I have read about WWI nearly all my life, and with it being November 11th today, I decided to compile a list that I hope might rectify some popular misconceptions about the war.
The soldiers were not always stuck in trenches: 1914 and 1918 saw huge armies engage in huge battles that swept across Belgium and France. It was not until the beginning of winter, 1914, that the armies became immobilised, and trench warfare began. This static period of warfare lasted until 1918, when the German spring offensive, and the subsequent British, French and American counterattacks, created a war of movement again.
The British were not heavily involved early on: Britain had a very small standing army, and was only able to send six divisions (roughly 60,000 troops) in 1914, most of whom were dead by 1915. The survivors referred to themselves as “The Old Contemptibles” after a dismissive remark made about them by Kaiser Wilhelm.
The French suffered terribly: disastrous tactics and uniforms that included bright red trousers meant the French had already lost 300,000 men dead by the end of 1914 (or, to put it another way, in just five months). The scale of this disaster is best seen in the perspective of subsequent years: for example, in the whole year of 1916 – which included the terrible Battle of Verdun – the French lost 252,000. By the end of the war, nearly 5% of the entire French population was dead (as compared to just over 2.5 % for the British, and 3.5% for the Germans) and a further 2,300,000 men had been wounded.
The Germans nearly won the war in March, 1918: the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) broke the British lines and sent the British army tumbling back in conditions that verged on a rout. A twelve-mile gap opened in the line, and German troops poured through, threatening to break out and drive a wedge between the British and French armies. However, the fast-moving German stormtroopers leading the attack could not carry enough food and ammunition to sustain themselves and the offensive petered out.
The soldiers were not always floundering knee deep in mud: in spring and summer, the trenches were relatively dry; in winter, they iced over. The 1917 Battle of Passchendaele is mainly responsible for the popular image of WWI soldiers as being perpetually slathered in mud, as torrential rain flooded the Ypres area while the British were conducting a major offensive. The troops were made to fight there for more than three months with very little to show for it; the entire battlefield was later captured in a single day during the summer of the following year.
Poppies were chosen as a symbol of remembrance due to a poem written by a Canadian doctor, In Flanders Field.
German helmets, though similar in design, were far bigger in WWI than they were in WWII. This is something film makers nearly always get wrong. Watch out for it.