The First World War: Facts From The Trenches

Added by Edan Barak on Apr 29, 2018
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Cher Ami

At this point I should probably point out that humans weren't the only heroes of World War One. Dogs and horses were instrumental in the war effort, but much is known about them, especially thanks to the hugely popular book and film War Horse. However, pigeons were also used by the Allies, with great results. In fact, more than 100,000 homing pigeons carried messages back and forth, which ultimately ended up saving lives.

This isn't just conjecture; there is a record of one particularly brave, courageous and remarkable pigeon who went by the name of Cher Ami (which translates as 'Dear Friend'). In 1918 200 US soldiers were cut off behind enemy lines with no way of escape. Cher Ami carried a message of their plight all the way back to other Allied soldiers who could hatch a rescue plan, despite the fact that he had been hit and seriously injured by a bullet herself. Cher Ami lost an eye and a leg, and eventually died of his injuries in 1919. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre - the highest French honor - for her bravery and the fact that he managed to save so many lives.

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Marie Marvingt

You might not have heard of Marie Marvingt before, but she's a lady whose story you ought to become a whole lot more familiar with. Otherwise known as 'La fiancée du danger' ('the fiancée of danger'), in World War One she became the first woman to fly in combat missions anywhere in the world. This was no ordinary woman; even before the war she was an exceptionally talented sportswoman, having competed and won events in shooting, skiing, cycling, fencing and more. She had an appetite for competition, a challenge and adrenaline, so the war was a natural attraction for her.

Her military career started when she disguised herself as a man to join the infantry. However, her cover didn't last long. After it became known that she was actually female, she joined the Air Force as a volunteer and ended up flying over Germany. Miraculously, she survived the war and died some decades later in 1963. By that time she had become France's most decorated woman ever. If she's not a female role model for young women nowadays to look up to, then I don't know who is!

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Robert Campbell

The story of British soldier Captain Robert Campbell sounds unbelievable, but it's true. Not long after the war started he was injured and captured by the Germans. His injuries were treated before he was taken to Magdeburg where a German prisoner of war camp had been built. Thus his life as a prisoner of war started in earnest.

However, two years later in 1916 Campbell's mother became gravely ill. As any doting son would, he was keen to see his mother while he still had the chance - but how does a prisoner of war fly back to their home country to visit family?

Campbell knew that his only hope lay with the upper echelons of the German military and government, so he wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. In his letter, Campbell asked permission to return home to England to see his dying mother. Unbelievably, a reply came back granting Campbell his wish! However, it came with a caveat. Kaiser Wilhelm II asked that Campbell gave his word as a British officer that he would return to the prisoner of war camp.

Campbell gave his word and was allowed two weeks compassionate leave. He returned to England where he visited his mother, which ended up being the last time he saw her alive. With the freedom to walk around his home country as he liked, the final aspect of this story is perhaps the most extraordinary. The honorably British officer that he was, once his leave was over, Campbell did in fact return to the prisoner of war camp where he saw out the rest of the war!

This is one of a few heart-warming stories from World War One which show that even the bad guys sometimes have a heart, and even those who have nothing left to lose can still act nobly and honorably.

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There were no metal helmets

Protecting yourself against enemy attacks is one of the most important parts of fighting any war, right? I would have thought so, but apparently the early fighting soldiers didn't agree. For the first part of World War One no soldiers wore metal helmets! When they were sent into battle they were wearing little more than simple cloth caps on their heads.

It was only in 1915 that the steel helmets which we've all seen in wartime photographs were introduced by the French army. Their popularity quickly spread to the armies of other countries. Considering that the war had been fought for around a year before metal helmets were introduced, it seems like a miracle that anyone survived before that!

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Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was a pivotal character in the way World War One progressed, but she often gets forgotten about all these years later. Fear not: I'm here to recount her extraordinary story for you!

Doctors and nurses did fantastic work on all sides, saving the lives of thousands of injured soldiers, civilians and even animals. However, Edith Cavell was a British nurse who went one step further. Instead of just saving the lives of soldiers in a medical sense, she literally saved them from being sent to their deaths. She helped around 200 Allied soldiers escape from Belgium, where the threat from the Germans was immense. Without her brave work, hundreds more people would probably have been captured and killed.

Her work was very dangerous, and unfortunately it caught up with her. Cavell was arrested by the Germans and she was sentenced to death; she was brutally executed by a German firing squad. When news of her death became public, it started to change public opinion. In the end, not only did Edith Cavell save hundreds of lives, but she also managed to turn the opinion of the rest of the world against Germany.

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