Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Rationale of the Prussian Army System

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, October 8, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

A few weeks ago we pointed out that the Prussian system of recruiting the army was anything but perfect. It professes to make every citizen a soldier. The army is, in the official Prussian words, nothing but “the school in which the whole nation is educated for war,” and yet a very small percentage only of the population passes through that school. We now return to this subject, in order to illustrate it by a few exact figures.

According to the tables of the Prussian Statistical Bureau, there were actually levied for the army on the average of the years 1831 to 1854, 9.84 per cent. per annum of the young men liable to service; there remained available every year 8.28 per cent.; there were totally unfit for service from bodily infirmities 6.40 per cent.; there were temporarily unfit, to be re-examined in a future year, 53.28 per cent.; the rest were absent, or comprised under headings too insignificant to be here noticed. Thus, during these four-and-twenty years, not one-tenth of the young citizens were admitted into the national war-school; and that is called a nation in arms.

In 1861 the figures were as follows: — Young men of twenty, class 1861, 217,438; young men of previous classes, still to be disposed of, 348,364; total, 565,802. Of these there were absent 148,946, or 26.32 per cent.; totally unfit, 17,727, or 3.05 per cent.; placed in the Ersatz Reserve — that is to say, liberated from service in time of peace, with liability to be called on in time of war — 76,590, or 13.50 per cent.; sent home for future reexamination on account of temporary unfitness, 230,236 or 40.79 per cent.; disposed of on other grounds, 22,369, or 3.98 per cent.; remained available for the army, 69,934 men, or 12.36 per cent.; and of these, 59,459 only, or 10.50 per cent., were actually placed in the ranks.

No doubt since 1866 the percentage of recruits draughted annually has been larger, but it cannot have been so to any considerable extent; and if at present 12 or 13 per cent. of the North German male population pass through the army, it will be much. This certainly does strongly contrast with the fervid descriptions of “special correspondents” during the mobilization in Germany. Every able-bodied man, according to them, then donned his uniform and shouldered his rifle, or bestrode his horse; all kind of business was at a standstill: factories were closed, shops shut up, crops left on the fields uncut; all production was stopped, all commerce abandoned — in fact, it was a case of “suspended animation,” a tremendous national effort, but which, if prolonged only a few months, must end in complete national exhaustion. The transformation of civilians into soldiers did certainly go on at a rate of which people out of Germany had no idea; but if the same writers will look at Germany now, after the withdrawal of above a million men from civil life, they will find the factories working, the crops housed, the shops and counting-houses open. Production, if stopped at all, is stopped for want of orders, not for want of hands; and there are plenty of stout fellows to be seen about the streets quite as fit to shoulder a rifle as those who have gone off to France.

The above figures explain all this. The men who have passed through the army do certainly not exceed 12 per cent. of the whole adult male population. More than 12 per cent. of them cannot, therefore, be called out on a mobilization, and there remains fully 88 per cent. of them at home; a portion of whom, of course, is called out as the war progresses to fill up the gaps caused by battles and disease. These may amount to two or three per cent. more in the course of half a year; but still the immense majority of the men is never called upon. The “nation in arms” is altogether a sham.

The cause of this we have before pointed out. It is the necessity under which the Prussian dynasty and Government are, as long as their hereditary policy is insisted upon, to have an army which is an obedient instrument of that policy. According to Prussian experience, three years’ service in the ranks is indispensable to break in the average civilian for that class of work. It has never been seriously maintained, even by the most obstinate martinets in Prussia, that an infantry soldier — and they constitute the vast mass of the army — cannot learn all his military duties in two years; but, as was said in the debates in the Chamber from 1861 to 1866, the true military spirit, the habit of unconditional obedience, is learned in the third year only. Now, with a given amount of money for the war budget, the longer the men serve, the fewer recruits can be turned into soldiers. At present, with three years’ service, 90,000 recruits annually enter the army; with two years, 135,000; with eighteen months, 180,000 men might be draughted into it and drilled every year. That there are plenty of able-bodied men to be had for the purpose is evident from the figures we have given, and shall be made more evident by-and-by. Thus we see that the phrase of the “nation in arms” hides the creation of a large army for purposes of Cabinet policy abroad and reaction at home. A “nation in arms” would not be the best instrument for Bismarck to work with.

The population of the North German Confederation is a trifle below 30,000,000. The war establishment of its army is in round numbers 1 men, or barely 3.17 per cent. of the population. The number of young men attaining the age of twenty is about 1.23 per cent. of the population in every year, say 360,000. Out of these, according to the experience of the secondary German States, fully one-half are — either there and then, or within two years afterwards — fit for service in the field; this would give 180.000 men. Of the rest, a goodly proportion is fit for garrison duty; but these we may leave out of the account for the present. The Prussian statistics seem to differ from this, but in Prussia these statistics must, for obvious reasons, be grouped in such a way as to make the result appear compatible with the delusion of the “nation in arms.” Still the truth leaks out there too. In 1861 we had, besides the 69,934 men available for the army, 76,590 men place in the Ersatz reserve, raising the total of men fit for service to 146,524, out of which but 59,459, or 40 per cent., were draughted into the ranks. At all events, we shall be perfectly safe in reckoning one-half of the young men as fit for the army. In that case, 180,000 recruits might enter the line every year, with twelve years’ liability to be called out, as at present. This would give a force of 2,160,000 drilled men — more than double the present establishment, even after ample allowance is made for all reductions by deaths and other casualties; and if the other half of the young men were again looked to when twenty-five years of age, there would be found the material for another 500,000 or 600,000 good garrison troops, or more. Six to eight per cent. of the population ready drilled and disciplined, to be called out in case of attack, the cadres for the whole of them being kept up in time of peace, as is now done — that would really be a “nation in arms;” but that would not be an army to be used for Cabinet wars, for conquest, or for a policy of reaction at home.

Still this would be merely the Prussian phrase turned into a reality. If the semblance of a nation in arms has had such a power, what would the reality be? And we may depend upon it if Prussia, by insisting on conquest, compels France to it, France will turn that semblance into reality — either in one form or another. She will organize herself into a nation of soldiers, and a few years hence may astonish Prussia as much by the crushing numbers of her soldiers as Prussia has astonished the world this summer. But cannot Prussia do the same? Certainly, but then she will cease to be the Prussia of to-day. She gains in power of defence, while she loses in power of attack; she will have more men, but not quite so handy for invasion in the beginning of a war; she will have to give up all idea of conquest, and as to her present home policy, that would be seriously jeopardized.