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Learn the real stories behind the Red Baron's reputation, the sinking of the Lusitania, and Africa's involvement in the First World War.

Host Justin Dodd (@juddtoday) breaks down some common myths and misconceptions about World War I.

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.” But 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.

More than 120 of the victims were American. So President Woodrow Wilson said, “That’s it. Grab your guns, guys,” and the U.

S. military swooped into Europe, eager to do some avenging. Captain America was there… It was a whole thing. Hi, I’m Justin Dodd, and if you’re starting to  think this story smells a little fishy, you have a great nose for B.

S. For one, Captain America  fought in World War II, not World War I. Also, he wasn’t a real person.

But more importantly: The  U. S. did not enter the war right away. Congress declared war against Germany in April 1917,  almost two entire years after the Lusitania sank.

The idea that the disaster directly caused  the U. S. to enter the fray is one of several persistent misconceptions about World War I that  I’m talking about today, from Mata Hari’s misdeeds to the Red Baron’s reputation. Let’s get started.

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 at the time, Woodrow Wilson, whom Roosevelt  later called “the lily-livered skunk in the White House,” was still committed to turning the  other cheek.

In 1916 he 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 was the Zimmermann  telegram.

Also taking place 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 said, “Hey, Woodrow Wilson, get  a load of this.” But, ya know, with a British accent.

The Zimmerman telegram was widely reported  in the U. S., and 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.

If your knowledge of World War I is mostly gleaned from grade-school textbooks and  blockbuster movies, you probably have a pretty Euro-centric impression of the whole ordeal. German U-boats, Russian revolution, trenches tearing up the French countryside, et cetera. That stuff isn’t wrong.

But to only focus on Europe is to downplay just how devastating  the war was on other continents. Now, 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.

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 and  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 under trained 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.

Where is the Hollywood blockbuster about this, hm? Who among us hasn’t been clamoring to  see Jerry Seinfeld in an animated historical drama. 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 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.

The man got bags upon bags of fan mail. 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 also 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.’” 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( ameeyen), 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.” As for what the Red Baron is doing plastered  on the front of your frozen pizza box, a Schwan’s Company spokesperson told The Wall  Street Journal in 2015 that they chose him as a mascot because he was a well known fighter pilot  and because he embodied “strength and romance.”  You know, The two most important ingredients in pizza. 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. ... Or so prosecutors claimed. But most historians agree  that Mata Hari’s crimes were anywhere from   “greatly exaggerated” to “literally nonexistent.” Don’t get me wrong—Mata Hari wasn’t exactly a beacon of trustworthiness.

In fact, her  entire identity was based on falsehood. As we discussed in a previous video, “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 code name: 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.” At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day  of the eleventh month in 1918, World War I stopped being a thing. 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.” And if you’re watching in the United States,  it might surprise you to learn that we were technically 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 on ending 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.’ If you have a topic for a future episode of Misconceptions, let us know about it in the  comments below. I will be more likely to read it if you also include a nice compliment about  me because I am vain. Thanks for watching!