Making a German Soldier

Ray Stannard Baker

McClure’s/November, 1900

THREE words, the facets of the same idea, will express the national atmosphere of Germany: order, system, discipline. From the moment one sets foot on the soil of the Fatherland, particularly if he enters by way of the French border, he feels this atmosphere. It radiates from the soldierly railroad guard who stands sharply at attention at the crossing as the train rushes past; he feels it in the forests all planted properly in rows, and in the neatly kept railroad grounds and rights of way; he feels it in the policeman who demands his address, his nationality, his business, and how long he is going to stay, so that he may be properly tagged and pigeon-holed; and, above all, he feels it in the endless system—and it is nothing short of a system—of military and civil uniforms, which quite relieves him of the responsibility of being a judge of character, for every man wears his character on his back.

And this national atmosphere of Germany is, in reality, the atmosphere of the military camp, as the spirit of the government is the military spirit. Indeed, every German is a soldier. I do not mean, of course, that the German actually drills and studies the tactics of war every year, but until he is beyond the years of military service he is always on call, and he looks upon himself as a soldier of the Empire. Indeed, after the German has finished his regular compulsory service, he is called back from time to time for a few weeks to keep him in training, to drill him in the new formations, or to give him a clear understanding of new arms and ammunition. His life is divided into exact periods—the actual service period, the reserve period, the landwehr period, and the landsturm period; and the military authorities always know just where to find him and at what call he must shoulder arms. As he grows older, there is less likelihood that the government will put its finger on him; but in cases of great danger, even the old landsturm must march forth.

Every boy is born a soldier; his birth is registered with the authorities, and twenty years later, with automatic precision, he is called upon to do duty. As a consequence, when one speaks of the making of a German soldier, he deals to a large extent, at least, with the greater subject of the making of a German citizen, and indeed with the making of the German nation.

Germany has no regular army in the sense in which that term is used in America and in England. There are no regular soldiers who enlist for long periods of time and make soldiery a business. Germany is wholly without a counterpart of that picturesque character Tommy Atkins, who has served everywhere in the world, and who knows no life outside of the army; nor has she any type corresponding to our own hard-riding, daredevil regulars. Although a country of soldiers, it is a curious fact that Germany has produced little or no soldier-boy literature—literature in which the English language is so rich. There is no glamour in soldier life to the German, no heroes adorn the service; soldiery is simply one of the plain duties of life—if pleasant, to be enjoyed; if disagreeable, to be endured. And so, although Germany is a nation of soldiers, the soldier does not exist. Even the non-commissioned officers, although they serve for longer terms than the privates, and learn more of the business of soldiery, do it not so much for the love of the service or because it has irresistible attraction for them, as in the case of the English or the American “noncom,” but with the definite purpose of making it a step to better things in civil life. For after all is said, the German hasn’t a drop of Irish blood in him; he is not a natural-born soldier, and he doesn’t like fighting. And yet he does his duty in his German way with absolute faithfulness, serves his time, and is proud of it afterward. But because he does not become intoxicated with the military life, like the Frenchman, there is no reason why he should not be a good fighter.

It is curious that a nation thus deficient in military enthusiasm should become, by common consent, the greatest of military powers, with the most perfectly organized fighting system and the most perfectly trained individual soldier.

The German army, like the German nation, has been squeezed into existence. Germany, open on every side to attack, has been the great battle-ground of Europe through all the centuries; and by constant pressure within and without, the army has had its growth. It was the result of stern necessity for defense. It was defense or death; and that, in spite of the commonly reported military aspirations of the German Kaiser, is the keynote of the system. The army must be made powerful enough to defend the country from the attacks of any one power or all of them together. If it is necessary to march into France in the course of such a war, well and good; but that is not the fundamental purpose of the army.

And this idea of defending the Fatherland is, significantly enough, the idea which animates every citizen German. In France, the popular attitude is just the reverse. There an army is for attack, it is a weapon for offense, and whenever the army becomes about so strong or when an ambitious officer arises, immediately there is talk of war with England, or Germany, or some other nation. There have been signs recently that the attitude of Germany, in high official circles at least, was changing, that a new spirit of conquest and extension had been born; but, if that is so, it has not yet affected the German citizen soldier.

To the old “inevitables,” death and taxes, the German adds a third, military service. From the time he is old enough to go to school, he looks forward and plans for it. It is said that the first great event in the life of a German boy is his confirmation, and the second his first week as a soldier. A huge red placard appears one day on the billposting tower so familiar to German towns. It contains a list of the names of all the young men in the district who have reached military age, and his is among them. He has been expecting it, and he knows that the authorities never forget. Already he and his parents have decided one important question regarding his service, and that is, whether he shall enter as a freiwillige, or volunteer to serve for one year only, or whether he must take the full service of two years. It is safe to say that every German boy has an ambition to be a freiwillige, but with the greater majority of them it is an impossibility. For a freiwillige must have had a certain amount of schooling, or his mental training must be sufficient to enable him to pass a specified examination; and then, more difficult still, his parents must be financially able to support him while he is in the service, even to the extent of paying for his board and clothing. It is the demand of the government that every boy must serve, be his family rich or poor, noble or common; but the government assumes that the bright, capable boy will learn the drill and the instructions more quickly than the dull peasant boy, and, besides, the freiwillige system relieves the government of the support of a large number of soldiers, and, as I shall show later, economy is a cardinal virtue in the German military system.

The physicians reject great numbers of the boys the first year, because they are not yet large or strong enough to bear the rigors of the service, and they are called again the next year. Boys with serious physical defects, such as the loss of the trigger finger, or color blindness, or curvature of the spine, are rejected entirely, usually to their keen regret. A few others also escape—cases in which a boy is the sole support of a widowed mother and in similar instances, but the authorities always keep a jealous eye on those who slip through, and should their conditions of life permit, within a reasonable number of years, they must do their service with the others. So few Germans escape service entirely that it is a matter for mild suspicion and inquiry when a man says he has not served. The first question the would-be employer asks a man is, “Have you done your service and where?” If the answer is in the negative, the next question is, “Why not?” for it is argued that if this man escaped he must have some grave physical defect, or else he must be cumbered with a family to support.

Under certain conditions, the freiwillige men, and sometimes the two-year men, may choose the regiments in which they wish to serve, for some regiments are more aristocratic than others; and they may sometimes select the branch of the service which they prefer, whether infantry, cavalry, artillery, or engineers, although the great proportion of the men are assigned at the will of the officers. Service in the cavalry and artillery requires three years, but there are men who are fond of horses, and who choose the cavalry because it is schneidig, a word best translated in English slang as “tony,” although the work in the cavalry is more severe.

A regiment is never made up entirely of new men. In the first place, there is the skeleton framework of the non-commissioned officers (I am not considering here the commissioned officers), and usually a large residue of men who have already served one year. To these the new draft, awkward, callow, apparently hopelessly stupid, is added; and the officers are confronted with the discouraging task, as old as armies, of beating this raw material into shape. The new recruit spends his first few weeks pretty closely in barracks. His old suit of clothes is packed up, labeled, and stored away, to be kept and returned to him when he finishes his service. He is fitted from among the oldest uniforms in the possession of the regiment, and he is set to such dispiriting tasks as cleaning barracks, blacking the officers’ boots, and other duties quite as disagreeable. To a boy who has been brought up in fairly good surroundings, such tasks as these are anything but a pleasant introduction to military life; but here comes in the national spirit of order and obedience to authority, and he obeys. The greatest man in the world to him just now is his corporal, whose business it is to knock off his rough corners, and none too gently. His first sergeant, the “mother of the regiment,” is a planet as yet a little out of his orbit, and his captain is a fixed and distant star to be looked upon with awe and wonder. One of his first duties is to learn the “soldier marks”—the distinguishing uniform of his officers and how he must salute his superiors. In Germany, the code of etiquette, as between officers and men, is very rigid. The private is taught that he must obey every order of a superior absolutely and unquestioningly, and that he must invariably salute in exactly the proper way. Anyone who visits Germany will see this saluting process on any corner. A sentinel comes to “present arms” and follows his officer with his eyes, like a faithful dog, until he is out of sight. A marching squad goes through that difficult and, to the uninitiated, that amusing performance known in older times as the goose-step. Each man in the line raises his leg, thrusts out his foot vigorously in front, and brings it down with a sharp stroke on the pavement. And thus, “goose-stepping,” he marches until the officer has disappeared. The recruit is also taught the purpose of each article in his uniform and how it must be kept, and what is more, he is held strictly responsible for every damage. Every button is looked after in a way which would astonish an American regular, who, by the way, is the most costly soldier in the world, as the German is the cheapest. One has only to watch a coat or boot inspection, which sometimes lasts for an hour, and to see the officers examine every seam and wrinkle, to be persuaded of the care taken. Not only are there regular regimental tailors and shoemakers detailed from among the men of those trades, but each young soldier is taught how to mend his clothing and to patch his boots, so that they always look well. Many regimental commanders take so keen a pride in preserving the uniforms of their men that they pile up great stocks of clothing in store. I heard of one regiment that possessed six complete uniforms for every man. As a consequence of this rigid supervision, there is no soldier who looks neater and cleaner on all occasions than the German; and I think it has had a profound effect on the whole German nation, for it is rare in German to see a ragged, untidy, and dirty man, however poor, whereas such specimens swarm the poorer districts of London and New York.

After the recruit has become familiar with his barracks, his uniforms, and his officers, he is ready to begin active drilling, at first without a rifle. And this is hard work. Many of the boys are fresh from farm labor, and are already more or less stiff and awkward; and frequently those from the cities, while more active, are not so strong. The exercises consist in throwing back the arms violently, expanding the chest, lowering and elevating the body by bending the knees, and many similar movements calculated to strengthen and render supple all the muscles of the body. Then there is the famous “long step.” A whole company may be seen strutting across the parade-ground, rising on one foot, and balancing there with the other leg extended until the order comes. Then down with the suspended foot in as long a step as possible, and up with the other. This seems simple enough, but when a recruit has been at it half an hour or more he wishes devoutly for something else. The long step is said to make the Germans good marchers, to assist in giving them that quality of strength and endurance which, during the Franco-Prussian war, “marched the French to death.” It is a favorite punishment for petty misdemeanors to force a soldier to go through these exercises for so many minutes or hours.

A little later, and, indeed, all through the service of the German soldier, there is constant drilling in all manner of athletic feats, particularly in jumping and climbing. I saw a squad of recruits practicing the running high jump. They were all clad in old canvas uniforms of cheap make, their working clothes, and they stood in a line and jumped at the order of the officer. Every one of them was a strapping, round-faced fellow of evident strength, and yet some of them actually could not jump over a string two feet high. They had had no training, and they possessed no idea of how to utilize their muscles. But with a year or two of steady training they make good jumpers. More advanced squads are set to work on the horizontal bar; the work here is very practical, with little attempt to teach the high swings and fancy movements. Then there are vaulting exercises, and scaling exercises in which a squad of men are sent charging at a sheer board wall fifteen or twenty feet high, made to represent a fort, and up they go on one another’s knees and backs, rifles and all, until every man is on top; and it is astonishing to see how well and how quickly it is all done. In watching these men at their work, one is impressed with the sober earnestness with which every task is performed. There is rarely a smile, never anything like a cheer, and no apparent appreciation of the fact that these exercises are sometimes practiced as sport. To these men it is a serious duty, not especially enjoyable, but endurable. No recruits in the world are worked so hard as the Germans; for hours they are kept at this physical training, one exercise after another. Some men it has killed by its severity, but most of them thrive under it, so that at the end of a year many a frail stripling of a lad has become a brawny, bronzed-faced soldier, able to stand any hardship. There can be no doubt that this vigorous military training has had a profound effect on the German people. The German is by nature physically indolent; he has no love for violent sports such as the Englishman and the American enjoy; he prefers to sit quietly in some little back-yard forest of evergreens growing in tubs and sip his beer. The military training in a measure stirs him out of this lethargy, and gives him the physical strength that he needs.

After several weeks of preliminary training, the recruit is given his rifle. He is required to learn everything about it, the purpose of each part, and how it should be cleaned and kept. Then begins the long training in the manual of arms, a branch in which the Germans are especially proficient. The drill is carried even to practice with the bayonet and bayonet tournaments, the bayonets, of course, being rendered harmless by a clot of cloth wound around the point. I have seen two men, shielded with breastpadding and cage-masks, fight with much vigor and precision, and give each other some pretty vigorous thrusts. If a modern battle should by any remote possibility reach the point of a face-to-face bayonet struggle, these big German soldiers, trained as they are, would unquestionably make short work of their adversaries.

And now comes the drill in formation, which is not unlike that in other countries, except, probably, in its minute thoroughness. Indeed, thoroughness is the very essence of the German training. Not long ago I read a criticism in an English paper, anent the South African war, to the effect that the English commissioned officers left too much of the preliminary training, and indeed of regular drill work, to their subordinates, the sergeants and the corporals. In the German army this is not the case; the commissioned officer is never far off, and he is constantly at work with his men, teaching and training them. A familiar sight on a German drill ground is a captain or a lieutenant talking to his company to the length almost of a lecture, advising and instructing. The casual visitor in a German city, who sees the German officers strolling about of an afternoon in their fine uniforms, with their saber scabbards mirror-bright in the sunshine and their spurs clinking, is quite likely to set these men down as “tin soldiers,” rich men’s sons who have found an easy and showy career in the army. But if this visitor takes pains to inquire, he will find that most of these officers were out at five o’clock in the morning or before, and that by the time the ordinary citizen is out of bed, they have done a half day’s hard work.

Indeed, it is the principle of the German military system to work its men hard, to inure them to all the hardships of war, so that in case they are called suddenly into the field, a forced march will not send them all to hospital. On a hot June day last spring I saw several companies go charging across a drill ground in heavy marching order. They were clad in blue flannel, with metal helmets, and they must have carried at least fifty pounds each on their backs. Every man was dripping with perspiration and choking with dust, but no mercy was shown. They were carrying every pound that would have been carried in a campaign, and they were being trained by hard service to stand it.

Besides the company, battalion, and regimental drill, which is kept up constantly during the entire time of the soldier’s service, there are, every year, and sometimes oftener, great gatherings of soldiers from all parts of the Empire, at what is known as the spring or fall maneuvers. The Kaiser himself, than whom there is no more enthusiastic soldier in the Empire, is fond of the pageantry of these great gatherings. Here the men are trained as though on an active campaign, maneuvered in divisions and brigades, often in sham battle, some fighting from trenches, some skirmishing in the open, others bridging rivers and effecting crossings as if under fire. The three arms of the service are trained together, so that the infantry will work in perfect harmony with the cavalry and the cavalry with the artillery. In no other army in the world, perhaps, is so much attention paid to training the men, and especially the officers, in these great and necessary evolutions. Many officers can handle a regiment perfectly, but when it comes to disposing a division in a masterly manner they fall short. And in the German army the ideal soldier is Von Moltke, “the battle thinker,” the man who can dispose great forces with wisdom, not the daring hero who rides recklessly at the head of his men and foolishly risks his life. In this respect the Germans are totally different from the French or the Anglo-Saxons, who dearly love the hero, the man of great personal bravery, and who are quite likely to clamor that such a man be rewarded with a high command, regardless of his fitness as a “battle thinker.”

It has been said by critics that the weakest point in the German army is its marksmanship. Thousands of German boys entering service, perhaps a majority of them, have never touched a rifle until it is placed in their hands for drilling. In general, a German is not born with the love of a gun, like an American, and he rarely has an opportunity to use a rifle outside of the service. In America, every farmer’s boy begins to shoot rabbits as soon as he can hold the old shot-gun without wobbling; and as he grows older the love of shooting grows with him. But in Germany there is no such natural training, and the military training is naturally limited, owing to the great cost of ammunition. Still, the German soldier does much target-shooting. He begins with a specially made rifle, in weight and general appearance exactly like the Mauser, but so arranged that it fires a small cartridge having a bullet hardly larger than a pea. A miniature target is set up only ten to twenty feet away from the firer, and here he practices aiming, setting the sight, holding the gun steadily, and so on, thereby saving the waste of larger ammunition. After he has become proficient in this work, he goes to the regular shooting ranges, and is there required to fire a little each week, until he can make a certain score. But it is probable that many German soldiers never come to really familiar shooting relations with their rifles.

With all this physical training and drill, the intellectual development of the man also goes forward apace. There are regular classes in which instruction is given, not in the familiar branches of the schools, for every German soldier knows how to read and write before he enters the service, but in broader subjects. The soldier is instructed as to who is his Emperor, who his king, and what his duties are to each; he is given lessons in history in so far as they relate to military affairs, and in the geography of Germany, with an idea of the military defense of the nation, of its power and its future. Strange as it may seem, there are men who enter the army with the haziest idea of their Kaiser, some, even, who have never heard of him.

Germany is said to manage its military system more cheaply than any other nation. The whole vast army of Germany does not cost the government as much each year as the United States pays in pensions. Rigid economy is the watchword of the entire system. Only a rich man may become an officer, for to a large extent he must pay his own way, a major-general receiving a salary of barely $185 a month from the government, while a second lieutenant gets only about $20 a month, or about the pay of an American sergeant. As for the common soldiers, their pay and board are so meager that it seems all but impossible that grown men, and hard-working men at that, should subsist and thrive on so little. The pay of an ordinary private is about nine cents a day, but out of this he must pay two and one-half cents for his dinner, leaving him in cash only about six and one-half cents a day, and in almost every case this small wage must be spent entirely for food. For the only free ration of a German soldier is a huge, thick loaf of black bread, very nutritious, but monotonous when eaten for every meal, and coffee or soup. The bread ration is issued every three or four days; and upon this and the coffee, with a possible dish of soup in the morning, the soldier must exist, unless he has means of his own, so far as free rations are concerned. At noon, however, he is provided with a sort of meat stew—in America it would be called an Irish stew—which is warm, nutritious, and palatable. This costs ten pfennigs (two and one-half cents), and by piecing out with his black bread the soldier makes a very good meal.

Small as is the wage received by the soldier, yet the army regulations guard it jealously, for frugality is part of the training. Each soldier places his money in a little bag suspended from a string around his neck. At any time during inspection the officer may demand to have the bags opened, and if it is found that any soldier spends his six cents a day wages too rapidly—think of the wild dissipation which might be had for six cents a day—he is reprimanded and punished. He must make his wages, small as they are, cover his expenses; he must not spend them instantly for beer.

Furthermore, it is a very rare thing to see a drunken German soldier; and as for fighting, a single Irish regiment would keep the whole German army well supplied and have a good many broken heads left over. The fact is, the German soldier is worked up to the limit of his strength, and when he has finished a day’s exercises he is quite willing to roll into his bunk. Most of the soldiers are poor, with no money to spend on dissipation, and all of them have their ambitions for a civil career as soon as they are through with their service. Moreover, it is not in the nature of the German to go to wild excesses in anything. As a consequence, wherever you find him, the German soldier is well-behaved, and apparently always under discipline.

The German soldier frequently has an hour to himself, and after chapel service he is usually free on Sunday; and you see him, neat and clean, though often awkward and clumsy, parading about the streets, frequently holding the hand of a rosy-cheeked girl or sitting in the park, unabashed, with his arm round her. He lacks the inimitable jauntiness of the English redcoat, with his little cap cocked over his ear, and he has none of the activity and sprightliness of the gayly-clad French soldier; but there he stands solidly in his big coarse boots, a serious and simple-minded fellow intent on doing his duty, slow and clumsy, it is true, but with strength and patience—a soldier, every inch of him. He is not good in initiatives; his whole training, indeed the whole life of the German Empire, tends to crush out individuality, to train him that he is nothing, and that his company and his regiment and his Emperor are everything, that he must obey implicitly.

The present Kaiser, in an address to his soldiers, once said:

“The soldier should not have a will of his own, but all of you should have one will, and that is my will. There exists only one law, and that is my law; and now go and do your duty, and be obedient to your superiors.”

So the German soldier waits patiently for orders, and when they come, he obeys, no matter what obstacle lies in the way. And in the next European war he will be next to invincible if he is well led.

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