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,


  1. Anonymous5:25 AM

    the Constitution of the German Empire from 16. April 1871 regulated the draft-System. This Constitution was in force until 11. August 1919.
    § 57 said: "Art. 57 Jeder Deutsche ist wehrpflichtig und kann sich in Ausübung dieser Pflicht nicht vertreten lassen". Means: Every German has to serve..."
    § 59 reglemented the details of the conscription system: "Jeder wehrfähige Deutsche gehört sieben Jahre lang, in der Regel vom vollendeten 20. bis zum beginnenden 28. Lebensjahre, dem stehenden Heere - und zwar die ersten drei Jahre bei den Fahnen, die letzten vier Jahre in der Reserve - und die folgenden fünf Lebensjahre der Landwehr an." Means: Every German able to serve has to serve seven Years in the standing Army (from 20 yers to 28). Three years in the active service and four years in the reserve. Then five years in the Landwehr followed. In 1888 the Landwehr-Duty was splitted in two contigents: "erstes Aufgebot" and "zweites Aufgebot". Means: From 28 to 33 you had to serve in the first contingent with two maneuvers in the year. From 33 to 39 you had to serve in the 2nd contigent of the Landwehr with one maneuver yearly. The Kriegswesen-constitution was adapted a bit in 1888 and 1905

    The Landsturm you mention is something different. It was decribed in the "Landsturmgesetz".
    Landsturm was the last contingent in the case of a threat. Every male German between 17 and 60 belonged to the Landsturm - a sort of militia. They were only drafted in a war-case. In peace time, there was no control of the military.
    This system generally is dating back to the prussian military reform of Scharnhorst in 1813, when Prussia reformed its system to make it efficient enough to drive Napoleon out of Germany.
    If anyone needs more detailed information, drop me a line,

  2. I received an interesting e-mail from a blog reader. It adds an interesting detail to what I iwrote so I am reproducing it here:

    Thank you for the detailed information about conscription in the Prussian Army. You answered the questions I had regarding a number of my ancestors who left Prussia between 1843 and 1871. As you, I am constantly striving to find the details about the lives of my ancestors so that I can bring them to life in my writings.

    One thought about your Johann Meier is that he may have been a bit higher than 5 feet. It depends on the accuracy of the translation of the Engels document. If the original German indicated 5 Fuß, it is often translated into English as 5 feet. However, prior to 1871, the Prussian Fuß was 0.3138 meters. This would equate to 5 feet 1 and ¾ inches.

    Not sure if it makes a differences to you, but it looks like the Prussian Army was rejected everyone who was less than about 5 ft 2 in.

  3. Bill, who read my blog post, was unable to post this comment. He sent me an e-mail and I can't explain why he had difficulty - but there are many things that happen in Blogger that I can't explain. I offered to post his comment to help out, so here it is:

    "My family came from the Remagen area in the Eifel in 1855 and settled near La Crosse, Wisconsin. My great-great grandmother was from Holzmülheim. I have traced them in the Remagen/Sinzig area back to 1684, so they were there during the time of French occupation. I was wondering if you have run into any kind of documentation of Rhinelanders who ended up in the French army and possibly headed for Russia? I imagine if they were in that army, there is very little chance they returned.

    Thanks, and I really enjoy your site. I only recently discovered where my family came from, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Your site has a lot of good information to help me paint a picture of their life there."

    Unfortunately, I haven't discovered any ancestors in Kreis Saarburg who served in the French army, although I imagine there were some "French/German" soldiers while the Rhineland was a part of France. I am focusing on the time after the French rule, so I haven't tried to find much about the Napoleonic era. The Germans did love to keep records so perhaps a State Archive that collects documents for the Eifel region might have such lists - or maybe there are such lists in France. If anyone out there can give Bill information, he would very much appreciate it.

  4. Kathy, your account of military service helped answer the questions I had of my great-grandmother's history of the Graf family. I'm grateful for your research!

    1. I am very glad you found the information you needed. Thank you for leaving your comment. I know how puzzling military service for German ancestors can be when you try to put things together. I was lucky to find just what I needed and happy to share the information.

  5. your information is really helpful. want you to know it is much appreciated. curtis loesch