Volunteers, Departing Soldiers, and Victory Celebrations
Although the carnivalesque crowds speak of a certain enthusiasm in the population it was an “enthusiasm” which required no sacrifices. It was an enthusiasm for enthusiasm's sake—for the pleasure of being rowdy, of letting off tension. Although an essential part of the “August experiences,” such enthusiasm can scarcely be cited as evidence of “war” enthusiasm, and indeed, contemporaries seldom discussed it in this context. Rather, for evidence that Germany was united in “enthusiasm” myth-makers cited the enthusiastic crowds parading in the streets, the crowds applauding the departure of the troops, the mood of the soldiers departing to the front, the outpouring of charity, and the large numbers of volunteers. Of these the number of volunteers was, in the words of Matthias Erzberger, the “best judge of the enthusiasm of the people.”
On 4 August newspapers reported that vast crowds of young men were gathering in front of the barracks, volunteering for the army, and that vast crowds of young women were volunteering for the Red Cross. On 11 August newspapers reported that over 1,300,000 men had already volunteered. On 16 August the Norddeutsche Allgemeine Zeitungrepeated this information, making it official, and it (or a larger number) would be repeated throughout the war, and in most history books up till the present day.
Yet the press vastly exaggerated. About 185,000 men volunteered in August 1914. (In 1926, the War History Division of the Prussian Army did a study on manpower in the First World War. The author of this study—employing archival materials destroyed in the Second World War—wrote that up till 11 August 1914 the Prussian army reported that 260,672 had attempted to volunteer; of these 143,922 were accepted. If one adds up the figures for the other armies [32,000 for Bavaria, 8,619 for Wurttemberg, and probably around 10,000 for Saxony] one comes up with 185,000.)
Although the press vastly exaggerated, 185,000 is evidence of a broad enthusiasm among at least sections of German youth. In the war of 1870/1871, there were less than 10,000 volunteers in the whole North German Federation. The German army's manpower needs were met through the draft, meaning that most young men could not volunteer—they were already assigned to a division. Only those under seventeen or over fifty, those who had had an exemption, or whose reserve division had not yet