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The Biggest Myths About World War One

Updated on February 8, 2014

The Great War

A typical image from World War One, showing French troops stationed in an extremely muddy trench.
A typical image from World War One, showing French troops stationed in an extremely muddy trench. | Source

Bloodier, But Forgotten

The Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty in China in the 19th century was actually a far bloodier conflict than World War One.
The Taiping rebellion against the Qing Dynasty in China in the 19th century was actually a far bloodier conflict than World War One. | Source

Englishman vs. Englishman

The English Civil War claimed the lives of more British citizens than any other conflict in history, including both World Wars.
The English Civil War claimed the lives of more British citizens than any other conflict in history, including both World Wars. | Source

Blood And Death

HG Wells once referred to World War One, as ‘the war to end all wars,’ and indeed almost all Western historians regard it as the bloodiest war in human history, until the cessation of World War Two anyway. However, fifty years before the outbreak of war in Europe, southern China was torn apart by the even bloodier but largely forgotten Taiping Rebellion. Over a course of 14 years, as many as 30 million soldiers and citizens died, as the ruling Qing Dynasty managed to crush the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. In comparison, World War One claimed the lives of 17 million soldiers and civilians.

In British terms, while World War One claimed the lives of more Britons than any other conflict in history. The bloodiest conflict in history relative to population is the Civil War that raged throughout the British Isles during the mid-17th century. Around 4% of the population of England and Wales died, with a much higher percentage of the Scottish and Irish population succumbing in a conflict that split families right down the middle. In contrast, World War One claimed the lives of less than 2% of the population.

Another common myth surrounding World War One, is that most of the British soldiers who were mobilised (some, six million men) were killed during the four years of conflict. In truth, only around 11% of those were killed, equating to roughly 700,000. In fact, a British soldier was almost as likely to die in the Crimean War, a conflict which claimed the lives of 25,000 Brits out of a mobilised force of 250,000, which equates to a 10% casualty rate.

Blackadder And World War One

Stuck In The Trenches

The famous World War one comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth, and other contemporary accounts give the impression that soldiers fighting on the Western Front lived in their trenches for years on end. Make no mistake, the trenches; especially those at the front line were incredibly dangerous, filthy and smelly places to live. Moreover, they were often extremely cold and wet, and understandably a unit would lose morale if they spent too much time in them.

Consequently, men were rotated in and out of the trench almost continuously. Between a battle perhaps spent 10 days in a trench, and of those ten, no more than three were spent on the front-line. More often than not, it was actually quite usual for a soldier to spend up to a month away from the front-line. During prolonged periods of action however, soldiers were often forced to spend up to a week at the front.

No Classes In War

John Kipling, the officer son of Rudyard Kipling, who was tragically killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.
John Kipling, the officer son of Rudyard Kipling, who was tragically killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. | Source

The Class System

While it is indeed true that the majority of those killed in World War One, the social and political elite actually suffered a higher proportion of casualties than their working counterparts. The majority of junior officers, who were responsible for leading the men over the top often, bore the brunt of the hail of lead fired by the enemy. Many of these officers were the sons of lawyers, doctors, politicians and even gentry.

While 12% of the British Army’s working class succumbed, while an astonishing 17% from the upper classes perished. Eton, perhaps Britain’s most prestigious school lost more than 1000 alumni. Wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future PM Andrew Bonar Law lost two, and another future PM Anthony Eden lost two brothers. The famous writer Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book also lost a son. And even a future member of the Royal Family wasn’t immune, as Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the future Queen Mother and mother to the present monarch) lost her brother.

The Epitome Of Incompetence

Incompetent Leaders

Once more sources such as Blackadder Goes Forth portray leaders as rather foppish, incompetent lot who seem to regard the war as little more than an overblown rugby match. But where did such an extraordinary perception originate from?

It’s generally thought that the perception originated from German commanders who described the British Army as comprising of brave soldiers, led by incompetent old toffs from the safety and comfort of elegant and lavish chateaus. In actual fact, no German commander made such a claim, and has it transpired, the entire thing was fabricated by British historian Alan Clark.

During the course of the war, more than 200 generals alone were killed, wounded or captured. And almost all of them visited the front-lines every single day, thus meaning that the supposed incompetent toffs were actually far closer to the death and destruction than their modern counterparts.

Naturally, as there has been throughout history, there were generals that were simply not up to job, while others excelled in their leadership roles. This is exceptional when you consider that most of the British commanders had been trained to fight relatively small colonial wars, now they had been thrust head first into a huge industrial conflict against nations, equally as powerful as their own.

Despite experiencing conditions that no British Army had ever seen, the supposedly incompetent generals had invented modern warfare, and employed tactics that are still recognisable to their modern contemporaries. By the last summer of the conflict, the British Army was at its absolute zenith, inflicting a series of crushing defeats on the Germans.

The Aussies At Gallipoli

Gallipoli, as well as being famous for being the scene of an Allied defeat, also became famous because of the contribution by Australian and New Zealand troops.
Gallipoli, as well as being famous for being the scene of an Allied defeat, also became famous because of the contribution by Australian and New Zealand troops. | Source

From Horses...

At the start of the war, mounted cavalry (above) was still very common. But their days as a fighting force were numbered.
At the start of the war, mounted cavalry (above) was still very common. But their days as a fighting force were numbered. | Source

...To Tanks

Gallipoli And Tactics

Whenever one thinks of Gallipoli, one of two things usually comes to mind. Firstly, there is the fact that it proved to be an appalling defeat for the Allies, and secondly there is the fact that a huge proportion of Australian and New Zealand soldiers lost their lives, compared to the total number of men committed to the campaign. The ANZAC contribution is still celebrated every year in both countries. However, the majority of people are under the impression that only Aussies and New Zealanders fought on that Turkish peninsula. In reality though, far more British soldiers both fought and died at Gallipoli, with indeed even the French losing more men than the ANZAC forces.

Yet another common misconception involving World War One involves the supposed lack of tactical adaptability. However, in those four years, military tactics adapted and changed far more rapidly than at any time in history. Wars tend to be a major catalyst of technological innovation, and World War One was truly extraordinary in that aspect. At the beginning of the conflict, generals rode across battlefields on horseback, while cloth-capped men charged towards the enemy without any covering fire whatsoever. Within four years, cloth-caps had been replaced by sturdy steel helmets, and a rain of heavy artillery shells acted as sufficient cover for the units of well-trained soldiers.

These aforementioned soldiers also had flamethrowers, portable machine guns and rifled fired grenades at their disposal. Moreover, the skies were full of planes that at the time would have incredibly sophisticated. Bear in mind that the Wright Brother’s famous flight had only taken place eleven years before World War One; already they were sophisticated enough to be deployed as a military weapon. Additionally, the evolution of the tank, going from an idea on a drawing board to reality in a little over two years helped to change the course of the war, and changed war in general forever.

End Of The Line

This train carriage in Compiegne, France was the scene of the 1918 German armistice. Ironically Hitler accepted the 1940 French armistice in the very same carriage.
This train carriage in Compiegne, France was the scene of the 1918 German armistice. Ironically Hitler accepted the 1940 French armistice in the very same carriage. | Source

Armistice Day On Film

Was It Really A Stalemate?

By the 11th November 1918, much of the European population and landscape had been devastated. Millions lay dead on the battlefields, with millions more lying wounded in hospitals and other medical facilities. Those that survived now had to try to rebuild their civilian lives, whilst living with severe post-traumatic stress syndrome, or shell-shock, as it was known then. The British economy was broke, so therefore you can understand why talking about winning the war seems a little odd.

However, when you throw out economics and concentrate solely on the military side of things; then World War One was a convincing victory for the Allies over the Central Powers. The German navy had all but been defeated, kept bottled up by a Royal Navy that had placed a blockade on several key German ports. In the end, desperate German naval crews mutinied against their commanders who wished them to make what was surely a suicidal attack.

By the summer of 1918 the German army was in the midst of collapse, as a series of allied offensives smashed through supposedly impregnable defences. By late September of the same year, Kaiser Wilhelm and his military guru Erich Ludendorff conceded that there was no hope of victory and that they must beg for peace. The Armistice of the 11th November was basically a German surrender, but is generally not thought of in the same way as for example the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945. Kaiser Wilhelm, unlike his even more infamous successor, recognised that it was pointless to continue to the struggle, and thus made a decision that saved millions of lives. Hitler and his Nazis on the other hand refused to surrender until the Russians were almost knocking on the Berlin bunker door, and of course Hitler avoided the humiliation of surrender by terminating his own life.

The Treaty In Literature Form

The English language version of the Treaty of Versailles
The English language version of the Treaty of Versailles | Source

An In-Depth Study Of The Treaty

Was The Treaty Of Versailles Really Harsh?

The treaty of Versailles may have confiscated roughly 10% of Germany’s territory. But at the end of it all, the core areas of the nation were left unoccupied and thus it remained the richest nation in continental Europe. Of course, Germany had to pay reparations, as a result of accepting the blame for initiating the war, but they were calculated on Germany’s ability to repay and even then they were rarely forced by the fledgling League of Nations.

Notably the Versailles treaty was far less harsh than the series of treaties that officially ended the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and World War Two. With the former, the German victors claimed large chunks of two prosperous French provinces; territories that had belonged to the French for 300 years and had since become home too much of their iron ore production. Additionally, they presented a France with just one massive reparation bill, demanding immediate repayment.

After World War Two, the defeated Germany was occupied and split by the victorious Allied Powers. Their machinery was either destroyed or seized by Allied authorities, and millions of prisoners were denied freedom and forced to work as slave labourers. As well as losing all of the territory gained after World War One, it remained divided until reunification in 1990.

The popular myth of a harsh Versailles treaty was created by none other than Adolf Hitler who, through his charismatic personality was able to forge a widespread anti-Versailles sentiment, a sentiment he utilised to facilitate his rapid rise to power in the Interwar period.

The Writers' War

Wilfred Owen's poems give a very stark portrayal of the war. But do they tell the full story?
Wilfred Owen's poems give a very stark portrayal of the war. But do they tell the full story? | Source

Did The Soldiers Really Hate It?

When it comes to experiencing war, much of it comes down to luck. One man may witness horrors scarcely imaginable that leave him mentally traumatised for his entire life, even if he escapes unscathed. Others may sail through, without ever being faced with any kind of dangerous situation. However, the experiences of war can depend on the perception of the individual, regardless of what they experience. My grandfather for example, witnessed some truly horrible things. He was bombed on the beaches of Dunkirk and saw his best friend die in his arms at Monte Cassino. However, he would still talk of the war, as if he was on holiday. On the other hand, an elderly neighbour of mine saw action at D Day, but is reluctant to talk about it, but did tell me that he still has nightmares about it. Depending on the individual, war can either be the best time of your life, or a living nightmare.

Contrary to popular opinion, many soldiers actually enjoyed World War One. For many, conditions were actually better than they had endured back home, as long as they managed to avoid a big offensive at least. British soldiers had the pleasure of eating meat every day- somewhat of a rarity back home. They also took the advantage of plentiful cigarettes, tea and rum. Amazingly, the daily diet of a British soldier consisted of over 4000 calories, 1500 more than the recommended allowance today.

One useful measure of morale within an army is to look at absentee rates due to sickness, and the figures show that, surprisingly, the rates were only slightly above those expected in times of peace. The young men revelled in the close camaraderie, reasonable wages, the discipline, responsibility and enjoyed a considerable amount of sexual freedom.

© 2014 James Kenny

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