The First World War is widely regarded as a pointless, horrific, murderous, uniquely hideous conflict. No war before or since has been so mythologised.
At its worse it was truly a hell on earth. But so was Napoleon’s Russia Campaign of 1812 when the vast majority of his troops starved, had their throats slit, their guts skewered by a bayonet, froze to death or died a savage death from dysentery or typhus.
By setting World War One apart as uniquely awful we are blinding ourselves to the reality of not just World War One but war in general. We are also belittling the experience of soldiers and civilians caught up in countless other appalling conflicts throughout history and the present day.
1. It was the bloodiest war in history to that point
A half century before the First World War, China was torn apart by an even bloodier conflict. Estimates of the dead in the 14-year Taiping rebellion start at between 20 million and 30 million. Around 17 million soldiers and civilians were killed during World War One.
Although more Britons died in World War One than any other conflict, the bloodiest conflict in British history relative to population size is the Civil War of the mid-17th Century. Less than 2% of the population died in World War One. By contrast, around 4% of the population of England and Wales, and considerably more than that in Scotland and Ireland, are thought to have been killed in the Civil War.
2. Most soldiers died
In the UK around six million men were mobilised, and of those just over 700,000 were killed. That’s around 11.5%.
In fact, as a British soldier you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-56) than in World War One.
3. The upper class got off lightly
Although the great majority of casualties in World War One were from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately hard by World War One. Their sons provided the junior officers whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.
Some 12% of the British army’s ordinary soldiers were killed during the war, compared with 17% of its officers.
Eton alone lost more than 1,000 former pupils – 20% of those who served. UK wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith lost a son, while future Prime Minister Andrew Bonar Law lost two. Anthony Eden lost two brothers, another brother of his was terribly wounded, and an uncle was captured.
4. “Lions Led by Donkeys”
Historian Alan Clark reported that a German general had commented that brave British soldiers were led by incompetent old toffs from their chateaux. In fact he made the quote up.
During the war more than 200 British generals were killed, wounded or captured. Senior commanders were expected to visit the front lines nearly every day. In battle they were considerably closer to the action than generals are today.
Naturally, some generals were not up to the job, but others were brilliant, such as Arthur Currie, a middle-class Canadian failed insurance broker and property developer.
Rarely in history have commanders had to adapt to a more radically different technological environment.
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 this, within three years the British had learned from their experience, and that of their allies, to effectively invent a new way of making war. By the summer of 1918 the British army was probably at its best ever and it inflicted crushing defeats on the Germans.
5. Men were stuck in the trenches for years on end
Front-line trenches could be a terribly hostile place to live. Units, often wet, cold and exposed to the enemy, would lose their morale and suffer high casualties if they spent too much time in the trenches.
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 moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.
6. Gallipoli was fought by Australians and New Zealanders
Far more British soldiers fought on the Gallipoli peninsula than Australians and New Zealanders put together.
The UK lost four or five times as many men in the brutal campaign as its imperial Anzac contingents. The French also lost more men than the Australians.
The Aussies and Kiwis commemorate Gallipoli ardently, and understandably so, as their casualties do represent terrible losses both as a proportion of their forces committed and of their small populations.
7. Tactics on the Western Front remained unchanged despite repeated failure
It was a time of extraordinary innovation. Never have tactics and technology changed so radically in four years of fighting. In 1914 generals on horseback galloped across battlefields as men in cloth caps charged the enemy without the necessary covering fire. Both sides were overwhelmingly armed with rifles. Four years later, steel-helmeted combat teams dashed forward protected by a curtain of artillery shells.
They were now armed with flame throwers, portable machine-guns and grenades fired from rifles. Above, planes, which in 1914 would have appeared unimaginably sophisticated, duelled in the skies, some carrying experimental wireless radio sets, reporting real-time reconnaissance.
Huge artillery pieces fired with pinpoint accuracy – using only aerial photos and maths they could score a hit on the first shot. Tanks went from the drawing board to the battlefield in just two years.
8. No-one won
Swathes of Europe lay wasted, millions were dead or wounded. Survivors lived on with severe mental trauma. Even most of the victorious powers were bankrupt. It is odd to talk about winning.
However, in a narrow military sense, the UK and its allies convincingly won. Germany’s battleships had been bottled up by the Royal Navy until their crews mutinied.
Germany’s army collapsed as a series of mighty allied blows scythed through supposedly impregnable defences.
By late September 1918 the German emperor and his military mastermind Erich Ludendorff admitted that there was no hope and Germany must beg for peace. The 11 November Armistice was essentially a German surrender.
Unlike Hitler in 1945, the German government did not insist on a hopeless, pointless struggle until the allies were in Berlin – a decision that saved countless lives, but was seized upon later to claim Germany never really lost.
9. The Treaty of Versailles was extremely harsh
The Treaty of Versailles confiscated 10% of Germany’s territory but left it the largest, richest nation in central Europe.
It was largely unoccupied and financial reparations were linked to its ability to pay, which mostly went unenforced anyway.
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 annexed large chunks of two rich French provinces, part of France for between 200 and 300 years, and home to most of French iron ore production, as well as presenting France with a massive bill for immediate payment.
After World War Two, Germany was occupied, split up, its factory machinery smashed or stolen and millions of prisoners forced to stay with their captors and work as slave labourers. Germany lost all the territory it had gained after Wolrd War One and another giant slice on top of that.
Versailles was not especially harsh but was portrayed as such by Hitler, who sought to create a tidal wave of anti-Versailles sentiment on which he could then ride into power.
10. Everyone hated it
Like any war, it all comes down to luck. You may witness unimaginable horrors that leave you mentally and physically incapacitated for life, or you might get away without a scratch. It could be the best of times, or the worst of times, or neither.
Some soldiers even enjoyed World War One. If they were lucky they would avoid a big offensive, be posted somewhere quiet where conditions might be better than at home.
For the British there was meat every day – a rare luxury back home – cigarettes, tea and rum, part of a daily diet of more than 4,000 calories.
Remarkably, absentee rates due to sickness, an important barometer of a unit’s morale, were hardly above those of peacetime. Many young men enjoyed the guaranteed pay, the intense comradeship, the responsibility and a much greater sexual freedom than in peacetime Britain.
“I adore war. It is like a big picnic but without the objectivelessness of a picnic. I have never been more well or more happy.” – Captain Julian Grenfell, British war poet
‘I have never seen the boy look so happy in his 17 1/2 years of life.’ – Joseph Conrad on his son.