Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Army Calls and I Must Go?

The storming of the Frankfurt barricades by Prussian Army

You probably believe, as I once did, that your Kreis Saarburg male ancestor served as a soldier in an imposing and well-trained Prussian army after the outcome of the Napoleonic wars gave the Rhineland to the Prussian Empire. I've heard, over and over in genealogy workshops, that the male population of the Prussian Empire were subject to three years of active military duty beginning at age 21.

When I began to try to put my ancestors into their historical setting, I pictured Johann Meier, my great-great grandfather, donning his Prussian military uniform and marching away from home to serve with other Prussian troops. But that left me with so many questions. Where would he have served? Since he was the right age to have been on active duty during the rebellion of 1848, did he take up arms against friends or family members or was he a rebel himself? What was his uniform like and what weapons were issued to him? Did he get time off to visit his family and the girl he was courting? I began to collect dribs and drabs of information.

In the 19th century, according to an article in Wikipedia, the Prussian infantry generally wore the dark "Prussian blue" of the previous two centuries. The blue color and other features of the historic Prussian Army uniform were generally adopted by the other German States as they fell under Prussian influence before and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

Picture of 19th century Prussian Uniform

According to Ernst Mettlach (who has researched the Prussian military), from 1814 on (1815 for Trier) every male between 17 and 45 had to serve three full years in the Prussian Army which was known for its harsh drill and discipline. After his time as active soldier, the young man was not free of army duty. He had to join the reserve for 4 or 5 years (depending on whether he served in the army, navy, cavalry or artillery). When reserve duty was finished, a man became a member of the Landwehr or "landwehrpflichtig" for 5 years (2 years for navy, cavalry and artillery). The Landwehr was similar to the National Guard in the U.S. today, and could be called upon to defend the country in time of war. The final service was in the "Landsturm" until a man's 45th birthday. Ernst did not explain this term, and I can't find it in the dictionary; but I assume it would be a very inactive type of duty, only necessary when the enemy was on the road to the Kreis and every soldier, even the oldest, was needed.

An article in the New York Times in 1888 described military training in the Prussian army in this way: "Under ordinary circumstances the German lad steps into the ranks at the age of 20. For three years he serves with the colors, the next four years he is in the reserve, and the following five years he belongs to the Landwehr, another reserve more remote than the first. Of these twelve years the first three are occupied entirely in severe military work. The most stupid peasant, under a system so thorough as Germany's, must be stupid beyond recovery if he does not turn out an alert, obedient and well-trained soldier...His only law is the law of the court martial; his only duty is to obey without question, and the interpreter of his duty is the captain of his company."

Looking beyond generalities
In the 1860s, The Prussian Government began a reorganization of the military. The plan met with resistance from the liberal, middle class Provincial Diet. Friedrich Engels had agreed to write an article on the Prussian military reform for Der Social-Demokrat, but the newspaper's fear of offending the Bismarck Government made him give up his intention. After consulting Karl Marx, he decided to have his work published as a separate pamphlet, which he began writing it late in January 1865, aiming to support the Provincial Diet's objections to the military reorganization plan. However, by 1866 the Provincial Diet was dissolved and the military reorganization plan the Diet had opposed went ahead.

Why am I telling you about this mostly unknown work by one of the founders of the Communist party. Because it would eventually help me to understand that not every able-bodied young man served in the Prussian army. Johann Meier and many of his contemporaries were exempt. In his emigration application file, begun on February 20, 1861, there was a notation of a request from the Royal Government Department of the Interior at Trier asking for further information why "said Meier, 35 years old is of no military obligation". There would be no emigration permission unless the question was answered in eight days.

A letter was sent to the Royal Government Department of the Interior at Trier from Herr Merhman, Royal County Commissioner, Kreis Saarburg of 1 March 1861 confirming that in 1847, when Johann Meier was 21, he was designated "Battery A" (probably the equivalent of the U.S. Army's 4F classification) because of Mindermaaβ and that he had no military obligation. The archivist at the Regional Archive in Koblenz told me that Mindermaß was an archaic word no longer used in the German language. It meant my ancestor was "too little" to serve in the Prussian army.

"Too little to serve in the army?" The archivist who was helping me assured me that Johann Meier was probably not unusually small. He said that the Prussian army was known to look for soldiers who intimidated with their height. Or perhaps he was just too short to fit into the military-issued uniforms - or to handle a saber.

That's when I began to try to interpret the meaning of "mindermaß." Herr Engel's pamphlet provided the answer I was looking for and changed my perspective on Prussian military conscription. Here is one of the arguments Engels made against the Government's plan for reforming the military.

" according to the Zeitschrift des preussischen statistischen Bureaus (March 1864) the number of young men registering in 1861 was 227,005... In the 1863, Minister for War, von Roon, presented the following analysis of the 1861 levy to the Military Commission of the (Provincial) Assembly:

Total population (1858 census) 17,758,823
Twenty-year-olds liable for military service class of 1861 217,438
Of these:
1. Untraced 55,770
2. Moved to other districts and required to register for service there 82,216
3. Failed to register without being excused 10,960
4. Enlisted as 3-year volunteers 5,025
5. Entitled to serve as l-year volunteers 14,811
6. Theologians, deferred or exempted 1,638
7. Liable for naval service 299
8. Struck off as morally unfit 596
9. Rejected by the Regional Commission as manifestedly unfit 2,489
10. Rejected by the Regional Commission as permanently unfit 15,238
11. Transferred to the Supplementary Reserve
a) Below 5 foot after three musters 8,998
b) Below 5 foot 1/4 inches after three musters 9,553..."

Engels continued his analysis: "18,551 men were rejected for not being of sufficient stature. Note: not rejected for service altogether but "passed to the reserve". Therefore, in the event of war they should serve after all. They are only excused parade-service in peace-time, being insufficiently imposing for that. It is thus admitted that these short men are quite good enough for service, and it is intended to use them even in emergencies. The fact that these short men can be quite good soldiers is demonstrated by the French army, which includes men down to 4 feet 8 inches. We therefore have no hesitation in counting them in with the military resources of the country. The above figure merely includes those who were finally rejected after three musters as being too short; it is thus a number that recurs each year. We will discount half of them as unfit for other reasons and we are then left with 9,275 little fellows whom a capable officer would no doubt soon knock into splendid soldiers..."

"However the whole way in which recruits are medically examined in Prussia has taken a peculiar turn. There were always more recruits than could be enlisted, and yet no one wanted to abandon the appearance of universal conscription. What could have been more convenient than to select the desired number of the best men and to declare the rest unfit on some pretext or other?"

Did your male ancestors serve in the Prussian military? If they came from the Rhineland, which seems to produce men, who like the French soldiers, were capable little fellows, they probably were able to stay home, court their sweethearts, earn money to buy their farmland, practice their trade, or quite legally immigrate to America.

Division of the Interior, Royal Government at Trier; Vol. 12 p. 1-746; Class V, Section 1, Littera C; Koblenz Division 442 Nr. 181

Engels, Friedrich, The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers' Party,