According to noted historian Dan Snow, popular myths have surrounded World War I. World War I attracts a considerable amount of controversy, as a result. Ultimately, soldiers bore the harsh realities of war. It certain aspects it was better than previous wars and vice versa. However, it would be harsh and cold to belittle the concerned actors caught up in this historic event.
Listed below are 10 popular myths/ fallacies surrounding World War I. Admittedly, history is tarnished and distorted to fit individualistic narratives.
1. Popular Myths: World War I was the Bloodiest
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Just half a century before World War I ensued, southern China was ripped apart by an immensely deadly conflict. Humble estimates of the death toll in this 14-year war known a Taiping rebellion ranged between 20-30 million. Compared to these biblical numbers, WW1 resulted in a death count of just 17-million (soldiers and civies).
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Since more British soldiers met their demise during WWI, the Civil War in the 17th century resulted in a greater civilian casualty count. A mass majority of the British Isles were slain during this Civil War compared to just 2% deaths during World War I. On the other hand, the Civil War brought 4% deaths to the civilian population, especially in England and Wales, which is lesser than Ireland and Scotland.
2. Popular Myths: Death of Soldiers in World War I
During World War I, 6-million soldiers were stationed in United Kingdom, from which just 700,000 were slain, resulting in a percentage of 11.5%. However, a greater percentage of British soldiers met their demise during the Crimean War (1853-56).
3. Soldiers Stranded in Trenches
Front-line trenches were an inhuman, hostile and unfriendly environment to live continually. The soldier’s would lose their sensibility and morale speedily.
Due to this reason, British army alternated soldiers in and out of trenches at all times. Every unit would stay for a duration of 10-days in a trench.
As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system and, of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.
During mighty clashes, the soldiers would stay for just 7 days, but could be rotated just after 1-2 days.
4. Bourgeoisie Rested in their Chateaux
The proletariat class may have endured the major brunt of body count, the upper echelon of society was equally affected by the horrors of World War I. The junior officers led the charge in front-line battles, exposing themselves to artillery fire.
Due to this reason, 12% of the British army top command perished during WWI, along with 17% of the British officers. Eton accumulated a body count of 1,000. The son of British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith also buried his son after the war ended. Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost 2 sons after World War I. 2-brothers of Anthony Eden died, one brother was wounded critically, and his uncle was taken as hostage.
5. Lions Captained by Donkeys
A popularized phrase originated during World War I the top German chain-of-command, indicative of motivated, young British soldiers following orders of inept, aged Toffs resting in their chateaux.
In actuality, 200 British military generals were slain/ taken hostage/ injured during World War I. They were present during front-line attacks and saw the horrors of war much more closely.
It needs to be understood that British generals were in a highly innovative military environment, where technological and strategic maneuvering were swiftly changing the landscape of war. Given some generals were inexperienced; some were naturally brilliant, including Arthur Currie; a mere property developer and former insurance broker. These generals were facing a war for which they were ill-equipped.
British generals were adept in dealing with small skirmishes, commonly known as colonial wars. It would be unfair to judge their abilities on a war whose scale far exceeded their narrow experience.
British commanders had been trained to fight small colonial wars; now they were thrust into a massive industrial struggle unlike anything the British army had ever seen. Despite the odds stacked against them, British army managed to invent a new warfare method and upturned the tables on Germany, defeating the Axis bloc comprehensively.
6. New Zealanders and Australians Warred in Gallipoli
The British army waged war in Gallipoli peninsula as compared to all New Zealanders and Australians combined. It’s another common misconception. On the whole, French soldiers accumulated a bigger body count in addition to British army men than Australians.
Regardless of New Zealanders and Australians paying homage to Gallipoli, it was understandable given their smallish populations at the time. Yet, the British army lost 4-5x more soldiers during this armed conflict.
7. Military Technology Was Archaic
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4 years of continuous warring had changed military strategies and innovations considerably. WWI produced impressive innovation as did World War II. During 1914, British army charged with horses across open battlefields without necessary cover. Axis and Allied forces were at daggers drawn to each other, ready to aim. This obsolete system was replaced by soldiers wearing metallic helmets and protected by artillery shells.
Fast times at World War High
In addition to that, most importantly, flamethrowers were invented, machine guns and grenades launched from assault rifles entered military service. Jet-fighters were evolving continually, some being used for real-time reconnaissance missions and dueling against enemy combatants.
Military tanks had entered the battlefield, changing the landscape of battles from now on. Artillery was pinpointed accurate, employing just aerial photos and calculations, they were on-target on the first shot.
8. World War I was a Stalemate
Let’s examine these popular myths/ unsubstantiated facts
The European landscape was laid to waste as 17-million soldiers met their demise on the battlefield. World War I survivors endured mental trauma and to top it all, United Kingdom was officially bankrupt after the war.
They won some, lost some
Yet, the Allied bloc had defeated the Axis bloc with a marginal victory. The Royal British Navy rounded up the last of German battleships. The soldiers were too wise to embark on a suicidal mission now. The supposedly impenetrable German army was taken to task and defeated comprehensively.
Erich Ludendorff had admitted defeat in 1919, perceived the campaign as a failure and signed the infamous 11-November Armistice, indicating a German surrender. This was a wise move, one which saved previous lives of German soldiers. Compared to Hitler, the army marched forward towards its own demise.
9. The Treaty of Versailles was Draconian
According to Treaty of Versailles, 10% of Germany was usurped but absolved the richest, largest nation in Europe. Firstly, this land was unoccupied; secondly, monetary reparations were associated to it; thirdly, it was never enforced either. It has evolved into a popular myth, however.
The treaty was notably less harsh than treaties that ended the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and World War Two. The German victors in the former war annexed large chunks of two rich French provinces, part of France for between 200-300 years, and home to most of French iron ore production, as well as presenting France with a massive bill for immediate payment.
Compared to Treaty of Versailles, the treaties signed after 1870-71 Prussian-Franco war was much lethal as it confiscated major French territories; known for being massive iron ore powerhouses. More so, France was slapped with an astronomical bill due for payment. After the conclusion of World War II, Germany was fully distorted, its factories smashed to smithereens, its scientists taken to USA, Russia and US searched for German technology whereas prisoner of wars worked as slave labors. Lastly, Germany relinquished entire territory it had occupied in WWI and lost more of its original territory.
The Treaty of Versailles was fair enough, but propaganda by the Fuhrer portrayed it in a biased light. His claim-to-aim was riding on a wave of anti-Versailles sentiment to central command. It is now perceived as true whereas it is just another of those unsubstantiated popular myths.
10. World War I was Detested Overall
One of the most propagated popular myths and yet it is a highly subjective statement. As Charles Dickens famously stated, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’’. World War I may have exposed the world to the horrors of modern war, with soldiers being mentally and physically disabled for the entirety of their lives. On the other hand, soldiers escaped without a scratch on their shoulders.
Two sides of the same coin
Contrary to popular opinion, the British army soldiers lived in better conditions as opposed to those prevailing at home. Active army comrades enjoyed rare luxuries such as cigarettes, rum, tea, meat and a diet of 4,000 calories.
The absentee rate of soldiers was checked to be similar to that during peacetime. The army soldiers appreciated the salaried income, perks of being a soldier, immense sexual freedom and war experience in their portfolio.
Admittedly, history is laden with popular myths with characters Jesus and Moses setting examples for mankind. But more on that later, For now, we intend to demystify events from modern history.