Fought between 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918, World War I was a global conflict primarily pitting the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria against the Allies which was a coalition of many nations, most prominently the Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Italy. There are numerous interesting details regarding the Great War. Like it could have been avoided through the Willy-Nicky telegrams; a wounded pigeon saving the lives of around 200 soldiers; skins of women working in war munitions factories turning yellow-orange after repeated exposure to TNT; and anti-German sentiments leading to changing of popular German terms in the United States, among other nations. Know more through these 10 interesting facts about the First World War.

 

#1 Willy-Nicky telegrams could have resolved the conflict

The Emperor (Kaiser) of Germany, Wilhelm II, and the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, were both the great-great-grandsons of Paul I of Russia, among other relationships. They had a friendly relationship and corresponded in English writing letters, often addressing each other as “Willy” and “Nicky” in their informal correspondence. The chat between the two powerful monarchs during the July Crisis of 1914 thus became a subject of close observation for historians, considering that Germany and Russia were among the primary movers from either side which led to the escalation of war. Called the Willy-Nicky telegrams, the messages comprise a series of ten telegrams wired between Wilhelm II and Nicholas II on 29, 30 and 31 July; and 1 August, 1914. The telegrams start on a friendly note with both requesting the other to deescalate the matter and understanding the political pressures within the other’s domains. Excerpts:-

“…In this serious moment, I appeal to you to help me. An ignoble war has been declared to a weak country. The indignation in Russia shared fully by me is enormous. I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war…”

Tsar to Kaiser, July 29, 1:00 A.M.

“…I fully understand how difficult it is for you and your Government to face the drift of your public opinion. Therefore, with regard to the hearty and tender friendship which binds us both from long ago with firm ties, I am exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you…”

Kaiser to Tsar, July 29, 1:45 A.M.

The correspondence then changes tone and the two leaders warn each other of impending mobilization due to factors out of their control.

“…The military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago for reasons of defence on account of Austria’s preparations. I hope from all my heart that these measures won’t in any way interfere with your part as mediator which I greatly value…”

Tsar to Kaiser, July 30, 1:20 A.M.

“…On your appeal to my friendship and your call for assistance began to mediate between your and the austro-hungarian Government. While this action was proceeding your troops were mobilised against Austro-Hungary, my ally. thereby, as I have already pointed out to you, my mediation has been made almost illusory… I now receive authentic news of serious preparations for war on my Eastern frontier. Responsibility for the safety of my empire forces preventive measures of defence upon me.”

Kaiser to Tsar, July 31

The most talked about telegram however remains the following:-

“…Whereas official message presented today by your ambassador to my minister was conveyed in a very different tone. Beg you to explain this divergency! It would be right to give over the Austro-servian problem to the Hague conference. Trust in your wisdom and friendship.”

Tsar to Kaiser, July 29, 8:20 P.M.

Some authors accuse Wilhelm II of not supporting the proposal of Nicholas II to submit the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Tribunal for adjustment, and thus abandoning the chance for a peaceful resolution to the problem.

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II
Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1905

 

#2 In 1914 German was the second most spoken language in the US

Migration of German speaking people to America can be traced back to the mass emigrations from the German palatine region to Pennsylvania in 1680. German was thus spoken by millions of migrants to the US from Germany, Switzerland, and the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. The 1910 census counted more than 8 million first and second generation German-Americans in the population of 92 million. It had been the second most spoken language in the country for many years until the years following the First World War.

German emigration to United States
A cartoon depicting German emigrants boarding a steamer in Hamburg, Germany, to come to America

The anti-German sentiment began to grow in America following the outbreak of WWI reaching its heights in 1917 as America entered the war on the side of the Allies. This strong emotion against German Americans and migrants, fueled by patriotic fervor and xenophobia among the Americans, resulted in open hostility toward all things German. Language was the focus of legislation at state and local levels. Some states banned the teaching of all foreign languages, though most only banned German. A total ban on teaching German in both public and private schools was imposed for a time in at least fourteen states. German press was controlled strictly and public speaking in the language met with anger from the populace. Hence, after the First World War, German lost its position as the second most widely spoken language in the United States.

 

#3 Lusitania was warned before it set sail

Lusitania was a British transatlantic voyager that was torpedoed by a German U Boat off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. The incident resulted in the death of about 1,100 civilians, which included 120 passengers from neutral America and became a major event in the First World War. The sinking of Lusitania is considered as a primary reason behind the United States ultimately joining on the side of the Allies. In February 1915, Germany had declared unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters around Britain. Several newspapers in the US including the New York Times published a warning by the German Embassy before the ship sailed, that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. The announcement was placed on the same page as an advertisement of the imminent sailing of the Lusitania liner.

Lusitania German warning
The warning issued by the Imperial German Embassy on 22 April, 1915

 

#4 A wounded pigeon saved close to 200 American soldiers

In October 1918, more than 194 American soldiers of 77th Infantry Division under Major Charles White Whittlesey found themselves trapped in a small depression behind enemy lines. Their runners were intercepted, their pigeons shot down by the Germans and to make matters worse for the “lost battalion”, their location was misreported as an enemy position, exposing them to friendly-fire as well. As munitions and food dwindled with both friendly and enemy fire continuing to rain down, the imperilled unit turned to their one remaining pigeon, named Cher Ami (French for “dear friend), in a last-ditch effort to get word out. Cher Ami was dispatched with a note, written on onion paper, in a canister on her left leg. The homing pigeon was fired at and shot down, but somehow managed to take flight again. It was able to deliver the message despite being shot through the breast, blinded in one eye and having a leg hanging only by a tendon. Cher Ami thus saved the lives of 194 men. She was tended to by Army Medics, given a wooden leg and put on a boat to the United States.

Cher Ami WW1 pigeon
The stuffed body of Cher Ami on display at the Smithsonian Institution

 

#5 140,000 Chinese laborers served on the Western Front

China declared war on Germany and Austria Hungary late in WW1, on August 14, 1917. In the initial years of war it was a neutral country and thus her nationals were not permitted by their government to engage in any fighting. The French had however pioneered a way to use the Chinese human resource to their advantage. They signed a contract for the supply 50,000 laborers with the Chinese on 14 May 1916 and the first contingent left Tianjin for Dagu and Marseille in July 1916. The British would soon follow their ally and employ almost twice as many Chinese in their Chinese Labor Corps. A total of about 140,000 Chinese workers served on the Western Front during and after the War. Apart from digging trenches, they were tasked with essential work to support the frontlines like unloading ships; building dugouts and mutations depots; and repairing roads and railways. Most of these Chinese men, aged between 20 and 35, hailed from the Shandong Province and returned to their country once the war was over in 1918.

Chinese Labour Corps WW1
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps load sacks of oats onto a lorry at Boulogne, August 12, 1917

 

#6 Victory Gardens were created to increase food during the war

Food production had fallen dramatically in Europe during WWI with agricultural labor being recruited in military service. The governments of Canada and America thus promoted the idea of Victory Gardens to their citizens in 1917. The logic was simple, more the produce that could be grown in private front yards, vacant lots and former flower gardens; the more food, soldiers and munitions could be shipped to their forces and Allies overseas. In America, future president and food administrator Herbert Hoover ran a program designed to encourage Americans to produce more and consume less. It urged people to live simply and placed an emphasis of volunteerism. Millions of such gardens thus cropped up all across. This not only assisted in meeting the export commitments of the countries and avoidance of food rationing, but it also freed railcars and transport trucks to move other strategic goods instead of food. Victory gardening was followed with more vigor and by many other countries during the Second World War.

WW1 Victory Garden Poster
WWI-era U.S. victory poster featuring Columbia sowing seeds

 

#7 A German ace pilot shot down 80 planes

German fighter pilot Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen, known more famously as the Red Baron, was the most successful fighter pilot of the entire war. Originally a cavalryman from a noble family, Richthofen was transferred to the Signal Corps once cavalry became irrelevant in the war. In 1915, he volunteered for Air Service as an observer, and learned to fly over the next several months. After being scouted in the fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916, Richthofen quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot. In his 19 months (1916-1918) as a fighter pilot, Richthofen shot down 80 planes making him a hero in his country. He was finally shot down and killed near Vaux-sur-Somme on April 21, 1918.

Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen

 

#8 Canary Girls were an unfortunate result of WW1

World War I saw most men of working age joining the military to fight in the war. Women were thus required to take up factory jobs that were held by men. In United Kingdom, 3 million women were working in factories by the end of the war, with close to a million employed in the manufacture of munitions, which involved mixing explosives, and filling shells and bullets. The women exposed to toxic TNT soon found their skins turning yellow orange after repeated exposure to the hazardous substance. They were thus nicknamed Canary Girls as their orangeyellow color was reminiscent of the plumage of a canary bird. It was not only the female munitions workers that were affected by the TNT, but also the babies that were born to them. Hundreds of “Canary Babies” were born with a slightly yellow skin color because their mothers were exposed to dangerous chemicals in munitions factories during WW1.

 

#9 Wilfred Owen became popular decades after WWI

Wilfred Owen is remembered as one of the best know poets of the WW1. Born in 1893 in England, Owen’s early influences were verses from the Bible and poets like Shelly and Keats. After working as a teacher in France in his early career, Owen volunteered for the British Army in October 1915 and was sent on the front lines in France in mid-1916. He soon suffered from shell shock and spent time in the hospital, only to return to the trenches in 1918 where he met his death while in action just a week prior to the end of hostilities. Wilfred Owen remained relatively unknown for many years after the war. This was perhaps because his view of the war as one of pity and horror was not popular in those times. In the 1960s however the literary elite found his poetry in sync with their own anti-war sentiments. His work was thus published and encouraged his as the most authentic view of the conflict.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen

 

#10 Anti-German Sentiment gave the term hot dog

Anti-German sentiment reached its peak in America during the later years of WWI. This meant that a vast majority of the population wanted to distance itself from German loyalties. Frankfurters, an obviously German name was deemed unacceptable during World War I. In some places they were called liberty sausages but it was another term that stuck – the hot dog. Sauerkraut consumption had decreased since the beginning of the conflict and in 1918 the Federal Food Administration received a petition to rename sauerkraut to liberty cabbage, a name the Americans would be proud to use. Other changes included – German measles Liberty measles, dachshunds – liberty pups, German Spitz – American Eskimo Dog, Hamburg steak – liberty steak. In England, “German Shepherd” was changed to “Alsatian”. Moreover, people anglicized German surnames to sound less German and more English (Battenburg to Mountbatten, for example). The royal family adopted the name Windsor rather than continue using the German family name.

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