15 Things We Learned About The Great War In 2021

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When it comes to World War I, the focus tends to be on the stalemate in the trenches of the Western Front. While it was the primary theater of the conflict, there were other major areas of operation such as Africa, the Middle East, and the vast open plains of the Eastern Front. The advent of new technologies and the mix of cultures led to wider societal changes in language and in daily life. There were blunders and missed opportunities aplenty; that the conflict even broke out at all was the result of a chain of diplomatic failures that began at the turn of the 20th century.

This collection shows the most interesting things we learned in 2021 about the origins, lesser-known facts, language, and outcomes of the First World War. 

  • Two Superblocks Of Alliances That Formed In The Early 1900s Put The World On Edge
    Photo: Nelson Harding / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    16 VOTES

    Two Superblocks Of Alliances That Formed In The Early 1900s Put The World On Edge

    The foreign policy of the major powers shifted in the early 1900s. Britain had long been reluctant to get involved in European affairs, preferring to remain - as one Canadian statesman put it - in "splendid isolation" rather than form entangling alliances. 

    The emergence of Germany as a rival on the world stage at sea pushed the British into the arms of an age-old enemy: France. Although some tensions still had to be ironed out, the British and French managed to seal an alliance in 1904 that still exists today: the Entente Cordiale. The French were also allied with Russia at the time, which placed Germany in the very scenario it had worked for decades to avoid: a war on two fronts. 

    On the other side, Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary and Italy in the early 20th century. Neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary had much faith the Italians would honor the alliance. Those fears proved accurate when the Italians not only refused to come to the aid of the Central Powers, but actually joined the opposing side the following year. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a multi-ethnic domain with significant tensions in the Balkans. Serbia was accused of supporting Slavic nationalist groups within the empire. 

    Serbia was not officially an ally of Russia, but the two nations had a close relationship, and it was likely that any Austro-Hungarian action against Serbia would prompt a Russian response. That, in turn, would draw the French and Germans into the mix and most likely involve the British. The British were still allied with the Japanese, while the Ottoman Empire's interests in the Middle East made it a likely partner of the Central Powers. As mentioned, Italy was a bit of a wild card, while the Romanians and Bulgarians were other potential belligerents. 

    Simply put, the alliances might have helped to deter war for a time, but they also meant that the war that did break out would be catastrophic. WWI very nearly did break out in 1905 and again in 1911, when the Germans unsuccessfully tried to drive a wedge between the British and French over French interests in Morocco. The attempts backfired spectacularly and only strengthened the Anglo-French alliance, while cementing Germany as Britain's primary enemy on the world stage. 

    16 votes
  • The First Successful Plastic Surgery Helped Wounded Soldiers In WWI
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    33 VOTES

    The First Successful Plastic Surgery Helped Wounded Soldiers In WWI

    The first successful instance of plastic surgery was in the aftermath of a naval battle at Jutland in 1916. A British sailor named Walter Yeo was badly injured during the encounter, losing both his upper and lower eyelids. In 1917, he underwent pioneering facial reconstruction surgery performed by physician Sir Harold Gillies

    The New Zealand-born Gillies is known as the “father of plastic surgery.” Over the course of the conflict, the surgeon and his team used cutting-edge methods to restore both the function and looks of servicemen badly disfigured by the war.

    33 votes
  • Enver Pasha Led An Ottoman Army To Disaster
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    31 VOTES

    Enver Pasha Led An Ottoman Army To Disaster

    Enver Pasha was the Ottoman Minister of War and one of the leading proponents for the Ottoman entry into WWI in October 1914. He believed Ottoman involvement would be the catalyst to reviving the ailing empire’s fortunes and a chance to right past wrongs. Instead, it proved to be the final nail in the empire’s coffin.

    With the Russian army already stretched thin by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, Pasha believed an attack through the Caucasus would succeed easily. In his rather naive calculations, the oppressive rule of the Romanovs would see the local populace welcome the Ottoman forces as liberators. While the people had no love for the Russians, they had even less desire to submit to Ottoman rule.

    The region’s solitary railway made for a logistical nightmare that Pasha compounded by beginning the campaign in the dead of winter. The Ottoman army was poorly equipped for the bleak conditions and thousands of troops froze to death long before actually reaching the front lines at Sarıkamış. The Ottoman attacks were repeatedly repulsed by the Russians, but Pasha continued to pour troops in, even as the Russians reinforced the position. 

    By the turn of the year, the Ottoman army was devastated by losses and the Russians were poised to attack the vulnerable flanks. Ottoman commanders pleaded for a withdrawal, but Pasha threw away yet more men in another futile assault. The remnants of the exhausted army finally pulled out two days later. Six out of seven troops in the 120,000-strong army perished in the disastrous campaign. Pasha would never take command in the field again, but somehow held onto his position for the rest of the conflict.

    31 votes
  • Feminine Hygiene Products Came From Nurses Serving On The Western Front
    Photo: cellucotton products company / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    23 VOTES

    Feminine Hygiene Products Came From Nurses Serving On The Western Front

    Cellucotton was first developed by the American company Kimberly-Clark at the turn of the 20th century. The highly absorbent material (five times greater than cotton) was in high demand during WWI. The Red Cross nurses who tended wounded soldiers found another use for cellucotton dressings - to manage menstrual cycles. These makeshift sanitary napkins became the basis for modern feminine hygiene products.

    After the conflict, the company set about finding a peacetime use for cellucotton, and one enterprising employee suggested making sanitary napkins on a wide scale. Although there was some apprehension over how to market such a product, a catchy name (Kotex is a portmanteau of cotton and texture) and an employee’s persistence saw the pads hit shelves in the early 1920s.

    23 votes
  • Franz Ferdinand Was Targeted Because He Supported Minority Rights
    Photo: Ferdinand Schmutzer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    18 VOTES

    Franz Ferdinand Was Targeted Because He Supported Minority Rights

    Franz Ferdinand wasn’t a popular choice to succeed his uncle, the 84-year-old Franz Joseph. Franz Ferdinand held a very dim view of the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy, believing the Hungarians to be an untrustworthy drain on Austria. He further irritated his future subjects by broadly supporting greater rights and autonomy for the minority groups of the multi-ethnic empire, presenting a threat to the position of the Hungarians. He was also opposed to war, which brought him into conflict with the bellicose Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf

    The Archduke's desire for peace and support for minority rights might seem to make him an odd target for assassination, but it was actually those ideas that landed him in the crosshairs of members of the revolutionary group, Young Bosnia. The revolutionaries feared Ferdinand’s reforms would quiet the calls for Slavic unity. The man who ultimately pulled the trigger, a sickly teenager named Gavrilo Princip, explicitly outlined the motivation behind the slaying:

    [Franz Ferdinand] would have prevented, as a future ruler, our union by realizing certain reforms which would evidently have been against our interests.

    When Young Bosnia members learned that the Archduke would visit Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, they hatched a plan to eliminate him.

    One of the great tragedies of the assassination was just how easily it could and should have been prevented. After a series of errors, the would-be assassins seemed to have blown their chance, but when Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn on the way to a hospital, the car stopped right in front of Princip. The frail teenage revolutionary fired two shots at point-blank range - felling the Archduke and his wife Sophie, and changing the course of history in an instant. 

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

    A Small German Army Kept The Allies Busy In 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, von Lettow-Vorbek was simply too popular with the German people to be eliminated by the regime. He lived to be 94. 

    30 votes