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Joseph P. Robinson  10 Aug. 2004

This book written in 1902-3, was banned in Germany , and the author found himself the object of courts martial. .  The book was banned as it “libeled superior officers.”  True, but was generally admitted to be common course by the Minister of War after the trial.  The maladies pointed out generally follow what I have learned of Prussian Officers. The author, Lt Bilse, detailed what he saw as horrible problems in a society of the elite officers in a remote garrison in Alsace-Lorraine.


It is not that different from life in a US garrison town in Germany in the late 20th century. The 1904 English translation missed the key word small garrison. While much is made of the omission, you get the idea easily. The contents while allegedly fictional, were easy to spot as the garrison of  Forbach.  You get the impression this is some sort of cavalry organization but it is the home of 10. Lothringisches Infanterie-Regiment Nr.174 after 1911, and train battalion earlier then that. The book was based on a Train Battalion. Why there was such an effort in the book to cover the regimental name in the part of the book that covers the trial of Bilse.? I do not know however, there is definitely an avoidance of who, what, where, and when.

The issues uncovered in “fiction” were:

  1. A regimental commander (Similar to a modern US Battalion commander.) who made what Bilse considered unreasonable decisions.
  2. A regimental commander who was blackmailed under the sway of a subordinate’s dominant wife.
  3. Unfaithful wives and officers.
  4. Officers in horrible debt.
  5. An officer who lied leading to the undeserved punishment of an OR.
  6. Abusive treatment of an OR.
  7. A senior NCO who lied leading to the trial and dismissal of another NCO.
  8. A Senior NCO “on the take”.
  9. An officer who deserted and ran away with another officer’s wife.

#1 – 3 are fairly standard complaints. Juniors frequently despise and judge seniors (right and wrong) and marital infidelity exists in all parts of society. (Janet would cut my ears off though). What is not standard is that Prussians were expected to duel to avenge their

honor.  Dueling had been outlawed by the Kaiser (in an effort to keep up numbers in a chronically short officer’s corps). If you did duel you would be sentenced to fortress arrest for a couple months as it was illegal. If you chose not to duel you would be found a coward by a regimental court of honor and drummed out of the service for conduct unbecoming.  Fortress arrest was always for choice. You had no choice but to duel if you wanted to stay in the army. The book relates a sad story of a captain whose wife ran away after a torrid affair with a lieutenant. The captain was obliged to challenge the lieutenant to a duel to defend the honor of his now missing wife. During the duel the captain was horribly wounded and had to be medically pensioned.  So he lost wife, family, income, health and job. Once again the unhappy couple picture that dominate German marriages come to light.


#4 seems to be endemic of Prussian Officers. Marriage was done with income in mind. The father in law was expected to pay off the officer groom’s debts and the bride was expected to bring monthly income into the marriage. Bilse painted a picture of unhappy wives in many cases. In one case a lieutenant finds his wife to be incapable of providing the income he needs to live. Officer salaries provided almost no income to the family and in the small garrison leisure was spent at the officer’s casino where gambling took place. In debt officers often turned to Jews for lending.  This social group was then badly besmirched and anti Semitism grew as moneylenders were blamed for all financial problems. One story is of a lieutenant who bought 10,000 marks of furniture on credit, borrowed against it, and then sold it!  When the creditors collided a judge had to make peace.

#5 seems unsurprising.

#6 was strictly forbidden in the Prussian Army. The victim was extremely hesitant to say anything for fear of worse punishment. He tells the story of an abused batman who deserted rather than take more abuse. I have seen Ukrainian officers in the 90’s literally beat the heck out of an OR for making a mistake. Such behavior was forbidden.

#7. seems unsurprising.

#8 while unsurprising, is interesting in that he successfully targeted: One Year Volunteers (OYVs). Not only would he hit them as recruits but would accept payment annually during training, from some to lessen the severity of their duties. (This is the first time it dawned on me that OYVs did annual duty.  Makes sense just never thought about it.)

#9.  Rare but I’ve seen it. Even from a combat zone!!!!

So all in all I’d say much ado about little.  A good fast read but not a lot of helmet details.  What has become obvious is that officers moved.  Transfers and moves in disgrace were common. So more support for double holes of officers. Staying in an out of the way regiment was not career enhancing. Getting in trouble or bringing negative attention to your unit was bad. Some things never change.