The German Storm Trooper of 1917-18

By Richard H.Keller

I believe I wrote this for On The Wire many years ago. Anyway, here it is agin for the readers enjoyment. Pardon the text arrangement – our old computer in which this was written – Q & A MS DOS – so in the transfer process into the newer language it comes out differently. I just do not have time to fine tune it.

The December 1917 armistice with Russia released over 400,000 German troops to bolster the Western front in Spring 1918.  This was the largest and last supply of Fresh troops that Germany could muster. It was their last chance for an all out Spring offensive in 1918, hopefully before the American contingents could be of any real use to the Allies.  The newly trained and battle tested “storm” troops would play an important part in the Germany’s last chance to either break the stalemate, or force France and England, by sheer military strength, into an armistice in Germany’s favor.

The “Strosstruppen”, or storm troops were created by order as early as March 1915, with recruiting by mostly voluntary basis only until late 1917.  It’s main purpose was to test new weapons, both on and off of the battlefield, that might break the deadlock of trench warfare. Most of these troops were drawn from pioneer units, whose training included use of special weapons and tactics to cut through enemy defense, creating a hole that the main forces could utilize for a breakthrough.  These early “special forces” were the first to test the new steel helmet at Verdun in 1916, and later the body armor, trench shields, light machine guns, and various small trench mortars, grenade launchers, and specialized cannon designed for close quarter combat in tight spaces.

After a series of successes and failures in late 1915 and early 1916, the new storm troop tactics begin to yield successes, especially in trench raids and special assaults, and every Army on the Western front was ordered to send a contingent of officers and NCO’s to be trained in the new tactics, which they eventually could carry back to their command an teach it a front line level. By October 1916, the success of the operation was such that General Ludendorf ordered all German armies to train and maintain a battalion of storm troops.  The concept of specialized forces was not a new one among the existing Armies, as many units had already organized their own form of “storm troops” to deal with special weapons and tactics on their particular front, so the groundwork had been laid to aid in the formation of these special units into the newly conceived Strosstruppen formations.

The new soldiers of these special units began to take on a new appearance.  Each soldier was left to distribute and carry his equipment in the most comfortable fashion affordable, thus was born the new lightweight “assault” pack to replace the standard German fur backpack.  They were the first to adopt the new steel helmet as a standard part of their gear, much to the envy of other troops who were still wearing the spiked helmet, and many a Storm Trooper lost his new helmet to those men if not guarded constantly.  The 14″ high boots gave way to shoes and leg wraps, which was better for support and climbing. Their tactics included a wide use of grenades, requiring them to carry a large supply onto the field, usually in special double “grenade” bags made of burlap sand bags slung under around the neck and under each arm. Uniforms were reinforced with leather patches at spots most likely to wear while maneuvering on the field.  Carbines, pistols, trench clubs and grenades were standard armament for these men. The MG08/15 light machine gun played a key role in their operations to block off reinforcements to positions they had taken. Use of the Granatenwerfer (light bomb thrower) and cup launchers could prepare an area for assault or pin down an enemy force that was a threat to the operation. A platoon of 4-8 flamethrowers was usually attached to each storm battalion, but their action was usually of short duration on the initial Assault.

The early years of the strosstruppen was relatively low key, being that of special assaults on enemy lines to gain vital information through booty and prisoners, or countering trench raids conducted by the Allies.  This period of training and development was key to the part yet to come in the Spring of 1918. Only the British attack on Cambrai in 1917, and the resulting successful counterattack led by the strosstruppen, gave any indication of just how effective these new formations were becoming, and the Allied intelligence communities were making every effort to assess and counter this newly arrived threat with tactics of their own.  The Allies were well aware that 1918 would be a crucial year, and their tactics had to be redesigned to meet this new threat.

One of the major changes in storm troop techniques was the training and resulting ability of NCO’s to make tactical decisions on the field.  This often proved the difference between success and failure of an attack. By 1917, training of new recruits became focused on the new techniques.  The usual “drilling” of men was regarded as depriving them of their individualism and pride in personal accomplishments which now needed to take precedence over all other mindless training. Those already in the front lines were rotated back to training depots to rest and retrain in the latest tactics, with new skills being taught by these new “stormtroop” instructors.  Specific objectives were often rehearsed on full scale models, with every possible piece of enemy intelligence at their disposal to aid their plan.

By 1918, every soldier was expected to be a small piece of the “stormtroop” tactical advantage, and all were anxious to practice their new skills.  The prime tactical unit was now the infantry squad, with 18 squads in a company, each one trained in a specific task during an assault, 6 of them being machine-gun. Moral became high among the actual “stormtroop” battalion as they were no longer limited to sitting in the mud and taking whatever was being thrown their direction.  These highly respected men were always a welcome addition to any offensive and were usually in the midst of the hottest action or indirectly supporting a major engagement with the newest weapons at their disposal. Most engagements in which they participated were carried out at night, with the force being withdrawn and out of danger by morning. Their successes, no matter how small, were publicized from the homefront to the front line newspapers, feeding a new spirit of accomplishment and hope into a worried and anxious populace. They soon became a romantic figure and Germany’s last hope to instill fighting spirit into it’s last reserve of 1918 recruits, with the ultimate hope that these new “supermen” could somehow pull off the miracle that would break the stalemate of the Western front.

The Ludendorf offensive Spring 1918 saw the greatest and last offensive that it’s armed forces could muster.  The infantry assaults were now based on the stormtroop principal of light, fast moving small tactical units, or squads, to accomplish flanking and infiltrating tactics designed to fragment and isolate the opponents, leaving “mop-up” operations to the following waves of infantry who could take advantage of their sheer weight of numbers to demoralize and overwhelm those pockets of resistance left behind.  Their orders were to stop for nothing, to advance regardless of the cost, counting on each flanking unit to secure their respective goals.  This led to extremely heavy losses in the early attacks, with the rapid advance often putting the attacking forces beyond the reach of supporting heavy artillery needed to penetrate the heavier fortifications behind the thinner front line resistance.  Through June of 1918, the Stormtroops hammered at the Allied defenses, achieving limited victories but being unable to capitalize upon those successes in the grand scale needed to break the deadlock.

The fresh supplies of non-essential material captured by the Germans was so overwhelming that they begin to see the hopelessness of their situation, as Germany was being starved into demoralization, both at home and at the front, with no hope in sight for relief.  Of paramount importance was the realization that the Allies were not on the brink of destruction as their war ministers had preached, but were well supplied and prepared for an all out offensive in 1918-1919 that would be unstoppable.  The last crushing shock was the undeniable truth that the great tactical advantage of the Stormtroops was being hopelessly wasted on the battlefield against an undefeatable foe to better position themselves at the bargaining table and at a great cost in the blood of Germany’s youth.  The plan of negotiating a peace through victories on the battlefield did not match the stark reality that the Allies were not on verge of defeat, thus the great Spring Offensive ground to a halt, with moral at an all time low.

The front-line stalemate, although altered in some ways, remained unchanged, and the German troops went on a defensive that would only delay the inevitable defeat to come.  To their credit, they continued to fight to the bitter end, organizing a fluid in depth defensive system that cost the Allies dearly in men and material, but through it all, the realization was driven home to every soldier that their politicians had wasted needless lives to achieve the resulting hollow victory.  The Army, never intending to give up on the battlefield nor negotiate in good faith with the Allies, eventually turned Germany over to the politicians to work out a surrender, thus setting the stage for the military arm, which never actually surrendered, to place the blame of a catastrophic defeat in the hands of the politicians and not the Army.  In doing thus, Germany was ripe for a new birth of military patriotism to sweep it into a second world war, and to eventually have happen what should have happened in 1918, the total destruction of the German war machine along with the mentality of the invincibility of its armed forces that made both wars possible.

Casualties within the German empire during the four year conflict amounted to over 2,000,000 men(exact figures were never calculated), about 1/6th of those mobilized.  A large part, almost 40%, died in the Spring 1918 conflicts. Most casualties on the battlefield(possibly as high as 70%), were caused by shards of jagged metal from high explosive shells and shrapnel shells loaded with hundreds of lead balls which burst over the soldiers heads and showered them with a deadly rain of high velocity pellets, much like a giant shotgun blast.  With the use of indirect fire, made possible by aerial observation, quick-firing guns of all sides could lay down a wall of shrapnel and steel that not even a pigeon could fly through, and maintain that wall for hours on end. The French counted on this to stop the German hordes, and it worked all too well.

It is beyond question that Germany had the best trained and best uniformed army in the world in 1900.  It’s weapons exports ranked it number one in the world, and it’s military influence spread around the globe.  Twelve countries adopted the spiked helmet by direct German influence (the united States in 1872 and The United Kingdom in 1878).

One can almost sum up the military madness leading up to WWI by reading the Latin inscription found on the barrels of the Model 1896 77mm cannon – “”Ultima Ratio Regis”. Loosely translated it reads  “The final argument of Kings”. Up to WWI, the varied kingdoms of Europe looked at their real armies as nothing more than an extension of their soldiers in model war games, a popular pastime of the period, with their brightly uniformed “toy” soldiers battling on a mock landscape.  The kings of Europe vied with each other for the admiration of the world through military pomp and pageantry, dressing their real armies in a multitude of colorful and exotic uniforms and headdress, preparing for the real thing when negotiations at the tables failed, forgetting about how updated means of killing far outweighed the reality of going to war under the traditional tactics of parade ground maneuvers.  This mentality of playing “soldiers” on a grand scale was instilled in every country in Europe when the war started, and even after the realization that this was no small “king’s” war, it was impossible to stop the monstrous war machines once unleashed.    The anticipated 3 month victory turned into quagmires of depression and blood that erased forever the idea of “playing” war without considering battlefield technological advances. War now became death without actual contact, with no eye-to-eye meeting on the glorious field of battle as had been done by their ancestors and romanticized through European literature.  It became a harsh reality of death under unimaginable circumstances that would crush a soldier’s spirit long before the shells could crush his body. After 1914, the “king’s” put away their old notions of war with their fancy toy soldiers, packing them away on a shelf, never to be looked at or played with again in the time-honored tradition of long past. Future wars would be fought with carefully planned world strategies and the best combined  weapons technology – land, sea and air. World War I was truly the last argument of the royal houses of Europe, the last “argument of Kings”.

Strength and Mobilization

In 1914 each regiment contained a regimental staff of 4 officers, 37 bandsmen, and 12 other ranks (w/16 horses and one wagon), three battalions of 18 Lieutenants, a medical officer w/assistant, paymaster, and 1054 other ranks.(commanded by majors),  of 4 companies each w/5 officers, 259 OR’s, 10 horses and 4 vehicles, divided into three platoons(zugs) consisting of 4 sections divided into two groups of 8 men each commanded by a gefreiter., and a 13th company (MG) added in 1913 as weapons became available.

Mobilization process activated 435 regiments of infantry: 218 regular army, 113 reserve, and 75 Landwher, the balance being formed by grouping the 86 Ersatz Battalions into regiments.  166 from Prussia, 24 from Bavaria, 17 from Saxony, and 10 from Wurttemburg.

By war’s end, the number of infantry regiments had risen to 700, 364 regular, 197 reserve, 125 Landwher, 10 ersatz, and 4 reserve Ersatz.