then open fire and sink the ship, usually with the U-boat’s deck gun from up close when practicable, in order to save the more expensive torpedoes for tougher targets.

Q-ships were usually trawlers or freighters carrying hidden guns in collapsible deck structures. They would sail routes heavily infested with U-boats, in the hopes of attracting their attention and enticing them into making an attack. When hailed, part of the crew would act like normal merchant sailors, terrified by the appearance of an enemy submarine, and rush to the lifeboats to abandon ship.

Using expensive and powerful torpedoes to sink relatively easy targets such as trawlers and freighters was overkill, and was officially frowned upon. So the U-boat’s captain would normally close the distance to the now “abandoned” ship in order to sink it from close range with the deck gun. That was when hidden crewmen aboard the Q-ship would haul down the merchant flag and raise the Royal Navy’s ensign. Simultaneously, other crew would collapse the deck structure, revealing up to four guns manned and ready for action, which would open fire and sink the surprised U-boat.

Q-ships were successful when first introduced, and within months, they claimed 11 U-boats. However, German submariners eventually learned to be wary when approaching small vessels, and at the slightest suspicion, used torpedoes to sink them from a safe distance. After the Germans turned to open submarine warfare in 1917 and began sinking ships without warning, Q-ships’ utility came to an end.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Royal Flying Corps aircraft supporting a British offensive. Forming the Thread

Aviation Advanced and Air Forces Grew at a Breakneck Pace

As the first major conflict involving the large scale use of aircraft, World War I revolutionized aviation. In 1914, airplanes were rickety technological marvels, little more than a decade old, and their role was limited to reconnaissance. When fighting ended in 1918, major offensives featured hundreds of airplanes supporting the ground troops, and heavy bombers were striking the enemy’s cities and strategic installations.

At war’s start, airplanes were slow and fragile machines, with barely enough power to lift a pilot and, perhaps, a passenger. Few grasped airplanes’ potential, or even had a good idea of what to do with them other than fly them over enemy lines on reconnaissance missions. In that role, they provided valuable service, and the Entente victory in the First Battle of the Marne owes much to airborne reconnaissance spotting a growing gap in German lines.

The growing importance of aerial reconnaissance spurred the need to stop the enemy from aerial spying behind one’s own lines. Firing on enemy reconnaissance aircraft from the ground was usually ineffective, so intrepid pilots started taking things into their own hands, and firing at their opponents with pistols, rifles, and shotguns.

That gave way to machineguns, whose use was awkward at first, until a Dutch inventor developed an interrupter gear – a mechanism that synchronized machinegun bullets to fly between the spinning blades of propellers without hitting them. With machineguns mounted in airplane’s noses, fighter airplanes were born. Soon, fighter squadrons were crisscrossing the skies, duking it out in dogfights.

Another use for airplanes was to drop explosives on enemy troops below, and at first, pilots simply chucked grenades out of their cockpits. Soon, specially manufactured bombs were utilized, and dedicated bomber airplanes came into regular use, capable of carrying steadily heavier bombloads over increasingly longer distances. By war’s end, the basics of aerial warfare, with reconnaissance, fighter, and bomber airplanes, had been established.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
A wartime cartoon depicting American rage at the sinking of the Lusitania. Google Sites

America’s Entry Into the War Was Not That Reluctant

The assertion that wars are deliberately instigated by the rich in order to line their pockets is often overblown and overly simplistic. While moneyed interests and war profiteers have all too often made a killing from wars, they have seldom – other than the occasional gunboat diplomacy incident to collect debts in the 19th century – been the proximate cause of major conflicts. Major wars, especially in the modern era, are too complex and their causes too varied for such simplistic explanations.

However, as with most generalities, there are exceptions that prove the rule, and the United States’ entry into World War I might have well been just such an exception. American bankers and moneyed interests actually did play a key role in pushing a great power into a major conflict, specifically in to protect their pocketbooks and financial interests.

The conventional narrative is that America was reluctantly dragged into WWI, mainly because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans then made things worse when a Foreign Office higher up, Arthur Zimmerman, proposed a military alliance with Mexico against the US, promising Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico in exchange.

While the preceding were certainly factors in America’s joining the war in 1917, an even greater preceding factor was that important American financial interests had strongly backed the Entente Powers with loans. By 1916, Britain was nearly broke, and without further collateral. However, a consortium of American banks, led by JP Morgan, bailed out the British with a massive unsecured loan.

American bankers had favored the Entente from the start, but from that point on, their solvency and future survival depended on an Entente victory. Otherwise, their unsecured debt would go up in smoke, and so would the lenders’ fortunes. A concerted PR effort went into high gear to sway the American public, and by 1917, said public was ready for a crack at the Germans.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Sgt. Alvin C. York in 1919. Boise State Public Radio

In a Single Engagement, Alvin York Killed 32 Germans, Captured 132, and Seized 32 Machine Guns

There was little indication that Alvin York (1887 – 1964) would become one of the war’s greatest heroes when America entered the conflict in 1917. Especially since he was a devoted churchgoer and pacifist, who read the Bible as prohibiting killing. He requested a draft exemption as a conscientious objector, but the request was denied, and he was drafted. He got over his pacifism after his officers used Biblical passages to convince him of the morality of fighting for a just cause.

He was shipped to France, and in October of 1918, now-corporal York was sent in a party of 4 non-commissioned officers and 13 privates to silence a German machinegun position. However, the position turned out to be far stronger than expected, and York’s party ended up in the killing fields of over 35 well hidden machineguns. They opened up, and within seconds, nine GIs, including the other three non-commissioned officers, had been cut down, and York found himself in charge of the survivors.

As he described what happened next: “As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over 30 of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. … All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.”

York simply drew beads with his rifle on any German heads that popped up, and put them down like it was target practice. All while a hail of bullets from dozens of German rifles and machine guns were directed his way. York’s rifle eventually ran out of bullets, so six Germans took the opportunity to charge him with bayonets. He took out his .45 pistol, and shot all six before they reached him: “I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all“.

The Germans finally had enough. An officer raised his hands, walked up to York, and told him “If you don’t shoot anymore, I will make them give up“. When it was over, York had single handedly killed 28 Germans, captured 132 more, plus 32 machine guns. The exploit earned him the Medal of Honor, and made him the war’s greatest American hero.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
Aftermath of the Black Tom Explosion. Liberty Science Center

German Agents Almost Blew Up the Statue of Liberty

The highest point accessible to the public when visiting the Statue of Liberty today is its crown, but visitors used to be able to go up the statue’s upraised arm, until they reached its torch. That ended in 1916, when the first terror attack by a foreign cell on American soil damaged the statue, and rendered the torch inaccessible to the public ever since.

In the early 20th century, Black Tom Island in New York Harbor, just off the New Jersey shore, was one of the East Coast’s biggest munitions depots. When WWI started, its warehouses could barely keep up with the combatant’s orders for American munitions. While both sides could buy American munitions, only the Entente, whose navies controlled the sea lanes, were in a position to purchase and transport American munitions.

So the Germans sent secret agents and saboteurs to America, with orders to disrupt the delivery of munitions. On the night of July 30th, 1916, Black Tom Island had about two million pounds of artillery and small arms munitions in freight trains and barges. Sometime after midnight, guards noticed a series of small fires on the piers, and took to their heels, fearing an explosion.

At 2:08 AM, July 30th, 1916, a massive explosion hurtled debris for over a mile, shattered windows up to 25 miles distant, and caused about half a billion dollars in damages. The actual death toll is unknown, as there were many housing barges nearby, and many victims are thought to have been incinerated. The blast and debris struck the Statue of Liberty, popping rivets in its upraised arm holding the torch, and that part of the statue has been closed to the public ever since.

16 Forgotten or Lesser Known WWI Facts
The mud of Passchendaele. Australian War Memorial

Soldiers Were Swallowed Up by Mud in the Battle of Passchendaele

Combat in WWI was a horrific and brutalizing experience for the millions of unfortunates who endured it. The experience was extra horrific and brutalizing for those who fought in the 1917 Battle of Passchendale, as unusually wet weather conditions transformed the terrain into a sea of mud deep enough to completely swallow soldiers.

The battle was fought in Flanders, a low lying Belgian coastal region where the water table lies near the surface. The area is often muddy, but relentless rains in 1917 enhanced its muddy norms, and artillery churned the ground and made it even muddier. Thousands of beasts of burden perished from exhaustion while dragging gun carriages and wagonloads through the mire, and moving a gun a few hundred yards could take over six hours. It often took six men or more to stretcher a casualty over the muck, and men stumbled through gluey mud that sucked the boots from their feet.

The combatants stopped thinking of those in enemy uniforms as the true foe: that honor went to the ankle deep, calf deep, thigh deep, waist deep or deeper and all-devouring mud. The wounded and dying were swallowed up entire, and fit men were buried when sodden trench walls collapsed around them. Soldiers feared the mud even more than they feared the enemy.

As one British officer described conditions: ” Covered with mud, wet to the skin, bitterly cold, stiff and benumbed with exposure, cowed and deadened by the monotony of 48 hours in extreme danger and by the constant casualties among their mates, they hung on to existence by a thin thread of discipline rather than by any spark of life. Some of the feebler and more highly strung deliberately ended their lives.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Australian War Memorial – Rain and Mud: The Ypres-Passchendaele Offensive

Encyclopedia Britannica – First Battle of the Marne

Encyclopedia Britannica – World War I: The US Entry Into the War

First World War Encyclopedia – Q-Ships

Hastings, Max – Catastrophe, 1914: Europe Goes to War (2014)

Japan Times, May 9th, 2017 – Japan’s Little-Known, But Significant, Role in WWI

New York Times, June 28th, 2016 – Franz Ferdinand, Whose Assassination Sparked a World War

Owlcation – World War 1 History: The Dutch-Belgian Wire of Death

Smithsonian Magazine, November 1st, 2011 – Sabotage in New York Harbor

Spark Notes – World War I: The War in the Air

Time Magazine, December 24th, 2014 – Christmas Truce, 1914: What Really Happened

ThoughtCo – The Black Hand: Serbian Terrorists Spark WWI

Tuchman, Barbara W. – The Guns of August (1989)

Wikipedia – Alvin York

Wikipedia – Wire of Death