When you think of WWI German troops you probably imagine them wearing helmets like those above. (C’com we all spend time thinking about WWI German soldiers, don’t pretend you don’t.) That style helmet is known as a pickelhaube. Which literally translates to “pickaxe bonnet”. It was a staple of the Prussian military and made its way in the German military and many of their civil services.
Originally designed in 1842 by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, it was based on a style that the Russian army had recently adopted That was based on the old French Napoleonic cuirassier helmet. The spike at the top was originally used to hold a plume of horsehair as these were primarily used in cavalry units.
At the start of WWI in 1914, the Germans manufactured their helmets out of leather. As the war went on the stocks of leather dwindled and versions of the helmet started being made out of everything from thin sheets of metal to pressurized felt. Even paper. None of which offered great protection. By 1915, materials aside, the biggest problem with the pickelhaube was the actual spike itself. A new model was developed with a detachable spike. When on the front lines the spike would be removed.
In 1916 the Germans started issuing a new model steel helmet that provided a lot more protection for the head from shell fragments. Yes, steel proved better protection than felt and paper. Who knew? With the fall for the German Empire in 1918, the fancy version of the helmet was demoted to ceremonial uses. Many countries and organizations have some form of pickelhaube in use today.
Before it was something you accused your second-grade classmates of having “cooties” reached popular use in the British Army during WWI. Yes, even cooties have military implications.
There are two versions of the origin of the word. The first one comes from the Malaysian word kutu which refers to a parasitic biting insect. Sure that sounds good and kind of fits but…
The second origin comes from the first recorded use of the word in English. In some regions of England, waterfowl that were known to be infested with lice and other parasites were called coots. Which itself comes from Middle English cote. In the British trenches of WWI, as lice took the top enemy spot from the German, the term came in wide-spread usage. Soldiers returning after the war helped spread it even more.
Oddly enough what put the term into widespread usage was the number of “cootie” based games that were put out. All were variations of moving small grains into a basket or cootie trap. These popular games spread cooties all over the civilized world.
A Doughboy In The Trenches
The term doughboy was used for members of the American Expeditionary Force that fought in France during WWI. The name itself though was used long before that. During the Napoleonic wars, a doughboy referred to a fried flour dumpling that was popular among the British in Spain. Eventually, this small cake would evolve into the modern doughnut.
The term doughboy in reference to soldiers, however, started a little after that. During the Mexican – American War (1846-48) the term was used for American infantry and while no one knows for sure where the term came from there are a number of possibilities.
One theory has to do with the environment that the infantry marched through in Mexico. It was dry and very dusty. As they marched mile after mile they became covered head to toe in a fine layer of dust. To some, it looked like they were covered with flour. The cavalry, with no love lost for the infantry, took to calling them doughboys as a derogatory term. Sounds about right and would fit in with other appellations for American soldiers such as dog face, grunt, joe, etc.
In the years between the Mexican War and WWI, the name was not used very much though, only becoming popular again when the Americans showed up in France. This time though it may have come from another source. It seems that along with hundreds of thousands of infantry, the Americans also sent the Salvation Army volunteers to support the troops. One of their best-known services for the men was the making of doughnuts. Millions of them that were delivered to the American troops serving on the front-lines. It would not be a huge jump in logic to see French and British troops chiding the Yankees and amount of fried dough they were subject to. Doughboy would not be that much of a leap. (It could also have been used to mock the perceived weakness of the raw and unblooded American troops.)
Whichever theory you want to subscribe to the fact is the term doughboy is one that will always bring to mind the American soldiers in the muddy and dark trenches in France, much like those young men in the picture above.
In the Civil War, it was not uncommon for soldiers to write their name and hometown on pieces of paper to be pinned onto their backs. The idea was that if they were to fall in battle someone would know who they were. Maybe even there would be a chance for their body to make it home.
To that extent, the Civil War saw innovations in embalming techniques that would allow for a body to be preserved for the trip home. If they could afford it. A soldier who purchased the service would be issued a medallion that they were to wear around their neck. After the battle representatives of the embalming company would search through the bodies to find their clients. These men would be embalmed and sent home.
What would eventually become “dog tags” was born.
On December 20, 1906, War Department General Order No. 204 that was issued. This order made the “identification tag” standard military issue. This tag was to be an aluminum disk approximately the size of a silver half-dollar. It would be stamped with name, rank, company, and regiment. The order provided that the tags would be issued to enlisted men for free, but officers had to purchase theirs at cost.
In 1916 the regulations were changed to provide two tags to each individual. One to be kept with them and one for the burial services and record keeping. At a later point, the religious beliefs of the wounded were added to ensure the proper services during burial.
The tags in the picture above are from the Pre-WWI era and were most likely issued to American soldiers that were engaged in the Philippine Insurrection.
Chat or Chatting
How many times have you said you needed to have a chat with someone? Or have you seen two people chatting? Usually, we mean it as a short conversation, something small, nothing major. Well, the word comes to us from deep in the trenches of WWI.
Lice was an issue in the trenches during WWI. Lots of bodies huddled close together allowed the little buggers to multiply by the millions. Small enough to hide in the folds of clothing, in the hair and other places they seemed to be everywhere causing itching rashes and just general irritation. Now it turns out that in Hindi the word for these lice was “chatt”, it is also known that French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars referred to them as “chats”. There is also a word in medieval English “chateren” which means idle gossip. So how does all this tie together?
It was not uncommon during WWI to see groups of soldiers sitting around, close together, picking lice off of each other. They would use their fingernails to squash them or a candle to burn them. As they sat around picking the lice, or “chats” from each other they would engage in small talk. before long when groups were seen engaging in this behavior they were said to be “chatting”. Sure they probably did the same thing in every war, but this was the one where the term started being used in an everyday sense.
So hopefully the next time you need to “have a chat” with someone it does not involve lice.
The War to End All Wars (WWI)
The medals in the picture above were given to participants in WWI. Given for heroics and valor, for bravery and performing above and beyond the call of duty. On April 6, 1917, the Great War on the European continent finally drew in the United States. On that day the US House of Representatives voted 373 to 50 to approve the Senates (82 to 6) declaration of war against Germany.
There were many that wanted us in the war since it began and many more that saw a war across the ocean as something that should stay there, but when American civilian lives were put at risk, and even lost thanks to German navy, it was not long before we would seek our retribution. The last straw, the straw that saw us turn toward war instead of away was not the sinking of the Lusitania, which may be the ship you are most familiar with, but the Houstanic.
Days later on February 22, 1917, Congress passed a $250 million appropriations bill to prepare us for war. By the time March had come and gone Germany had sunk four more US merchant ships and President Wilson called for war to be officially declared.
The Yankees Arrive
The first US troops landed in France on June 26, almost 14,000 total began their adventure Over There. About seventeen months later the war was finally over with more than 2 million Americans having joined in the fighting. Almost fifty thousand of them didn’t come home. Those that did came home to a country that had proven itself on the world stage as never before. As a military power and as a true industrial power.
The medals above were given for heroics and valor. For bravery and performing above and beyond the call of duty. They also served as proof to the world that America was poised to take its place on the world stage.
The Iron Cross
The Iron Cross is probably one of the most distinctive military decorations that there has ever been. Beyond just a commendation it also became part of the identity of the German army in the past and into the present.
Its design can be traced back to the Crusades when the King of Jerusalem gave the Teutonic Order permission to combine their solid black cross to the silver Cross of Jerusalem. The first award as a military decoration goes back to 1813 and the Napoleonic Wars. The Prussian King decided that it would best symbolize courage and strength. The decoration would be used again during the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II.
As a symbol of the German Army it was used during World War I and retired at the end of the war. Only to be brought to the fore again by the Nazis in 1939. Sometimes even adorned with the swastika. After the war, it fell out of favor but was reinstated in 1956 by the West Germans. After reunification, it remains the symbol of the German Army today in various forms.
Interestingly enough, the Iron Cross citation was never revived in Germany post WWII. Though they did reissue the awards won during the war without the Nazi symbols attached to them. There has been somewhat of a movement to reinstate the Iron Cross award. In the meantime, though a new award has been put in place at the same level, The Cross of Honor for Bravery. Which is more reminiscent in design to an older Prussian medal.
The Sopwith Camel
Of all the aircraft of WWI, the Sopwith Camel has got to be one of the most recognized. Heck, if nothing else it is the “plane” that Snoopy’s dog house was supposed to be during his battles with the Red Baron. Above is an authentic Sopwith Camel that is being restored at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo Michigan. Yes, I know the bicycle wheels on the plane scare me also.
The Sopwith Camel came into the service with the British Royal Flying Corps in June of 1917 and served though January 1920.. During that time the Camel saw several different variants. The versatile design also saw service with the American Expeditionary Force. Also the Australians, Belgians, Canadians, and the Russians.
With a maximum speed of 115 MPH and a range of about 300 miles it could reach an altitude of 21,000 feet with its 130 hp engine. Best known for its agility in the hands of a skilled pilot it was an amazing machine. One of the different variants had a shorted wingspan so that it could be based on ships. Another was a night fighter version that had the twin machine guns mounted above the top wings. This was to prevent the muzzle flash from causing night blindness.
One pilot, Major William Barker, took his Camel into the air for 404 operational hours from September 1917 to September 1918. During that time he shot down 46 enemy aircraft and balloons. To this day he is still the most successful pilot in the history of the RAF. Not bad for a plane who’s most famous pilot was a cartoon beagle.
The Inter-Allied Games 1919
There is no other way to say it than WWI sucked. Millions died, nations were torn apart, entire towns and villages ceased to exist and in the aftermath a chaos ensued that nearly caused another world war to break out. So why not have an athletic competition to make everyone feel better. With that thought the Inter-Allied Games were devised.
From June 22 to July 6 over 1500 athletes from eighteen nations took the field to compete in 19 different sports. The contest was open to anyone currently serving in the military or that had served during the Great war. The location of the event was Pershing Stadium in Paris. The stadium had been built via a joint effort of the US military and the YMCA and was gifted to “the people of France”. The stadium is actually still in place and used today!
The list of events is fairly impressive:
Cross country running
Tug of war
One can only wish that hand grenade throwing and American Football could someday become Olympic sports! More military based games were going to part of the agenda, but they sadly did NOT make the final cut.
The list of participating nations was almost as impressive:
Kingdom of Hejaz
China had been invited and was initially going to attend but it could not get its athletes there in time for the competition. So they supplied some of the medals. The Kingdom of Hejaz did not send athletes but provided a demonstration of the equestrian abilities.
The big winner of the games was Norman Ross and American who won 5 gold medals in the swimming competitions. he would then go on to win several more medals in the 1920 Olympics. Sadly George S. Patton, who had competed in the 1912 Olympics did not participate in the games.
The games were well attended and successful. If nothing else it gave everyone a reason to cheer in the shadow of a great catastrophe. If you would like more info? You can read the “official” report here.
The World Remade: America in World War I
by G..J. Meyer
Every now and then a book comes along that shifts your way of thinking on a subject. Sometimes that shift comes from learning about a subject things you never knew before. Sometimes it comes in the way that material is presented. And sometimes it comes from being able to put the present in perspective thanks to the past. My experience in reading this book was shaped by each of those three things.
I thought I was well versed in the events that led up to the dawn of WWI. Reading this book I now realize I have always just skimmed the surface. This was a war that should never have happened, but by the time it did, no one could find their way out of it. Once the ball got rolling, America acted almost as if it needed to keep it going as long as it could, with as little cost to them as possible. The war was terrible, the peace and peace process even more so. After reading this come away with a bitter taste in your mouth from the way the British, French and Americans acted. Not giving Germany a pass, but there were no “good guys” in this fight. (I speak of governments, not the brave soldiers and sailors on either side.)
The way that G.J. Meyer presented the material was fresh and informative. Sometimes the statistics could bog it down a bit, sometimes debates of international law seemed a little long-winded. Still though those things were necessary to provide context. The author shone best when providing that context.
The most engaging part to me was the deep dive into the man who was President Woodrow Wilson. In this production he was the man who was sent to save Europe, nay the world, from itself and nothing would stand in his way. He was apolitical weather vane when it suited him, moving up and down the ideological scale as he saw fit. He would be your best friend if you agreed with him, but become your worst enemy if you didn’t. In a lot of ways the way he is presented in this book reminds me of the current President. There was no middle ground.
So is it worth a read? Yes. Will you end up shaking your head reading about the starvation blockade the allies imposed. Yes. Will you cry a little when you realize that Wilson sent thousands of Americans to die simply to get a place at the peace table? You should. Will you shudder when you learn how the American public and press were treated by the administration? Without a doubt.
As always you can pick up a copy via Amazon by clicking on the cover above.