History of the World According to the Movies: Part 54 – World War I


Perhaps no movie defines our perception of World War I than Lewis Milestone’s 1930 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front starring Lew Ayres (who I believed was robbed of an Academy Award that year). This is one of the first masterpieces in sound which is still a timeless anti-war classic after 84 years. Paul Bäumer is perhaps one of the most tragic characters in movie history, just a mere teenage boy who eventually loses all his friends and is reduced to an empty shell by the end unable to connect with anyone outside the war. His coming of age story is truly heartbreaking to watch. Nevertheless, Paul’s story is a story of every soldier in this war and perhaps in any war who manages to retain his humanity among the endless carnage and recognizes his enemies as human beings like himself. Despite this being a tragedy, this is truly a great film for the ages.

Two world wars took place in the 20th century but are celebrated by Hollywood in very different ways. One is used to emphasize the glory of courage, self-sacrifice, patriotism, doing what’s right, and male bonding. The other is presented as a horrible nightmare with broken innocence, incompetent and self-absorbed generals, and unimaginable horror. This post is about the former. Of course, World War I was caused by a lot of things such as entangling alliances as well as countries stockpiling on the latest in weapons technology but things wouldn’t reach fever pitch until 1914 when a 19-year old Black Hand terrorist named Gavrilo Princip who was unknowingly working for a head of Serbian official shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophia at Sarajevo (though he regretted killing the latter). Since Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, this meant war between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, Russia had been an age old ally of Serbia longer than it had been with Austria or Germany so it entered on the Serbian side. And Russia’s allies Britain and France (along with domains and allies like Belgium and Italy) entered on the Allied side while Germany and the Ottoman Empire sided with Austria forming the Central Powers since Germany and Austria spoke the same language and the Ottoman Empire really didn’t like Russia. The US would enter later but the whole thing is pretty complicated. Still, it is a war known for introducing things like aerial fighting and tanks as well as chemical weapons and trench warfare. Nevertheless, World War I was perhaps the deadliest conflict in history up to this point killing more than 9 million men. Though this was called “the War to End All Wars” it didn’t necessarily do that as we know. Nevertheless, there are plenty of inaccuracies in movies made at this time which I shall list accordingly.

The Western Front:

European World War I generals were blundering incompetents willing to sacrifice their men for little appreciable gain. (They actually had a more difficult time to adapt to the war’s unprecedented scale of new technologies.)

The Battle of the Somme took place in 1917. (It took place in 1916.)

Three French soldiers representing their division in their regiment were shot by firing squad after their contingent refused to advance at Souain. (Actually 30 French soldiers were tried and 4 were convicted and shot. Yet, the French general Géraud Réveilhac also ordered artillerymen to fire on the men who refused to advance. As in Paths of Glory, the artillerymen refused.)

General Géraud Réveilhac received his comeuppance after sentencing four French soldiers to be shot by firing squad after they refused to advance in the Souain. (Actually unlike his expy in Paths of Glory, Réveilhac remained in his post until he was given leave in February in 1916. According to one officer, he seemed to have “reached the limit of his physical and mental abilities.” He would later be made a Grand Officer of the Legion d’Honneur and died peacefully at the age of 86 in 1937. Meanwhile, the French authorities repeatedly refused to investigate the case with the innocent soldiers executed by firing squad for no reason. Yet, thanks to the efforts of the wife and sister of two of the men, a court cleared them in 1934.)

All trench battles took place in a very open desert like environment on the Western Front. (Most of the fighting was in France and Belgium and there were areas that consisted of deeply wooded hills. Yet, perhaps this is an artistic choice to make the landscape look desolate.)

British soldiers participated at the front during the Battle of Verdun. (The Battle of Verdun was primarily between the German and French armies.)

The Battle of the Marne was fought before 1916. (It was fought in 1918.)

The Allies marched into Berlin in 1918. (Sorry, Captain Renault, but you probably weren’t with the Americans when they marched into Berlin in 1918 because it didn’t happen.)

Western Front generals were blundering incompetents wantonly sacrificing men for little appreciable gain. (Recent historians argue that the war’s unprecedented scale and new technologies {gas, planes, tanks} made it extraordinarily difficult for generals on either side to adapt. So it might’ve been less on blundering incompetence and more on generals simply being incapable for conducting this sort of war.)

The Christmas Truces:

The Christmas Truce started with a singer moving out of No Man’s Land carrying a lit-up Christmas tree. (It actually began as a mutual agreement by both sides to bury their dead. Still, it didn’t prevent many of the Germans from being shot by snipers if they ventured in No Man’s Land.)

The musical exchanges during the Christmas Truces were prompted by Scottish troops. (It actually began with the Germans singing their carols from their trenches {but not exposing themselves to the enemy} followed by opposing troops countering with carols of their own. Still, Joyeux Noel is actually based on various documented events during the Christmas Truces with the director including Scottish soldiers instead of English because he wanted to include bagpipes.)

Sergeant Alvin C. York:

Sergeant Alvin York shot a German in revenge when the latter threw a grenade for killing his friend. (York did shoot a German for throwing a grenade and refusing to surrender, yet the grenade killed no Americans.)

The German contingent that faced Alvin York was headed by a major. (It was headed by Lieutenant Paul Vollmer.)

Sergeant Alvin York used a Luger he took from a captured German soldier after losing his US Army Colt M1911. (He kept his Army Colt in the entire battle and never took a gun from any German prisoner to use. Yet, Gary Cooper does this in Sergeant York because the Luger was the only blank adapted handgun available on the set.)

Sergeant Alvin York was clean shaven even after the war. (He had grown a mustache during his service and kept it for the rest of his life. Still, I’m not sure Gary Cooper would’ve looked good in one anyway since I’ve never seen him with facial hair.)

Sergeant Alvin York was unfamiliar with electricity until after the war. (This guy spent weeks training in the army as well as considerable time in Europe. At this point, electric lights shouldn’t have been an oddity to him.)

Sergeant Alvin York received the Medaille Militaire for his heroism. (He didn’t receive this but he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.)

Sergeant Alvin York shot Germans coming at him from front to back. (He actually shot at them from back to front, “just like a flock of turkeys,” he said. Yes, turkey hunting was a great training exercise for him.)

Sergeant Alvin York received his own farm by the state of Tennessee right after the war just before he married his sweetheart Gracie. (The farm was provided to him by the Rotary Club of Nashville who purchased the land in 1919, after the war ended. Alvin and Gracie were married by this point and didn’t move in until 1922.)

The Italian Front:

“Beer Barrel Polka” was played by Italian Army marching bands during the war. (It wasn’t written until the late 1920s and is a Czech song.)

The Middle East and North Africa:

T. E. Lawrence:

T.E. Lawrence was tall, blond, handsome, and asexual. (Sure he was blond, but that’s as true as it gets with his appearance. In real life, Lawrence of Arabia was about 5’5” tall and wasn’t as handsome as Peter O’Toole {Noel Coward is quoted as saying that the movie should’ve been called “Florence of Arabia”}. As for his sexuality, there’s some debate whether he was asexual or a gay sado-masochist.)

Farraj was mortally wounded by a detonator that went off in his clothes. (According to T. E. Lawrence, he was shot by a Turk while riding his camel.)

T. E. Lawrence was an egotistical eccentric who hungered for publicity and notoriety. (The real Lawrence shunned publicity and was greatly distressed by his enormous fame following the war and the publication of his autobiography The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He actually signed up for the Royal Air Force under an assumed name for ten years to avoid the spotlight and was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after his enlistment ended. He even shunned a knighthood as well as simultaneously aided and disliked reporter Lowell Thomas. He was also a man born in the Victorian era who maintained strict rules about public behavior and typically exercised restraint keeping with the well-known British stiff-upper lip tradition. Still, he was an eccentric all right, but he was a complicated man who just wanted to share his story but at the same time also desired to be left alone.)

T. E. Lawrence favored Arab independence from European powers. (Some say he did. Others say he was actually a fierce imperialist who wanted the British to rule in the Middle East and didn’t wish to the French to have any influence in the region. Either way, he didn’t want the Turks to rule the area. Still, it’s fair to say he was a servant of two masters and was never really at home with Great Britain or the Middle East.)

The battle of Aqaba was glorious cavalry charge into the town by the Arabs themselves. (It was really a prolonged fight and the British fleet interfered, too.)

T. E. Lawrence had no idea about the Sykes-Picot Agreement until near the end of the war. (The Sykes-Picol was an agreement to divide the Ottoman territories between Britain and France, which was a catalyst for Lawrence’s conflict of interest. Still, Lawrence was probably well aware of it.)

T.E. Lawrence was on mostly good terms with his superior officers. (He was actually rather contemptuous of their military-rank-and-file and their strategies and how they drew the borders in the Middle East.)

T.E. Lawrence shot a servant to put him out of his misery. (He didn’t have to make such sacrifice since a Turkish gunman did the deed for him.)

Auda was an unreformed savage who cared only for violence, treasure, and his own pompous self-image. (He was a serious and intelligent leader who deserved more credit for taking Aqaba than T.E. Lawrence. His family was deeply offended by the Antony Quinn portrayal in Lawrence of Arabia and spent years trying but unsuccessfully suing the producers.)

T.E. Lawrence rescued Gasim Johar from the desert but was forced to execute him. (He didn’t have to shoot him. He shot a guy named Hamed in a dispute between the Syrians and Moroccans.)

The US entered WWI after Aqaba. (They entered before.)

Hajim Bey imprisoned, tortured, sexually assaulted, and perhaps raped T. E. Lawrence at Deraa. (Some historians consider the whole Deraa thing a fantasy since Lawrence described it so sensually. Also, he was seen unhurt afterwards but he did become more withdrawn and peculiar after Deraa. Still, it’s very likely he was raped to avoid further torture.)

T. E. Lawrence was left handed. (He was right handed.)

T. E. Lawrence ate with his left hand in the company of Bedouin tribes and was clumsy on a camel at the start of his Middle Eastern time in World War I. (Lawrence had traveled the region before and was much more experienced dealing with the people there than Lawrence of Arabia implies. Still, he would’ve known that you didn’t eat with your left hand around Bedouin tribes since it’s their customary hand for wiping their asses after going to the bathroom. Also, Lawrence would’ve never been clumsy on a camel and certainly knew how to ride one unlike how Peter O’Toole was {of course, such scenes are kind of played for laughs but you have to leave them in}.)

T. E. Lawrence’s Arab army entirely deserted him as he moved further north. (According to records, only one or two Arabs did.)


The British contingent at Gallipoli was lazy and incompetent. (The reverse is actually true, but you can’t have them as the heroes in an Australian war movie like Gallipoli. By the way, Gallipoli also carries the distinction has the most accurate historical movie Mel Gibson has ever made and he looks damn hot in it. Nevertheless, the Gallipoli Campaign is sort of like Australia’s version of the Battle of Gettysburg.)

The attack of the Nek was a diversion for the British contingent landing at Sulva. (It was actually a diversion for the Kiwi {New Zealand contingent} landing at Sair Bair.)

The British command at the Nek was responsible for the heavy Australian losses caused there. (Actually there was little British command and control at the Nek and the incompetent officers primarily responsible for the heavy losses were Brigadier Hughes and Colonel Anthill who were Australian. So it was actually Australian incompetence and miscommunication between these two officers that was responsible for the disaster at the Nek. Still, Gallipoli’s depiction of the British was very disrespectful.)

The British soldiers at Gallipoli drank tea as the Australians died for them. (Actually, the British sent two companies of Royal Welsh Fusiliers {whom they could ill afford to lose} to help when they heard the attack had stalled. These Welshmen suffered heavy losses trying to support the Aussie attack. Also, during the whole campaign, the British 29th Division {the “Incomparables”} suffered 34,000 losses, the highest of any siege unit at Gallipoli and earned 12 Victorian Crosses. Still, the idea of tea drinking British at Gallipoli was still a popular belief in Australia at the time despite that the British were actually fighting alongside them.)

The US entered the war before Gallipoli. (The Gallipoli campaign was fought in 1915. The US entered the war in 1917.)

The Australians lost more men at Gallipoli than they did at any time of the war. (They actually lost more men in the European trenches.)

The Eastern Front:

The Russians spent the beginning of World War I dealing with the Russian winter. (Barbara Tuchman has said that the Russians started fighting during the summer and St. Petersburg would’ve been extremely hot at the time.)

Russia was still fighting World War I in 1917. (Sort of, but Russia would be in a state of chaos that year with the Russian Revolution in hand that it would have to back out.)

War in the Air:

World War I pilots had exceptional flight instruction before they went off to war. (Only towards the end of the war, in the early part most of the pilots received minimal training because there weren’t many competent flight instructors. After that, they were on their own to fend for themselves. The average lifespan of a WWI pilot in flight was 20 minutes and the average WWI pilots lasted three to six weeks. Still beats the trenches though.)

Most pilots managed to survive their first dogfight. (Well, some is a more accurate statement.)

Fighter pilots fired machine guns by reaching up and pulling large levers. (No fighting aircraft functioned this way. From Imdb: “The guns were triggered by levers mounted on the control stick which pulled wire cables up to the guns.”)

The Luftstreitskraefte (German Imperial Air Force):

The Fokker DR-1 triplane was the standard German plane. (It wasn’t in widespread use until later in the war.)

The Fokker DR-1 carried overall lozenge pattern camouflage. (It didn’t.)

German single-seat fighter aircraft carried bombs. (No German aircraft did.)

The Blue Max was awarded to German pilots who shot down 20 enemy aircraft. (In the beginning of the war, German pilots had to shoot down 8 enemy aircraft to receive a Blue Max. That number was later raised to 16. So George Peppard definitely received his Blue Max fair and square.)

The Fokker DR-1 was powered by an Allied engine. (It was powered by a German engine.)

German Lieutenant Kurt Wolff was shot down in a nighttime mission. (According to his wing man, Lt. Carl-August von Schoenebeck, he was shot down in a dogfight during the day time.)

German pilot Stefan Kirmaier was shot down by a French pilot during the summer. (He was actually shot down by an English pilot in November.)

The L32 Zeppelin was shot down in France during the day time. (It was shot down in Great Britain during the night.)

German fighter pilots had a set uniform. (They actually wore the uniform of where they were from in they were from in the German Army whether it be the infantry, cavalry, navy, or artillery. The Red Baron wore a cavalry uniform. The German Luftstreitskraefte had no “standard” uniforms during World War I. Same went for ground crew.)

French Air Force:

Pilots in the Lafyette Escadrilles, lived in a grand castle like building. (They lived in a mansion.)

French World War I planes were heavy and hard to move around. (They were made out of wood and were easily maneuverable. Yet, they caught fire easily as well.)

The Red Baron:

Manfred Von Richthofen was in an older man during World War I. (He was only 25 when he was shot down.)

Jasta 11 and Richthofen’s Flying Circus were separate squadrons. (Jasta 11 was Richthofen’s Flying Circus.)

Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen (a. k. a. The Red Baron) was a proto-pacifist who instructed his men not to kill any enemy pilots. (The Red Baron showed no such tendency and actually encouraged his men to aim at the pilots of enemy planes because it was the easiest way of shooting them down. Still, this is in his 2008 biopic from Germany. By the way, he had a cousin who married a British author named D. H. Lawrence and an uncle living in Colorado.)

Manfred von Richthofen saw Lieutenant Werner Voss get shot down. (Richthofen was on leave in a famous dogfight against a squadron of 8 British SE5’s led by James McCudden.)

Lothar von Richthofen was flying with his older brother Manfred, the day the latter got shot down. (Lothar had been shot down March 13, 1918 and was hospitalized by April 21 of that year due to injuries. He learned about his brother’s death during his stay there.)

The German pilots trained with the Curtiss JN4 (Jenny). (This plane was made in the US and only exported to Great Britain. The Germans wouldn’t have one of these.)

Baron Manfred von Richthofen had a girlfriend who was a nurse named Kate Otersdorf during World War I. (For God’s sake, the Red Baron didn’t have a known girlfriend since having one went against everything he believed. He believed that it was unwise and dishonorable for a pilot to have a relationship given that the average life expectancy was so short. However, he did have a “secret” love he intended on marrying after the war but it wasn’t the woman who nursed him back to health from his head wound. Still, Otersdorf probably would’ve wished to be the Red Baron’s girlfriend.)

Baron Manfred von Richthofen had always been interested in flying planes since his youth as well as to escape an unheroic death at Verdun. (It was more or less because he started out as a reconnaissance cavalry officer before his regiment was shortly dismounted and they later found themselves serving as dispatch runners and telegraph operators. Richthofen was already thinking of transferring to the army supply branch before he became fascinated with planes after seeing a German aircraft behind the lines so he applied to the Imperial German Army Air Service and was transferred in May of 1915. Still, he didn’t want to die an unheroic death though, which his 2008 biopic does get right. Not to mention, the Wright brothers made their first flight when Richthofen was 11 and it’s rather unlikely that he may have seen a plane as a child. And at 11, he was already training to be a cavalry officer who would’ve been more interested in horses than planes.)

Captain Roy Brown:

Captain Roy Brown was shot down by the Red Baron and escaped from a German POW  before sharing a drink with him in No Man’s Land. (Neither of these happened and Brown never met the Red Baron except in combat. Also, Brown was credited as the guy who shot down the Red Baron, though we’re not sure whether it was him or someone else.)

Captain Roy Brown was a member of the Royal Canadian Flying Corps. (Despite being Canadian, he was a member of the Royal Naval Air Service and later the Royal Air Force. The Royal Canadian Flying Corps never existed.)

Major Lanoe Hawker:

Major Lanoe Hawker flew a SE5 with a grim reaper painted on it when he fought the Red Baron. (He flew an Airco DH.2 when the Red Baron shot him down which didn’t have a grim reaper on it. The pilot who did have a grim reaper painted on his plane had a French Escadrille N.94, which Hawker wouldn’t have flown anyway due to being British.)

Lanoe Hawker had a beard. (He had a mustache but the as a British Army officer, he wouldn’t be allowed to have a beard.)

War in the Sea:

In 1916, the German armored cruiser SMS Frederich Carl sank in seconds after hitting a Russian mine causing a big loss of lives. (The Frederich Carl was sunk by Russian mines in 1914 but it stayed afloat for several hours, which was enough for the light cruiser SMS Augsburg to arrive to save most of the crew and resulted in only the loss of 8 crew members.)


Mata Hari was still holding performances in 1917. (Her last performance was in 1915.)

Mata Hari was a rather important spy for the Germans. (Yes, she had a lot of well-connected lovers, but she did try to assist the French secret service through Georges Ladoux, head of counterespionage. However, there’s scant evidence she was really an important spy or working for the Germans. Her execution by firing squad might’ve been rather unjustified.)

Mata Hari’s lover was a Russian aviator named Alexis Rosanoff. (It was actually a man named Captain Vladimir de Masloff whom she protected just as she did in the movie about her.)

The Home Front:

When asked by a military representative, “Would you care to tell us what you would do if you saw a German soldier raping your sister?” Lytton Strachey replied, “I believe I should attempt to come between them.” (He actually said, “I should try and interpose my own body.” Still, the sentiment is accurate as in Carrington. Strachey was eventually disqualified for military service on medical grounds.)

You could join the Australian Light Horse Brigade without bringing any horses. (In the Australian cavalry during World War I, you had to bring your own. Also, you couldn’t travel from Adelaide to Perth by train at this time either since the railroad wouldn’t be built until the 1920s.)

Australians had to be 21 to enlist in the military in 1915. (They could be between 18-45 years old.)

The Aquatania was used as a passenger liner during World War I. (It had actually been used as a military transport and had a camo makeover to boot.)

Ernest Hemingway was a famous author in 1917. (He was a soldier fighting in the war at this point and wouldn’t achieve fame until the 1920s with his books about the war like A Farewell to Arms.)

Germany had radio broadcasting during World War I. (There was no radio broadcasting in Germany until 1923 so everyone there would’ve known about the 1918 Armistice agreement through newspapers.)

One response to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 54 – World War I

  1. That must have been a horrible war- but I guess they all are.
    Also, Sargeant York was not really a sargeant- it just sounded better.

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