Das Ersaztwesen
(or, the Replacement System)

by Musketier Louis Plack, J.R. 459

Most reenactors are a bit fuzzy on the concept of “universal conscription” and how it was applied in the Imperial Army. The following is presented to clarify some of the practices and procedures, as well as to assist reenactors in better developing a more realistic first person impression.

Under the Imperial constitution and the military conventions governing the German Army, all male Germans were theoretically liable for conscripted military service. Reality was, of course, an altogether different matter, and service in the Imperial Army was not anywhere near universal. Foremost, with a population of ca. 63 millions and an active Army component of around 745,000[1] officers and men, the Army was not large enough for every able-bodied German male to serve, even accounting for the sizeable numbers required for the Marine (into which individuals were also conscripted). Additionally, not everyone was physically qualified to serve.[2] Finally, exemptions from service existed for both family hardship as well as higher education.

The German Army was territorial, both in administration and stationing. Each of the 21 Corps Commanders (Kommandierende Generale) in the Imperial Army was responsible for the geographic area in which their corps was stationed. They also commanded the Reserve and Landwehr formations associated with the Corps’ units. The Corps Commander also served as the Defense Area Commander (Wehrkreiskommandeur), an administrative post which oversaw the Replacement System (das Ersatzwesen) and dealt with the many non-tactical (housekeeping) functions required in administering a large standing army and its reserve components. The Wehrkreis was administratively subdivided into districts called Wehrbezirke. For an idea of scale, the Defense (Corps) Area corresponded roughly to a state (Baden, e.g.), while the districts translated roughly into counties, corresponding, for the most part, with the civil administrative divisions of the Empire.

The potential soldier’s first encounter with the Replacement System took place in his 17th year, during which he was compelled to register. All individuals born in a calendar year were grouped together for this purpose and referred to as, e.g., Jahrgang 1916 (Year Group 1916), designating those who, based on their date of birth, would be called to service in 1916. Registration was accomplished through the district draft board, known as a Bezirks-Ersatzcomission. It was comprised of both civil and military representatives, the latter usually being the Regimental Commander of the regiment stationed in that district. The individual was subjected to preliminary screening, consisting of a physical as well as practical testing of literacy and physical acuity. Interviews were conducted to assess the individual’s mental fitness. Possible exemptions were considered at this point. Physical or mental defects[3] were classed into two categories—permanent or temporary. Those found to have a permanent disqualifying deficiency were issued an Ausmusterungsschein (Mustering-out Certificate) and excused from further consideration. Individuals with conditions deemed temporary were processed and marked for further evaluation. Possible exemptions for family hardship or higher educational were noted but not adjudicated, final decision being deferred until closer to actual call-up in the event those conditions changed. The individual was issued a Militärpaß (Military Pass), which was used to identify his status in dealing with civil authorities, potential employers, etc. This pass was to be carried by the individual at all times.[4] Though not actually in the military, from this point on, the potential draftee was closely monitored by Bezirks-Ersatzcomission personnel to ensure a successful future accession.

Not all soldiers were drafted, however. For those so disposed, enlistment was an option which could be exercised beginning at age 17. Normal enlistment, which incurred the same service obligation as the draft, offered the potential recruit several advantages. Draftees were “called to the colors” during the calendar year in which their 20th birthday occurred; those wishing to fulfill their service obligation before getting on with an occupation or marriage could serve early without fear of undue interruption (excepting mandatory reserve training) later on. Additionally, the enlistee had some control over his destiny, being able to choose (if consistent with the needs of the Army), the branch or regiment in which he wished to serve. In the cavalry and artillery, the active service obligation was 3 years, with an additional 2 served in the reserve; in other branches, the obligation was reversed to 2 active and 3 reserve.[5] A noteworthy variation of the normal enlistment obligation also existed; the One Year Volunteer (Einjhäriger Freiwilliger). This option was theoretically open to anyone, but in practice, found its adherents almost exclusively among Germany’s burgeoning upper middle class. One Year Volunteers served, as the name implies, only one year (irrespective of branch) on active duty, with the remaining 4 year obligation fulfilled in the reserve. One Year Volunteers passing into the reserves could apply for appointment as reserve officers, and this program was a significant source of those appointments. While this option was attractive, the cost was high, as One Year Volunteers were entirely responsible for paying the costs of their service. The cost of personal uniforms/clothing items, food and lodging was paid entirely by the individual, and this was not cheap. As such, only the financially secure could reasonably pursue this option.[6]

In October of the year in which the individual achieved his 20th birthday, he was called to potential active service, reporting to the Rekrutendepot (Recruit Depot) which serviced his district. There, temporary deferments were adjudicated in final form. Unsuitability at the time of induction resulted in the issuance of an Ausmusterungsschein, permanently excusing the individual from future consideration. Those found fit to serve were considered against the needs of the service, filling slots being opened in the regiments.[7] In general, an individual could expect to serve in the regiment stationed in his district, but much depended upon the needs of the other Corps units. Additionally, the corps had to fill slots in the other branches, e.g., artillery units, and higher qualified individuals could be sent away from their own district for that purpose. All qualified individuals deemed fit for service were sent to the Corps units for Rekruten- or Grund-ausbildung (basic training), but not all actually served two/three years. In peacetime, Corps units could only accept as many replacements as needed to fill to their authorized strength levels.[8] Following the period of actual basic training—about twelve weeks during which the individual was taught the rudiments of soldering—remaining excess personnel were transferred into the Ersatzreserve (Replacement Reserve), which served as a ready manpower pool for active units in the event of war.

Peacetime basic training was conducted in the units. How the commander chose to actually conduct this training was his affair; in German practice, he was held accountable for producing a trained soldier, but how he went about it was up to him . In most cases, new personnel were integrated directly into existing squads (Korporalschaften) and teams (Gruppen), filling the vacancies created by the September mustering out. It is fair to generalize that some of the training of the new draftee was done by his immediate chain of command, while other portions of the training were conducted under more centralized conditions.

While the general workings of the system did not change greaatly after 1914, many of the particulars did. Upon mobilization in August 1914, Ersatzreservisten were recalled to fill out the active regiments and battalions, while Reserve and Landwehr regiments and battalions were likewise being activated. Those managing the call up process tried to ensure that, as units moved out of home station according to the mobilization schedule, they were as complete as possible. Personnel from Reserve regiments were often used to fill the active regiment as it marched off, replacing unfit or no-show Ersatzreservisten. Likewise Landwehrmänner were moved up to fill the holes in the Reserve units. The Landwehr units, last to depart the garrisons, were often not fully manned. As the various units departed, they were replaced by corresponding cadre organizations; from the Corps commander down, reservists filled the slots vacated as units departed for the front. At the unit level, Replacement Battalions (Ersatzbataillone) for each of the unit’s components—one each for the active, Reserve and Landwehr components—stood up in its “parent’s” place. Through these units, the field unit would receive its flow of trained replacements. After the Army moved off to war, all replacement personnel, based on their category, were directed into the appropriate replacement battalion after passing through the Rekrutendepot.

Little has been written about the Ersatzbataillone; while the literature invariably mentions their existence, it seldom offers organizational detail. The I. Ersatzbataillon served the active unit, the II. Ersatzbataillon served the unit’s Reserve counterpart, and the III. Ersatzbataillon handled Landwehr regiment or battalion. Given the German system, there was surely much flexibility in organizations, but battalions had at least two confirmed companies—the Rekrutenkompagnie (sometimes also called a Stammkompagnie) and a Genesendenkompagnie. In some battalions, these companies were apparently numbered, while others used the name titles. Arriving personnel were taken in to the Recruit or “Stem” company, and wounded returning from the front were assigned to the Convalescent Company during their recuperation. Other companies, which seem to have borne numbers, were apparently training companies in which recruits were grouped, probably according to their arrival time, so as to have them pass through the training cycle as a unit. The period at which new personnel were taken into replacement units during the war remains something of a mystery, but it seems probable callups every month or two would have allowed the training of personnel to ensure a steady flow of replacements without overloading the system. The I. Battalion had by far the hardest task, that of turning raw civilians into front line soldiers, while Reserve and Landwehr replacement units were dealing with individuals who had been through basic training and probably served at some point and needed, at least theoretically, only refresher training.

While the German system worked well in peacetime, the enormous losses suffered in combat greatly eroded its effectiveness. The first crack in the façade was a continual lowering of the induction age as the great meat grinder of the front wore down Germany’s available manpower reserve. By 1918, the members of Jahrgang 1920 were being called to service, fully two years ahead of time. Additionally, by its decentralized nature, the system was not materially efficient, requiring an inordinate amount of cadre personnel to do what a more centralized system could have accomplished with far fewer. There was, likewise, great demand on limited facilities like live fire ranges and the maneuver areas needed to effectively train men for front line service; while most garrisons had their own ranges and maneuver areas, they also had three or more components vying for their use. The at times desperate demand for replacements had also gradually required shortening the training period to keep up with demand. By 1918, the average recruit training period had been shortened by a full month to just eight weeks.

Much has been claimed regarding the benefit of having replacements trained by their “own unit,” vice in the sort of centralized system adopted by the US and others. Unfortunately, a great deal of what has been claimed seems based more on romantic notion than reality. While the theory claims that replacement units were closely related to their field counterparts and, hence replacements trained as the field commander wanted, as the war lengthened, so too did the distance between conditions in the field and those under which soldiers were being trained at home. Units attempted to assign experienced NCOs and officers to the replacement units, but the demands of the front took precedence, and few units were willing to release capable and experienced leaders to return home as instructors when they were needed to lead at the front. Though such policy was incredibly short-sighted, materially affecting the quality of replacements, it is nonetheless completely understandable in the circumstances. In many cases, German replacements were trained by individuals who, though perhaps highly experienced soldiers, had never been at the front and had only the vaguest idea of how to train soldiers to satisfactorily perform in conditions there. Some units never altered their training formula at all, continuing to train soldiers as they had before the war. While extensive use was made in replacement units of wounded personnel no longer fit for front line service, their experience was highly perishable. Conditions—tactics, techniques and procedures—changed rapidly at the front, sometimes overnight. One need only consider, e.g., an NCO who left the front in November 1914 training soldiers in March 1915 based on his combat experience to understand the breadth of the problem. Only a constant rotation of experienced personnel between the front and the training establishment—officially espoused in the doctrine—would have allowed this system to work efficiently; it proved, however, unachievable given the war’s demands, though often paid lip-service. Though well trained by most conventional standards, even toward war’s end, most German replacements lacked the properly realistic training needed to function efficiently on the battlefield. As early as 1915, many units, acknowledging the insufficiently trained status of soldiers arriving from the homefront, were already forming Feldrekrutendepots or Feldersatzbataillone to provided realistic, meaningful training to individuals before sending them into the line. Though located near the front, these elements nonetheless further drained combat efficiency; ad hoc formations not directed by some document to authorized the extra personnel to man them, they were formed from Corps/Division resources at their own internal expense.[9]

A final note regarding the integration of replacements arriving at the front is worth making in closing. In general, replacement operations were generally not made while the unit was in the line. Contrary to popular imagination, units did not continuously occupy front line positions; they were rotated. A division occupying the front line could expect to spend—depending upon conditions—10 to 20 days on the line, following which they would be relieved and moved to a rear area for rest, recovery, and refitting (the subject of another article). Replacement integration was generally conducted as part of that process, for even the best trained replacements needed to be integrated into their unit—and train with it a bit—before they could be expected to achieve the proficiency needed before risking them in combat. Replacements funneled piecemeal into a unit in contact could not be expected to last long. Since units occupying the front normally did not occupy with all forces forward (in German practice, a reserve was always held close behind the front, and was switched out regularly within units to allow short rests), replacements could—even if they needed to be integrated while the unit was in contact—be inserted into the unit in reserve, where some integration training was possible. Additionally, as conditions at the front dictated, personnel were often diverted where most needed irrespective of where they may have been intended to go by the Replacement System. It is not unknown that Reservisten and Landwehrmänner served in regular regiments that needed them badly when they had the misfortune to show up at the front. War, as they say, is hell.


[1] Numbers for the strength of the active Army in July 1914—the eve of war—differ considerably, and the destruction of the Imperial Army’s records during a bombing raid in 1945 (blame the RAF!) probably means a verifiable number will likely never be known. The figure quoted here is on the low end; some sources estimate the active strength as the Army began mobilization at 830,000.

[2]An irony of military service, which often results in death or dismemberment, is that a “perfect specimen” is required as a start point.

[3] Psychiatry and psychology were in their infancy at this time and certainly did not exist in the German Army; mental fitness was generally determined by interviewers convincing themselves the individual was not “feebleminded” (doof). At any time a lack of mental capacity became apparent, including after induction, provisions existed for dismissal. While this sounds like a Vietnam Era draft dodgers dream, the results of such a finding were not desirable, nor inconsequential in Wilhelmine Germany.

[4] In the event the individual wished to travel outside Germany, permission of the Bezirks-Ersatzcomission offices was required, and a notation to that effect was made in the pass. In the event of mobilization while the individual was abroad, he was required to report to the nearest German consulate for instruction.

[5] Modern artillery required the mastering of sophisticated technology and techniques, which necessitated a slower turnover rate in recruits. The German Army steadfastly refused to accept into the cavalry anyone who already knew how to handle a horse (based on the belief ingrained habits were too hard to break). As a result, cavalrymen were taught horsemanship from scratch and likewise incurred a longer active service obligation so as to capitalize on the training. As compensation, the rank Obergefreiter existed only in these branches.

[6] Achievement of officer rank—even if in the Reserve—was a great social leap in Wilhelmine Germany. The commonly held misconception that officers came predominately from the Juncker class greatly distorts the real truth of the officer’s position in German society. Basically, one did not need great social status to become an officer (though it, of course, did not hurt). Rather, great social status was achieved by becoming an officer because of the society’s high regard for the position; even for those not interested in a military career, designation as a reserve officer was extremely useful in business, political and social pursuits. As such, the One Year Volunteer program was extremely popular among the nouveau riche of the industrial class, who had the money, but not the social status to accompany it. Though theoretically no different from a draftee, the One Year Volunteer was, in fact, regarded in the Army as an officer aspirant and treated accordingly. Potential social climbers often went deeply into debt to achieve officer status, taking out huge loans to cover the cost of a year’s stay in the Army. But the program was not a guarantee of an officer’s patent; one still has to apply as a candidate, and could be refused. More than a few One Year Volunteers ended their brief military association as significantly poorer civilians.

[7] In peacetime, the Army operated on a two-year training cycle. Induction only occurred in October, while those completing two years’ service were mustered off active duty into the Reserve in late September. Draftees desiring to reenlist exercised that option—if permitted—and became Unteroffiziere, attaining the status of Berufsoldat (career soldier). Berufsoldaten were permitted to serve a total of twelve years, following which they received a small monthly pension. Those who wished, if qualified, were automatically appointed to the civil service and continued in government service in governmental, postal, or police postings, thereby qualifying for an additional pension upon final retirement.

[8] Unit manning at the 90-95% level is usual in peacetime.

[9] Despite these shortcomings, this is virtually the same system with which the Germans began WWII. Predictably, the same shortcomings occurred with similarly unsatisfactory results, though during that conflict, the Germans reacted in a more timely fashion. By late 1942, individual replacement units (Ersatztruppenteile) for each field unit had been eliminated, and one replacement unit handled the needs of several field units. Manned only by a few cadre members, they were little more than administrative staffs. Draftees were sent from these to Ausbildungstruppenteile, separate training units located mostly in the occupied territories, which conducted centralized basic training. As in the Imperial Army, the purpose of the training was to produce a soldier who, upon graduation, was proficient in basic soldier skills as well as his primary branch function. In the infantry, e.g., that was rifleman; if additional skills were needed (e.g., machinegunner, signalman), it was the responsibility of the field unit to train the individual in those skills.

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