10 First World War Myths Exposed

No other war in history draws so much controversies and myths than the First World War. And according to historian Dan Snow in a BBC News report, most of these First World War beliefs were not true.

Even soldiers who fought during the First World War vary in opinion. Some say it was, in some ways, better compared to other conflicts in history while some saw it as worse than the others. No matter what, setting First World War apart an treating it as one-of-a-kind horrendous event makes us blind with the atrocities of war in general. This mentality about the First World War puts us in danger of making little of the experiences other soldiers and civilians have in various conflicts all over the globe from the past up to the present.

So, this post sets to correct the 10 big myths we believe to be true about the First World War.

1. Up to that point, it was history’s bloodiest war

That First World War myth is so so wrong. For one, 50 years prior to breaking out of the First World War, a conflict in southern China resulted to more deaths than all WWI deaths combined. Traditional death estimates of the 14-year rebellion in Taiping were placed between 20 to 30 million. The First World War only had 17 million deaths – lost lives of soldiers and civilians combined.

More Britons might have died during the First World War. However, the bloodiest war, if the population size is to be considered, is the Civil War which took place in the middle of the 17th century. There were less than 2% of the population of the British Isles who died during the First World War. The Civil War caused a higher rate than that in the same area. The same war also reportedly caused 4% of the population of Wales and England to die.

2. Most of the soldiers during the First World War died.

When the First World War broke out, about 6 million men were marshaled to fight in it. After the war, around 700,000 were killed. That is roughly 11.5% in rates.

As a matter of fact, a British soldier is more likely to get killed in the Crimean War, which happened between 1853-1856, than during World War One.

3. Soldiers had to live in trenches for years.

True, the trenches in the front lines of the First World War were terrible places to be in. Soldiers staying in these godforsaken places suffer from cold, wetness and being exposed to the enemies all the time.

These conditions cause WWI servicemen to quickly lose their morale. Because of these truths, the British Army decided to implement rotation among its soldiers. In between the skirmishes, units stayed up to 10 days per month in trenches. Among those days, three days was the most time they would be spending in the trenches on the front line. It was also common for WWI servicemen to be out of the trench system for up to a month’s time.

During big offensives in the First World War, British soldiers spent at most seven days in front line trenches but were most likely to get off the hell hole after only a day or two.

4. The upper class suffered a lighter blow during the First World War.

Quite the contrary, the political and social elite of Britain was hit hard by WWI though most of the war’s dead were from the working class. This was because, the sons of those who have higher positions in the British society that time provided the war’s junior officers. And as officers, they had the responsibility of leading the way for their men to follow suit, a feat so dangerous as this placed them in front of the danger line.

In fact, about 17% of the British Army officers were killed compared to just 12% of the ordinary soldiers. In Eton alone, 1,000 of its pupils were killed – a staggering 20% of the number who served during the war. Wartime Prime Minister of United Kingdom Herbert Asquith  lost his son to First World War. So did future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar who lost two and so did Anthony Eden who lost his two brothers with another sustaining a bad wound and an uncle who was captured.

5. “Lions led by donkeys” part…

Allegedly, German senior officers scoffed at the British soldiers saying that the Tommies were brave but sadly, they were led by old incompetent fools from their manors. Truth is, the story came from the mind of historian Alan Clark.

Throughout the First World War, over 200 generals were either killed, wounded or captured. Most of these generals spent time visiting the front line everyday. During the combat operations, they were substantially closer to action compared to generals of today’s wars.

It is but natural that some generals were really incompetent. However, there were some who led their units quite incredibly. One such example was Arthur Currie, a Canadian who belonged to the middle-class and was a failed insurance broker as well as property developer.

Right up to the First World War, those who commanded the army were trained to fight in petty colonial wars. When war broke out, they had to hold themselves up in a huge conflict, something that was new to them.

In spite of this, the British were able to invent certain methods of warfare that are even in use up until today within the three years it was engaged in the First World War. When summer of 1918 rolled in, the British Army was seemingly at its best and was able to inflict miming blows against the Germans.

6. Gallipoli was fought mostly by Australians and New Zealanders.

Contrary to this popular belief, more British soldiers fought in the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War than the combined numbers of New Zealanders and Australians.

In fact, United Kingdom lost four or five times as many men in the said bloody offensive as its imperial Anzac sector. The French, on the other hand, lost more men compared to the Australians.

It is just Kiwis and Australians commemorate the Gallipoli campaign zealously as they did lose great numbers of people if we put into consideration the forces they committed in the war and the smallness of their respective populations.

7. Western Front tactics were not changed despite them failing repeatedly.

War tactics and even technology changed so dramatically during the years the First World War as fought. 1914 to 1918 were years of amazing innovation. For one, when war started, generals riding at the back of horses galloped through battlefields while their soldier subordinates charged on with merely cloth caps on their heads. Overwhelmingly, both sides were armed with rifles. Four years on, combat teams had steel helmets on and took offensive while being protected by artillery shells.

The weapons they used were far more advanced than when WWI started. They now had flame throwers and portable machine guns. Their rifles could, that time, fire up grenades. Above, air battles were also on going with planes which looked unbelievably sophisticated for their time. Some were even carrying experimental wireless radio sets and reported reconnaissance real time.

By aerial photos and math calculations, massive artillery pieces were fired with distinguished accuracy. Perhaps, the most innovative invention of the First World War were the tanks which went from papers to the front lines in a time span of merely two years.

8. There were no winners during the First World War.

After the First World War, Europe laid wasted. Millions of individuals were either dead or wounded while survivors suffered severe post-war trauma. Even United Kingdom was broke. The scenario looked like a no-win situation.

Nevertheless, in a military perspective, UK and its Allies won, narrowly yet convincingly. The British Royal navy so crippled Germany’s naval force during the First World War that the latter’s crews just decided to commit mutiny against their own commanders rather than plunge headlong into suicidal attacks against the enemy.

Even Germany’s army bent over after the British succeeded in raining down on it deadly blows that blew off seemingly impregnable defenses.

When September 1918 came, the German emperor along with Erich Lundendorff, his military right-hand, took in the idea that the country would know no peace unless they surrendered. The November 11 Armistice was, in essence, Germany’s surrender.

Contradictory to what Hitler did in 1945, the German government that time did not insist on continuing a pointless and hopeless struggle until the Allied troops reached Berlin. Their decision saved a lot of lives. However, the decision was also used later to point out that Germany never really lost during the First World War.

9. The Treaty of Versailles was harsh to the hilt.

This was not the case. The Treaty of Versailles may had confiscated 10% of Germany’s territory but it also left it the biggest and richest country in the whole central Europe. Majority of its area was unoccupied. Financial redress were also connected to to its capability to pay but that part mostly went unsanctioned anyway.

As a fact, the Treaty of Versailles was notably milder compared to the treaties that came about after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and even the Second World War. German victors of the former annexed two French provinces which were part of France to home knowing that the two areas were rich in ore. The agreement was for 200 to 300 years. The victors also went on to present a huge bill to France with the condition of immediate payment.

As for the Second World War, Germany was occupied at the end of the conflict. The country was split up with the machinery of its factories either stolen or destroyed. Countless of German prisoners were forced top stay with their captors and slave off. Furthermore, the country lost all the territories it had gained after WWI.

The Treaty of Versailles was far from harsh. However, Hitler portrayed it as such for his own personal propaganda.

10. The First World War was hated by everyone.

Like any other conflicts, First World War boiled down to this one factor – luck. Some escaped it without much o a scrape while others had to contend with post-traumatic stress after the war long ended. The First World War sat in between to extremes – the best and the worst.

However, many soldiers did enjoy the First World War. For one, they had big chances on avoiding the bigger campaigns. Besides, being in the army meant better conditions compared to being at home. For the British, there was meat everyday which was a rare commodity back home. They also had regular rations of cigarettes, rum, tea and a diet of over 4,000 calories.

Absentee rates due to sickness was hardly above the usual rates during peacetime. Many British young men enjoyed their guaranteed pay in the army, the sense of responsibility, comradeship with fellow soldiers and even the sexual freedom which peacetime Britain couldn’t afford them.

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE