Mike Kennedy Reviews: The Kaiser’s Army – By David Stone

Book Review – The Kaiser’s Army – By David Stone

Published by Conway Bloomsbury Publishing – 511 pp. $ 44.95

Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy

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Over the years, much has been written about the Allied soldiers – British, French, Canadians, Australians, Americans, and others – that slogged it out to eventual victory in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. But up until now, relatively little light has been shone on their principal adversaries – the officers and men of the German Imperial Army. In The Kaiser’s Army, former British officer David Stone provides a comprehensive look at the troops that marched into Belgium and France in the early days of August 1914, tasked with implementing the plan that had been mapped out by Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen, the Chief of the German General Staff.

By 1914, over 40 years had passed since the German army had fought a war. The last time the Germans had tasted blood in battle was during the short-lived Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. For their opponent, France, that conflict had been a humiliating disaster, costing the French some 750,000 killed, wounded, or missing. The war precipitated the fall of the Second French Empire  and the unification of the German states under Kaiser Wilhelm I, whose grandson, Wilhelm II, would sit on the Imperial throne for 30 years, from June 1888 until his abdication two days before the Armistice of November 1918.

The Imperial German Army of the early 20th century numbered a peacetime complement of approximately 23,000 officers and just under 500,000 NCO’s and other ranks. Through mobilization of reserves, its total fighting strength could be rapidly brought up to approximately three million men. It was an army deeply steeped in Prussian military tradition and, as Stone’s book shows, one that was a well-trained and formidable fighting force.

Much like its British counterpart, the Imperial German Army was also sharply divided along socioeconomic class lines. Regular officers were drawn almost exclusively from the German aristocracy, although it was also possible for middle-class aspirants to obtain a reserve commission by volunteering for a one-year training program, during which time they would be responsible for their own upkeep. The ranks, meanwhile, tended to be filled mainly by recruits from the working classes, many of whom were called up from rural areas to fulfill their commitment of military service to the Fatherland.

By the standards of the time, training and equipment were generally first-rate. The Germans’ service rifle was the bolt-action Mauser 98, first introduced in 1898, and a highly reliable weapon that was vastly superior to the Ross Rifle issued to Canadian troops during the early years of the Great War. The Mauser was accurate up to a range of approximately 1,800 meters, and a well-trained soldier could fire between 10 to 15 aimed rounds per minute, approximately comparable to what British Tommies could do with their Lee Enfields. At the beginning of the war the standard headdress was the distinctive spiked Pickelhaube leather helmet; starting at Verdun in early 1916, this was gradually replaced by the more modern and effective Stalhelm steel helmet, variations of which would remain in use up until the end of the Second World War.

As the war progressed, changes to uniforms and equipment continued to be made to reflect the new realities of 20th century warfare. In 1915, a simplified, completely new field-grey uniform was introduced; this new uniform could be more readily manufactured in the large quantities that were required, and was presumably easier to maintain amid the squalor of the trenches. Similarly, the following year primitive gas masks started to be introduced in order to protect the German soldiers from the same peril that they had first unleashed upon their opponents at Ypres in 1915. The early gas masks were both uncomfortable and unreliable, but subsequent modifications rendered them tolerable, and tolerably effective.

For the ordinary solders in the ranks, life in the Kaiser’s army was not a bad deal. Recruits began their military life in regimental depots, and once basic training was completed, they were dispatched to their respective units. Upon arrival, they soon found that discipline was strict, but generally fairly and humanely applied. As one illustration of this, it is worth noting that over the course of the entire war, fewer than 50 soldiers were executed for capital offences.

Similarly, ample opportunity was provided for soldiers to observe their religious faith. Although the vast majority of the Kaiser’s troops were Protestants or Catholics, it is interesting to observe that during the Great War some 100,000 German Jews served, and of these, 18,000 were awarded Iron Crosses. One of the Jews who served was Lieutenant Hugo Guttman, who was a two-time winner of the Iron Cross, and who in 1918 recommended a young Corporal under his command for the same award. Little could the well-meaning Guttman have imagined what this same soldier would do twenty years later.

Once soldiers were rotated out the trenches into rest areas, every reasonable effort was made to provide them with much-appreciated comforts wherever possible. Food was nutritious and of good quality, and in addition to the standard pea and ham soup, the troops enjoyed delicacies such as white bread and freshly-brewed coffee. A variety of sporting and recreational activities were provided, and in the evenings, the Germans were entertained by regimental bands and enjoyed freely flowing quantities of beer and schnapps.

Though in many respects it was a well-oiled and seemingly invincible war machine, Stone notes that the Imperial German Army did have one significant Achilles heel. This had to do with the culture of the officer corps, which was overwhelmingly dominated by status-conscious members of the aristocracy. Having no wars to fight for in excess of four decades, ambitious regular officers seeking to climb the ranks were forced to navigate the intricate politics of peacetime advancement. As a result, this fostered a culture wherein many officers were excessively focused on keeping up appearances, bullying and intimidation ran rampant, and there was a widespread reluctance to accept responsibility, accompanied by a frequent tendency to assign blame to others when things went wrong.

The above being said, it must also be remembered that the Kaiser’s Army was the training ground in which many of the men who would go on to become Germany’s top commanders in the Second Word War cut their teeth. As young officers in their 20’s and 30’s, men like Alfred Jodl, Wilhelm Keitel, Fedor Von Bock, Erwin Rommel, and many others got their first taste of real battle in the trenches of the Great War. The experience they gained in battalion and battery-level commands, and the lessons they learned about tactics and leadership, were no doubt an important contributing factor to the successes that the Wehrmacht achieved during the first few years that followed the invasion of Poland in September 1939.

The Imperial German Army formally ceased to exist in March 1919, a few short months after the Armistice that ended the Great War. By that time, the Kaiser had abdicated, Germany had been stripped of its overseas colonies, and the entire country was struggling with the onerous obligations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile, the newly formed Weimar Republic was rapidly descending towards the economic chaos that would prevail throughout much of the early 1920’s.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the Imperial Army’s veterans were deeply disillusioned and embittered by Germany’s defeat. One of them was a former Corporal who had been wounded at the Somme, survived a mustard gas attack, and been awarded the Iron Cross on two separate occasions. In January 1933 he would ascend to power as Germany’s Chancellor. Barely twenty years after the Army he had served in was formally stood down, he would lead his nation into what would become a second and even greater cataclysm.

The Germans paid a heavy price for their involvement in the Great War. Out of a population of 68 million in 1914, some 13 million men eventually served in the Army’s ranks, and of those, two million never made it home. Even so, notwithstanding the fact that the conflict eventually ended in defeat and humiliation for them, over the four years of the war the Imperial Army proved itself to be an eminently worthy adversary for the Allies. The highly disciplined and professional standing army of 1914 served as the bedrock for a force that would eventually swell to over four million soldiers by 1918. The Kaiser’s Army provides a comprehensive, in-depth overview of this remarkable organization.

One Comment

  • Mike McCartney

    April 9, 2018 at 10:25 am

    Given their immense superiority in Krupps artillery, the high degree of professionalism and their overwhelming numbers, the Germans could have won WWI. Had there not been a Russian Front 1914-1917 and the onset of American participation, it could have happened; a scary proposition indeed. One must wonder what the implications could have been for a post-war Europe had the Germans become dominant on the continent.