5 Misconceptions About World War I

French gunners during World War I, circa 1914.
French gunners during World War I, circa 1914. / adoc-photos/GettyImages

The first World War was a global tragedy that shaped pretty much every major event in the 20th century. But despite the conflict's importance, there's still a lot that we get wrong about it. So we're here to help dispel some of the most common myths about World War I, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: The U.S. entered World War I when Germany sank the Lusitania.

On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner headed to England from New York. It wasn’t a totally unforeseen tragedy. Britain and Germany were at war, and Britain had been shipping military supplies from the U.S. on passenger and merchant vessels. Because of this, Germany decided that any Allied ship near British waters was fair game for a torpedo attack. Before the Lusitania left for England, the German embassy even took out newspaper ads saying, “Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies … and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

Neither the printed warning nor the fact that the Lusitania actually had been carrying weapons was enough to prevent widespread outrage when almost 1200 innocent passengers died, including more than 120 Americans.

The sinking of the Lusitania definitely helped turn the American public against Germany, and some people started to think that maybe staying out of the war was the wrong decision. This sentiment was bolstered by influential politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, who had been against neutrality from the get-go. After the Lusitania disaster, he issued a statement calling for retaliation: “It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity, but to our own national self-respect.”

But the Lusitania didn't send the U.S. directly into war like so many people think, and President Woodrow Wilson was still committed to turning the other cheek. In 1916, Wilson even convinced Germany to promise not to target merchant and passenger ships. Only when they reneged on that promise in early 1917 did Wilson finally start to seriously consider abandoning his commitment to neutrality.

Another important factor in getting the U.S. into the war was the Zimmermann telegram. In early 1917, Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram to Mexico basically saying that if Mexico fought for Germany, Germany would ensure the return of some territory that the U.S. had taken from Mexico.

Unfortunately for Germany, Britain intercepted the telegram. And when the contents of the telegram were widely reported in the U.S., people began to feel like Germany was indirectly threatening invasion. This anxiety, combined with the fact that German submarines would clearly torpedo anything that crossed their paths, prompted Wilson to finally ask Congress for a declaration of war that April.

2. Misconception: World War I only involved Europe and the U.S.

British infantry charging German positions, East Africa, World War I, 1914-1918.Artist: Realistic Travels Publishers
British infantry charging German positions, East Africa, World War I, 1914-1918. / Print Collector/GettyImages

A lot of popular movies, books, and documentaries about World War I paint a pretty Euro-centric picture of the whole ordeal. Those materials aren't necessarily wrong, but they also downplay just how devastating the war was on other continents.

The reason other continents got involved in the first place was largely due to European colonialism. A number of European countries—including Britain, France, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal—had taken control over huge swaths of Africa and Asia. And when war broke out, they drafted native residents and fought on that land.

It’s estimated that about 2 million Africans took part in the war, and they weren’t all soldiers. Porters, or carriers, were tasked with transporting food and other supplies to the troops. Journeys could last hundreds of miles, and thousands of porters perished along the way. Historian Melvin E. Page estimates at least 200,000 Africans died in World War I campaigns.

European forces relied on Africans for food, too, both by officially requisitioning crops or simply stealing whatever they came across. Kileke Mwakibinga, a young boy growing up in what is now Tanzania during the war, later recalled witnessing German soldiers retreat through his town: “They came and looked for things … they would enter a house, if they found milk they would just take it. If they saw chicken[s], they just took them.”

Present-day Tanzania was also the site of one of the most memorable East African battles, which took place in the port city of Tanga in early November 1914. It’s nicknamed the Battle of the Bees, and not because Britain’s Indian Expeditionary Force B was there (though it was). 

Britain had brought over Indian troops intending to seize the city from German forces. But Britain’s men were undertrained and Germany’s were unexpectedly well-prepared, so Germany quickly took the upper hand. At one point, the clash caused swarms of bees to emerge from the surrounding trees and descend en masse upon the soldiers. 

The bees obviously didn’t care whose side their victims were on. But because Britain ended up retreating for good after that, a theory circulated that Germany’s soldiers had planted trip wires to disturb the bees on purpose.

3. Misconception: Allied soldiers hated the Red Baron.

Manfred von Richthofen
Manfred von Richthofen, a.k.a. "The Red Baron" (L) / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

By early 1917, German pilot Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen was well on his way to becoming the biggest baddie of the skies. He’d single-handedly shot down 16 Allied planes and had just been put in charge of his own squadron: Jasta 11. To commemorate the occasion, von Richthofen painted his biplane bright red, prompting the Allies to nickname him the “Red Baron.”

Jasta 11’s aviators were extremely lethal, and none more so than their commander. The Red Baron blasted down a total of 80 aircraft—a World War I record—and his homeland worshipped him. You’d think the Allied soldiers would hate the Baron just as much as Germans loved him. But while they definitely didn’t want to meet him in the open air, most Allied soldiers regarded him with respect, if not reverence.

After a crash landing on January 24, 1917, the Red Baron got to chat with two English aviators he’d just shot down. He later wrote about the interaction in his autobiography The Red Fighter Pilot:

“The two Englishmen … greeted me like sportsmen. … Consequently, it gave me particular pleasure to talk to them. I asked them whether they had previously seen my machine in the air, and one of them replied, ‘Oh, yes. I know your machine very well. We call it Le Petit Rouge.’” (French for “The Little Red.”)

The Red Baron’s killing career came to a sudden end on April 21, 1918, when he was 25 years old. Allied forces shot him in the chest while he was flying above Vaux-sur-Somme, France. He crashed his plane and died almost immediately. 

His enemies didn’t exactly sing “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead.” Instead, they held a military funeral that British newspapers described as “impressive” and buried the Baron in a cemetery near Amiens, France. A wreath lay above his grave with the inscription: “To Our Gallant and Worthy Foe.”

When British aviation publication Aeroplane reported the Red Baron’s death a few days later, it read: “There is not one in the Corps who would not gladly have killed him. But there is not one who would not equally gladly have shaken hands with him had he been brought down without being killed, or who would not so have shaken hands if brought down by him.”

4. Misconception: Mata Hari was a prolific spy for Germany.

Mata Hari, Margarete Geertruida Zelle
Mata Hari / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

On October 15, 1917, Mata Hari stood before a French firing squad in a Parisian suburb, awaiting execution. French police doctor Léon Bizard recalled her composure in his 1925 memoir, translated from French: “While an officer read the sentence, the dancer, who refused to be blindfolded, placed herself against the post, and a rope, not even tied, was slipped around her waist.”

She then smiled at Sister Léonide, the nun who had looked after her in prison, and even reportedly blew a kiss at the soldiers (though that last part may be apocryphal).

Moments later, Mata Hari was dead. The court had deemed this a fair punishment for passing state secrets to Germany, causing the deaths of some 50,000 French soldiers. But most historians agree that Mata Hari’s crimes were anywhere from “greatly exaggerated” to “literally nonexistent.”

Don’t get us wrong—Mata Hari wasn’t exactly a beacon of trustworthiness. In fact, her entire identity was based on falsehood. “Mata Hari” was born in the Netherlands as Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. The persona she adopted as an exotic dancer was informed by her time living in what’s now Indonesia, not on her upbringing.

By the time World War I rolled around, Mata Hari was a bona fide celebrity across Europe. Onstage, she entertained audiences with pseudo-religious stripteases. Her charisma served her well offstage, too, and she never suffered a shortage of lovers. Her many connections made her an appealing candidate for espionage, and she accepted an offer—along with 20,000 francs—to spy for Germany in 1915. The following year, she accepted an offer to spy for France from French officer Georges Ladoux.

How much spying she actually did, however, is unclear. There’s no hard evidence that any intel she passed to either side was very useful. According to French files declassified in the 1980s, she only ever told the Germans petty gossip and details from newspapers.

As Pat Shipman wrote in her Mata Hari biography Femme Fatale: “She was recognized everywhere, known everywhere, and was inevitably the center of attention … If indeed she was a spy, Mata Hari surely ranks among the world’s most inept agents. … She sent uncoded letters to Ladoux through the ordinary mail; she telegraphed him openly, she called at his office repeatedly.”

Inept or not, Mata Hari began to seem like a liability. In late 1916, French officers intercepted telegrams mentioning Mata Hari’s German codename: H 21. They’d been transmitted by a German lover of hers, Arnold Kalle, and some scholars believe he’d sent them knowing that the French would see the messages and arrest her. In February 1917, that’s exactly what they did. 

But without proof that Mata Hari had actually committed treason, why were French officials so keen on killing her? Some argue that they may have been using her case as a way to restore faith in the war effort and boost morale. 

As French historian Frédéric Guelton explained in an interview for France 24, “1917 was a terrible year. The government had to show that despite German offensives, the Russian Revolution, and mutinies on the field, France was going to hold out until victory. By executing this woman, the government showed that it was willing to do whatever it took.” 

5. Misconception: World War I ended at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

Young boy in front of his home on Armistice Day November, 11, 1918.
Young boy in front of his home on Armistice Day November, 11, 1918. / Kirn Vintage Stock/GettyImages

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, World War I officially came to an end. That’s why November 11 is known as Armistice Day. Well, technically, the U.S. changed the name to Veterans Day in 1954 so Americans could honor all military veterans, not just those from the Great War. Other countries call it Remembrance Day for the same reason.

Though for most countries, the official end of World War I came when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919, Armistice Day is commonly cited as the end of the actual fighting. But not everybody laid down their weapons on that day. Some countries had already stopped fighting before November 11, and some combatants remained engaged after it.

This was partially because not everyone was just a phone call away. The troops of German major general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, for example, were still dispersed around East Africa. On November 10, the British General Staff telegrammed a base in East Africa asking, “In case there is an armistice what would be the quickest way of sending a message to von Lettow?” 

Germany agreed to an armistice the next morning at about 5 a.m., to come into effect around six hours later. That didn’t leave enough time to alert von Lettow before the ceasefire went into effect. He reportedly didn’t hear about it until November 14, and his forces had continued to fight in the interim. Von Lettow didn’t formally surrender until November 25, in what’s now Zambia.

Allied forces, including an American outfit known as the Polar Bear Expedition, continued to fight in Russia, too. Russia had quit World War I back in March 1918 under pressure from the Bolsheviks, and a civil war ensued. But the Allies still really needed the nation’s military, so they sent troops there on what was basically a side quest: Help defeat the Bolsheviks, and then Russia will be able to reenter the war. 

Since that motive became moot on Armistice Day, it seems like the Polar Bear Expedition and its cohorts should’ve thrown in the towel when 11 a.m. rolled around. But that didn’t happen—they kept participating in Russia’s civil war well into 1919. As historian James Carl Nelson told Smithsonian, “The biggest complaint you heard from the soldiers was, ‘No one can tell us why we’re here,’ especially after the Armistice.”

It might surprise you to learn that the United States was technically still at war with the Central Powers until 1921. Remember the Treaty of Versailles? The Senate wasn’t particularly keen on it, so they didn’t ratify it. In April 1921, President Harding noted, “Nearly two and a half years ago the World War came to an end, and yet we find ourselves today in the technical state of war.”

By July of ‘21, both the Senate and the House had voted to end the war, officially, and sent the Knox-Porter Resolution to Harding for his signature. This led him to give one of the most stirring speeches in American history: "That’s all."