# Who are the German soldiers?

"Ostend occupied by the Germans on 15 October [1914]" 
German postcard illustrating a parading detachment of marine infantry in the city of Ostend  - Private collection, Nicolas Mignon. ©

"Ostend occupied by the Germans on 15 October [1914]" German postcard illustrating a parading detachment of marine infantry in the city of Ostend - Private collection, Nicolas Mignon. ©

At the outset of the First World War, every man in Germany between 17 and 45 years of age is required to perform his mandatory military service. During these 28 years, the Germans can be assigned to different categories. Firstly there is the active service of two or three years for each 20-year-old man, which is then followed by a "reserve" for five or six years. The men are then assigned to the Landwehr, where they remain until the age of 39, with less regular exercises. Finally, the last category, the Landsturm, includes all men between 17 and 45 years of age who do not enter into any of the above categories. Called up only in case of war, they are not subject to exercises. This group includes all men between 17 and 20 years of age who had not yet begun their military service, or who are declared as unfit for service, or who have left service at the age of 39.

Before the First World War, the Landsturm battalions were intended to remain inside the German borders in order to carry out certain tasks. They were not to be armed, and fell into two categories: fortification battalions and worker battalions. Made up of Landsturm troops who had received military training, the fortification battalions normally looked after the forts and lines of defence. In view of the growing need for men at the front, these battalions are gradually emptied of their men during the war, with few differences remaining with the worker battalions by 1916. These units, made up of men with little training in things military, were initially intended to perform heavy works in the fortified zones and at the back of the front. Such works on roadways and developments in Germany are very quickly assigned to prisoners of war.

In August and September 1914, the Belgians watch all of these classes of men go by one after the other.

Who's going where?

At the start of the First World War, the German command distributes the men according to a simple rule: the men in service and the reserve form the first line, the Landwehr looks after the second line (the "steps" territory in Belgium), and the Landsturm is responsible for the third, i.e. the occupation of the conquered territories. In 1917, there were 190 of Landsturm battalions, with at least 100 on the Eastern Front. Most of these battalions travel between many different locations, i.e. between Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine or the Ukraine, but are generally deployed to calm areas. Nevertheless, Landsturm units take part in the battle of Verdun.

In August and September 1914, the Belgians watch all of these classes of men go by one after the other. The Landsturm, the last line, takes up its quarters in the Belgian and French cities and fields that are not part of the "step" territory.

The Landsturm battalions derive their names from the city, or rather region, from which they come, according to the army districts. Of course, most of a battalion's members primarily come from the suburbs of these cities. For example, the Nuremberg battalion is made up primarily of farmers. When a city is big enough to make up several Landsturm battalions, a number is added to their names in order to differentiate them.

How many are they?

Each battalion consists of around a thousand men. This figure varies according to the battalion's function, or the year. Indeed, as the war progresses, it becomes more complicated to replace the men who have gone to the front, and the ones sent home due to illness or physical incapacity.

The selection is made as of the mobilisation. As such, when the Landsturm men are mobilised in Erlangen on 21 August 1914, 1,231 men are called to report. The next day, only 1,005 of them are designated to leave for Belgium two days later. On the morning of the departure, 28 August 1914, the officer drafting the war journal of the Würzburg battalion indicates some 20 officers, 84 non-commissioned officers, one health officer, one accountant, 9 drivers, 25 horses and 901 soldiers. Once the battalion arrives in Belgium, it consists of 1,145 men and 28 officers.

The Ansbach battalion can be the first example. Between 1914 and 1916, when it is transferred to Alsace-Lorraine, it looks after the rail security between Liège and Visé then to Amay and Fexhe-Le-Haut-Clocher. In August 1914, it mobilises 1002 men and some 15 officers. In December, after an initial "skimming", that occurs in all of the battalions, there are now only 899 men and 19 officers. It's important to clarify the reality behind these numbers: amongst these 899 men, only 448 are recorded as combat troops. The others are referred to as "Verpflegungsstärken", i.e. non-combatants, basically the number of stomachs to fill: the battalion's auxiliaries as well as administrative staff and cooks, plus prisoners of war. This second category can also include horses. The battalion's population declines steadily until its transfer to the East. On 1 August 1916, the battalion has to feed 932 men and 22 officers, but only 287 men and 4 officers are actually combat-ready.

The figures for the Bamberg battalion show a much lesser difference between the total population and the fighting forces. This battalion primarily looks after the Verviers region before also being sent to Alsace-Lorraine in November 1916. In August 1914, of the 842 men and 25 officers having to be fed, 864 men and 20 officers serve as combatants; in January 1916, this proportion even improved, with 1,024 men and 20 officers as total forces, for 996 men in the field.

For a more in-depth analysis of the incoming and outgoing flows for these battalions, one must look more closely at the Erlangen and Würzburg battalions.

The condition of these two battalions changes quite little in the initial years of the war. The men over the age of 39 years have been trained in the art of war, and the young men, who have not been trained, are mentally and physically in shape. The officers have no complaints. With an average of 1000 soldiers, the changes are nevertheless quite regular.

Between 1914 and 1916, the number of men per battalion changes from week to week, but the total remains quite stable: between 850 and 950 men for 20 to 25 officers.

Tuberculosis and typhus are the most common infections, and surviving them means a return ticket to Germany.

Who stays, who goes?

Within the battalions occupying Belgium, one or even two men leave the battalion for Germany each week. There are various reasons for these returns.

One of the main causes, and the only one not to be included in the "unfit for service" category, is the soldier's economic value, i.e. the soldier whose activity is crucial for the German economy. As such, to 31 July 1916, only in the Erlangen battalion, 109 men are replaced by reserves for economic and industrial reasons. The exact work of the soldiers is unknown to us, but we know that, in any hypothesis, most of them are not farmers. Indeed, farmers generally receive leave at the time of the harvests and when sowing, but must return to the battalion at the end of these periods. Unlike the former, they are not definitively replaced.

Illness is also a cause for definitive departure. Tuberculosis and typhus are the most common infections, and surviving them means a return ticket to Germany.

Before discussing the major waves of retirements in the ranks of the Landsturm, it is also worth noting that there were a few departures, so rare as to stand out, of men volunteering to go to the front. The Erlangen battalion only records one at the start of the winter of 1916, while the Würzburg battalion has two: a sergeant and another non-commissioned officer, who will leave for the trenches together in March 1916.

The most important renewal factor is naturally the already advanced ages of the men. In 1914 and 1915, replacements are carried out with the arrival of the ersatz (reserve soldiers), but it is increasingly difficult to replace the men who are too old. The first major operation occurs for most of the battalions in April 1916, except for the Würzburg battalion that receives new blood starting in August 1915.

In the German Reich, mobilisation ends at 45 years of age. The non-replacement of most of the men reaching this limit in 1915 constitutes further proof of the German project to win the war quickly. If Germany had thought that the war might go on for more than one year, the arrival of men at the age limit would have been considered in the battle plans.

April 1916 is the starting moment for the largest series of renewals in the different battalions. The general command orders the officers to determine the birthdates of their men, in order to allow the replacement of the oldest men, i.e. born before 1873.

For several months after the lists have been provided to the military authorities, changes take place gradually, year of birth by year of birth. Each year between July and December, 20 or so men over the age of 44 years are replaced. This major operation is the only one of the type carried out throughout the war. Each week until 11 November 1918, one or two men are sent to the ersatz due to illness, reaching the age limit or being "unfit for service". But this one and only wave of replacements results in a constant deterioration of the military quality of the men in the battalions, a fact about which the officers will complain somewhat more each month.

Indeed, the newcomers are never as useful as the outgoing older men. One must not imagine old men leaving Belgium in order to be replaced by strong young Germans. Indeed, the men born in 1872, i.e. 44 or 45 years old in 1916, are replaced by men from the class of 1879, i.e. already around 37 or 38 years old.

These men were no longer the cream of the imperial army, and their replacements are even worse

What became of the August 1914 battalions?

The officers never seem too pleased with the arrival of the ersatz. Indeed, while the battalion gets somewhat younger, the men mobilised for the occupation of Belgium are men who had been sent back from the front due to physical or mental illness.

However, the officers have no choice other than to work with these men for a year, i.e. until October 1917 exactly, the date on which approximately 150 men per battalion, the ones in the best physical and mental condition, are sent to the front as reserves for the IVth army. At the same time, an equivalent number of men joins the decimated battalions, most coming directly from Germany, and with others from the front. At the end of the month, an officer drafts a report in this regard. He explains that the changes are not necessarily beneficial: "These [new] elements are often the weakest in physical terms, and their sense of military duty is often very doubtful". He also indicates that the atmosphere within the battalion continues to be good, if the newcomers are excluded. Further on, he describes the state of health of the new recruits: "Exchanges with the front generally bring men in a state of good health. Men coming from the reserve, however, have serious problems. Some have even had to be sent for observation to Liège, due to questions about their mental and nervous health. Two reservists even have gonorrhoea, that they caught before joining the battalion".

The Landsturm battalions are increasingly losing the men upon whom their strength was built. Men who are capable are sent to the front, and others obtain authorisation to return home to Germany in order to resume their professional activities. In this latter category, we naturally find a growing proportion of farmers, but also cobblers and metalworkers who, like the former, are fortunate enough to be indispensable for their homeland.

The exchanges for economic reasons accelerate every month. Between March and August 1918, 25 soldiers on average are sent to the reserves each month, with this number increasing to 50 in September 1918. Of course, this is all related to the events unfolding at the front and in Germany.

To make up for these departures, men mobilised by the "Hilfsdienstpflicht" (a sort of mandatory civil service in Germany during the war) begin to arrive from the reserves. This group consists of some 20 men in February 1918, with another 10 or so arriving by the end of the war.

However useful it may be for the German government to get rid of some rabble-rousing elements by sending them to the plants or into the occupied areas, these men certainly provide the battalions with no added value. Officers begin to complain about this starting in March. These recruits cause many difficulties within the companies: most of the time, the oldest men are useless due to physical reasons, which also applies to the youngest (some are 15 years old), while the latter also have psychological problems. Neither group has much to do, and both soon appear to be more of a burden than a help: "The exchange of a man for one of these "helpers" always means a loss for the battalion", which means that none of these replacements is qualitatively equivalent to the men leaving the battalion. Also, these new reservists only stay in the field for a very short time and are quickly replaced, which further diminishes their efficiency since they don't have the necessary time to specialise in a given task.

When dealing with the question of volunteer departures to the front, one might imagine that they represent a certain number of the men mobilised within the Landsturm, notably in the age categories of under 30 years and who, though they had been dismissed 10 years ago, might develop a patriotic feeling and volunteer for the trenches. However, that isn't the case: only one or maybe two soldiers attempted it, before all of the troops were required to do so by the major events of 1917-1918.

At the start of September 1918, it's clear that the battalions have undergone a radical change. The men comprising them at the start of the war, 39 years of age or more but who had undergone all of the steps in the military service for the Reich or who were suffering from minor physical ailments that kept them out of normal service, had almost all gone. Some had gone back home, having reached the age limit, others were considered as indispensable for the operation of the economy, primarily agricultural, in Bavaria and were also sent home, while the final lot was sent to the front despite ignorance of the art of war. These men were not or no longer the cream of the imperial army, and their replacements are even worse. Weakened both physically and psychologically, the men occupying Belgium do not satisfy their officers. The arrival of recruits mobilised by the "vaterländischen Hilfsdienst" sounds the death knell for the decline of the occupation troops.