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Webmatters : 1914: French and German conscription

Conscription

The French Conscript

Following the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 the French used a system of ballot for military conscription. At the age of 20 every Frenchman became eligible for Military Service and his name would be subjected to the local ballot.

Those chosen served for two years in an active regiment and then passed into the reserve and later the territorial forces. All in all they would serve for 20 years.

In March 1905 this haphazard method of choosing recruits was changed — every man was now required to complete a total of 25 years service.

On the 7th August 1913 another amendment was introduced. In order to compensate for Germany’s larger population, French Military Service was raised to three years active service and the total extended to 28 years. The war would in all practicalities change everything. Those called up during the war would serve its duration (if they survived of course).

Thus a soldier recruited between 1905 and 1913 would serve for two years with an active regiment — that is, a regiment already in existence. Having completed this term he would pass into the Reserve for 11 years. During this period he would be called back a couple of times to undergo what we would now call refresher courses. If war called he would be mobilised.

Having perused a number of my village’s recruits’ documents it is obvious that the periods of refresher training amounted to just few weeks in total. French reservists were far from being well honed soldiers ready to fight for la Patrie.

At the end of those 11 years the soldier would pass into the Territorial Army (Les pépères in French — the grandads). The soldier remained on the mobilisation list in time of war. At the end of six years he would then pass into the Territorial Reserve for a further six years. In this latter stage he would only be called up in cases of real need.

On the 1st August 1914 France mobilised all of her reserves and territorials.

Maintaining the link with the people

Although military service was removed in 2001, the 20th birthday in France remains the important one for children. There was some debate in France as to whether or not conscription should be continued. Defending the country is fundamental to being French: you live in a free country and it is a duty to defend it. The rationale of having a professional defence force eventually won out.

French children on reaching seventeen are summoned to a Journée d’appelle as it is called. This day long seminar brings them into contact with representatives of all arms of the military. Those that wish can undertake a period of a week or two with a fighting unit to see how they like the life.

An important point about this day with the military is that without the certificate of attendance you cannot work for the Civil Service, or even obtain a driving licence. Even if you have no interest at all in things military, you are still induced to spend a bit of time learning about what they do and why.

 

The German Conscript

This was fairly similar to that of the French Army. In theory males became eligible for service at 17 when they should have entered into one of the Landsturm units (Home defence forces). However this rarely happened (it would have cost a fortune).

Effective military service began then upon a man’s 20th birthday. If the service was in the infantry it was for two years and for three in the cavalry and the artillery.

The soldier then passed into the Reserve for either four or five years according to the number of active years he had just completed.

The big difference between the two opposing armies lies at this stage. The German reservist was required to undergo a fortnights training every year.

For the next eleven years the soldier served in the Landwehr from where he passed (back) into the Landsturm for a further seven years. At the ripe old age of 45 he was no longer eligible for military service.

Like the French it was only intended to call up the Landwehr and Landsturm in time of actual war.
As already mentioned Germany’s population was out pacing that of France but the German military did not expand accordingly. Thus each year there were more twenty year olds than places in the army.

In 1900 therefore the idea of an Ersatz-Reserve came into being. Ersatz means supplement and the Regiments contained those men who for one reason or other had not been called up. They were required to serve for twelve years with the possibility of three training sessions each year (which rarely happened).