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12 Stories About World War I Most People Don't Know

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Vote up the most surprising stories from the Great War.

There was a lot more to the Great War than the trenches of the Western Front. The conflict on the Eastern Front was nothing like its static counterpart in the west; it had an ever-shifting front of thousands of miles. It was a truly global conflict that went far beyond Europe; there was combat in China, the Middle East, and West Africa - among other locales.

From the Choctaw code talkers who bamboozled the Germans in 1918 to the hapless experience of the Romanians and the staunch opposition to the war in the US, this collection takes a look at some of World War I's lesser-known stories. 

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  • A Small German Army Kept The Allies Busy In East Africa For The Entire War
    Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA3056 / Walther Dobbertin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
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    A Small German Army Kept The Allies Busy In East Africa For The Entire War

    Large portions of the German overseas empire were seized at the outbreak of war. Japan snapped up Germany's Asian colonies with ease, while the African colony of Togoland (now Togo and parts of Ghana) fell in less than three weeks. German Kamerun (Cameroon) was invaded and lightly contested until 1916. 

    The exception to the rule was the resistance shown by the German colonies in East Africa led by the formidable and undefeated Paul von Lettow-Vorbek. The situation facing von Lettow-Vorbek and his colonial forces was far from promising. Heavily outnumbered and with no prospect of reinforcements or much in the way of material support arriving, the German officer sought to tie up British military resources in Africa to relieve some pressure on the European theater.

    Von Lettow-Vorbek drew upon his many years of service in Africa to wage a highly effective guerilla war against a much larger enemy. He gained the loyalty of his African soldiers by showing a highly unusual (for the time) level of respect to them by appointing Black officers and speaking Swahili. Hard lessons drawn from years of colonial warfare in Africa, by no means free of atrocities, taught the German troops to live off the land and make the most of very little supplies.

    The small German colonial army tied up the British forces for the duration of the conflict, plundering food supplies that devastated the local population. The army finally surrendered on November 25, 1918 in Zambia, two weeks after the November 11 armistice ended hostilities.

    After the war, von Lettow-Vorbek bluntly refused an offer to serve in the Third Reich, apparently telling Hitler to go f*ck himself. A move that was certainly courageous but not very wise in the circumstances. However, was simply too popular with the German people to be eliminated by the regime. He lived to be 94. 

  • A Captured British Officer Was Granted Leave By The Kaiser
    Photo: Thomas Heinrich Voigt / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    A Captured British Officer Was Granted Leave By The Kaiser

    Robert Campbell was a British officer captured by the Germans early in August 1914 and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. Correspondence from such prisoners to their families was coordinated by national Red Cross societies. The officially impartial groups focused on humanitarian efforts to visit camps and ensure parcel deliveries were completed.

    Thanks to those efforts, Campbell was able to keep in touch with his family for the duration of his imprisonment. He learned his mother was in critical condition and appealed directly to the Kaiser himself for compassionate leave to visit his stricken mother. Unbelievably, the German ruler received the appeal and granted it on one condition - that Campbell return to prison after the visit. 

    Perhaps even more incredible was the fact that Campbell did exactly as he'd promised. He voluntarily returned to captivity, reasoning that if he didn't honor his word, others might not get the same chance. Once back behind bars, Campbell did try to escape, but he and a group of prisoners were apprehended at the Dutch border and sent back. 

  • 12,000 Native Americans Served In The US Army
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    12,000 Native Americans Served In The US Army

    The 1917 US declaration of war upon Germany was followed by matching declarations from the Onondaga and Oneida Nations. The question of involvement in the war effort was naturally controversial, but some saw military service as a path toward securing better treatment and political concessions at home. There was also the question of citizenship, as a huge number of Native Americans were still not considered US citizens in 1917. 

    The Native American recruits fought alongside whites as regulars rather than auxiliaries, but were often tasked with the most dangerous assignments. Their casualties were about five times higher than the American Expeditionary Force as a whole. One of the most important contributions of Native American troops in WWI is usually associated with WWII: using little-known languages for secure transmissions.

    English was hardly a mystery to the Germans, and neither were early attempts at numerical codes. But when an American officer overheard two Choctaw soldiers talking, he quickly realized the military potential of the language. In the Meuse-Argonne Offensive (pictured) in the summer of 1918, the Germans were flummoxed by the mysterious transmissions they intercepted. Choctaw and Cherokee soldiers had devised an ingenious system that the Germans couldn't make heads or tails of.

    The war ended before the full potential of the code talkers could be realized, but the idea would be revived to great effect in the Pacific War. Native American veterans of WWI were granted citizenship in 1919. This was followed by the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, which granted that right to the remaining population. 

  • Romania Entered The War, Lost, And Then Re-Entered For One Day
    Photo: Gheorghe Ionescu / Constantin Ivanovici / Tudor Posmantir / Eftimie Vasilescu / Nicolae Barbelian / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    Romania Entered The War, Lost, And Then Re-Entered For One Day

    In 1916 the Kingdom of Romania was enticed with promises of territory to enter the war on the Allied side. The diplomatic unease between Russia and Romania prevented an earlier entry into the conflict that would have been far more advantageous. Had the Romanians supported the Brusilov Offensive, the Russians might have been able to follow up the successes and win outright.

    The initial advances by the Romanians were rapid, but soon checked by a coalition of German, Austrian, and Bulgarian forces. The promised material support from the Allies never arrived and the large but poorly equipped Romanian army was beaten back. After Russia dropped out of the war in 1917, Romania was hopelessly surrounded and knocked out after a little more than 15 months. The Treaty of Bucharest handed over territory and oil fields to the victorious Central Powers.

    However, by November 10, 1918, the tables had turned dramatically and the Romanians re-entered the conflict on the Allied side, just 24 hours before the Armistice was signed. The harsh measures of the Treaty of Bucharest were nullified. 

  • An Ottoman Commander Refused To Give Up Even After The War Ended
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    An Ottoman Commander Refused To Give Up Even After The War Ended

    The entry of the ailing Ottoman Empire in the war on the side of the Central Powers saw the British mobilize efforts to attack the empire's stability from within. A revolt by the Arab population was fermented and supported by the British. Promises (which weren't kept) of recognition of a unified Arab state by the British and French helped bring about the Arab Revolt of 1916. 

    The Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina were initial targets, and though Mecca fell after three weeks, Medina held fast for years. Fahkreddin Pashin was a tenacious commander who organized a vigorous defense of the city that included keeping the surrounded railways running to ensure the flow of supplies. The November Armistice officially ended the war, but Pashin refused to give up Medina and the siege continued. It took an underhanded method by the British to finally end the struggle - a bribe to Ottoman soldiers in the city.

    Pashin was arrested by his own men in January 1919, two months after the war was supposed to have finished. The Sykes-Picot Agreement partitioned the Middle East in violation of earlier promises made to the Arabs, and the Ottoman Empire, which had stood for more than 700 years, was dissolved in 1922. 

  • The British Army Used Public Schools To Fill The Officer Shortage
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    The British Army Used Public Schools To Fill The Officer Shortage

    Historically, the British Army was much smaller than the armies of comparable world powers. Thanks to a favorable geographic position, the "wooden walls" of the British Royal Navy protected the island nation rather than a large army. Before WWI, the British Army was primarily tasked with protecting the territories of the expansive British Empire. A career in the military wasn't looked upon favorably by the British people; most working-class recruits signed up because of a shortage of other options rather than a sense of patriotic duty.

    When WWI broke out in 1914, Britain had a huge shortage of trained military personnel, especially officers. Heavy casualties in the British Expeditionary Force in France dwindled the limited supply further still, meaning that a hefty amount of officers would have to be sourced and trained quickly. The answer was to take young upper-class men and put them through officer training. 

    Class was much more prevalent in Britain at the time, and only a gentleman could be an officer. Short of actual military credentials, a person's schooling was thought to be a reasonable litmus test for leadership. Confusingly, in Britain, a public school is actually a very exclusive private institution. Perhaps the best example of this is Eton College, a private institution attended by no fewer than 20 prime ministers. Anthony Eden (pictured) was both an Eton alum and a future prime minister who served as an officer in the British Army.

    Eden was just 17 when the war broke out and was commissioned as a second lieutenant a year later. The strange mix of upper-class teenagers leading working-class soldiers actually worked fairly well. The teenage future prime minister recalled his men "were tolerant of me as we were all learning together." As long as the officer showed proper concern for the well-being of his men and courage under fire, the men in turn would show great loyalty.

    The commissioned officers were helped enormously by the noncommissioned officers, who tended to be working-class men promoted from the ranks. As Eden would later recall of a sergeant named Arnold Rushworth in his post-war memoirs, "He was my right hand and no small part of my brain as well."