The German Soldier in World War I

The final “Argument of Kings”

R.H.Keller/ 2009

Organization and Service in the German Army

In Germany, by the constitution of April 16, 1871, every male was liable for military service, from his 17th to 45th birthday, commencing with the “class” of the year of his 20th birthday. The 17-20 year olds within this category were classified as Landsturm 1st Ban for “volunteer” purposes, home defense, or, as in time of war, to fill active duty needs, and, in peacetime, were only required to register.

On January 1st of each year, the Ersatz Commission, by public notice, called for all eligible males to report to the Muster District Office for registration on a specific date.  Rosters were prepared and a muster date with location was posted for the “class”. At the muster, physicals were preformed, after which inquiries were held for excusing or accepting an individual based upon personal hardships, etc.  There was no substitution in effect, and the only exceptions for military service were members of reigning houses, those deprived by court sentences of their civil rights, and those in jail!

Active military service was 3 years in the cavalry or mounted artillery, and 2 years in all other branches, followed by 4 or 5 years in the Reserve, the Landwher for 11 years, then finally (in the year they reached their 39th birthday) the Landsturm 2nd Ban for 7 years.  During the “Reserve” status, each man could be called out for two annual training sessions called “Kaiser Maneuvers”, only being free from that duty when passing to Landsturm 2nd Ban. This Landsturm 2nd ban seldom saw front line active service, but still provided valuable services that freed up military fit personnel.

If one chose to “volunteer” for active service before their class was due, they had the advantage of choosing their unit of service, and every opportunity was afforded to meet their requests, thus a household could follow a family tradition of service in a noted unit. Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia commented in his memoirs that while commanding the 2nd Company of the 1st Garde Regiment of Foot in 1902-1904, a number of his soldiers were the fourth successive generation to serve in the 2nd Company of that regiment.

Another class of “one year volunteers” had to meet stringent requirements of education and character, as well as pay for their own uniforms, equipment, quarters, and rations.  Many of these men had completed higher professional educations, and became officers upon completion of their active duty. Many professional men, whose skills were required outside of active service, opted for this service, and sometimes were required to serve only six months. In opposite to serving less time, they could choose, after 1 year, to transfer to the Reserves for two years active duty, after which time they could become a Reserve officer, liable for an annual  4-8 week training session for three years. Officers who retire from the Army with less than 18 years service, pass into the Reserve or Landwher, according to age bracket. The 1913 Army List contained 23,000 Reserve officers and 11,000 Landwher officers, all trained and capable of quick recall if war is declared.  The Landsturm 2nd ban officers would follow immediately.

If a soldier proved proficient enough in his active service, and wished to pursue military life, they could, upon acceptance by a unit, become “Kapitulanten”, or regular professional Soldiers.

For the peacetime average German male, obligated military service did not start until age 20, and was usually done in the Spring with medical examinations, with actual training beginning in the Fall of that year for the chosen few.  The annual recruit class was comprised of all men who attained the age of 20 in that recruiting year.  That “class” also contained men who were “put back” for various reasons in previous musters of 1 or 2 years, men who had postponed their muster for various reasons, and “volunteers” of younger than age 20 men who wished to adopt the army for their career.

Of this “class”, during peacetime, not all would be accepted for active service.  Due to the huge number of men offering service, the army could be very selective in nature, and if one had a good enough excuse not to serve, they were usually passed over or “put back”.    In addition, if one became qualified for muster, the Ersatz Commission tentatively recommended men for assignment to various branches of service based upon their civilian occupation, special skills, and physical size.

At age 22, and not be accepted for service, you were automatically put into the Untrained Landsturm or Ersatz Reserve until age 45.  A typical 1913 Army class, of which 305,000 had been required (a figure increased by the German “Peace Strength Law of 1912” to be effective by October 1915 even if war had not broken out) is listed as:

                             20 year olds: 587,888

                             21 year olds: 380,331

                             22 year olds: 305,619

                             older & younger 54,181

                             Total 1,328,019

Of this lot, 118,300 were posted to the Landsturm, 86,911 to the Ersatz Reserve, and only 305,675 to the ACTIVE units(or about 1/4 of those in the class).  The remaining 700,000+ not included in these figures were “put back” for any reason imaginable.(called “Restanten”), and were not required to serve ONLY in peacetime. Rejected men, which ran no more than 5 or 6 per cent, were liable for no service.  These again could be reexamined should war be declared.  Ersatz Reserve men were usually those who were fit for duty but were excused for economical or minor physical defects. This group would comprise those who would fill the ranks quickly in time of war.  They were liable for 12 years in this status, and could be called up for 3 annual training sessions. Only a small portion of these troops underwent any training. At the end of twelve years, they went into the Landsturm 2nd Ban(39-45 years old).  IF mobilized, these Ersatz Reserves could amount to over 1 million men between ages of 20 and 32. The purpose was to have a pool of fit men that could be trained and put into the field in less than 3 months. In 1914, Germany could mobilize about 4.9 million men(of which 4 million were mobilized and carried the Army through 1917) from a population of about 67 million.  In wartime, the term “Ersatz” means quite simply “Reinforcement or Supplemental” troops. In peacetime, it often was applied to Depot raised troops.

In the period of 1914-1919, about 400,000-500,000 men became eligible each year for duty. Before that time, the figure was higher, however, when war was declared, many men joined early.

At declaration of war, all transfers from one category to another ceases except for those wounded or incapacitated.  The military machine quite simply stops and gets re-examined as time permits. Men are not released until age 45. Men previously rejected are re-examined under less stringent conditions to obtain a huge pool of fit men.  A new “class” is now called of the 17-20 year old “Landsturm 1st Ban”, medical exams are given, and status is applied with a new set of criteria based upon the numbers needed to fulfill the military requirements. Active duty now includes the incorporation of all of the various reservists who now join the class.  Classes are sorted into “fit for duty(sent to depot field units for outfitting and training)”, “fit for garrison duty in Germany or on lines of communications in the field(sent to a Landsturm formation)”, “fit for labor use (also Landsturm)”, or “unfit”. Remembering that the “unfit” pool is usually only about 5% (and even these “unfit” were often re-examined and put into some sort of depot job), one can see the wisdom of this very proficient, flexible and fluid system that gave Germany a huge resource of manpower to run munitions factories, depots, training centers, hospitals, etc.  Only a request from an employer could exempt a man from duty, and these requests were often automatically re-evaluated each year as wartime conditions changed. Bearing in mind that Germany had the supplies need to put these men in the field, one can imagine the awesome fright which France and England felt toward the German War machine.

In 1914, huge numbers of volunteers of all ages came forward and were accepted.  1915 did not produce as many, simply because they had volunteered in 1914. After that, only about 5% of eligible males volunteered.

At declaration of war, all Reserve and Land where troops were absorbed by the expansion of the wartime army in new “Reserve Divisions”.    The 1914 class call-up was spread over a 3 month period due to the huge influx of Ersatz Reservist and volunteers who would have normally been excused from duty during peacetime. All of the 1914 class was sent to the front after 3-4 months training, giving the organizations in the field much needed replacements and new reserve formations (Reserve Divisions 75-82, and the 8th Bavarian).

After the class of 1914 was absorbed, the Landsturm 2nd Ban classes were successively called up(39-45 age) through 1915 to fill the losses of the winter campaigns.  The 1915 class was called up in April, May, and June of 1915, followed by the 1916 class in August and November of the same year, with the 1915 class sent to the front after 4 months training, the 1916 after an average of 4-5 months. Even this huge influx of men could not offset the losses of 1915, so many “unfit” men were  re-examined under relaxed conditions, then the agricultural and industrial labor forces were tapped with “quotas”, which even extended into the munitions factories.

The 1917 class was called up in January and May of 1916, 18 months early, but was used up quickly due mainly to the Verdun and Somme battles. Part of this class received only 3 months training.

The 1918 class was called in September, 1916, and January, 1917, two years early. The September group was in the front by January, 1917, with the remainder completely used by July, 1917, due to heavy losses at the front.  This class comprised the new “high” numbered infantry regiments of 442 and beyond(231-242, and 15th in Bavaria).

A small portion of the 1919 class was called up in January and February, 1917, with the remainder in May-June of 1917, 2-1/2 years before its due date. Most of these troops went to the somewhat quiet Eastern Russian front in order to release veterans to the Western front to replace the Fall, 1917 losses.

The class of 1920 was called up in the Spring of 1918, again, 2-1/2 years before due date.

Prior to January 1915, all recruits to the Army went directly to their regimental depot to join their comrades in the field. Since February, 1916, recruits, after a 1-3 month training session, were sent to field recruit depots behind the front lines for additional or specialized training.  All returning wounded soldiers spent time at these depots to catch up on the latest trench warfare innovations.  Recruits could spend as little as 2-3 weeks at these training centers, depending upon their needs at the front. Being only a few miles from the front, these Depots could service Divisions or Corps with fresh troops at a rapid pace, or serve as a quick “training” camp for special assault operations.  In some instances, these depot troops garrisoned quiet sectors of front lines as part of their training duties, and on several occasions (Cambrai and Somme), they were caught up in the actual fighting. Wounded NCO’s/officers, whose training was valuable, were used for instruction at these camps, and would be rotated forward again when fit for front line duty. The average size of these units were about 1 battalion per Division, or about 1200 men.  Most men are drawn from the area in which their home depot is located, but as the war progressed, it became necessary to send men from other areas to fill requirements. The Germans tried very hard to maintain a companion “Esprit de Corps” within these Recruit Depots, thus creating a brotherly bond of local fellow countrymen, many of whom were family and friends. The depots traveled with their Division when moved, with only borrowed “instructors” remaining behind, or being “exchanged/traded” to stay with the unit as allowed. Unfortunately, it was not always possible to send the newly graduated recruits to companion units, so many of them became distributed throughout the army as they left the recruit depot.  In many ways, this practice reduced heavy losses for certain localities within Germany.  The British learned the same hard lesson with their “pals” Battalions.

As with any army, permanent “specialty” schools and divisional training camps existed throughout the German empire and in occupied territories(Belgium and Poland) and many new divisions were assembled and trained at these camps.  In addition, the German Army had specialized training units that trained men in the line.

A “Jugenwher”(youth Corp) was established in a local towns throughout Germany trained boys 14-17 years of age in the use of rifle and machine-gun, preparing them in basic military discipline for their future role as soldiers.  You might say it was the “military” boy scouts!