The Great War began more than a century ago, and in the second decade of the 21st century visions of the horrifying conflict are quickly fading from living memory. So too is the chance that many of the greatest unsolved mysteries of World War One will ever be cracked. Some questions, such as the name of the man buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, will remain forever unanswered. Many families continue to remember their dead and missing, however, quietly keeping their memories alive as the conflict slips from the pubic consciousness. This article examines a selection of the strangest and most compelling mysteries of the Great War, lest we forget.
What Happened to the Zebrina?
On October 17, 1917, the three-masted sailing barge Zebrina was discovered after running aground at Rozel Point, on the coast of France. In true ghost ship fashion, not only no sign of her crew, but there was no sign as to what might have caused the unfortunate 189 ton schooner-rigged barge to founder.
Contemporaneous newspaper articles reported that the sails were set and undamaged. What’s more, the tables were set as though the crew were preparing to sit down to a meal. Zebrina had only been missing for a few days when she was discovered, having left Falmouth on October 15th for a 30-hour trip carrying coal to Saint-Brieuc.
When she was examined, Zebrina was found to be completely seaworthy. At the time, rumours had circulated that she had run foul of a German U-boat, but with no damage to the ship, her papers and logs still intact and no signs of conflict, it was never determined what happened to her, and the fate of her crew remains a Great War mystery.
What Happened to the Florentine?
The disappearance of the diamond known simply as ‘the Florentine’ occurred in the chaos of the final days of World War One. One of the crown jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the diamond was on display in Vienna when the last Hapsburg-Lorraine monarch, Charles I of Austria, fled his country for exile in Switzerland.
The Florentine diamond disappeared, and it’s not even clear whether or not Charles took it with him. Italy was in the process of trying to get the diamond back, as it had been in the possession of the Medici family for years before passing to the Empress Maria Teresa, the last of the Hapsburg dynasty.
There’s a whole host of theories seeking to explain what became of the famous Florentine diamond. Some suggest it was sold by Charles I in an attempt to re-finance his return to Austria. Others claim it was stolen. It’s possible the Florentine was cut into smaller stones, though its disappearance remains one of the most intriguing mysteries of World War One.
What Happened to Béla Kiss?
Béla Kiss was a Hungarian tinsmith who marched off to war in 1914. He left his home in the care of his housekeeper, along with his collection of seven giant metal drums. Townsfolk knew that he had been collecting gasoline in anticipation of wartime rationing, and when gasoline was needed, they cracked open the drums. Instead of gasoline, they were met by the stench of death.
A search of Kiss’ property revealed 24 dead bodies, 23 women and a man, who had been strangled and pickled in alcohol. Further investigation uncovered a secret room and stacks of letters between Kiss and 74 different women. Police discovered that he had defrauded countless women and had even been taken to court. They issued an arrest warrant for Kiss. He was almost apprehended in a Serbian hospital in October of 1916, but escaped at the last minute.
From there, Kiss vanished. Rumours circulated about a French Foreign Legion soldier who used his alias (Hoffman) and boasted about strangling people). Another alleged sighting occurred in New York City. But Béla Kiss’ fate – and his story in general – remains one of the more sinister mysteries of World War One. It’s also likely that not all of his victims were found.
Who Lies in the Grave of Gunner Frank Oswald Wills?
Frank Oswald Wills has a gravestone in St. Marie Cemetery in Le Havre, but historians are unsure who is actually buried there. The story begins with Elizabeth Mellor, who had searched tirelessly for answers about the fate of her 17-year-old son, Samuel, until she stopped writing to the authorities in 1939. Samuel had enlisted in Sydney in 1915 under the named of Richard Rowley Mellor (his older brother).
He was sent first to Egypt and then to England, where he was treated for a perforated eardrum. Unfit for service, he was supposed to return home to Australia, but never made it. Instead, there’s a record of Richard Rowley Mellor deserting several times from Rollestone Training Camp, Wiltshire. In May 1918 he disappeared for good.
Around the same time, A man supposedly named Frank Wills was en route to France. Two weeks after Armistice he deserted, and was found in a Paris hotel. Drunk and disorderly, Wills reportedly exchanged fire with two MPs and killed one of them. Now on trial for murder, he admitted to an Australian officer that he had joined in the British Army, and wasn’t Wills at all: he was Mellor. Found guilty and sentenced to death, the disgraced soldier reportedly asked that his mother in Sydney be informed.
A communication error (letters were sent to the right address in the wrong name) meant that Elizabeth Mellor never learned what happened to her son. But after her death in 1939, it was found that Samuel’s name had been erased from family documents, including Elizabeth’s death certificate). Whether Frank Wills and Samuel Mellor were the same person, and the true identify of the man buried at Le Havre, have not been officially acknowledged. Until they are, this story remains a bizarre mystery of World War One.
What Really Happened at Kinmel Camp?
In 1919, some 17,000 Canadian troops were massed at Kinmel Camp in Wales. They were eager to return home after the brutal trench warfare of World War One, and impatience coupled with a harsh winter and a flu epidemic proved to be a recipe for disaster. The riots began on March 4, 1919, when Canadian soldiers learned that the ships they had been waiting for were ferrying American troops back across the Atlantic, many of whom were understood not to have seen action.
Details of precisely what happened during the two days of chaos are hazy, but it’s known that 28 people were injured and five killed during the riots. For decades, the incident was swept under the rug. The only overt public reminders of the incident are five gravestones in Bodelwyddan churchyard.
When researchers tried to look into the riot in more detail, they found that official figures were hard to believe. While no-one knows precisely how those five men died, historians are also unsure what the real death toll was.
Mysteries of World War One: The “Vanishing Battalion”?
They were the 5th Territorial Battalion the Royal Norfolk Regiment, all recruited from staff of the Royal Estate at Sandringham. From foremen, butlers and gamekeepers to gardeners, grooms and farm labourers, they were sent to the Dardanelles, where they disappeared, in spite of the best efforts of even King George V to find them.
By all accounts, the orders the battalion received were so bad that the maps they had didn’t even include the location they were supposed to attack. Having launched a major assault on Ottoman forces, the only survivor was a 14-year-old private named George Carr. In the aftermath, a handful of bodies were identified by the remains of their uniforms as members of the 5th Territorial Battalion. But something odd came to light at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1965.
Several New Zealand veterans claimed to have seen the battalion disappear into low-lying clouds that later rose into the sky. The testimony was bizarre, but it reignited interest in the episode. When witnesses were re-interviewed, a previously overlooked detail came to light. Every one of the bodies identified had been shot in the head. The Turks took no prisoners, which explains the fate of the so-called “vanishing battalion”. But the inspiration behind the legend remains a mystery.
What Happened to the 72,246 Men Honoured on the Thiepval Memorial?
The Thiepval Memorial stands near Thiepval, France. It was erected to honour the 72,246 British servicemen who participated in the devastating Battle of the Somme and whose fates are unknown. Built between 1928 and 1932, the poignant Anglo-French memorial’s interlocking arches are adorned with tens of thousands of names, all of men who are still missing. In cases where remains have been identified, those names have been filled in.
As time goes by, the likelihood that more of these names will be removed grows ever less. The Thiepval Memorial remains a moving and sobering reminder of the cost of war, a reminder not only of all those who have lost their lives, but of families torn apart, who would never know the truth of their loved ones’ fates. Like those missing from all battlefields of the First World War, as well as other conflicts, the location of their final resting places remains an enduring Great War mystery.