"Summer in Florida or Winter in Siberia?"
The late Hans Trefousse (1921-2010), a noted historian of
the Civil War and Reconstruction, with a flock of books to his credit on
subjects such as the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the life of Thaddeus
Stevens, was born into a Jewish family in Frankfurt
in Germany. Shortly after the Nazis came to power, the
family decamped to the United
There, young Hans decided that the best way to become an American was to
study history, and promptly plunged into the academic life.
Having secured a bachelor's in history in 1942, Trefousse
volunteered for the U.S. Army. Following
World War II, he joined the faculty of Brooklyn College. Trefousse retired in 1999, after many years
of distinguished service at Brooklyn and the Graduate School of the City University of New
Trefousse was a very popular professor. As one former student later noted, he
"put historic events in context and told anecdotes about the people
involved, humanizing them. History’s heroes and villains were no longer
two-dimensional to me, as I came to see that they were, like people of today,
motivated by many things—political beliefs, jealousy, bigotry, power, and
Among those anecdotes was one that Trefousse told about his
own time in uniform.
In what must have been a major administrative blunder, the Army
assigned actually Trefousse to do something for which he was perfectly suited,
duty as an intelligence officer, appropriate given his academic training and
his native fluency in German, as well as command of French and even Latin (most
older educated Europeans of the day had some Latin, and it was not uncommon for
two people who lacked any other common language to resort to the so-called
"dead" one). Trefousse's main
job was to follow close behind American forces as they advanced across France and into
interrogating German prisoners, to secure useful information.
Naturally most prisoners were unwilling to reveal anything. But Trefousse had a fool-proof
If a prisoner proved hard to crack, Trefousse would reveal
that he was Jewish, and might not take kindly to being rejected.. He would then hang a sign around the man's neck
reading "Russia." When the prisoner inquired as to what the
sign meant, he was told, “Well, there are prison camps in Florida and in Siberia. You're
going to be sent to Siberia, if you don't
According to Trefousse, the trick worked every time.
Professional Sergeants in the Armies of 1914
The armies that marched off to war in July and August of
1914 were the product of 40 years of major power peace in Europe,
during which everyone kept getting ready for "The Day." Yet few of the troops in these armies were
seasoned combat veterans, and the handful who had seen combat had done so in
colonial wars. To be sure, the British
had a little taste of modern war in South Africa in 1899-1902, and the
Russians had tangled with the Japanese in 1904-1905, but not even these
conflicts, as intense as they were when compared with most colonial wars, were
quite the same as what the troops were to face in 1914. As a result, it was the seasoned,
highly-skilled professional long service sergeants, who had to hold the armies
together, even though most of them had never experienced combat.
With one exception, in 1914 all of the armies were
essentially cadre armies. That is, the
standing peacetime force comprised a permanent cadre of regular officers and sergeants,
which was supplemented by two or three year-classes of conscripts, who, upon
completion of their time "with the colors" passed into the
reserve. Upon mobilization, the standing
force -- the cadre and conscripts -- were joined by enormous numbers of reserve
troops, increasing strength several fold.
For example, in peacetime France maintained active forces of
about 600,000 men, which included the professional cadre plus three
year-classes of conscripts. Upon mobilization
the French Army rose to 1,800,000 first line troops, including the active force
plus the younger classes of reservists, and almost as many more second line and
third line troops.
The exception to this pattern was the British Army, a
regular force that, including the locally recruited Indian Army, numbered no
more than about 250,000 men, all enlisted for six years or more. The British Army, which lacked a large pool
of trained reservists was thus the smallest of the major power armies to go to
war that fateful summer.
Organizationally, the infantry companies of all of these
armies had about the same number of NCOs, including both sergeants and
corporals, roughly about twenty, but all of the corporals and some of the
junior sergeants were usually conscripts.
So it was the professional sergeants who carried the burden. Upon mobilization the younger reservists
would bring the active units to full strength, and thus have the benefit of
serving with career sergeants. But the
vast majority of reservists would be formed into second- and even third-line units,
companies often having no more than one career sergeant transferred from the
active army, while most reserve units would have only men who had been away
from the colors six years or more. Such
men were not usually the equals of their active-duty counterparts. The exception, of course, was the British
Army, in which everyone was a long-service career soldier; given the relative
small size and high standards, even corporals had seen as much service as many
sergeants in most other armies, and the average enlisted man was easily
qualified to be an NCO.
|Professional NCOs per Infantry Company Upon Mobilization,|
|* Includes long-service corporals. |
** Mobilized in early 1915.
*** Mobilized in late-1914.
did not begin to field a mass army until it began raising Lord Kitchener's
"New Army," in 1915 and 1916, it had a decidedly higher proportion of
professional sergeants in infantry companies in the early months of the
war. This number would, of course, fall.
Reflecting on the relative effectiveness of the respective
armies during the war, the importance of the professional sergeants becomes
pretty evident. The armies with the
greatest number of career sergeants in the ranks proved the most effective in