Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, June 18, 2021

Recommended: German Infantry Divisions of the Great War

Originally Presented at the History of Military Logistics—Organisation
By H.G.W. Davie, 13 July 2018

Off to War


The plans of the German Army in 1914 were nothing if ambitious, as they had to assemble by railway no less than seven armies, on a front of 500 km, complete with all their horses and supplies as part of their mobilisation plan. The limiting factor was the number of railway tracks crossing bridges over the Rhine while the opposing French armies had more railway lines leading to their mobilisation areas (see Mitchell). 'All the European powers had built up vast armies of conscripts. The plans to mobilise in these millions rested on railways and railway companies cannot be improvised. Once started the wagons and carriages must roll remorselessly and inevitably to their predestined goal’. AJP Taylor. Mobilisation started on 1st August and the first German advance started on the 8th August, crossing the border into Belgium. 
Once the main attacking armies were assembled, they had first to breach the Belgian defences at Liege and along the line of the river Maas, which blocked their advance through the Walloon provinces. The Schlieffen plan required that 1 Armee pass Brussels by M+22 (23rd August) a distance of 150 km overall, with the Liege falling on M+15 (16th August), they had to cover the 100 km to Brussels in 7 days or a steady 15 km a day. The advance was planned to cover the next 220 km from Brussels to Lille to Lens to Abbeville a distance of 220 km by M+31 (1st September) in 9 days or 24 km a day. However in 1914 the German armies are following a revised plan that sees 1 Armee cut off the corner of the advance and advance in a southerly direction towards Mons which they reach on M+22 (23rd August) when they bump into the British Expeditionary Force. The actual distance from Liege to Louvain to Brussels to Mons is 155 km which was covered in 7 days or 22 km a day but trajectory of the army is already 120 km to the east of where the Schlieffen plan wants it.

Initial German and French Deployments

The days from the 23rd August to the 30th August (M+29) see the 1 Armee fight their way forward from Mons to Cambrai to Albert to Cantigny covering a distance of 165 km in 7 days or still 24 km a day. It is at this point that the decision is taken to move to the east of Paris and the Schlieffen Plan is abandoned as the right wing of the 1 Armee advances only as far as Chantilly 55 km away while the left wing advances to the Marne, a distance of 110 km reached by M+35 (5th September) or 18 km a day given the scale of the fighting.

Interestingly under the Schlieffen Plan, 2 Armee should have been at Chantilly around M+37, so in that sense the German armies were ahead of schedule by around 5 days only they were 150 km too far to the East as 1 Armee was due to reach Evreux on M+37. The point to note however is that throughout the advance the troops have been moving a the regulation speed of 22 km a day as set down in the German Army Field Service Regulations (1908). As pointed out by van Creveld in the chapter "The wheel that broke" in Supplying War the main problem facing the German army was congestion on the roads in the early part of the campaign and sustaining the advance day after day for 25 days of continuous marching (M+15 to M+40).

This brings us neatly to the question of weight, the amount of equipment, supplies of munitions and amount of stores carried by the advancing Infanterie Divisionen which made up the bulk of the German force. Since the 1870 campaign there had been considerable inflation in the amount of equipment carried, since 1866-1970 period an Infanterie Bataillon had modest transport consisting of: 

    • munitions wagon 6 horse
    • Montirung wagon 4 horse (paymaster books and armourers tools)
    • Pharmacy cart 2 horse
    • officers baggage wagon 4 horse
    • 4 packhorses (1 per company for men's baggage)
    • a total of 20 horses and 4 wagons/carts

However by 1914, the same battalion would have the following baggage train:

    • 4 proviant carts 2 horse 
    • 1 sutlers cart 2 horse
    • 5 baggage carts 2 horse
    • 1 pharmacy cart 2 horse
    • 4 field kitchens 2 horse
    • a total of 48 horses and 15 wagons/carts
    • added to which was its share of the 13  MG Kompanie with 87 horses and 12 wagons/limbers carrying a mere 6 machine guns and a spare.

Infanterie Division establishment

This four fold increase in transport piqued my interest and I went to the standard reference books to research the transport at Division and Corps levels. The principal reference in English is David Nash's "Imperial German Army handbook" and in German is Cron's 1923 "Die Organisation des deutschen Heeres im Weltkriege" however neither of these give much information on unit transport at divisional level and other sources such as the "The World War One Databook"  and George Nafziger's Orders of Battle at Combined Arms Research Library lacked detail. I was unable to access Dirk Rottgardt's "German Armies’ Establishments 1914/18" series as there are limited library holdings. Given this shortage of material I went back to the German Army Field Regulations (1908) and Duties of a General Staff Officer (1908) to build up the information from these contemporary sources.


  1. Good read. Reliance on foot power and horse power doomed the Imperial German Army.

  2. Astonishingly, the WW2 German Army still placed much reliance on horse-drawn transport!

    1. Yes they did some 750,000 horse requisitioned by Germans during WW2. Very much in conflict with the mechanized image of the Wehrmacht.

  3. it is interesting to compare this with the Tomlinson award winning Book " German failure in Belgium August 1914."