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Top 10 Shocking Facts About World War I

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Shocking Facts About World War I

The First World War is also known as the ‘Great War’. The influence of this world war was enormous. The face of Europe, a civilized continent with a long history, was definitively changed by World War I. How a conflict could get so out of hand and developed peoples could inflict such a terrible carnage still amazes historians.

WW I left its mark on the further course of the 20th century. Without World War I, Hitler would never have come to power and there probably would have been no Second World War or Holocaust. The Russian Revolution had not taken place either and the later Cold War would never have arisen. Below is a top 10 list of amazing facts from WWI.

A lot of deaths

For the first time in history, a war was fought on such a large scale, resulting in several million victims† An estimated ten million soldiers were killed. There were also 15 million civilian casualties, bringing the total death toll to 25 million. More than 30 countries became involved in World War I. In total, more than 65 million men battled each other. About 20 million soldiers were injured in the fighting, often resulting in severe mutilation and permanent injuries. 

To this day, nearly 100 years after the armistice, the First World War continues to claim casualties. In places where the bloodiest battles were fought, the ground is still full of unexploded bombs, grenades and mines. In March 2014, two workers were killed in the explosion of a shell from World War I in Ypres, Belgium. Unfortunately, the list of victims of the Great War is still growing.

Development of new weapons

Wars always give a ‘boost’ to the development of new weapons and new technologies. This was no different in WW I. Moreover, the technology of many modern weapons of war originated in the First World War.

The most famous example of this is the tank. The British developed prototypes of a military tank in the greatest secrecy in the years 1914 and 1915. On September 15, 1916, the first usable British tank drove onto the battlefield in France. The French and German armies also did not sit still and designed their versions of this new weapon of war. The French Renault tank proved very successful and formed the basis of American tanks that came into full production after WW I.

Other weapons also saw the light of day during WW I. Flamethrowers, machine guns and submarines appeared on the battlefield. The First World War also went down in history as the first war in which horrific chemical weapons, such as chlorine gas, phosgene gas and mustard gas, were used.

A very expensive war

A war not only causes casualties, destruction and misery, but also costs money. A lot of money even. Not only weapons and ammunition, but also food, clothing, equipment and wages of men must be paid. Due to the massive deployment of troops, the production of new expensive weapons and the enormous consumption of ammunition, the First World War was an extremely expensive war.

The belligerent countries spent a total of about 200 billion dollars (according to the exchange rate at the time) on WWI. Converted to contemporary currencies, this comes down to about 2500 billion euros. An incredible amount, which was mainly coughed up by the populations of the warring countries. To pay for the war, the governments issued war loans. The population was encouraged to subscribe out of patriotism. After the war many war bonds turned out to be worth much less, and in Germany even worth almost nothing. Most of the war debt was never repaid.

Germany had to pay for the damage

After World War I, large parts of Belgium, France and other belligerent countries lay in ruins. Germany lost the war and had to pay for the damage caused. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Germany had to repay 132 billion gold marks, spread over time, for the reconstruction of the affected countries.

During and after the Second World War, there were no more reparations from Germany for the damage from the First World War. It would take until after the reunification of West and East Germany before Germany started repaying WWI repayments. The last German WWI debt repayment finally took place in… 2010. This was 92 years after the armistice.

The Red Baron: Best Fighter Pilot of the Great War

When World War I broke out in 1914, aviation was still in its infancy. The Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903 , just 11 years before the start of World War I. Initially, the warring nations used airplanes only to make reconnaissance flights over enemy territory. Soon, however, machine guns were installed and bombs were taken on board. In the beginning, these bombs were simply thrown ‘overboard’ in the hope that they would hit the enemy lines.

It was a German who went down in history as the greatest fighter pilot of the First World War: Manfred von Richthofen, also known as the ‘Red Baron’. He single-handedly shot down 80 enemy aircraft, a record unmatched by any other World War I pilot. The Red Baron was killed on April 21, 1918.

Huge mine craters

The battlefields of World War I were recreated into a lunar landscape, where no trees or plants grew and the ground was littered with projectile impact craters. The traces of this can still be seen in the landscape to this day.

One of the most famous craters is the so-called Spanbroekmolenkrater, also known as the ‘Pool of Peace’, near the Flemish village of Wijtschate. In June 1917 the so-called ‘Second Battle of Messines’ took place in this area. British troops dug tunnels up to German lines and placed 24 mines, 19 of which exploded simultaneously in the early morning of 7 June 1917. The explosions were massive, creating deep craters and could be felt and heard far into the area ( according to some sources even as far as London).

 The Spanbroekmolenkrater was originally 27 meters deep with a diameter of 129 meters. The crater soon filled with water. The resulting pond is now 12 meters deep and 76 meters in diameter.

shell shock

When it turned out that many soldiers suffered from dizziness, trembling, ringing in the ears, headaches and even hallucinations after heavy fighting, this was initially attributed to the violent explosions caused by exploding grenades (‘shells’). This is how the name ‘shell shock’ came into being. However, the phenomenon also occurred in men who were not present during violent explosions, so that the cause of the disorder must be of a psychological nature. 

Many military personnel who had to deal with these psychological complaints were regarded as ‘imposers’ and ‘cowards’. Some were even executed for cowardice. Towards the end of the war it became clear that a large majority of the men, including officers, suffered from shell shock. Today this condition is referred to as ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’‘.

Medical developments

The high number of wounded in World War I led to breakthroughs in medical science. The field hospitals were overrun by men with serious or minor injuries. For this reason, the medical personnel introduced a system of ‘triage’, whereby the injured were divided into groups that were treated more quickly or less quickly according to their chances of survival.

 Blood transfusions, which were hardly the case before World War I, took place en masse during the war. The newly developed mobile X-ray equipment was able to detect bullets and shrapnel in the body. In 1917, the first anesthesia machine was also put into use, with which patients could be safely put under anesthesia.

Fight until the very last minute

The First World War officially ended on November 11, 1918 at 11 am. The signing of the armistice took place just after 5 a.m., in a train car in a forest at Compiègne (France). In the six hours that elapsed between the signing and the laying down of arms, there was still fierce but futile fighting. According to some sources, more than 2,000 were killed before the ceasefire went into effect. The last official casualty of World War I was American soldier Henry Gunther, who was killed in action at 10:59 a.m., one minute before laying down the weapons.

The aftermath of WWI

The defeat had enormous consequences for Germany. The German Kaiser Wilhelm II was deposed. Henceforth the country was a republic. In the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, Germany was made responsible for the outbreak of World War I. Germany had to cede territory to Belgium, France, Poland, Denmark, Lithuania and the then Czechoslovakia. The country lost all its colonies and was only allowed to have a very limited military force. In addition, the German state had to pay heavy reparations for the damage done during the war.

The German population became impoverished and humiliated. The discontent in the country was great. It was this sense of unease that Adolf Hitler took advantage of to gain popularity and rise to power, eventually leading to World War II.

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