World War I was a global conflict between the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria; and the Allies which was a coalition of many nations, most prominently the Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Italy. It began with the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia on the 28th of July, 1914; and ended with the surrender of Germany on November 11, 1918. There are numerous legendary and famous figures related to WW1. These include Gavrilo Princip, who was primarily responsible for the outbreak of war due to his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; Red Baron, a German fighter pilot who had 80 air combat victories; Mata Hari, who has become synonymous with a seductive female spy; and Wilfred Owen, perhaps the most famous war poet. Here are the 10 most legendary people associated with World War I.
#1 Gavrilo Princip
Lifespan: July 25, 1894 – April 28, 1918
Nation: Austrian-occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina
The teenager behind the biggest flashpoint of the 20th Century, Gavrilo Princip was the man responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, in Sarajevo on 28 June, 1914. The two shots he fired would change the course of human history, starting a disastrous chain of events that would lead to the outbreak of the First World War, causing 15 million deaths among countless other fallout. As a supporter of South Slav nationalism, Princip aimed to destroy the Austro–Hungarian rule in the Balkans and unite the south Slav people into a federal nation. A Bosnian Serb, he felt that Serbia as a free Slav state was obligated to help in this cause. Princip joined and trained under the Serbian nationalist secret society Blank Hand, which had the support of the Serbian State.
In 1914, he would be one of three men sent by Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the chief of the Intelligence Department in the Serbian Army and head of the Black Hand, to assassinate the Archduke. On June 28th, Princip along with his co-conspirators lined the route due to be taken by the Archduke’s cavalcade along Appel Quay. The first attempt by Nedjelko Cabrinovic failed, but while on his return from the city hall, Princip would get an opportunity at a close range and he would grasp it to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The event would push Europe into a diplomatic scramble known as the July Crisis and finally into the First World War. Princip would face trial in Sarajevo and be sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He would die in 1918 of tuberculosis in a hospital near his prison.
#2 Grigori Rasputin
Lifespan: January 22, 1869 – December 30, 1916
Among the most controversial figures in Russian history, Grigori Rasputin was a peasant from Siberia, with claims and reputation of having prophetic and healing abilities. Aged 18, he went to the monastery at Verkhoture, where he was introduced to the secret Khlysty (Flagellants) sect. Rasputin left after a few months, married and bore three children. However, marriage did not settle him and he became a wanderer traveling to Greece, Middle East and Jerusalem. Rasputin’s travels brought him to St. Petersburg in 1903 and he eventually found himself in the court of Czar Nicholas II, because of his alleged healing ability. The royal family’s only son and heir to the throne, Aleksey Nikolayevich suffered from hemophilia, a cause of great pain to the family. Rasputin miraculously healed the boy, winning him the passionate support of the Empress Alexandra and a foothold at the very top of Russian society.
However, Rasputin’s licentious ways, heavy drinking and other quirks soon began to play up, making him the talk of the town. The Royal family seemed to be mesmerized by him, and this unsettled many people. When WW1 broke out in 1914, Rasputin opposed Russia’s entry and predicted doom for the country. In 1915, the Czar’s entry as Commander in Chief, left the internal affairs in the hands of Czarina Alexandra and her adviser Rasputin. This further angered many people and Rasputin was called a German spy, a mad monk and corrupter of the Imperial family. Several attempts were made to take the life of Rasputin, but none were successful until 1916 when close members of the Royal family conspired and killed him. Rasputin’s last prophesy was yet to unfold, shortly before his death, he had written to Nicholas II predicting that if he were killed by government officials, the entire imperial family would be killed by the Russian people.
#3 Red Baron
Lifespan: May 2, 1892 – April 21, 1918
Manfred von Richthofen, known more famously as the “Red Baron“, was a fighter pilot in the German Air Force. An ace of aces pilot, he defied the odds to claim 80 air combat victories during WWI, becoming a legend in the air. Born in a noble family, Richthofen took the title of Freiherr (equivalent to Baron in English). Later, as a pilot he painted his aircraft red. Thus it could be spotted from a distance, giving Richthofen the nickname Red Baron. Originally a cavalryman, Richthofen served first on the eastern and then on the western front. As trench warfare settled on the western front, cavalry was not relevant and Manfred was transferred to the Signal Corps, where he would soon get frustrated by trench life. In 1915, he volunteered for Air Service as an observer, where he learned to fly over the next several months. He became one of the first members to be scouted for fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 2 in 1916.
Manfred quickly distinguished himself as a fighter pilot, and during 1917 became leader of Jasta 11 and then the larger fighter wing unit Jagdgeschwader 1, better known as “The Flying Circus” due to the bright colors of its aircraft. In his 19 months (1916-1918) as a fighter pilot, Richthofen shot down 80 planes making him a hero in his country. His plane was shot down near Vaux-sur-Somme during WW1, leading to his death on 21 April 1918.
#4 Lawrence of Arabia
Lifespan: August 16, 1888 – May 19, 1935
Known for his liaison role in the Sinai and Palestine campaign and for aiding the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a British archaeologist, army officer, diplomat and writer. An architect and archaeologist, T.E. Lawrence was a regular visitor to the Middle East and Egypt in his prewar years, making him of immense strategic value once the war broke out. Following the outbreak of hostilities, Lawrence was assigned as an intelligence officer in Cairo in December, 1914. The Intelligence were in contact with Sharif Hussein, Emir of Mecca, who was negotiating with the British and offered to lead an Arab uprising against the Ottomans. In 1916, as the Arab Revolt broke out, Lawrence was sent to join the Arabian army of Hussein’s son Faisal as a liaison officer, where he played an effective role in the guerrilla war against the Turkish lines.
The Arab world was liberated towards the end of war, but Lawrence’s hope that the peninsula would be united as a single nation was dashed. The Allied double dealings and Arabian factionalism disillusioned him and he left for England, where he refused the accolades offered to him. T.E. Lawrence became a legendary figure in his lifetime. After the war, he lobbied for the independence of Arab countries, wrote his war memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and enlisted for the Royal Air Force. In 1962, a historical film based on his life, “Lawrence of Arabia“, won seven Academy Awards and made him a household name.
#5 Mata Hari
Lifespan: August 7, 1876 – October 15, 1917
Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Netherlands, Mata Hari was the archetype of the seductive female spy. After a deteriorating marriage with an Army man more than 20 years her senior, Mata Hari moved to Paris in 1905. Here, she became a mistress of a French diplomat. Margaretha had gained superficial knowledge of Indian and Javanese dances while in Malaysia with her ex-husband and she began making a living from exotic dancing. Completing her dramatic transformation from military wife to siren of the East, she coined her stage name, “Mata Hari”, which means “eye of the day” in Indonesian dialect.
Mata Hari’s soon gained fame attracting packed dance halls and opera houses. Her admirers included politicians and high-ranking military officers of various nationalities. In 1916, now nearing 40, Mata Hari accepted a lucrative offer to spy for France from Georges Ladoux, the head of French military intelligence during World War I. She planned to use her connections to seduce her way into the German high command. The facts regarding her espionage activities remain obscure but she was named as a German spy in the intercepted German communiqués by the French. This made her a double agent and led to her arrest in February 1917. Her military trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence and she was accused of divulging of Allies’ new weapon, the tank. Mata Hari was pronounced guilty. She was executed by the firing squad on October 15, 1917. She refused her blindfold and blew the soldiers a kiss, moments before her death.
#6 Wilfred Owen
Lifespan: March 18, 1893 – November 4, 1918
Arguably the greatest poet of World War I, Wilfred Owen wrote awe inspiring poetry, critiquing the harsh reality of warfare. This stood in stark contrast to the public perception of war at the time. Owen’s interest in poetry may be traced back to 1904, during a holiday spent in Cheshire. His early influences included verses from the Bible and well known romantic poets of the time, especially P.B. Shelly and John Keats. After finishing school, he worked as a teacher’s assistant and was teaching English to children near Bordeaux, France, when war broke out in the summer of 1914. In the early months of war he found himself not involved in the conflict, but feeling pressurized and guilty as the war progressed, he returned to England and volunteered for service on October 21, 1915. By mid-1916, Owen was on the front lines in France commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment. Soon after he suffered shell shock and was sent to a hospital, where he formed great friendship with fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon would became a major influence on his work.
After the treatment Owen returned to France and was re-sent to the trenches in August 1918. This marked the beginning of his most prolific period as a war poet with landmark poems like “Anthem for Doomed Youth“, “Futility“, “Strange Meeting“ and “Dulce et Decorum Est“. In September, he captured an enemy machine gun position during an attack and was awarded the Military Cross for his effort. He was killed in action on 4th November,1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal. This event took place exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.
#7 Nurse Edith Cavell
Lifespan: December 4, 1865 – October 12, 1915
An English nurse and possibly a spy, Edith Cavell became a popular figure in the First World War for helping 200 Allied soldiers escape German occupied Belgium. After working as a governess for some years, Edith Cavell took up the nursing profession in 1896 becoming a nurse probationer at the London Hospital. In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr. Antoine Depage, to be matron at Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium. When war broke out in 1914, Edith was in England but she promptly returned to her Institute, which had been taken over by the Red Cross after the German occupation of Belgium.
While performing her duties on soldiers from both sides, Edith was part of a group which was sheltering wounded British and French soldiers as well as Belgian and French civilians from German authorities. These people were provided false papers and then funneled out of occupied Belgium to neutral Netherlands. Edith Cavell was arrested among others in August 1915 for harboring and assisting Allied soldiers. Following her arrest, propaganda efforts on each side portrayed Cavell as either a kind nurse or an enemy operative. Edith was tried in secret and kept in solitary confinement for diplomatic reasons before being sentenced to death. On October 12, 1915, she was executed by firing squad.
#8 Lion of Africa
Lifespan: March 20, 1870 – March 9, 1964
Known for his exceptional guerrilla warfare skills, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was a German General and colonial administrator commanding Germany’s small African force during WW1. Nicknamed as the “Lion of Africa“, he was essentially undefeated in WW1 and came to fame while capturing Mozambique from Portugal against all odds. Vorbeck developed his skills serving against the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900) and on an expedition to put down the Herero and Hottentot Rebellion (1904–07) in South West Africa. When World War I broke out, he was appointed military commander of German East Africa, where he repelled the British landing at Tanzania in late 1914 with a force one eighth the size of the enemy.
During the course of war and with a force never greater than 14,000 in total (comprised of 3,000 German and 11,000 Askari (native African) troops), Lettow-Vorbeck managed to engage and pin down a much larger British, Belgian and Portuguese force (estimated at 300,000). Known to have lived by the warrior’s code of chivalry, honor and respect for the enemy, Lettow-Vorbeck treated his African Askaris no different than the white Germans under his command, a rare thing at the time. He was also the only German commander who was successful in invading imperial British soil during the war. After the war ended in November 1914, he finally surrendered his undefeated army towards the end of the same month.
#9 Ernest Hemingway
Lifespan: July 21, 1899 – July 2, 1961
Nation: United States
When World War I started in Europe in 1914, Ernest Hemingway was in High School and President Woodrow Wilson had ensured that America stayed neutral in the conflict. However in April 1917, America decided to join the allies and Hemmingway tried to enlist in the Army once he turned 18. He was however turned down by the US Army, Navy and Marines, owing to the poor vision in his left eye. Wanting to part of the action, Hemmingway tried to sign up as a Red Cross volunteer, where he was accepted in December 1917 and signed on as an ambulance driver in Italy.
The day he arrived in Italy, a munitions factory exploded and he had to carry mutilated bodies. This was for him an immediate and powerful initiation into the horrors of war. He began his work in the town of Schio in Italy, driving ambulances. A few weeks after his arrival, while Hemingway was distributing chocolate and cigarettes to Italian soldiers in the trenches near the front lines, he was seriously wounded by fragment of an Austrian mortar shell. It is to be noted that, despite this injury, he managed to carry a wounded soldier on his back to the first aid station. This earned him an Italian Silver Medal for Valor. After the war, Hemmingway went on to become a renowned writer, winning the Noble Prize for Literature in 1954. Hemingway’s wounding along the Piave River in Italy and his subsequent recovery at a hospital in Milan, including the relationship with his nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, all inspired his great novel A Farewell To Arms.
#10 Francis Pegahmagabow
Lifespan: March 9, 1891 – August 5, 1952
Among the most highly decorated soldier in Canadian military history, Francis Pegahmagabow was an expert marksman and scout. Noted to be the most effective and deadly sniper in the First World War, he is credited with killing 378 Germans and capturing 300 more, using the much-maligned Ross rifle. A member of the First Nation, Pegahmagabow volunteered for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force shortly after the outbreak of war. In February 1915, he was deployed overseas with the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion and fought the Second Battle of Ypres, where he began making his reputation as a sniper and scout. In the 1916 Battle of Somme, he was wounded in his left leg but recovered soon to rejoin his battalion as they moved to Belgium. Over the course of these two battles, Pegahmagabow carried messages along the lines and was awarded a Military Medal for his gallant efforts.
Apart from his excellent sniper skills, Pegahmagabow was also recognized for his heroic acts of bravery. He earned a bar to his Military Medal, playing an important role as a link between the units on the 1st Battalion’s flank; and guiding reinforcements in the Second Battle of Passchendaele. In 1918, his company was almost out of ammunition and in danger of being surrounded by the Germans in the Battle of Scrape. Pegahmagabow braved heavy machine gun and rifle fire by going into no-man’s land and brought back enough ammunition to enable his post to carry on. This effort would add a second bar to his Military Medal. Though a hero among his fellow soldier, he was virtually forgotten once he returned home to Canada. Regardless, he was one of the most effective snipers of World War 1.