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

Monday, September 18, 2023

Organizing the Kaiser's Army for War

By Janet and Joe Robinson

Even though most people find it convenient to call it Germany, there really was no completely unified Germany before the First World War. The German Empire, which was not founded at all until 1871, was just over 40 years old when the war started. Nietzsche in 1873 wrote that "up until now there has been no original German culture." The empire itself was a cobbled-together federation of 25 different states. Each of the states had given up their sovereignty to be part of the empire but had a wide range of powers in governing their internal affairs. Not all of the states were equal, some states having a considerable amount of autonomy, while others had very little. While the Imperial German Constitution provided for an imperial navy, there was no imperial army. In fact there were four separate armies.

The army had four distinct components—Prussian, Württemberg, Saxon, and Bavarian armies. This was and is incredibly confusing as far as terminology is concerned. Even Bismarck was confounded by the references. He admitted that it was not constitutionally correct, but rather than name each individual army, he elected to use the expression "imperial army" for the sake of succinctness. Reichsheer was the term favored by the Kaiser. The Imperial German Army is the term used in many sources, but most of time one sees "German Army" used even though it is not correct.

According to the Imperial Constitution, the empire covered the expenses of the Prussian, Württemberg, and Saxon components. Bavaria had to cover the  peacetime expenses of its army from its own resources. Only upon mobilization did Bavaria receive financial support from the Reichstag. Artidl3 53 of the Imperial Constitution declared that the Navy of the Empire was united and under the Supreme Command of the Kaiser. Artidle 53 was written, in part, because of all the 25 states, only Prussia had a navy prior to the constitution. Art. 63 stated, "The entire land force of the Empire shall constitute a united army, which in war and in peace shall be under the command of the Kaiser." Article 63 is legal language, which makes for many loopholes. There was no imperial army but simply contingents of the member states. The navy was an internal indivisible organization set forth in the constitution. The army was a collective unit and its unity did not cancel the existence of state contingents. The term "Imperial German Army" is an improper collective phrase that is used continuously, under which the combining of the different armies may be easily understood.

The key to understanding this is that when the states joined the German Empire, they ceased to be sovereign but did not cease to be states. Nowhere did the states give up sovereignty more completely than in military affairs. Most states had their own armies, but each army was recruited, organized, equipped, and drilled not in conformity with state regulations but rather by the rules of the empire, which were determined by Prussia. Formally, the state possessed military supremacy, but the content and extent of that supremacy was determined by the military conventions between the state and Prussia. 

The Hanseatic cities and four principalities did not form their own military. Rather, Prussia had units stationed in their capital cities, and often those Prussian units are erroneously considered units of the hosting state; however, they were not—they belonged directly to the Prussian army. The conscripts from these states entered directly into the Prussian army through separate military conventions. This was really a holdover of the North German Confederation, i.e. Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Hamburg vom 23, Juli 1867. This made sense at the time; however, these agreements froze regimental structure and eventually led to a very convoluted recruiting and naming system. For instance, Infantry Regiment 31 (1st. Thüringisches) was moved from Erfurt in Thüringia to Altona, a suburb of Hamburg, in 1871 and lost any connection to Thüringia except in name.

All states eventually entered into military conventions with Prussia. These conventions ceded to the King of Prussia what constitutional powers the states may have had relative to military matters. Unlike the North German Confederation, each of the armies was placed underneath the Kaiser and imperial army in the event of war as well as in peace. The King of Saxony and the King of Württemberg could appoint officers within their contingents; however, the appointment of generals was contingent upon the consent of the Kaiser. The Kaiser personally approved the appointment of every army corps commander. The King of Bavaria had no such restrictions; he still had the right to appoint commanding generals of the Bavarian army corps without being endorsed by the Kaiser. By these conventions, the rulers of the states resigned all power over their armies into the hands of the King of Prussia. Their sovereignty over the military was in name only. The rulers retained military honors and the right to appoint aides-de-camp. The small states paid a certain price to the Prussian treasury for each soldier absorbed into the Prussian army. Prussia then paid the men, promoted them, and received their oath of allegiance.

Officers of the small states were normally required to provide a written document to their ruler reinforcing their faith as loyal subjects, but then submerged themselves in the Prussian army. In many cases, the rulers of the small states published farewell messages to their troops. 

So why was Prussia so dominant? In addition to great success in recent wars, when the 22 states of the North German Confederation united, Prussia represented 80 percent of the total population and 85 percent of the total area. (Of that population of 30 million, 24,000,000 were Prussian and 2,000,000 were Saxon, leaving 4,000,000 to be divided among the other 20 members.) Art. 61 of the North German Confederation constitution gave Prussia the power of having all military legislation immediately introduced into the entire territory of the union. Art. 61 of the imperial constitution was the same with the change of words from "the entire territory of the union" to "the empire." Prussia gained the constitutional right to dictate military regulations and instructions; other legislation had to be adopted immediately by all contingents in the empire. By 1914, 19 of the 25 army corps were from Prussia. Seventy-five percent of the army was Prussian. 

The Kaiser's control of the military, explained in the constitution, was controversial. Total control benefited the Kaiser and the military, but the Reichstag held a different view. The Kaiser split control of the army into three separate groups: (1) the chief of staff, who was in charge of the Great General Staff, (2) the war minister and the corps commanders, and (3) the Kaiser's Military Cabinet. This led to an unbelievably convoluted chain of command that often revolved around who had the most access to the Kaiser. 

The chief of staff and the Great General Staff were responsible for military strategy, mobilization, and the readiness of the army. The war minister—who was really the Prussian war minister—was responsible for doctrine, ostensibly the corps commanders, and for the structure of the army. He was directly responsible for the size of the army and getting financial support annually from the Reichstag; he was also responsible for dealing with the Chancellor. The Military Cabinet was directly responsible to the Kaiser, independent of both the Great General Staff and the Ministry of War and made all the personnel appointments in the army. 

This is the crux of the split-command issue. The war minister drafted the legislation and submitted the budget to the Reichstag that funded the size of the army. The chief of staff determined what the requirement for the size of the army was. The Military Cabinet determined what key officers would be in position to make it all happen. This agreement and competition  amongst these three groups, especially the war minister and chief of staff, would lead to a disconnecting of requirements and resources.

Source: Originally preswnted in OVER THE TOP, April 2010


  1. Excellent article. I always learn something new when I read “Roads”!

  2. Thank You for this article providing information about the structure of Germany leading up to WW1. Prussia's overarching influence and dominance in military matters helped provide insight into how the German Army was organized, including the intricate and potentially inefficient command structures instituted by the Kaiser.