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Remembered Today:

German military discipline


Aaron Pegram
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Looks like the thread has established that German military law and punishment was pretty similar to the BEF with regards to field punishment etc. But how did the German army deal with "offences" by their soldiers against civilians?

On this page, http://www.1914-1918.net/crime.htm, there's a list of crimes that a British soldier could be charged with, amongst them are:

Committing an offence against the person of a resident in the country in which he was serving. Penalty: Death

Breaking into a house in search of plunder. Penalty: Death

The article also states that: of the men tried by British courts-martial some 271,000 were convicted, and the page lists, after purely military crimes, 15% were for drunkenness and 19% for various other crimes - presumably, any convicted of the above two crimes will fall into the 19%.

Does anyone know if such offences were listed/recognised under German Military Law during WW1, and, if so, are there any records of convictions and punishments handed down?

Cheers - salesie.

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  • 3 weeks later...
From what I've read, the Russians were compassionate. Their doctors recognised shell shock back in 1904 during the conflict with Japan and the Tsar's army had psychologists on hand near the front to deal with these cases. I know that psychology was in its infancy then but the Russians were quite progressive and saw its benefits.

Absolutely correct. The Russians at least by 1915 had whole hospitals in various areas including the "provinces" and not just Petrograd and Moscow that specialized in "mental cases" or "nerves." There is even at least one booklet that such a hospital published in 1915.

Roberts Graves didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. The only Commonwealth nation whose troops were not subject to the extreme penalty was Australia. There's a pretty good thread on here that deals with this called "Class War."

I've never heard of a CO trying to influence a court-martial before it had tried a case but such an action would be contrary to military law and the officer would face sanctions. However, a man's service record was available to the Court after it had made its findings. If the man had a poor disciplinary record or his commanding officer had entered adverse comments about him, that certainly could have influenced the tribunal's decision.

Off the record and discreet verbal expressions typcially do NOT get into history books. One can only imagine the strong emotions in or near the front lines during the war amongst members of the same unit for someone who allegedly had let down his country, his reputation, his family, his UNIT! Thus circumstantes and context lead credence that some officers whether involved or not probably did utter such statements despite from our perspective being perceived as prejudicing the proceedings.

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Looks like the thread has established that German military law and punishment was pretty similar to the BEF with regards to field punishment etc.

One feature of German military discipline was the Militar-Gefangenen-Kompanien, these being punishment companies with defaulting soldiers performing hard labour in the combat zone. There were probably about 90 of these at one time. Did the BEF have anything like this?

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One feature of German military discipline was the Militar-Gefangenen-Kompanien, these being punishment companies with defaulting soldiers performing hard labour in the combat zone. There were probably about 90 of these at one time. Did the BEF have anything like this?

As far as I know, centurion, the BEF never had punishment companies like these, I believe the BEF preferred their criminals to do their hard labour under lock and key - but I did say "pretty similar" not exactly the same.

Any idea if a German soldier could be punished for offences against civilians in the country he was serving? And, if so, were any charged and/or punished?

Cheers - salesie.

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Any idea if a German soldier could be punished for offences against civilians in the country he was serving? And, if so, were any charged and/or punished?

Aaron's post # 55 and the link he posted in it above has your answer. I did not poke thru it in detail, but sections 127 thru 136 seem to specify punishments of three, five, ten years and death for offenses in the field that seem to be against civilians, for example, "plundering" is specifically mentioned several times. It states that if the soldier's action resulted in a death, the penalty is death.

My father told me that when he reached France with a group of replacements that the officers called them together and told them if they would take as little as a loaf of bread from a French civilian they would be shot. (But of course capital punishment was exceedingly rare in the German Army in WW I, and of course shooting a soldier for such an offense would be both rediculous and presumably illegal.) He did state that a comrade borrowed a frying pan from a Frenchwoman and he did not return it when the woman thought he had said that he would, perhaps a problem of communication; the woman went to the officers and the soldier was in big trouble.

Bob Lembke

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  • 7 months later...
Most days for the last six years I read about WW I for several hours, and I probably read more German than any other language, but rarely secondary sources; rather official histories, regimental histories, but also many personal memoirs (from private to field marshal, and sometimes ones written by communists and books published in the DDR), books of soldiers' letters, manuscript letters from the field, including about 50 from my father and grand-father, and I cannot recall having read about any corporal punishment in the German Army.

Bob,

I have something to add to this thought. The topic seems not to have died on this thread but seems to crop up all over. It is a great research error to assume something simply because you have not found proof of the opposite. I dont know what your colonel does, but being a colonel does not make one an expert on WW1.

A note, I would classify Official Histories and Regimental Histories as secondary sources, based on Primary? Maybe cleaned up?

Anyway... here is something to ponder. From the unpublished diary of a Landwehr NCO (The instructors in question seem to have been Aktiv and not Landwehr.

I am sure you will agree that physical violence on the scale mentioned below cannot have been one little Unteroffizier doing it?

Our Kaporalschaftsfuehrer name was Beurigs, later Oberfeldwebel. Leutnant Fritz. After 4 weeks transferred to the 3rd Depot(had been in the 2. Depot). Here it was more strenuous. My physical training was supportable. Strobel, a (word crossed out) went overboard, not only did he drill his people till they fell over but they were hit in the ribs, punched in the face and kneed in the back. It was no wonder that 500 men (all over 30 years old) were relieved when, on the 3rd of May, we were told we were to be transferred to Ravensburg. On the 11th of May we were on our way, wearing our prisoner like rags. We arrived without having eaten at 4:30pm, 200 men from Tuebingen joining us along the way. When we arrived in Ravensburg I was greeted by Otto, things seemed to be looking up. He took me with him to the 2. Komp. where he was an Offizier-Stellvertreter under Hauptmann Buhler. Buhler was an extremely friendly, straightforward and caring father of the company. In his company cursing and hazing was not allowed. The instructors were all Landwehr men. Leutnants John, Ernst, Schuler and Simon. Feldwebels Heine and Fischer. Unteroffizier Hund, Schoenle, Knoerle, Rothfuss, Buhler, Dreger, Haeberle and Weiss. The duty here was very interesting and we learned much.

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Continuing on to his UFFZ. course, which hardly corresponds to your "Humane treatment by NCOs"

that I would join the Unteroffiziers course in Muensingen on the 28th of August. 3 Gefreiter from the Battalion took part, 2 from the 2. Komp. and one from the Depot. The course lasted six and a half weeks, until the 5th of October. It was a difficult six weeks on this barren piece of ground. The shots were called by three Vize-Feldwebel…Wetzel, Mueller and Kullamnn. The treatment was terrible! (Menschenunwuerdig). I managed to stand my man and managed to avoid the punishments. Of 86 course members 33 passed with the qualifications to become Unteroffizier. I report card was “Good” in all catagories. On the 6th of October I returned to Ravensburg and was promoted to Gefreiter on the spot.

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Then off the Machine Gun course...

A counter order from the Generalkommando came ordering me to the Machine Gunners in Ulm. The Hauptmann and Feldwebel tried to stop this but the Generalkommando overruled. Here we Unteroffizier qualified Gefreiters had an easy time. We took part in the instruction but had our rest while the 19 year olds were put through their paces. How they were hazed! I could barely watch! An example, a physically weak man named Frank was drilled so hard with the machine gun that collapsed and got heart cramps. These lasted 2 hours until I and two other Gefreiter loaded him in a wagon and pushed him back to quarters. I could not stand watching this, let alone participate in it. Dr Deufel established that I had a nervous heart flutter and an eye problem and soon I was on my way back to Ravenburg, inapt for Machine Gun service. On the 5th of November I was back in the 2. Komp.

The ABOVE is all primary source info... quite obviously NOT to be found in Regt histories.

What is important to note... these were not abuses at one location...

1) Basic training

2) NCO School

3) Machine gun school...

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As a last closing thing, back at the company.... Mass punishment...

From the 20th of November discipline was strengthened in the company. The men had been misbehaving and the Hauptmann had to show his strict disciplinarian side. Extra exercising, arrest and punishment duties (Verschaerfter Dienst). I did not have to suffer any of this although the training personnel were closely observed.

The strict regime lasted almost until Christmas, at least until Obrstleutnant Bauer inspected us on the 15th of December.

Having been a Foreign Legion Junior NCO... I can tell you.... "Extra Exercising" can have grown men crying in pain and despair in a very short time, especially when accompanied by "Encouraging and affectionate" pats on the back of the head, neck and back.

I think that is about as good as "Primary source" as you will get on this, NOT a post war published "For or against" the military, but a private diary of a later Vize Feldwebel.

And THAT... I think is the kryptonite needed to put this argument to rest?

Arguments like these should be based on what you can prove, not what you cannot find.

Best

Chris

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Chris,

Thanks for the interesting first-hand accounts. I can't say I find any of it surprising. William Hermanns, in his non-fiction book "The Holocaust: From a Survivor of Verdun," paints a similiar picture. In his case one-year volunteers were subjected to "special attention" by a bitter training NCO who resented their status.

I find it interesting how many times this portrayal of the German military training experience has made into representative fiction as well:

For example, in the great Hans Helmut Kirst series "08/15." Kirst served as a soldier in the pre-war Wehrmacht and during the Second Would War. I will never forget the scene from the muddy field in the movie version (a great series, by the way) where the soldiers are drilled until they drop by Wachtmeister Platzek, played by the memorable Hans Christian Blech.

In Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front," the training experience related is eerily similar to Hermanns' (non-fiction) account. It's interesting how Himmelstoss is a relatively minor character in the story, yet his abuse of recruits is a leitmotiv of the novel.

Going back even further, Georg Büchner's "Woyzeck" would seem to be of the same vein.

Chris your point about contemporary accounts versus "for or against" post-war accounts is a good one. All of my examples, both fiction and non-fiction, would fall into the latter category--but I've wondered for a long time about this reoccuring, almost representative portrayal of German military training.

Paul

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Hi,

It may be argued that The German drill manual does not say "... and then you may punch private Müller in the face."

But I think from the above it can be seen that punishments were carried out with physical violence, on the spot, elbows, fists and knees.

As we all probably agree that the German army was disciplined... the fact that things happened so openly, and on such a large scale as quoted above.... makes me think that it was largely tolerated.

It goes against what Bob said earlier... I find nowhere, in any manuals, a mention of this certain distance....

"If by "field punishments" you mean the sorts of things that were done in the British army (strapping to wagon wheels, etc.), to my best (but not complete) knowledge, they were not permitted in the German Army. In fact, I believe that NCOs were not allowed to physically approach an EM/OR closer than a certain distance, to prevent corporal punishment. I recently posted an example of this that my father told me, when a sergeant playfully poked him in the butt with a bayonet, Pop kicked him in the face with the sole of his hob-nailed boot, badly damaging the sergeant, and it was the sergeant, not him (a private) who was punished; an officer simply asked the sergeant how he came to be kicked in the face if he maintained the required distance from my father, a private."

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Wer vorsätzlich einen Untergebenen stößt oder schlägt, oder auf andere Weise körperlich mißhandelt oder an der Gesundheit schädigt, wird mit Gefängniß oder Festungshaft bis zu drei Jahren bestraft; in minder schweren Fällen kann die Strafe bis auf Eine Woche Arrest ermäßigt werden.

Indeed.... but it seems that there is practice... and theory.

In the Foreign Legion there the same rules as in the rest of the French Army, physical blows are forbidden.... Someone seems to have forgotten to tell the instructors though....

We are talking about what WAS, not what SHOULD have been.

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We are talking about what WAS, not what SHOULD have been.

A well made point - which explains why an inquest once again recently sat on the death of a young British soldier from the practice of 'beasting'. Army life as it sometimes is and not as it should be is what is under discussion.

ciao,

GAC

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Bob,

I have something to add to this thought. The topic seems not to have died on this thread but seems to crop up all over. It is a great research error to assume something simply because you have not found proof of the opposite. I dont know what your colonel does, but being a colonel does not make one an expert on WW1.

I only want to check in for a second, as it is 4:30 AM here and I just got up to take some pills, and just peeked into this addictive Forum before sleeping a bit more. Here I think that you, Paul, myself, and my "colonel" (close enough; he is not a major) are all really saying the same thing, I think. (It is a situation like the famous story of the seven blind wise men examining an elephant by feel; one feeling the trunk, one a leg, a third the little tail, and each calling out what he thought the elephant was.)

I cannot identify my "colonel" e-friend, for serious physical security reasons, which additionally I cannot explain. You said: "I dont know what your colonel does" : His present post is teaching at the national war college of a major world power, as guest faculty. His last post was back in Germany undergoing intensive one-on-one training in the difficult language of that country conducted by the German Foreign Ministry. At the conclusion of his tour of teaching at the war college he will take up a second post in the same country, as a senior diplomat.

You stated: "being a colonel does not make one an expert on WWI." . Granted, but he happens to be an expert on WW I. He spent years researching a major campaign of WW I, using totally unique sources in Berlin that he can readily access due to his status, archives that I have never heard of anyone ever using to study WW I. He then wrote a book based on that research, and the book has to date been published in two languages, an edition in a third is in the works. My prediction is that, due to the to date unique sources, the book will be a classic.

However, we are more accurately discussing German Army discipline in WW I, theory (the military law) and practice. You must agree with me that a graduate of the German General Staff two-year course, one of the most intense courses of training in military intellectual matters in the world, certainly is trained to understand German military law. I asked him what the law was, and was quite taken back with his response, a scholarly essay of about eight pages going back thru the German military regulations starting at 1843 and continuing to the present. At the time I was having severe computer problems and could read his essay but I could not "cut and paste" it and post it on the Forum. I will try to go back and find his essay and post it.

He specifically stated, and I think that I mentioned, that he was laying out the law, not the practice, and that there certainly could be and must have been physical mistreatment of soldiers beyond that allowed by the regulations, but that such occurances were crimes that could be punished. Back somewhere in this thread a British Pal mentioned that a British officer in post-war Iraq supposedly had one of his men whipped to death, complete with salt being rubbed into the wounds. Then another British Pal chimed in and stated that was only a story. (I have no idea whatsoever about this story/occurance.) But the point was that such an occurance certainly was not in accordance with the British military regulations (I hope!) of say 1921, but that such an occurance conceivably could have occurred.

I am sorry that I cannot further identify my "colonel" e-friend; he has has other fascinating military postings and background. But it is a serious matter of his phyical security.

I will return to this later. I just noticed Egbert's posting; my "colonel" e-friend mentioned those regulations in his essay. It is painful enought to read legal text in English, never mind German, it will take me some painful effort to digest the regulations, given my entirely self-taught German, focused on military history, not law. "No pain, no gain."

Bob Lembke

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I believe training in any army will include vigorous exercise and this will be pushed to extremes as a matter of course. The tendency for this to shade off into bullying is manifest. An old time basic training instructor and a new recruit will almost certainly have different ideas of where pushing the envelope becomes unacceptable bullying. Not evidence of course but it is strange how many German novels emphasised bullying in the army and not only of recruits. Presumably this lent authenticity for a post war readership of ex soldiers who were expected to recognise the portrait painted.

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Bob,

A British officer who ordered a soldier to be flogged to death would be guilty of murder, plain and simple. Flogging was not permitted in the British army during the great war having been abolished shortly after the Napoleonic wars. Of course, anything is possible but I seriously doubt the veracity of this tale.

I once had an interesting correspondence with a serving Commander in the Federal German Navy who had an interest in the subject. Harsh - and I use the word in its broadest sense - treatment of recruits was fairly commonplace on both sides but in most case but it was meted out within the bounds of military law. The belligerents had to mould civilians into soldiers in short order thus they had to be imbued with military discipline from the start. Physical beatings and other forms of brutality were fobidden. This is not to say that gratuitous violence did not take place but any NCO instructor worth his salt would know that respect for superiors does not come from thrashing a man. The Kaisers' army did not take kindly to bullying and woe betide the NCO who struck a man.

The vast majority of those who joined the colours were deeply patriotic and they were willing to fight for the cause. Such feelings gave instructors a great advantage. Of course, there were the incorrigables for whom no amount of punishment or discipline would work but they were in the minority. Also there were sadistic NCOs who delighted in brutalising recruits but they acted outside of the law.

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Bob,

As security is an issue for Oberst X, I presume his books are published under a pseudonym, in which case you could perhaps safely post bibliographical details.

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Bob,

As security is an issue for Oberst X, I presume his books are published under a pseudonym, in which case you could perhaps safely post bibliographical details.

Hi, Mick;

No, he publishes under his own name, which is why I feel I should be vague. I would be comfortable getting more info to you privately.

I have had private communication with several serving German officers of some rank who have followed the GWF with interest; they do not, for several reasons, reveal who they are, and usually do not post, unfortunately.

I am actually going to go off and do some real work, for the first time since my chest was opened up like a pair of garage doors two months ago; big event. When I get back I will make a few points. I think that the Pals posting on this thread are now mostly saying the same things, with different emphasis.

I only mentioned the alleged whipping to death in Iraq as a hypothetical, one British Pal mentioned it and thought it was true, one or more others disputed it, and I myself have no idea, and would be naturally sceptical.

Bob Lembke

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Bob, you are right to be skeptical. There are numerous stories out there similar to that one and very few stand up to close scrutiny. However, there was a seving officer in the British army during the war - one Colonel Frank Crozier - who boasted in print that he halted a retreat by opening fire on his own men. I suspect that this is nothing more than bragging but he was not a man to be trifled with and in 1937, he published his wartime memoirs in a book entitled "The Men I Killed." Despite him being a self-confessed murderer, no action was ever taken against him.

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I am actually going to go off and do some real work, for the first time since my chest was opened up like a pair of garage doors two months ago; big event. When I get back I will make a few points. I think that the Pals posting on this thread are now mostly saying the same things, with different emphasis.

No Bob,

with all due respect, I took the time to translate something for you. I would appreciate a response... "Same things with different emphasis"?

You say there were no Field punishments, Paul proves there were, you ignore it and jump to the next point.

You say there was no beating and NCOs had to keep a space between them and soldiers, I give you three great examples taking place in three different places, you ignore it and say its just the same old stuff and you happen to know German officers who hide their identities.

Please, please, please.... address the EXACT points that people have put forward, don't change course when you see an obstacle to your train of thought.

I love you Bob, I think at heart you are one of the good, genuine guys on the forum, but it drives me mad to be on threads where points are sidestepped or ignored when they don't fit the argument :-(

Best

Chris

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The performance of the German army in The Great War was superb. I honestly believe that this was due to remarkably high morale and to a degree of cordiality between officers and men which was a function of professionalism. Forgive me if this sounds naive, but I think the ability of the German soldiers to hold their ground everywhere on enemy soil speaks volumes about their skill and resolve. I would hazard a suggestion that there was a first rate committment to the needs and sensibilities of their men which made German officers and NCOs excel. Up until the later summer of 1918 this seems to have endowed the German army with unique resilience and robustness. Now I must duck !

Phil.

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No need to duck. I think I am not alone when I agree that the German Army was well trained and motivated until the close of the war when conditions at the front and at home sapped its morale. However, it would be naive to believe that an army of millions did not have bullies in the ranks of its NCOs or that they would lack opportunity to inflict sadistic treatment on the men under their command.

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Hi,

I think the diary above shows it to be quite widely spread... and accepted.

Phil,

The foreign Legion has harsh and fast discipline, They to put up a good show on the battlefield, and moral was always strong inspite of the occasional kicking.

I would go so far as to say... discipline not backed by force, but by friendship and familiarity sounds more like the Waldorf School than the army.

And added to that... do you honestly think the "We are all good chums now" system of discipline suits the German character and temperament? My experience with the sour faced woman behind the counter at the bakery this morning when she saw I could not tell which kind of Breadroll I wanted made me think that she just wished she was a man and could slap my silly face...

Never happened to me in a bakery in Canada...

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We are talking about what WAS, not what SHOULD have been.

I don't get your last sentence into the right perspective: do you want to say my link to the legal basis is of no relevance here?

If so, I wonder on what basis you are discussing here and would like to suggest reading the beginning of the thread :blink: .

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