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Short Rounds

"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 States.  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 York.

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 sex."

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 Germany, interrogating German prisoners, to secure useful information.

Naturally most prisoners were unwilling to reveal anything.  But Trefousse had a fool-proof convincer. 

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 talk."

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,
July-August 1914
ArmyNumber
Austro-Hungarian3
British22*
French6
German12
Italian**3
Ottoman ***1
Russian2
* Includes long-service corporals.
** Mobilized in early 1915.
*** Mobilized in late-1914.

As Britain 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 the field.

 


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