10 Things You Didn't Know About WW I

10 Things You Didn't Know About WW I
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history. To mark it, RCH has been doing a series of articles highlighting various aspects of the Great War.

For this week, here are 10 things you didn’t know about World War I. Behold:

10. World War I wasn’t the first “world” war in history. Since the early modern era (1450-1789), there have been numerous wars fought by European powers on a global scale, including on the European continent. The 30 Years’ War was a notable one, as was the era of Napoleon.

9. The first aerial dogfight was NOT fought in World War I. RCH just went over the 10 craziest dogfights of World War I last week, but the first aerial dogfight in history was fought in Mexico between two mercenaries from the Unites States. On Nov. 30, 1913, two mercenaries were flying reconnaissance missions for their sides and were ordered, from the ground, to kill the opposing pilot. The two pilots, both Americans, were not about to die for a cause they didn’t believe in, nor were they about to kill a fellow American for mere money, so they flew around in circles and shot their pistols into the sky until their guns were empty. This story has huge theoretical implications for today’s world: mercenaries don’t blindly follow orders, and nationality is hard to overcome for a buck.

8. The first tank used in combat was during World War I. Tanks are an essential component of militaries today, so much so that it’s hard to fathom war without them. But up until Sept. 15, 1916 (two years into the Great War), horses were still the main form of cavalry used by militaries. Horses! The United Kingdom was the first empire to employ tanks, in the Battle of the Somme, and they were largely ineffectual. There were too many breakdowns and the French heavily criticized their allies for giving away the advantage of surprise by launching the tanks before they were battle ready.

7. World War I was the first time mobile flamethrowers were used. The Chinese had been using a type of flamethrower for centuries, and the Byzantines had mounted a type of flamethrower on their ships, but neither of these people had been able to do what the Germans did after a few years in the trenches fighting against the British and French empires: produce a mobile flamethrower that could be wielded by infantry. The element of surprise gave the Germans a short-lived psychological advantage (the British and French soon adopted the flamethrower themselves). Flamethrowers were used to clear out enemy trenches. Instead of throwing grenades into the trenches, which had the effect of ruining what could be a new home, infantry units just stuck a flamethrower into the opposing side’s trench and let ‘er rip.

6. Chemical warfare made its horrific debut. Chemical weapons were used at the start of the war, which suggests that they may have been used earlier, perhaps in overseas colonies, and in an unofficial capacity. Indeed, tear gas was banned in the 1899 Hague Treaty, so while World War I is often referred to as the “Chemists War,” chemical weapons had been around for centuries. The reason WW I is considered to be the horrific debut of chemical weapons is because the weapons got much more deadly than the irritants used in the past, and quickly. Chlorine gas, mustard gas, and phosgene gas were absolute horrors on the battlefield, and while militaries were quick to adapt to this new technology, the horrors of World War I’s chemical weapons have never entirely dissipated.

5. The first aircraft carrier was created in World War I. While Americans made numerous strides in aviation after the invention of the heavier-than-air aircraft by the Wright Brothers, including the first landing of a plane on a stationary ship, it was the necessities of war that caused the British to build the world’s first aircraft carrier (HMS Furious). British Commander Edwin Dunning made the first successful landing on a moving ship on Aug. 2, 1917, and though Dunning died in a crash trying to repeat the landing for a third consecutive time, the aircraft carrier was born.

4. Disposable sanitary napkins created. Paper producer Kimberly-Clark created a highly absorbent product that could be used on the battlefield to staunch bleeding and was less expensive to make than cotton. WW I nurses were said to have used the product in place of reusable cloth rags and when faced with how to market the product after WW I, Kimberly-Clark began marketing it as a disposable sanitary napkins under the Kotex brand.

3. World War I showed the world what a united Germany could do. Germany was formed in 1871, making it almost 100 years younger than the United States and much younger than France and the United Kingdom. Prior to the formation of Germany, which came about due to Prussian diplomat Otto von Bismarck’s genius machinations, observers and thinkers throughout the world penned works speculating on what a unified German-speaking world would do, politically, economically, culturally, and militarily. Rome’s decentralized barbarian enemies were from Germania, the Holy Roman Empire (which was neither Holy nor Roman nor an Empire), the Hanseatic League, and the German Confederation which all tried, in vain, to do what Bismarck did. Many of the attempts to unite Germany were foiled by French, British, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian statesmen because of fears that a united Germany would come to dominate Europe and upset the balance of power that European elites had come to rely on as their foreign affairs blueprint. They weren’t wrong.

2. World War I was, and was not, the first war in Europe with African and Asian soldiers. The empires of the United Kingdom and France utilized fully their colonial capacities in World War I, not only for raw products but also for human capital. African and Asian soldiers were drafted, conscripted, trained, and then shipped off to Europe in order to help the empires fight the Central Powers. Thus, this logic goes, African and Asian soldiers made their first appearance on European soil. This is true in one sense and false in another. It’s true that many African and Asian soldiers represented the first appearance of their peoples in Europe as soldiers, but both continents have a long and storied tradition of military engagements in Europe. Just consider the Mongol Empire, which was run from the plains of Mongolia (and, later, northern China). The Mongolian penchant for conscripting recently-conquered peoples into its army ensured a cosmopolitan vibe to its conquests, including the ones in Europe. Or consider ancient Carthage, an African republic, and the military tactics of Hannibal, who decided to take Carthage’s fight to the Romans on the latter’s own continent. Then, of course, there is the Ottoman Empire, which ruled the Balkans for centuries and on more than one occasion came knocking on Vienna’s door. And these are just the official polities that made appearances, with soldiers, on the European continent. Prior to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, much of the fighting in Europe was done by mercenaries, who hailed from all over the world.

1. Russia’s World War I withdrawal was just the beginning of its troubles. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed by Russia and the Central Powers on March 3, 1918, officially ended the Russian Empire’s involvement in World War I, and gave away significant chunks of territory to Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. Three major armies appeared in Russia: the Red one led by Lenin and his Bolsheviks, the White one cobbled together by monarchists, liberals, and anti-Bolshevik socialists, and the Green ones which represented local interests rather than ideological ones. In addition to the formation of rival armies within the country, eight foreign powers sent military units into Russia, including France and the United Kingdom, and several local militias formed with the backing of Central Powers. Russia’s surrender to the Central Powers then, was even more of a blow to the Allied war effort than just losing an ally. The U.K. and France had to send precious military units into a region that was not only knocked out of the war, but also featured numerous sides that were hostile to foreign intervention. The potential for catastrophe was immense. The arrival of foreign troops, ostensibly on the side of the White army, gave Lenin’s Red army the psychological advantage it had been looking for. The Reds were the only side fighting for a Russia that was governed by Russians. This nationalistic approach went against Lenin’s ideological writings, but governance is always and everywhere about pragmatism, not principles, especially in the midst of a civil war. The Germans too, found the Russian Civil War more complicated in practice than in theory. In theory, the exit of the Russians from the war should have meant that Germany could concentrate all its efforts on the Western Front, but in practice, Germany had to be content with not one formal enemy on the former Eastern Front, but dozens of informal enemies with no obvious reasons of state (other than to exist). The implications of this situation spelled doom for the Germans and their war plans, as the Russian collapse gave the Allies enough time to incorporate the United States into their war plans. The rest, as they say, is history.

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