Surprising Facts about WWI

Wounded U.S. Soldiers in France - WWI Education Social Studies Tragedies and Triumphs Visual Arts World War I World History American History

The loss of life during World War I was astonishing.  As Mary Crawley, a fictional character in Downton Abbey observed (on the death of her husband, Matthew Crawley):  

He survived that ghastly war only to die in an automobile accident.

Many men did not survive the ghastly war.  Britain and her empire lost about 1 million men. Hardly a family, throughout Britain, was untouched by the devastating losses of "The War to End All Wars."

The BBC provides information on some of the more-surprising (and little-known) facts about World War One (and the people who were involved, both at home and on the battlefields):

An explosion on the battlefield in France was heard in London

While the war raged on in the mud and trenches, a very different war was taking place beneath the soldiers' feet.

A group of miners, operating in total secrecy, dug tunnels up to 100ft underground, to plant and detonate mines beneath the enemy's trenches. Their biggest success was at Messines Ridge in Belgium where over 900,000lbs of explosives were simultaneously detonated in 19 underground tunnels. Much of the German front line was destroyed, and the explosions were heard 140 miles away by the British prime minister in Downing Street.

In today’s world, it seems like nearly everyone wants to know everything all the time. Journalists work hard to help the public satisfy those "needs." So ... it might be hard to grasp that government officials, during WWI, did not allow journalists to report on events.

The constant worry was that reporting, to people at home, would be the same as simultaneously reporting to the enemy. Revealing key information, that would help the enemy, was a crime. And ... not just a small crime. A major crime with deadly consequences.

The cost—to a journalist who disregarded those directives—was death:

Journalists faced execution

A handful of journalists risked their lives to report on the realities of war. As the Government sought to control the flow of information from the frontline at the start of the war, journalists were banned. Reporting on the conflict was, in the opinion of the War Office, helping the enemy. If caught, they [the journalists] faced the death penalty.

In Britain, just like in America, women went to work in factories while their husbands were fighting in the war. The complexion of some women changed as a result of their industrial work:

War work turned some women's skin yellow

When a generation of men went to fight the war, more than a million women took their place in the workforce. They worked long hours, often in poor conditions and with dangerous chemicals.

The so-called “canaries” were women who worked with TNT, which gave them toxic jaundice and turned their skin yellow.

At the time of the First World War, children in America and Britain were part of the labor force. One very young British lad volunteered to be a soldier. Lying about his age, this 12-year-old child was the youngest person to fight in The Great War:

The youngest British soldier was 12 years old

Sidney Lewis was just 12 years old when he lied about his age and joined the army during World War One. He was one of thousands of eager underage boys who enlisted and ended up fighting alongside their adult counterparts on the front.

Some were motivated by patriotism, but for others it was an escape from their dreary lives.

In fact, around 250,000 underage British boys fought in WWI.

At the age of 13, Sidney was fighting at the Somme when his mother sent his birth certificate to the War Office. Although the lad was sent home, he didn't stay there very long. By 1918, he was back fighting, this time with the 106th Machine Gun Company. (Sidney lived until 1969.)


With so many wounded soldiers, men needed blood transfusions near the battlefields. An American doctor developed a procedure for transfusing blood from one person to another:

Blood banks were developed during WW1

The British Army began the routine use of blood transfusion in treating wounded soldiers. Blood was transferred directly from one person to another.

A US Army doctor, Captain Oswald Robertson, established the first blood bank on the Western Front in 1917, using sodium citrate to prevent the blood from coagulating and becoming unusable. Blood was kept on ice for up to 28 days and then transported to casualty clearing stations for use in life-saving surgery where it was needed most.

This image depicts a few of the American soldiers who were injured in France while they fought during WWI.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Jan 29, 2020

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy U.S. National Archives. Quoted passages from "12 Amazing WW1 facts that you probably don't know," published by the BBC on 3 June 2014.




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"Surprising Facts about WWI" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Jan 29, 2020.
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