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Profile - The Armies of 1914

By 1914 mass armies and conscription were the norm in Europe, save in Britain, which relied on a small, volunteer professional force, backed by a volunteer reserve system.  But even the British Army had a surprising number of short-service men in the ranks: When the 120,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force landed in France, about a third of them had been in uniform for two years or less, and the ranks had been filled out with reservists, some of whom had not seen active service in several years.  Britain aside, all of the great powers maintained enormous armies, the “ideal” being that a country should be able to field one or two divisions for every million inhabitants.  So in addition to active forces of great size, this ideal required the armies to have large reserve components. 

This table outlines the field strengths of all the European armies in terms of manpower, divisions, and independent brigades that could be expected to be available 30 days from mobilization in 1914.  For those countries that became belligerents in August of 1914, these are the forces that fought the opening rounds of the war.  In most armies combat strength was only about 50 percent of mobilization strength, so for the large countries the manpower figures should be doubled to get some idea of total number of troops under arms, and then some allowance must be made for naval personnel.

Country Pop. Troops Infantry Cavalry Note
  Mllns Tsnds Divs Bdes Divs Bdes  
Albania 0.8 100.0 - - - - A
Austria-Hungary 52.8 1,338.0 63 5 14 - B
Belgium 7.5 160.0 9 - 1 - C
Britain 46.1 250.0 7 1 1 1 D
Bulgaria 4.9 300.0 12 7 1 1  
Denmark 2.8 85.0 3 - 1 -  
France 41.0 1,800.0 85 5 10 1 E
Germany 65.0 2,147.0 89 27 11 -  
Greece 5.5 150.0 8 - 1 -  
Italy 36.5 916.3 35 ? 4 - F
Montenegro 0.5 60.0 4 - - -  
Netherlands 6.2 100.0 6 - 1 - G
Norway 3.0 70.0 7 - - -  
Portugal 7.9 150 6 - 2 - H
Romania 7.5 300.0 10 1 2 5  
Russia 166.0 2,500.0 114 ? 36 ? I
Serbia 4.5 250 11 4 2 -  
Spain 19.9 300.0 14 3 1 3 J
Sweden 5.7 200.0 6 - 1 -  
Switzerland 3.9 250.0 6 - - 4  
Turkey 24.0 490.0 36 - 4 - K
Key:  Pop, population in millions, excluding colonies or, in the case of Britain, the Dominions.  Troops includes only combat troops immediately available for field service, in millions, with first line reservists, but excluding colonial troops serving abroad.  Divs, divisions, usually of 14,000-18,000 men in the infantry, 3,500-4,500 in the cavalry.  Bdes, separate brigades, usually about a third or half the strength of a division, with some exceptions.  Notes, additional comments shown below:

A.     All estimates.  Created in 1913, by 1914 Albania had no real army, aside from a small royal guard and a militia.

B.     Includes field units of the “Common Army,” Austrian Landwehr, and Hungarian Honved

C.     Three infantry divisions were actually fortress troops.

D.     Population figures are for the UK proper, excluding colonies and Dominions.  Military figures exclude the Indian Army (five infantry and two cavalry divisions), stationed in India, and the Dominions, which had only small active forces in any case.  Indian and Commonwealth troops only began to become available at the end of 1914.

E.      Including four divisions and one brigade mobilized in North Africa, for service in Europe.

F.      There were a number of independent brigades of light infantry (bersaglieri) and mountain troops (Alpini).  Four infantry divisions were in Libya.

G.     Excluding the East Indian Army.

H.     Excluding the African Army.

I.       More precise figures are impossible to obtain.

J.       Considerable forces were in Morocco.

K.     On paper combat strength was about double the figure given.

As more and more classes of reservists were called up and volunteers clocked to the colors up, the armies got larger.  The French tended to use these additional personnel to maintain existing formations, so by the end of 1914 they had only added four divisions, bringing their army to 89 infantry active divisions, better than the two-per-million inhabitants, while the Germans used these new troops to create 23 new divisions, bringing their total to 112, closing in on the two-per-million.  And tiny Serbia outdid them both, adding five new divisions, to make 16 division, four per million inhabitants, a maximal effort

By the end of 1914 France had put roughly 4 million men under arms, all trained and equipped, about 10 percent of the population, and was calling up fresh conscripts.  By the eve of the war, 58.4 percent of Frenchmen between the ages of 21 and 60 had received military training, the highest military participation ratio (MPR) of any major European power, the German figure was 48 percent, followed by Russia with 43.6 percent, Austria-Hungary with 34 percent, and Italy with 30.2 percent.

Of course even for the times France's effort was prodigious.  In peacetime France kept nearly 2 percent of its people on active duty.  Most other powers made do with armed forces that were statistically smaller.  Austria-Hungary, for example, had only about 0.7 percent of her people under arms in peacetime, Russia but 0.8 percent, and Germany about 1 percent.  These countries were more populous than France, which had to confront the fact that Germany had 50 percent more people.  So each year a greater proportion of Frenchmen performed compulsory military service than did the citizens of any other major power, and in 1913 the French authorized a change from a two year compulsory active duty period to a three year requirement, to keep parity with Germany.   

By way of comparison, consider that in the late-1980s, toward the end of the Cold War the U.S. had about 2.25 million active military personnel, slightly less than 1 percent of the population, and even if all reserve and National Guard components were mobilized, the total of men and women under arms would have risen to only about 3.3 million, or 1.4 percent of the population; proportionately less than the 2 percent that France had on peacetime active duty in 1914. 

Although the standing armies of 1914 seem large by modern standards, mobilization of additional forces began immediately and all of the armies expanded enormously during the war. Despite horrendous casualties.  By the war’s end, about 80-percent of French and German men had served in uniform, as had about 75-percent of Austro-Hungarian men, some 50- to 60-percent of Britons, Serbs, and Ottoman subjects, and perhaps 40-percent of Russians.

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