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Profile - Infantry Divisions of 1914

By the twentieth century virtually all armies had adopted some variation of the rigid “Prussian” model of military organization. That is, the field forces were organized into permanent army corps almost invariably consisting of two infantry divisions plus some supporting artillery and other formations. Even in cases where a corps had three divisions, each division consisted of two brigades of two regiments (usually of three or four battalions) plus an artillery brigade and some divisional troops. While there was some variation from army to army (the British division, for example, had three brigades of four battalions each), in most cases divisions ran some 14,000 to 18,000 troops.

The two tables found below look at the number of infantry divisions available on each of the two major fronts from mobilization until the end of 1914.

Infantry Divisions on Hand: The Western Front, 1914. The table summarizes the number of infantry divisions available to each of the Western Front combatants on the Sunday of each week from the onset of mobilization to the end of December, by which time trench warfare had set in. All types of infantry divisions have been included here, active, reserve, territorial, and militia formations. The table excludes the three Belgian garrison divisions locked up in Antwerp, Liege, and Namur, and the six German Ersatzdivisionen (replacement divisions) that actually ended up at the Front. There were also many independent brigades, which often had no support services or artillery: Germany had 27 Landwehr (territorial) or Landsturm (militia) brigades, France had five independent regular brigades, and Britain one. Forces not present in the theatre of operations are omitted. Thus, the table does not include forces in the United Kingdom and the empire until they arrived in northwestern Europe, nor French forces in North Africa or on the Italian frontier, until they were committed on the main Front.

Several different factors influenced the changes in the number of divisions available at any particular time. The numbers could change because of the activation of new units or the dissolution of existing ones, whether administratively or through combat. In addition, some divisions moved into the war zone from abroad during the campaign, while some actually left the theatre of operations for other areas or fronts. For example, once Italian neutrality became evident, France moved six divisions deployed along or near the Alps to the main front, and as active army divisions arrived from North Africa, territorial divisions had to be transferred to replace them on colonial duty. The three Belgian fortress divisions aside, no divisions were destroyed in combat during this period, though some lost so heavily as to become “combat ineffective.” As these are net figures, although the French raised two new divisions in the week ending of August 30, they also disbanded two, with the result that no change appears in the number of divisions.

Date Belg Brit Fr Allied West Ger West Ger All
2-Aug 6 - 75 81 71 83
9-Aug 6 - 79 85 71 83
16-Aug 6 4 79 89 71 83
23-Aug 6 5 85 96 71 83
30-Aug 6 5 85 96 69 83
6-Sep 6 5 85 96 73 89
13-Sep 6 6 86 98 73 89
20-Sep 6 6 87 99 73 89
27-Sep 6 7 89 102 74 89
4-Oct 6 7 88 101 74 89
11-Oct 6 9 88 103 75 91
18-Oct 6 10 88 104 85 103
25-Oct 6 10 88 104 85 103
1-Nov 6 10 90 106 86 104
8-Nov 6 10 89 105 86 104
15-Nov 6 10 88 104 87 105
22-Nov 6 10 88 104 87 105
29-Nov 6 10 88 104 87 105
6-Dec 6 10 88 104 91 112
13-Dec 6 10 89 105 91 112
20-Dec 6 10 89 105 87 112
27-Dec 6 11 89 106 87 112
Note: Abbreviations are Belg, Belgian; Brit, British; Fr, French; Ger, German. Figures should be considered approximate, as some divisions may been only partially in place on the date indicated. “Ger All” is the total number of infantry divisions in the imperial army, including those on the Eastern Front plus a few not yet committed to either front on the date indicated.

The influence of the so-called “Schlieffen Plan” on German deployments is evident in the figures for the first few weeks of the campaign, during which the proportion of the Imperial Army committed to the West was greatest. But even then, the German Army did not approach parity with Allied forces; the Germans had only 87.7 percent of the forces arrayed against them, 71 divisions to 81, still seeking to encircle their enemies with an inferior force. So right from the start of the campaign in the West the Germans were inferior to the Allies, and the degree of their inferiority grew through the end of the year.

Germany increased the number of its infantry divisions rather markedly by the end of 1914, fully a third, in contrast to the number in the French Army, which increased by less than a fifth. The Germans chose to use their surplus reservists, new conscripts, and volunteers to form new units, and even inactivated part of the fleet to find enough officers and men to form the two-division Marinekorps Flandern for occupation duty and operations on the Belgian Coast. In contrast, the French more often used their surplus reservists, new conscripts, and volunteers to keep their existing units up to strength.

The German policy was counterproductive, as many regular and reserve formations at the front were eroding away and could have benefitted from additional manpower. This decision was particularly egregious in the case of the six ersatzdivisonen. These were composed of small cadres of regular or reserve troops and large numbers of barely trained volunteers and conscripts. Hastily sent to the Front, at Ypres they suffered terribly, giving rise to the tale of young men going into battle singing “Deutschland über alles” as they were cut down by Allied fire. The French practice not only kept existing units closer to full strength, but also meant that because the poorly trained or untrained reservists and volunteers were placed alongside veteran troops, they were able to receive some on-the-job training. This was rather like the amalgame that a century-and-a-quarter earlier had made the hastily-raised armies of the French Revolution so effective, by integrating volunteers and conscripts with troops from the old Royal Army.

Infantry Divisions on Hand: The Eastern Fronts, 1914. For various reasons, such as postwar turmoil in several of the countries involved, it’s more difficult to get firm figures for divisional accessions on the Balkan, Eastern, and Caucasus fronts. So this table gives approximate figures for the end of each month.

Date Ger All Ger East A-H Turk CP East Allies East Rus Serb Mtng Brit
31-Jul - - 63 - 63 43 28 11 4 -
31-Aug 83 14 63 - 77 76 56 16 4 -
30-Sep 89 15 64 - 79 102 82 16 4 -
31-Oct 104 18 65 - 83 122 102 16 4 -
30-Nov 105 19 74 37 123 128 108 16 4 1
31-Dec 112 25 74 c. 40 ~138 134 114 16 4 4
Note: Abbreviations Ger, German; AH, Austro-Hungarian; Turk, Turkish; Russ, Russian, Serb, Serbian, Mtng, Montenegran; Brit, British.. Figures are approximate. “CP East” is the total of Central Powers divisions available for the several eastern fronts, Russia, the Balkans, or the Caucasus, and in the case of the Turks also in Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, Thrace, and Anatolia. Outside of the Russians in the Caucasus, the only Entente forces confronting Turkish troops were a British Indian division in Mesopotamia toward the end of the year and two newly formed Indian divisions and an Australian division training in Egypt.

As was the case on the Western Front, most of these armies had varying numbers of independent infantry brigades. The Russians, for example, had nearly 50: 14 Siberian rifle brigades, 4 Finnish rifle brigades, 3 Caucasian infantry brigades, 20 separate brigades, 6 reserve brigades, etc. In most armies, such independent brigades were often subsequently reorganized as divisions.

On both tables, the number of divisions indicated for the end of 1914 includes only those at or near the fronts. Most of the armies had more divisions than are shown on the tables, but some were not available for immediate service at the front. For example, on paper, at the end of 1914 the British Empire had about 82 infantry divisions:

  • The British Army, nearly 70 divisions: Eight regular army divisions were at the Front in France and Belgium, with the Royal Naval Division. In addition, there were 14 divisions of Territorials (rather like the American National Guard) and one new regular army division in training, which began becoming available for front line service early in 1915. There were also about 45 “New Army” or “Kitchener” divisions, in various stages of organization, most with little training, the first of which would begin to deploy in mid-1915.
  • The Indian Army, 11 infantry divisions: Two were in France and one in Mesopotamia, two more were training in Egypt, and the remaining six were on security duty in India, where they would remain for the duration.
  • The Australian Army, 1 division: Training in Egypt.
  • The Canadian Army, 1 division: Training in the U.K.

So while on paper by the end of 1914 Britain and its Commonwealth and Empire had about 82 infantry divisions, only 12 were actually at the Front somewhere.

Raising New Divisions. Almost as soon as mobilization was completed, all of the combatants began raising additional divisions, as more reservists became available and as men volunteered. But divisions raised during the campaign were often less well equipped than those mobilized its start and certainly less well-trained. As the tables above demonstrate, the French raised relatively few new divisions during the campaign, preferring to keep their existing divisions close to full strength. The Germans raised more new divisions than did the French, which meant, of course, that the older divisions tended to grow weaker during the campaign. The British raised more divisions than anyone else, largely because they started the war with so few.

Troops in newly raised units were often commanded by overage or very junior officers with few, if any, professional non-commissioned officers, which meant their training was usually deficient. They were often issued older rifles, and often had fewer machine guns and artillery pieces, and those usually older models. Britain’s Royal Naval Division was a particular good example of how not to raise a new formation.

In mid-August First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill decided to use eight battalions worth of surplus reservists and volunteers plus a brigade of excellent Royal Marines to form the Royal Naval Division. The division initially had no field artillery and only rudimentary engineer, medical, or other standard services. The division did, however, have an unusually high proportion of machine guns for the times, and in Belgium acquired an armored train with four 4.7-inch (120 mm) quick firing naval guns plus a contingent of armored cars. The reservists, and particularly the volunteers, were poorly trained for infantry combat, and were armed with an older version of the Lee-Enfield rifle. The 3,000 strong Royal Marine Brigade was hastily committed to a demonstration at the port of Ostend on 27 August, where its arrival sparked rumors that 40,000 British and 80,000 Russian troops had landed to reinforce French forces, causing momentary panic among some German commanders! On October 3rd the two naval brigades were rushed to support the defense of Antwerp, where, reinforced by some British Army troops and the Belgians, they helped hold off the Germans for nearly a week, providing cover for additional troops to be brought up for the defense of the Channel ports. By the time Antwerp was evacuated on October 10th, the naval brigades had lost nearly half their personnel, with nearly 100 men killed, about 900 captured, and 1,500 interned in the neutral Netherlands for the duration. The whole experiment had been a failure, which even Churchill would later admit, particularly since the reservists were sorely missed as the Royal Navy began to take losses while acquiring new ships. Reinforced, rearmed, and retrained, the Royal Navy Division would do better at Gallipoli and for a time on the Western Front, but was later converted into a regular army division, retaining only two battalions of marines.

Changes in Divisional Organization. Even before the Great War broke out some armies were finding the “Prussian” model of the two brigade “square” division structure unsatisfactory, and during the first decade of the twentieth century several began experimenting with alternative organizational schemes.

From about 1900 several armies experimented with the “division d'armee”, a formation intermediate in size between the corps and the division. This had three or four infantry brigades, for a total of 18-24 infantry battalions, plus larger allocations of artillery and supporting services than normal for a division. By 1914, the Bulgarians and the Belgians had both adopted the division d'armee. In 1908 the Bulgarians had reorganized their army into nine divisions d'armee, each of which had about half the heavy equipment of a corps, plus an additional brigade of infantry, a practice that they found satisfactory during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and through to the end of the Great War. The Belgians adopted a similar formation in 1912, though with smaller allocations of troops.

Other armies that experimented with the idea of abolishing or restructuring the army corps but had decided against adopting the new formation.

  • 1905 - The French experimented with reorganizing each army corps into four "general commands," essentially infantry brigades reinforced with the former divisional allocations of artillery and other supporting troops. Maneuvers suggested that wasn’t much of an improvement, and the idea was shelved.
  • 1907 - The Netherlands conducted field trials in which corps were broken up and replaced with divisions organized rather like the later Bulgarian or Belgian ones, of three brigades plus additional support troops, totaling c. 22,000 troops each. Although they did not adopt this organization at the time, they introduced a modified version of it for the field army in 1915.
  • 1911 - French Chief of the General Staff Victor-Constant Michel proposed attaching to each active infantry regiment a reserve regiment, thus giving divisions 28 infantry battalions each. This would have made each infantry division much larger than the Belgian or Bulgarian division d’armee, so that a two-division army corps would have risen to about 75,000 men at full strength, including some 56,000 infantry. The idea was rejected as “loony” and Michel was relieved of his post.
  • 1912 - Retired German Chief-of-the-Great General Staff Schlieffen proposed abolishing the corps and reorganizing the 36 active and reserve corps in the army into 51 divisions d'armee. Each of these would have had about 57-percent of the manpower (c. 25,000 vs. 44,0000), 63 percent of the artillery, and 75 percent of the machineguns of the old corps that they replaced. The proposal was not implemented.

There were several reasons why some armies considered, and in some cases adopted such radical departures from contemporary military practice. Some armies saw the measure as facilitating tactical communications or increasing operational flexibility, by cutting out a command echelon. Other armies saw such a reorganization as a way to make more effective use of scarce trained staff and technical personnel. Schlieffen was looking to increase the number of major maneuvering units in the German Army in order to make his beloved plan work.

The Ottoman Army rejected the “square” division, in favor of a “triangular” one as a result of the disasters of the Balkan War. On paper the new organization had three infantry regiments (for a total of nine battalions), plus a rifle battalion, a regiment of field artillery (36 guns), a battalion of engineers, and other supporting formations, for a total of 13,293 officers and enlisted men, with 12 heavy machine guns. In practice, since the army was still in reorganization when Turkey entered the war in late 1914, there was wide variation in Ottoman divisional organization and strength, with some divisions having only two infantry regiments and some as many as four, while artillery allocations ranged from 16 to 36 guns. Most Ottoman divisions were composed of about 40 percent active duty personnel and 60 percent reservists.

As the war stretched into 1915, armies began reorganizing. Fairly quickly corps became rather flexible headquarters, often with three or more divisions under command. Several countries reorganized their divisions. Usually the “square” pattern of two brigades of two regiments each was replaced by a “triangular” organization of three regiments operating directly under division, which effectively eliminating one command echelon. The surplus infantry regiments could then be grouped into new divisions with the addition of artillery and other supporting troops. The Germans were the first to take this step, at least in part inspired by the effectiveness of the new Turkish divisional organization. Oddly, the Germans retained an infantry brigade headquarters, to more closely coordinate the three regiments remaining in the division. This “triangular” organization increased flexibility in trench warfare, since a division could have one regiment in the line, one in reserve, one resting in the rear, or two at the front and one in reserve. It also economized on staff officers, communications systems, and so forth; this became the pattern for divisions through the end of the century in all armies. The change also reflected the addition of increasing numbers of machine guns and heavier artillery in the division. By the end of the war a French infantry division on paper had only 75 percent of the manpower of its 1914 equivalent, but had far more firepower. All of the Western Front combatants had adopted the triangular basis by the end of the war except the American Expeditionary Forces and the token Portuguese and Italians units in France. The American division was enormous, starting out in 1917 at about 28,000 men, and falling to only about 24,000 men by the end of the war, in 12 battalions of infantry, three of machine gunners, nine of artillery, and so forth.

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