The First World War: A Miscellany

The First World War: A Miscellany

by Norman Ferguson

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Have you ever wondered who fired the first British shot of World War One? Or who claimed the glory of downing the Red Baron?

Who was the first WW1 soldier to receive the Victoria Cross? And what has Winnie the Pooh got to do with it all?

Telling the stories of the battles, the aircraft, the weapons, the soldiers, the poets, the campaigns and the many heroes, Norman Ferguson delves deep into the history of the ‘Great War’. Through anecdotes and statistics, and drawing on letters, speeches and official reports, this comprehensive miscellany is a compelling guide to the war that transformed and marked forever the course of twentieth-century history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783720637
Publisher: Summersdale Publishers Ltd
Publication date: 01/06/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Norman Ferguson is an author of books on history ,aviation and modern culture. He has worked as a web editor and copywriter, and lives in Edinburgh.

Read an Excerpt

The First World War

A Miscellany

By Norman Ferguson

Summersdale Publishers Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Norman Ferguson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78372-063-7


Twenty Men and Women of the War

Albert Ball

Britain's most well-known First World War fighter ace. Ball shot down 44 German aircraft and received much publicity for his aerial exploits. Aged only 19 when he went to fly at the Western Front in 1916, he was awarded the Victoria Cross after his death the following year.

Vera Brittain

The British writer and peace campaigner served as a nurse in France. Her early pro-war views changed following the loss of her brother, fiancÃ(c) and two close friends.

Eugene Bullard

The first black combat pilot. Bullard was an American who flew with the French Air Force. Later joined the French Resistance in World War Two.

Jack Cornwell

Born in Essex, Cornwell joined the Royal Navy aged 15. He was fatally injured at Jutland but remained at his post. At 16, he was the third-youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Marshal Ferdinand Foch

In charge of French forces at the First Battle of the Marne. Became supreme Allied commander in 1918.

Roland Garros

French pilot, whose innovation allowed an aircraft's machine gun to fire through the propeller. His aircraft was later recovered intact by the Germans, who developed the interrupter gear device for their own aeroplanes. The Parisian tennis court at which the French Open is held is named in his honour.

General Douglas Haig

Commander of British forces on the Western Front for most of war. Tactics resulting in heavy losses earned him post-war criticism.

Mata Hari

Dutchwoman Margaretha Zelle became known as an exotic dancer in Paris before the war, and adopted the stage name Mata Hari. After becoming a courtesan, she was employed by both Germany and France as a spy. Despite her role for her adopted country, she was executed by France for spying in 1917.

Field Marshal von Hindenburg

In charge of Germany's armed forces from 1916. Became president before handing power to Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Field Marshal Kitchener

Became Secretary of State for War in 1914. Saw need to greatly expand the army; his face appeared on recruiting posters. Died en route to Russia in 1916 when his ship hit a mine.

T. E. Lawrence

'Lawrence of Arabia' was a British soldier who took part in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in the Middle East. His exploits in the desert became the subject of a touring show created by American journalist Lowell Thomas. Lawrence joined the RAF to escape his fame.

David Lloyd George

Effective Minister of Munitions. Became prime minister in December 1916. Keen to reduce casualties, he battled with Haig. Took a more conciliatory attitude than Britain's French allies towards Germany in peace negotiations.

General Erich Ludendorff

Responsible for the Spring Offensive in 1918 – Germany's gamble to win the war.

General John Pershing

Commander of American forces. Resisted pressure to incorporate US soldiers into Allied formations. Saw his forces make mistakes made earlier in the war by France and Britain, such as large frontal attacks, and the war ended before his true capability could be shown.

Siegfried Sassoon

British Army officer awarded the Military Cross. Deemed to be suffering from 'a passing nervous shock' by a medical board after criticising conduct of the war. Wrote poems while in hospital which reflected his antiwar views.

John Simpson

Australian, known as 'the man with the donkey', with which he helped transport the wounded at Gallipoli, where he was killed in May 1915.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Germany's head of state, the Kaiser's support for Austria-Hungary was a key factor in the move towards war in 1914. Forced out of his position as emperor in November 1918.

Woodbine Willie

Properly known as the Reverend Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, this British chaplain was known for giving cigarettes to injured troops, hence his nickname. Awarded the Military Cross. Cigarettes were thrown onto his coffin in tribute.

Woodrow Wilson

US president, who, despite being elected on the slogan 'He Kept Us Out of The War', took his country into the conflict in 1917.

Sergeant Alvin York

The one-time conscientious objector York earned the USA's Medal of Honor for attacking a machine-gun postion single-handedly in October 1918.



The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.

Sir Edward Grey

First shot

On Sunday 28 June a Bosnian-Serb student named Gavrilo Princip shot and killed the heir to the AustroHungarian Empire. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting the Bosnian city of Sarajevo when a chance encounter gave Princip the opportunity to fire into the open-topped car. The incident began an escalating crisis which drew in Russia, France, Germany and Britain. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia at the end of July.

'The lamps are going out ...'

On 3 August British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey gave a speech in the House of Commons which did much to rally the country behind involvement in the war. Later that day he stood watching the lamplighters outside his London office and made his famous remark: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.'

8.02 A.M.

At this time on 4 August, German troops crossed into neutral Belgium. As part of the Schlieffen Plan, German forces were to advance westwards through Belgium and northern France, then the right flank would swing around to encircle France's capital. The plan was intended to last no longer than 40 days, ending the war before Christmas.

'A mere scrap of paper'

Britain's ultimatum to Germany to withdraw its forces from neutral Belgium received no response and on 4 August war was declared. In Germany, the British ambassador met with Germany's chancellor. The chancellor expressed his disbelief that 'just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.'

The scrap of paper was the Treaty of London of 1839, which guaranteed Belgium's neutrality. It was signed by Austria, Great Britain, France, Prussia and Russia.


The number of recruits at London's main army recruitment centre at Great Scotland Yard, on 1 August. It would soon increase dramatically.


Ships Taken Up From Trade. The War Office had prepared a very detailed itinerary of what was required to transport the army overseas should the need arise, which included every merchant vessel to be requisitioned for carrying troop and materials.

British Expeditionary Force (BEF)

Britain's small professional force was a fraction of the size of France, Russia or Germany's conscripted armies but was disciplined and well trained in marksmanship, a skill that would soon be required.

Messages of support

King George V issued a message for every departing British soldier:

You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my Empire. Belgium, whose country we are pledged to defend, has been attacked and France is about to be invaded by the same powerful foe. I have implicit confidence in you, my soldiers.

The Kaiser addressed his own German soldiers departing for the front:

You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.

Field Marshal & Admiral of the Fleet

The British military ranks held by Kaiser Wilhelm II until the war began.

The Vigil

The day after war was declared, The Times newspaper published the first war poem, entitled 'The Vigil' by Henry Newbolt. Poems became a regular feature in the paper and during August up to a hundred a day were received.


In the first two weeks of the war a train carrying German men and supplies to the front passed over Cologne's Hohenzollern Bridge every ten minutes.

'Contemptible little army'

It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army.

Reported as being issued by Kaiser Wilhelm II to his army on 19 August, there is doubt as to whether it was genuine, as no record was found in German archives and the Kaiser himself denied uttering it. Whether genuine or not, it was used as motivation: the British soldiers called themselves the 'Old Contemptibles'.

Battalions in the field, mid August 1914

Germany 1,077
France 1,108
Belgium 120
Britain 48

First engagement

In Belgium, north of Mons, at 6.30 a.m. on Saturday 22 August a troop of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards were alerted to the approach of German cavalrymen. They mounted their own horses and gave chase. Corporal Edward Thomas fired the first British shot of the war. In a war that would see the use of advanced military technology, this skirmish also saw lances and swords being used; the British commander returned with blood on his sword. Corporal Thomas survived the war.


A British soldier could fire 15 aimed rounds per minute.

The Mons tablecloth

Before the Battle of Mons a group of the 2nd Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers, were made welcome by a Belgian family. At the end of the evening's hospitality the soldiers were asked to sign a tablecloth. In November 1918, one of the men, Major E. S. D'Ewer Coke, was in the area and remembered the incident. He was surprised when the family were still there, emerging from their battle-damaged home. They had a gift for him, something they'd kept throughout the war: a tablecloth – with all the 1914 signatures now embroidered onto the cloth. D'Ewer Coke again signed his name – the only man whose name appears twice. This unique memento now hangs in the regimental museum at Berwick-upon-Tweed.


On Sunday 23 August, in the Belgian town of Dinant, German soldiers forced worshippers out of their church. They were lined up and over 600 men, women and children were shot dead. The town was just one that experienced atrocities meted out by the invading army, who justified the killings by claiming they were rooting out franc-tireurs – civilian resistance fighters. Property was also targeted and at Louvain the university library was set on fire. German atrocities, both real and fictitious, were used heavily in Allied propaganda.

The Germans, by burning the library, definitely broke with wisdom and with civilization.

Rector of Louvain University


Belgian and French civilians killed in 1914 by invading German troops.

Red trousers

In an echo of earlier times, French soldiers began the war wearing bright blue tunics and red trousers. Their Cuirassier cavalrymen still wore plumed helmets and metal breastplates. Casualties were high in these early battles and more subdued uniforms were quickly introduced.

'My good lady, go home and sit still'

This was the War Office's response to Edinburgh doctor Elsie Inglis on her suggestion that women medical staff be used by Britain's armed forces. Inglis' organisation, The Scottish Women's Hospitals, eventually set up units in battle zones such as France, Salonika, Serbia and Russia. Inglis died the day after returning from Russia.

The luckiest unluckiest man of the war

On 22 September three elderly Royal Navy ships (nicknamed the 'Live Bait Squadron') were patrolling off the coast of the Netherlands. When HMS Aboukir was hit by torpedoes from German U-boat U9, 15-yearold cadet Kit Wykeham-Musgrave dived overboard. He was being picked up by HMS Hogue when that was hit. He made his way on board HMS Cressy and had just finished a cup of cocoa when that ship was torpedoed. Fourteen hundred British sailors were killed within an hour. Wykeham-Musgrave lived until he was 90, dying in 1989.


The Defence of the Realm Act had been passed in August. It was intended to protect military secrets but its terms widened during the war and it was used to restrict many areas of British life on the Home Front. Imprisonment without trial and newspaper censorship were introduced and amongst other powers, the government was now able to:

Take possession of land.

Take possession of any factory or plant.

Take possession of coal mines.

Clear areas of inhabitants.

Close places of public entertainment.

Close licensed premises and prohibit 'treating' (buying rounds).

Prohibit whistling for cabs.

Require inhabitants to remain indoors. Destroy stray dogs.

Prohibit the display of lights and use of fireworks.

Restrict supply or possession of cocaine or opium.

Prohibit sexual intercourse by diseased women.


British Summer Time was first introduced during the war to allow longer working hours.

95 per cent

The amount of Belgian territory under German control by the end of 1914.


In miles, the length of the Western Front, which ran from the North Sea to Switzerland. A complicated system of trenches was dug on both sides.


Number of rifles available to Serbia's army in August, which numbered 250,000 troops. The Serbs, although outgunned and outnumbered by their Austro-Hungarian invaders, were able to mount a strong counter-attack, eventually pushing their adversaries out by December.

Mysteries of the war: snow on their boots

In August a rumour spread that thousands of Russian soldiers had been seen travelling through Britain heading to the Western Front. They were said to be definitely Russians as they still had 'snow on their boots'.

It is thought they could have been Scottish troops who wore white spats over their footwear and spoke in strong accents unintelligible to those from further south. A Lovat Scout was perhaps misunderstood after saying he was from 'Ross-shire' – close enough to 'Russia' to the untrained ear.

Shot down

On 5 October French aviators Sergeant Joseph Frantz and Corporal Louis Quénault shot down a German Aviatik using a machine gun and a rifle. The two German crew members died, the first victims of aerial combat.

Out of Africa

After unification in 1871 Germany had expressed a desire to become an imperial nation with its own colonies around the world. This policy of Weltpolitik(world politics) saw Germany wanting to rival Britain with its own powerful navy and a 'place in the sun', as the Kaiser had expressed it.

At the beginning of the war, Britain was determined to defeat Germany and remove its colonies by requesting assistance from its own colonial territories. This led to a series of successes across the globe with territories in the Pacific and Asia taken. In Africa most German colonies were defeated, save for German East Africa where a small force led by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck used guerrilla tactics to harry his British opponents. He avoided any pitched battle where his forces would have been at a disadvantage and remained at large until surrendering two weeks after the armistice in November 1918.

'Battle of the Bees'

A British and Indian force made an amphibious landing at Tanga in German East Africa in November. Despite overwhelming superiority in numbers, the raid turned into a fiasco and the British were forced to withdraw. Angry bees attacked soldiers of both sides during the battle, hence its nickname.

2nd Cavalry Brigade Beagles

In the winter of 1914–15 a British captain in France, Romer Williams, had a pack of hunting dogs sent over. They were given the official-sounding name of '2nd Cavalry Brigade Beagles', but hunting was forbidden by the French and they were rarely used.

The Pals

Following Lord Kitchener's call for recruits to his New Army, men were promised if they joined up with colleagues or friends they would be able to serve together in the same unit.

The first battalions of 'pals' to form were in Liverpool and soon the rest of the country followed. Some of the battalions were:

Accrington Pals – Barnsley Pals – Birmingham Pals – Bradford Pals – Cambridge Pals – Cardiff Pals – Carmarthen Pals – Durham Pals – Edinburgh City Pals – Football Battalion – Glasgow Boys' Brigade – Glasgow Commercials – Glasgow Tramways – Grimsby Chums – Hull Commercials – Hull Sportsmen – Hull Tradesmen – Hull T'Others – Kendal Pals – Leeds Pals – Liverpool Pals – Lonsdale Pals – Manchester Pals – Newcastle Commercials – Newcastle Railway Pals – Oldham Pals – Portsmouth Pals – Preston Pals – Public Schools – Rhondda Pals – Salford Pals – Scarborough Pals – Sheffield City – South Downs – Sportsmen's – St Helen's Pals – Stockbrokers – Swansea Pals – Tyneside Irish – Tyneside Scottish

Post Office Rifles

Around 12,000 postal workers joined the Post Office Rifles battalion. Half became casualties.


The number of Scottish football clubs that provided recruits for the 16th Battalion, The Royal Scots, known as 'McCrae's Battalion' after its commander Sir George McCrae. One club – Heart of Midlothian – saw 11 of its players sign up on one day. In total 16 Hearts players saw active service. Seven were killed.


During the winter of 1914–15 a rum ration was introduced to British troops in the trenches. It was delivered in gallon-sized ceramic containers, marked with the letters 'SRD', for 'Service Ration Depot'. Soldiers came up with their own interpretations of what the initials stood for:

Seldom Reaches Destination
Sergeants Rarely Deliver
Service Rum Diluted
Soldiers' Real Delight
Soon Runs Dry

Ministry of Blockade

On 3 November Britain's Ministry of Blockade declared the North Sea a military area as part of its blockade policy, i.e. using Royal Navy ships to stop and search any ship heading to Germany. Although a successful military tactic, reducing the supply of raw materials, around 750,000 German civilians died of starvation.

Caucasus Campaign

On 22 December, the Ottoman Empire attacked Russia in a major offensive in the Caucasus region, in the face of which the Russians retreated. When the weather deteriorated in the mountains, an estimated 25,000 Ottoman troops froze to death without having fired a shot in anger. Instructions had been given to leave their greatcoats behind to lighten their loads. The Russians regrouped and mounted a counter-attack, whereupon the Ottomans retreated. The Ottoman Third Army had begun its offensive with 66,000 combat-ready troops. It ended with 12,000.

The Armenian Genocide

Following its military catastrophe at the hands of the Russians, the Turkish leadership was keen to find a scapegoat. They blamed the Turkish Armenians: Christians who lived in an area between the territory of the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Caucasus. They were deported and many died through starvation or disease. Others were simply shot. The Armenian Genocide resulted in a possible 1.5 million deaths.

It was the happiest day of my life.

Private Adolf Hitler on receiving the Iron Cross in December 1914. The officer who recommended him for the medal was Jewish.

Les petites Curies

Polish-born radiation pioneer Marie Curie resolved to help her adopted country (France) and worked to raise money and equipment for 20 mobile X-ray cars, which she also helped drive at the front. They were called petites Curies by the French soldiers.


Excerpted from The First World War by Norman Ferguson. Copyright © 2014 Norman Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Twenty Men and Women of the War,
The War in Facts and Figures,

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