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11 things you didn’t know about World War I

Even if you’re not a history buff, you’ll know a bit about The Great War – you’ve seen movies like War Horse, you read the poetry at school (“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!”), you may even have read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong.

But here are some lesser-known facts about one of the most thoroughly documented conflicts in history. We bet you didn’t know any of this – and trust us, it’ll come in handy for your next pub quiz.

1. The war didn’t actually end on 11 November 1918

That may have been the day that Germany and the Allies signed the Armistice, but the war carried on until 25 November in Africa. German commander Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was stationed with 3 000 troops in Mozambique in November 1918, and continued to carry out raids against the British forces stationed in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) even after the Armistice was signed. He eventually surrendered to the Brits in Zambia (“Northern Rhodesia”) two weeks later

2. More people died in the 1918 flu epidemic than in the war

When you consider that between 40 and 50 million people died of the flu that spread around the globe shortly after the end of the war, it’s not surprising that it was more deadly than the war itself (in which around 15 to 20 million military personnel and civilians lost their lives). The flu is still regarded as “the greatest medical holocaust in history”. Though historians don’t believe that the war caused the flu outbreak, they do concede that the conditions of war were to blame for the unprecedented spread of the disease.

3. Football became a (short-lived) women’s sport in England

While the men were away at war, women took up the sport of football – specifically, the young women who worked in munitions factories, who organised and played games against rival factories, often on the grounds of professional football clubs. Of course, after the war ended and the men returned, women had to stop playing football, and were officially banned from playing on League grounds in 1921.

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4. The War sparked the invention of plastic surgery

British Army surgeon Harold Gillies pioneered the reconstruction of soldiers’ faces after they’d been literally torn apart by shrapnel. This was a horrifically common occurrence, as trench warfare protected the soldiers’ bodies on the front line, but left their heads vulnerable to enemy fire. And this was all happening at a time before the development of antibiotics, so soldiers were taking huge risks in undergoing an operation to fix their faces. Gillies’s hospital had no mirrors, and because it took so long for a successful facial reconstruction, some of his patients went years without seeing their own reflections.

5. Singer Edith Piaf was named after WWI hero Edith Cavell

One of history’s most famous nurses, Edith Cavell saved thousands of lives in her clinic in German-occupied Belgium, and also smuggled hundreds of soldiers and military-aged men out of the country, often by disguising them as monks. She was caught and executed in 1915 under German rule, amid worldwide outrage. The French singer Edith Piaf, who was born two months after Cavell was executed, is said to have been named after the heroic nurse.

6. 90 percent of British soldiers survived trench warfare

Thanks to the trench system’s ingenious design and the process of constantly rotating soldiers around the different parts of the system, the vast majority of British men who fought on the front line survived the fighting. Those who did die in the trenches were those chosen to go “over the top” on the rare days of extreme violence, such as on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. (Russian troops, however, were not so lucky – three-quarters of the 12 million soldiers, the war’s largest army, were killed, wounded or went missing in action.)

7. Exactly one British woman officially served as a soldier in the trenches

Flora Sandes was a formidable Englishwoman who travelled to Serbia to serve as a nurse. But when she got there, she joined the Army instead, as the Serbians accepted both men and women on the battlefield. Sandes was 40 years old at the time. She was such an effective soldier that she was promoted to sergeant major and was awarded the Serbian Army’s highest military honour when she was wounded in the line of fire.

8. British civilian volunteers had to be over 5 foot 6 to join up

Just eight weeks after war was declared in August 1914, over 750 000 British men had joined up to fight. Queues to sign up were so long that the Army resorted to raising the minimum height for a soldier from 5 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 6 inches, to prevent an unmanageable surge of volunteers. For those men who were shorter and were still desperate to fight, special units known as “bantam battalions” were set up. They consisted mostly of coal miners, whose expertise were invaluable in all the tunneling work that had to be done on the western front.

9. Dogs’ names had to be changed because of anti-German sentiment

In America, “dachshunds” became “liberty dogs”, and in Britain, “German shepherds” started to be called “Alsatians” (after Alsace-Lorraine on the German-French border). Food didn’t escape the renaming craze – sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and frankfurters changed to – yip, you guessed it – “liberty sausages”.

10. German trenches had doorbells

‘Nuff said.

11. Tanks were sexed

“Landships” entered the war in 1916 (the British gave them the code name “tanks”, hoping the enemy would assume that they were referring to vehicles used for water storage), and the first prototype, Little Willie, developed in 1915, had a top speed of a very impressive 4.8km/h. Willie was a female tank, because it (she?) carried machine guns, whereas male tanks had cannons (though in 1918, it was decided that tanks should be “hermaphroditic”. Yes, really).

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This article was published in partnership with DStv Now.

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