The Early Imperial German Army
Dr. Gavin Hughes

'Twelfth Company - foward, march!'
- Anon. German officer, advancing under fire, late August 1914, at Vosges.


The Renegade range of World War One figures captures the spirit of the early war perfectly and the models of German infantry skirmishing are the very essence of those regiments sent reeling into Belgium to enact the Schlieffen Plan. Here is a brief guide and background to the regiments of 'field-greys', which will hopefully give you a few ideas of how to use them on your wargames table...

Upon the Outbreak of war, the Imperial German Army had twenty-five German Army Corps and each was its own 'little army'; independent to a certain extent and fully self-reliant with its own supporting services. For example, the VII Army Corps encompassed the Westphalia Military District, used for recruiting and administration purposes, and had its headquarters in Munster. Meanwhile, the III Army Corps covered the Brandenburg Military District and had its headquarters in Berlin, whilst the XII Army Corps came from Eastern Saxony and had its headquarters in Dresden. Each Corps Commander was based at these headquarters and had complete control of the force and district at his disposal. He was answerable to the Kaiser alone.

In 1914, the German Army's estimated strength was approximately 840,000 men from all arms of service. Yet, the mainstay of the Army Corps remained the massed infantry regiments from throughout the German Empire. Each infantry Regiment possessed three battalions, logically numbered I, II and III - with each battalion formed from four Companies, numbered one to twelve throughout the Regiment. There was also an additional Machine Gun Company but these were considered to be independent of the other companies, being of a different strength and structure. These Machine-gun Companies were numbered 1, 2 and 3 throughout the entire regiment.

The numbering of the twelve regimental companies was in addition to any title that a regiment may have and, indeed, even companies within a regiment may have. As an example of this in practice, the 6th Westphalians were also known as the 3rd Company in the 2nd Battalion of the 55th Infantry Regiment! Uniform distinctions between units in a regiment were mainly based upon the colour of their bayonet knot (see below for details). The Companies were then further divided into three Platoons ('zugen') led by a senior NCO or junior officer, numbered 1-3 and with 4 Sections ('korporalschaften') to each Platoon. These sections were commanded by a corporal and were numbered 1-12 throughout the Company. The smallest subdivision of the German Army was the 9 man Squad, including its squad leader (a lance-corporal), two of which made up the Section. This made German platoons considerably larger than their British equivalent, over twice their size. Generally speaking, the strength of Companies on wartime service was 5 officers, 259 other ranks, 10 horses and 4 wagons and they were commanded by a Captain or a Lieutenant.

Renegade models have a great deal of variety (including cuff distinctions for Saxon, Brandenburg, Swedish and French styles) allowing them to be painted to recreate most Infantry, Guard, Reserve or Landwehr Regiments. As there are many excellent books available on uniform details for the early-war Imperial German Army (and some are given at the end!) only a brief guide is given here. Firstly, the infantry uniform was generally 'field-grey' (a lighter and less 'green' grey than used by their successors in WW2) although some specialist infantry units, notably Mountain Troops and Jagers wore a uniform of a 'green-grey' colour. Helmet covers were officially of 'rush-green', although in practice this meant a combination of grey-light khaki, with the numbers of the Regiment stencilled on the front in either red or green. Equipment was of brown leather, although by early to mid-1915 some units had 'blackened' their equipment and from this time onward it became the generally standard colour. If you wish to recreate the German Landwehr troops from August 1914 to early 1915, the uniforms are very similar with the addition of a 'Landwehr cross' on the helmet cover (Reservists had the letter 'R' and their regimental number).

Distinctions between units in the German Army were, typically, rather confusing but entirely logical; the tunic shoulder straps bore the number of the Regiment (as did the helmet cover), whilst other distinctions within the regiment were demonstrated by different colourings in the bayonet knot. The strap and fringe were always white, the 'body' colour changed with the Battalion number (white for 1, red for 2, yellow for 3) and only the knot itself ('troddel') and crown of the fringe changed colour to denote Company. Luckily, both crown and knot were the same colour for each of the twelve Companies in a Regiment and were as follows: the first company in each battalion wore white (1st, 5th and 9th), the second company wore red (2nd, 6th, 10th), the third wore yellow (3rd, 7th, 11th) and the fourth company wore blue (4th, 8th, 12th). They may be a bit fiddly to paint - but if you happen to wargame small skirmish actions it may be fun to take small platoons from a regiment and give them their own unique appearance!

One of the most distinctive features of German Infantry during the early months of the war was the mass of equipment carried on their backs. This included rolled tents, blankets, standard backpack, mess utensils, entrenching tool, bayonet and so on. Their heavily laden appearance was noted at the time by British military newspaper correspondents who, rather optimistically, believed such clutter would 'seriously interfere with their mobility'. As one anonymous German officer recalled, his men once in full marching order had little chance advancing against a well defended position: "...we did not advance very far... Such a murderous volley burst upon us from their machine-guns, that we had to fling ourselves down flat... It was out of the question to answer their fire... I only hear a terrific patter of bullets and suppressed groans of my men..." ( 24th April 1915, Navy & Army Illustrated, p.13) Despite this, the terrific fighting spirit of the early-war German infantry was shown by its huge involvement at Mons, Tannenberg, the Marne, Aisne and First and Second Ypres. Mons has often been cited as a classic engagement and, within it, there are many possibilities for wargaming smaller actions.

One such action might be the battle for St. Ghislain, on the long straight western bank of the Mons-Conde canal. This position was held by the Royal West Kents and throughout the 23rd August, masses of German infantry threw themselves against the British defences here on the western edge. At Mons itself, the Germans eventually entered the town at nearly five o'clock, fighting street by street as the British fell back. However, the western length of the canal bank held on, waiting for the order to retire back to the new line ( at the mining villages of Paturages and Frameries), fighting off the German attacks until darkness came. As dusk fell, the Royal West Kents were surprised to hear German Buglers sound 'Cease-fire' and then, moments later, they heard the strains of 'Deutschland Uber Alles', sung with gusto, drifting across the canal. The West Kents answered with catcalls and good-hearted abuse - knowing that, as the night descended, they had inflicted terrible casualties on the Germans. Although it was true that the West Kents had taken approximately 100 casualties, the Germans, singing across to them from the northern bank, had been decimated. They were men from the 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers; they had lost nearly 500 men in the day's action but were still defiant. This defiance and courage was greatly appreciated by the Tommies on the opposite side of the bank who knew that, whilst they were now in the process of Retreat, they had sent their own defiant message to the Kaiser.

Suggested further reading:

The following are excellent introductions to the Imperial German Army:

Fostern, D.S.V. and Marrion, R.J. - The German Army, 1914-1918, (Osprey, No.80, 1978)

Mollo, A. - Army Uniforms of World War One (Blandford, 1977)

Nash, D. - German Infantry, 1914-1918 (Almark, 1970)

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