Six interesting facts about the First World War

As the nation prepares for Remembrance Day, where we will pause to reflect on those who have suffered or died in wars and conflicts, we’re taking the opportunity to look at some interesting facts about the First World War (WW1).

1. WW1 sparked the invention of plastic surgery

The twisted metal shards produced from shrapnel could cause some pretty serious injuries. Shocked by the devastating injuries he saw in the field, Harold Gillies established the field of plastic surgery, pioneering the first attempts of facial reconstruction.

Gillies knew that in order for skin to be successfully used in a different area of the body, it had to remain attached in order to survive. Doing this in a world before antibiotics was a huge challenge. To combat the risk of infection, Gillies developed a technique which involved leaving flesh attached at one end, rolling it into a tube and attaching the other end where the graft was needed.  These tubes could be left weeks at a time with very little risk, as the living tissue was protected by the outer layer of skin. Once a blood supply had grown into it from the new end, the original connection could be cut and the flesh could be swung into place.

2. The youngest British soldier was 12 years old

Officially a British soldier had to be 19 years old to serve overseas but many lied about their age. According to the BBC documentary, Teenage Tommies, around 250,000 under-age boys served.

The imperial War Museum affirmed Sidney Lewis was the youngest soldier to ever serve in WW1, joining at just 12 years old. At 13 years old he was sent to Somme where he fought on the front for six weeks. His mother later revealed his real age to the War office in London, demanding his return. He was sent home in 1916 after a year in service.

Not deterred from his experience, he returned to service in 1918 whilst still underage. This time in the Guards Machine Gun Regiment. He later worked in bomb disposal during the Second World War.

3. WW1 nearly caused a financial meltdown in Britain

Prior to WW1, Britain was an economic superpower. The country had significant levels of wealth and resources due to a vast empire and rapid growth. However, it was not prepared for the impacts war would have.

With BBC reporting an estimated cost to Great Britain of $35,334,012,000, the world’s first global war cost more than any that had gone before. The cost of bullets fired in one 24 hour period in September 1918 was almost a staggering four million pounds.

With the financial strain of war, the government had to find ways of raising money. This was done through taxes, borrowing and printing money. Whilst the country did not collapse before winning the war, the effects of war would be felt for many years to come.

A key part of British economy, foreign trade, was badly damaged. With countries cut off from the supply of British goods, they were forced to build up their own industries. Old trade partners became direct competition and in 1920/21, Britain was faced with its deepest recession in history.

Whilst gradual, WW1 marked a significant point in the decline of Britain as a world power. By the mid-20th century the United States would overtake Britain as the leading global economic power.

4. Blood banks were developed during WW1

Disturbed by reports of soldiers dying from blood loss, Peyton Rous, together with J.R. Turner, Jr, developed a method of preserving whole blood in order to be used for transfusion. At the time, blood transfusions were done by directly connecting a blood vessel of a donor to one of a recipient. This was just impossible on the frontlines.

After lots of experimenting, Rous and his co-workers soon developed a winning formula: a physiological salt solution with sodium citrate to prevent clotting, and dextrose, a sugar which provided a source of energy for the red cells.

Finding blood donors among camp personnel, Rous’s colleague, Captain Oswald Robertson stocked flasks of blood in an ice chest. With this he performed many life-saving transfusions on the Western Front in 1917.

5. Franz Ferdinand’s licence plate was the cause of a strange coincidence

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 is considered to have led to the beginning of the First World War.

The Graf und Stift car in which Franz and his wife were driving when Gavrilo Princip executed the assassination raises a bizarre coincidence. The registration plate read ‘A III 118’, which could be seen to read  ‘Armistice 11/11/18’, the day the war ended.

6. The 28th US President, Woodrow Wilson, ran his re-election campaign with an anti-war slogan

It was the hope of the United States to stay out of the war. Woodrow Wilson had immediately declared American neutrality stating "It is a war with which we have nothing to do, whose causes cannot touch us."

President Wilson won the nomination of the Democratic Party to seek re-election in 1916. Whilst the public sentiment leant towards the British and French forces, the country remained neutral towards the conflict in Europe.  The Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, criticised Wilson for not taking the ‘necessary preparations’ to face the conflict in Europe. This inadvertently strengthened Wilsons image as the anti-war candidate.

"He kept us out of war" was the slogan Woodrow Wilson adopted throughout the campaign. He won the popular vote by nearly 600,000 votes.

He would however, renege on this concept when he was sworn in, declaring war on Germany in April 1917. Wilson said the US intervention would ensure it was “the war to end all wars”, and America would be fighting to make “the world safe for democracy”.