Five Little-Known Historical WW1 Facts
1. Father of Chemical Warfare Rewarded With Nobel Prize
Before the war, Fritz Haber, a German chemist, discovered how to synthesize ammonia by extracting nitrogen from the air. This enabled the large-scale production of nitrogen-based fertilizers at a time when agricultural crops were struggling to keep up with world population. The process also enabled the production of the massive amounts of explosives Europe would soon require.
Haber pledged his absolute support of the German military at the start of the Great War and was made head of the Ministry of War's Chemistry Section, where he lead the weaponization of chlorine and other deadly gases. Promoted to captain, he personally directed the first release of 168 tons of chlorine gas from 5,730 cylinders in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Thousands of Allied troops were smothered as the poisonous green clouds drifted over their trenches. A few days later, Haber's wife committed suicide, reportedly depressed by her husband's role in the attack. The day after her death, Haber left to supervise a poison gas attack on the Eastern Front. Soon, both sides were using gas warfare, eventually maiming or killing more than a million soldiers.
In 1919, Fritz Haber was presented with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his earlier synthesis of ammonia, resulting in cheap, plentiful fertilizers and “saving billions from starvation”. No mention of its military application or his later role in the war was mentioned. The choice of the father of chemical warfare remains controversial to this day.
Haber's absolute dedication to his country would be spurned when the Nazi's came to power for the simple fact that he'd been born a Jew. Despite converting to Lutheranism when young and despite his achievements and wartime service, he found himself exiled. He died in a hotel in Switzerland in 1934. Ironically, some of his relatives would later die being gassed by Zyklon B-- an improvement over Zyklon A, which Haber's scientists had developed in the 1920s.
Germany Only Made 20 Tanks
2. Both Sides Had Tanks... But the Germans Not So Much
In 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the British first unleashed their secret weapon: 32 clanking steel monsters called “tanks” (so German intelligence would think their intercepts were referring to “water tanks”). Armored and bristling with machine-guns and cannons, the lumbering machines ground across No Man's Land, striking terror into the defending Germans.
War, however, has a way of finding an equilibrium. The generals had not really figured out the best way to use their new weapons and so thought they could be used like heavily armored cavalry to break through the stalemate of the trenches. Unfortunately, these early tanks frequently broke down at inconvenient times and were agonizingly slow. The Germans soon figured out that artillery was very effective against them as they crawled over the battlefield and that even special anti-tank bullets could penetrate their thin armor. Lagging far behind in tank technology, they concentrated on developing countermeasures instead.
That is not to say the Germans did not use any tanks. They retrieved captured or damaged Allied tanks from the field, shipped them to the rear to be repaired and repainted and used them against their former owners.
The Germans did eventually develop and use their own tank. The A7V was a 32 ton box on caterpillar tracks, bristling with six machine guns and a 57 mm cannon and crewed by 18 men. But while the French and British produced a total of nearly 7,000 tanks during the war, the Germans produced exactly 20 A7Vs. It wouldn't be until the next war that German tanks (and tank tactics) would come into their own.
3. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the Trenches
No, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional super-sleuth and his physician side-kick did not solve cases during the Great War (though who knows what the future holds-- Hollywood brought them to World War 2 and television has them confounding present-day villains). While Holmes and Watson have been played many times by many actors, perhaps Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are the most iconic, appearing in fourteen movies together. Another thing the two actors shared was that they both served in the trenches.
Twenty-three-year-old Basil Rathbone (1892 – 1967), who would later portray Sherlock Holmes, enlisted in 1915 as a private and by 1916 was an intelligence officer. In May, 1917 he was posted to the trenches where he eventually led night patrols into No Man's Land to gather intelligence. About the time he heard that his younger brother John had been killed in action, Rathbone requested to lead daytime patrols, which, while much more dangerous, would yield more information. He and his men wore camouflage suits resembling trees and would spend hours slowly crawling toward the enemy lines since, as he observed, even if the Germans only saw a tree, they would certainly shoot a moving tree. On one occasion, he crawled into a trench and was surprised by a German soldier who he shot dead with his pistol. For his daylight patrols, Basil Rathbone earned the Military Cross.
In 1914, nineteen-year-old Nigel Bruce (1895 – 1953), who would later portray the bumbling Dr. Watson, went to France with the Honourable Artillery Company. Attaining the rank of lieutenant, he was severely wounded in 1915 when he was machine-gunned. He took eleven bullets in his left leg. Recovery was slow and Bruce spent most of the rest of the war in a wheelchair. Decades later he would still undergo surgery on his bad leg.
4. British/French Aircraft Losses Were Triple German Losses*
When the Great War started in 1914, there were just under 850 crude, front-line military aircraft available to all the belligerents (with 244 aircraft, Russia had the most). By the time the fighting ended in 1918, a total of about 220,000 aircraft had been produced by both sides. France alone had produced 68,000 aircraft during the four and a half years of war and lost more than 52,500 of them. Britain produced more than 58,000 aircraft and lost 36,000. The combined British and French aircraft losses were 88,500. Germany produced 48,500 aircraft during the same period and lost 27,600, less than one third of her main adversaries in the air.
* Losses include aircraft shot down, crashed or damaged.
5. First and Last British Soldiers Both Killed Near Mons, Belgium
Both Private John Parr and Private George Ellison were part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent to France in August 1914. Although it is unlikely they ever met, their respective units were stationed near Mons, Belgium as the German First Army approached from the north.
Private Parr, who had lied about his age and joined the Army in 1912 when he was 14, was a reconnaissance cyclist with orders to scout the enemy just northeast of Mons. The last he was seen alive was August 21. He had just turned 17. Because the BEF would soon be engaged in a 250-mile fighting retreat, it wasn't until much later that it was determined that Parr had not been captured but had died, either by friendly fire or a German advance cavalry patrol. Although the details of his death are still shrouded in mystery, John Parr is acknowledged as the first British soldier killed in action in the Great War.
Private Ellison, who had left the army in 1912, was recalled in 1914 just before war broke out. During the next four-and-a-half years he survived the Battle of Mons, the Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Armentières, the Battle of La Bassée, the Battle of Lens, the Battle of Loos, the Battle of Cambrai and other lesser engagements. Ellison was one of the few Old Contemptibles (original members of the BEF sent to France in 1914) alive the morning of Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. While on patrol near Mons, he was shot and killed 9:30 that morning, 90 minutes before the fighting stopped. He was 40 years old.
Both are buried at Saint Symphorien cemetery near Mons, but, since they were buried before their status was determined, it is a macabre coincidence that Parr's and Ellison's graves face each other, separated by a dozen yards. The symbolism is hard to ignore: after 4 1/2 years of slaughter and sacrifice, where 700,000 British and 200,000 Commonwealth soldiers were killed and 2,000,000 more were wounded, the British managed to get back to where they started. And the Allies were the victors.
- WW1 Aircraft Statistics
- Fritz Haber
- Fritz Haber: Nobel Prize
- Second Battle of Ypres
- Fritz Haber's Experiments In Life and Death
- Comparison of World War I Tanks
- Operational Use of Tanks In World War I
- Basil Rathbone
- Basil Rathbone In WW1
- Nigel Bruce
- My Father as Watson
- Who Killed Private John Parr?
- John Parr (British Army soldier)
- George Edwin Ellison
Questions & Answers
© 2016 David Hunt