Military Wiki
German Army
Deutsches Heer
Active 1871–1919
Country German Empire
Type Army
Role Protecting the German Empire, and its interests, by using ground and sea assets.

500,000 (Normal)

13,000,000 (World War I)
Colors Flag of the German Empire
Engagements Samoan Civil War
Abushiri Revolt
Second Samoan Civil War
Boxer Rebellion
Adamawa campaign
Herero Wars
Herero and Namaqua Genocide
World War I

The German Army (Deutsches Heer) was the name given to the combined land (and air) forces of the German Empire. The term Deutsches Heer is also used for the modern German Army, the land component of the Bundeswehr. The German Army was formed after the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership in 1871, and dissolved in 1919, after the defeat of the German Empire in World War I.

Formation and name[]

The states which made up the German Empire each had their own separate armies. Within the German Confederation, formed after the Napoleonic Wars, each state was responsible for maintaining certain units to be put at the disposal of the Confederation in case of conflict. When operating together, these units were known as the Federal Army (Bundesheer). The Federal Army system functioned during various conflicts of the 19th century, such as the First Schleswig War in 1848-50, but by the time of the Second Schleswig War of 1864, strains were showing, mainly between the major powers of the confederation, the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. The end of the German Confederation was sealed by the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.


German Army hussars on the attack during maneuvers, 1912.


Draftees of the German Army, 1898.

After this war, a victorious and much enlarged Prussia formed a new confederation, the North German Confederation, which included the states of northern Germany. The treaty that formed the North German Federation provided for the maintenance of a Federal Army and a Federal Navy (Bundesmarine or Bundeskriegsmarine).[1] Further laws on military duty also used these terms.[2] Conventions (some later amended) were entered into between the North German Confederation and its member states, effectively subordinating their armies to Prussia's in time of war, and giving the Prussian Army control over training, doctrine and equipment.[3]

Shortly after the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the North German Confederation also entered into conventions on military matters with states not members of the confederation: Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden.[4] Through these conventions and the constitution of the German Empire of 1871, an Army of the Realm (Reichsheer) was born. The contingents of the Bavarian, Saxon and Württemberg kingdoms remained semi-autonomous, while the Prussian Army assumed almost total control over the armies of the other states of the Empire. The constitution of the German Empire, dated April 16, 1871, changed references in the North German Constitution from Federal Army to either Army of the Realm ("Reichsheer") or German Army ("Deutsches Heer").[5]

Even after 1871 the peacetime armies of the four kingdoms remained relatively distinct. "German Army" was used in various legal documents such as the Military Penal Code,[6] but otherwise the Prussian, Bavarian, Saxon and Württemberg armies maintained distinct identities. Each kingdom had its own War Ministry, Bavaria and Saxony published their own rank and seniority lists for their officers, and Württemberg's was a separate chapter of the Prussian army rank lists. Württemberg and Saxon units were numbered according to the Prussian system though, while Bavarian units maintained their own (thus, the 2nd Württemberg Infantry Regiment was Infantry Regiment No. 120 under the Prussian system).

Command and control[]

The overall commander of the Imperial German Army, less the Bavarian contingent, was the Kaiser. He was assisted by a German Imperial Military Cabinet, and exercised control through the Ministry of War and the Great General Staff. The Chief of the General Staff became the Kaiser's main military advisor and effectively the most powerful military figure in the Empire. Bavaria maintained its own Ministry of War and its own Royal Bavarian Army General Staff, but coordinated planning with the Prussian Great General Staff.

The command and control system of the Prussian Army had been heavily reformed in the wake of the defeats suffered by Prussia in the Napoleonic Wars. Rather than rely primarily on the martial skills of the individual members of the German nobility, who dominated the military profession, the Prussian Army instituted a series of reforms to ensure excellence in leadership, organization and planning at all levels of command. The General Staff system, an institution that sought to institutionalize military excellence, was the main result. It sought to identify military talent at the lower levels and develop it thoroughly through academic training and practical experience as planners on division, corps and higher staffs, up to the Great General Staff, the senior planning body of the army. It provided effective planning and organizational work during peacetime and wartime. The Prussian General Staff, proven in battle in the Wars of Unification, became effectively the German General Staff upon formation of the German Empire, given Prussia's leading role in the German Army.

Chiefs of the German General Staff (1871–1919)[]



German cavalry division on maneuvers, 1912

Autumnal military exercise 1912 / Reenactment Roscheider Hof Open Air Museum, Konz

The basic peacetime organizational structure of the Imperial German Army was based around the Army inspectorate (Armee-Inspektion), the army corps (Armeekorps), the division, and the regiment. During wartime, the staff of the Army inspectorates formed field army commands, which controlled the corps and subordinate units. During World War I, a higher command level, the army group (Heeresgruppe) was created. Each army group controlled several field armies.

Army inspectorate[]

Germany, with the exception of Bavaria, was divided into army inspectorates. There were five in 1871, with three more added between 1907 and 1913.[7] The Bavarian Ministry of War maintained its own command, which functioned as the inspectorate for that kingdom. Each inspectorate would be considered the equivalent of an army area and controlled a number of corps.

After World War I began, armies were formed from the army inspectorates. They included:


The basic organizational formation was the army corps. The corps consisted of two or more divisions and various support troops, and covered a specific geographical area. The corps was also responsible for maintaining the reserves and Landwehr in the corps area. By 1914, there were twenty-one army corps areas under Prussian jurisdiction and three Bavarian army corps. Besides the regional corps, there was also a Guard Corps (Gardecorps), which controlled Prussia's elite Guard units. Besides the divisions, a corps generally included a light infantry (Jäger) battalion, a heavy artillery (Fußartillerie) battalion, an engineer battalion, a telegraph battalion and a trains battalion. Some corps areas also disposed of fortress troops; each of the 25 corps had a Field Aviation Unit (Feldflieger Abteilung) attached to it.[8] In wartime, the army corps became a mobile tactical formation. The corps area became a rear area for the corps, responsible for training and equipping replacement troops and other duties. Also, to the regular army corps, reserve corps were formed on mobilization in 1914, and were joined by additional corps as World War I progressed.


The basic tactical formation was the division. A standard Imperial German division consisted of two infantry brigades of two regiments each, a cavalry brigade of two regiments, and an artillery brigade of two regiments. One of the divisions in a corps area usually also managed the corps Landwehr region (Landwehrbezirk). In 1914, besides the Guard Corps (two Guard divisions and a Guard cavalry division), there were 42 regular divisions in the Prussian Army (including four Saxon divisions and two Württemberg divisions), and six divisions in the Bavarian Army.

These divisions were all mobilized in August 1914. They were reorganized, receiving engineer companies and other support units from their corps, and giving up most of their cavalry to form cavalry divisions. Reserve divisions were also formed, Landwehr brigades were aggregated into divisions, and other divisions were formed from replacement (Ersatz) units. As World War I progressed, additional divisions were formed, and by wars' end, 251 divisions had been formed or reformed in the German Army's structure.


The regiment was the basic combat unit as well as the recruiting base for soldiers. When inducted, a soldier entered a regiment, usually through its replacement battalion, and received his basic training. There were three basic types of regiment: infantry, cavalry and artillery. Other specialties, such as pioneers (combat engineers) and signal troops, were organized into smaller support units. Regiments also carried the traditions of the army, in many cases stretching back into the 17th and 18th centuries. After World War I, regimental traditions were carried forward in the Reichswehr and its successor, the Wehrmacht, but the chain of tradition was broken in 1945 as West German and East German units did not carry forward pre-1945 traditions.

Air Force[]

The Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte, known before 1916 as Die Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches (Imperial German Flying Troops),[9] was the over-land air arm of the German military during World War I (1914–1918). Although its name actually means something very close to "The German Air Force" it remained an integral part of the German army for the duration of the war.

Ranks of the Imperial German Army[]

The German Army from 1871 to 1914 inherited the various traditions and military ranks of its constituent states, thus becoming a truly federal armed service.

Enlisted (Mannschaften/Gemeine) ranks[]

Additionally, the following voluntary enlistees were distinguished:

  • One-Year Volunteer Enlistee (Einjährig-Freiwilliger); was a voluntary short-term form of active military service and designation open for enlistees up to the age of 25. Such volunteer enlisted soldiers were usually high school graduates (Matura, Abitur), who would volunteer to serve a one-year term rather than the regular two or three-year conscription term, with free selection of their chosen military service branch and unit, but throughout were obligated to equip and subsist themselves at entirely their own cost. In today's monetary value this could at bare minimum cost some 10,000 Euro, which purposely reserved this path open to officer-material sons from mostly affluent social class families wishing to pursue the Reserve-Officer path; it was the specific intention of Wilhelm II that such Reserve-Officer career path should only be open to members of so-called "officer-material" social classes.[12] On absolving their primary recruit training and shorter military service term, those aspiring to become Reserve-Officers would have to qualify and achieve suitability for promotion to the Gefreiter rank and then would continue to receive further specialized instruction until the end of their one-year term, usually attaining and leaving as surplus Corporals (überzählige Unteroffiziere) (Reservists), with the opportunity to advance further as reservists. Enlistees who did not aspire to officer grade would leave at the end of their one-year term as Gemeine[13] (Ordinary soldier) enlisted rank (for example Musketier or Infanterist) and a six-year reserve duty obligation.[12] Eligibility for this specific one-year path of military service was a privilege approved upon examining the enlistee's suitability and academic qualifications.
  • Long-Term Volunteer Enlistee "Capitulant" (Kapitulant); were enlisted soldiers who had already absolved their regular two or three-year military conscription term and had now volunteered to continue serving for further terms, minimum was 4 years, generally up to 12 years.[12][14]

Note: Einjährig-Freiwilliger and Kapitulant were not ranks as such during this specific period of use, but voluntary military enlistee designations. They however, wore a specific uniform distinction (twisted wool piping along their shoulder epaulette edging for Einjährig-Freiwilliger, the Kapitulant a narrow band across their lower shoulder epaulette) in the colours of their respective nation state. This distinction was never removed throughout their military service nor during any rank grade advancements.

Non-commissioned officers and warrant officers / Unteroffiziere[]

Junior NCOs (NCOs without the lanyard) / Unteroffizier ohne Portepee[]

Senior NCOs (NCOs with the lanyard) / Unteroffizier mit Portepee[]

Warrant Officers and Officer Cadets[]

Officer corps[]

Subalterns / Hauptleute ("Head Men")[]

Field Officers / Stabsoffiziere (“Staff Officers”)[]

General Officers / Herrenvolk ("Gentlemen")[]


The Imperial Army was abolished on 6 March 1919, and the provisional Reichswehr was created.[15]

See also[]


  1. - Verfassung des Norddeutschen Bundes (16.04.1867)
  2. - Gesetz, betreffend die Verpflichtung zum Kriegsdienste (09.11.1867)
  3. These were:
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde (bzw. Preußen) und Sachsen vom 7. Februar 1867
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Hessen vom 13. Juni 1871 (Ersatz für die vom 7. April 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Mecklenburg-Schwerin vom 19. Dezember 1872 (Ersatz für die von 24. Juni 1868)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Mecklenburg-Strelitz vom 23. Dezember 1872 (Ersatz für die vom 9. November 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Oldenburg vom 15. Juni 1867
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Braunschweig vom9./18. März 1886
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde einerseits und Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach, Sachsen-Altenburg, Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha, Sachsen-Meiningen, Reuß ältere Linie, Reuß jüngere Linie und Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt vom 15. September 1873
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Anhalt vom 16. September 1873 (Ersatz für die vom 28. Juni 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Schwarzburg-Sondershausen vom 17. September 1873 (Ersatz für die vom 28. Juni 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Lippe vom 14. November 1873 (Ersatz für die vom 26. Juni 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Schaumburg-Lippe vom 25. September 1873 (Ersatz für die vom 30. Juni 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Waldeck vom 24. November 1877 (Ersatz für die vom 6. August 1867)
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Lübeck vom 27. Juni 1867
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Bremen vom 27. Juni 1867
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Hamburg vom 23. Juli 1867
  4. These were:
    • Artikel III. § 5 of the Bundesvertrag vom 23. November 1870 mit Bayern
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Baden vom 25. November 1870
    • Militärkonvention zwischen dem Norddeutschen Bunde und Württemberg vom 25. November 1870
  5. - Verfassung des Deutschen Reichs
  6. Militär-Strafgesetzbuch für das Deutsche Reich
  7. Günter Wegner, Stellenbesetzung der deutschen Heere 1815-1939. (Biblio Verlag, Osnabrück, 1993), Bd. 1, pp.33-36
  8. van Wyngarden, G (2006). Early German Aces of World War I, Osprey Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-84176-997-5
  9. Grey and Thetford, P.xxix
  10. Duden; Origin and meaning of "Korporal", in German. [1]
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Gefreiter" - Allgemeine Encyclopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste, Erste Section, A-G, (Universal Encyclopaedia of the Sciences and Arts, First Section, A-G), Author: Johann Samuel Ersch and Johann Gottfried Gruber, Publisher: F. A. Brockhaus, Leipzig, 1852, Page 471-472, in German. [2]
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 4th Edition, Volume 6, Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig 1885–1892, Page 659. in German Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "MY2" defined multiple times with different content
  13. Duden; Definition of "Gemeine", in German. [3]
  14. Duden; Definition of "Kapitulant", in German. [4]
  15. Edmonds, James (1987). The Occupation of the Rhineland. London: HMSO. p. 213. ISBN 0-11-290454-8. 

External links[]

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