Pre-war Developments

The Corps

Shortly after the turn of the century the future meaning of the automobile could be foreseen as not only a civilian means of getting from A to B, but in a military sense.

The few automobile owners were usually wealthy, belonged to the upper classes, were nationalists and their attitude was pro-monarchy. In the spirit of the times some of these people didn´t just want to amaze the public at big events with their driving skills, they wanted them to make it useful for their country military purposes.

It was a short step making himself and the car available at the country´s and the Kaisers disposal. A wish that the technically enthusiastic Prince Heinrich, the Kaiser´s brother, gladly heard. This was a situation that attracted all those concerned with irresistible prospects: the military forces who needed them without the willingness to pay for the expensive Automobiles, and the member-drivers who wanted to belong to an elite military organisation.

Logically on 28 October, 1904 in a DAC meeting held by Baron von Brandenstein – the later Board Chairman of the German Weaponry and Ammunition factory DWM – applied for the establishing of a militarily-organised Automobile Corps. The members of the representative committee motioned in favour of the application. Prince Heinrich had already arranged preparations together with Brandenstein. In this way it was possible that on January 6th in the following year, Baron von Brandenstein could appear and report as Chief of Staff in front of Kaiser Wilhelm II. For this occasion he wore the new Corps-uniform for the first time, made of grey fabric with dark madder-red collar, brown boots, which appeared a little bit yellow when they were new, and as a side-weapon a Hirschfaenger.

This was the birth of the German Volunteer Automobile Corps. In a Cabinet Order of the Kaiser, this name was given to the Corps. The official abbreviation being: D.F.A.C.

The Kaiser named his brother, Prince Heinrich Albert Wilhelm of Prussia as Commander in Chief of the DFAC.

Prince Albert Wilhelm Heinrich of Prussia , known as Prince Heinrich was born in August 14, 1862 and died on April 20th, 1929. He was a younger brother of Emperor William II. A career naval officer, he held various commands in the German Navy. The prince was truly popular in Northern Germany because of his capability to strike the right tone to other people.

He was very open-minded regarding technical developments. Besides being Chief of the Imperial Naval Force, Prince Heinrich found the time in 1908 to invent and patent the car windscreen wiper. The wiper that J.H.Apjohn had previously developed was awkward to use and only partially cleared the front windscreen[1]. On January 9th, 1900 Prince Heinrich was awarded the title Dr.Ing.h.c.  On an American journey in 1902 he acquired his first car, which was a steam car. Further to this, he accompanied Count Zeppelin in an airship to Spitzbergen in 1910, where  in November of that year he got his pilot´s license. The Allgemeine Automobile Zeitung (General Automobile Newspaper) praised his technical competence at his silver wedding with  ’’… he belongs to the few noble motorists who don´t just know how to steer their cars perfectly, the Prince really has a lot of valuable technical knowledge that distinguishes him from the rest”[2].

As Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic Military Base in the Great War, it was his idea first to build a warship that could be used as an aircraft-carrier, against Russia .

The first Commander of the DFAC was Duke Adolf Friedrich of Mecklenburg ;

and later Prince Heinrich´s son, Prince Waldemar of Prussia , who here is wearing a later-version uniform of the Club with a Bayonet 98/05 side arm.

Postcard Vic Diehl collection

Prince Heinrich with his wife and his two sons. Waldemar on the right in Corps-uniform with his dagger.

Book of the library from Prince Waldemar von Preussen

Wilhelm von Opel, a member of the famous automobile dynasty, executive member of the German Automobile Association and, as an absolute sideline, also a successful rally-driver – in this exclusive Corps he was ‘only’ a member of the Staff Officers.

Other listed members sound like names taken from a ’’Who´s Who’’ of the Kaiser era: owners of stately homes, merchants, lawyers, architects, factory-owners, engineers, brewery-owners, (General) Consulates, Professors, private tutors and even a manufacturer of sparkling wine to name but a few. Even the Nobel-prizewinner for Chemistry in 1920, Walter Nernst (1864-1941) was a member of the Corps.

Surprisingly the well-known fighter-pilot of the first World War, and who failed as ‘Generalluftzeugmeister´ in the second, Ernst Udet, was a Corps-member at the beginning of the war. He was rejected several times as pilot, and served first of all as a motorbike-courier, on his own machine. It was only after an injury that he re-applied for a flying-license, at his own cost, and joined the fighter-pilots in 1915.

It is interesting to mention that many Jewish citizens became members of the Corps, and they remained as such during the war. According to membership lists, in possession of the authors, this is perfectly clear in the years between 1910 and 1917. It can be explained by the fact that to enter a career as an officer was generally made difficult for German Jews.

An inglorious example that was not discussed openly amongst members is delivered to us by one of the aristocracy in Franken, a Corps-member, Alois Duke of Löwenstein, who entered voluntarily to the Royal Bavarian Volunteer Automobile Corps in Munich .

His Highness had won a literary reputation through his ‘war letters’, and it is from his notes that a clear ante-Jewish comment about the Corps was made by the bavarian King Ludwig III, to the Duke of Löwenstein when the Duke had already left the Corps.

While the King was visiting Lille in northern France , in 1916, Prince Löwenstein wrote home: ’’The King said to me, before going, it is better that you are here rather then with this Jewish Corps. Do you know the joke? And while I replied that I did not, he called Papus to him, who had to tell it: A man says: today I met two men, one was from the Automobile Corps, the other was also a Jew.[3]’’

To become a member of this Corps, one had already to be a member of the Imperial Automobile Club. This way the connection to the civilian foundation-organisation never was broken off, and upcoming members could always be recruited. The Regulations stated that every member must commit himself to four years service and  take part in up to 3 ten days manoeuvres . Beyond that, in the case of war, he must be at disposal with his vehicle and a mechanic, without restriction, at any time.

For this the member was awarded the status of Reserve Officer. This status was highly desirable in non-military circles, in particular in the middle classes and lower aristocracy.

In the foundation year 1905, the Corps participated in the Imperial manoeuvre with 54 motor-vehicles.

On this occasion Wilhelm II took the opportunity to praise the Corps on September 15th, with a Cabinet Order. This Order was directed at the Corps Chief, his brother Prince Heinrich.

‘’ The manoeuvres I have held this year have given the Voluntary German Automobile Corps the opportunity, for the first time, to participate extensively.

I am very pleased to be able to say to Your Royal Highness, that the efforts performed by the Corps have satisfied me immensely, as each person, by applying himself wholly to the difficult tasks set him, has successfully attempted to complete them under all circumstances as best he can. I am convinced that the Corps Services will be an invaluable support to the expected Troop Command in the case of war. As I sincerely wish Your Royal Highness, as Corps Chief, hearty congratulations I request Your Royal Highness to express my thanks and enthusiastic acknowledgement to the members.’’

                                                                                                         Signed ...............

Apart from participating in annual manoeuvres, the Corps also organised reliability tests and balloon chases. With these events automobiles had to try and follow a free-floating balloon. This was not always easy, and there were often mishaps and breakages amongst automobiles and participants alike.

The Imperial manoeuvres of 1907 devoted themselves to military news-broadcasting, amongst other things. The automobile made it possible that the manoeuvre judges could be put into action in various places, which increased the feeling of reality in the otherwise low value manoeuvre – attacks were ridden as in Napoleonic times, the invention of the machine-gun was hardly taken into consideration at all – still a little.

In December 1907 von Brandenstein resigned from his position.

His successor was Georg W. Büxenstein. We can see him here on an old postcard with his Hirschfaenger in Corps uniform. He was co-founder of the Imperial Automobile Club and surprisingly an untitled member.

Büxenstein owned a printworks, which printed banknotes for the German Reichsbank. He was one of Wilhelm II´s trusted men, and the builder of Castle Hubertushöhe near Berlin . This idyllic castle, with its lake, was sold by him in 1916. Today it is an hotel, where the previous Chancellor Herr Schröder met the French President, Monsieur Chirac.


A further name-change of the Corps followed on the occasion of the Kaiser´s birthday, on January 27th, 1914. Based on his efforts it then became named as the ’’Imperial Volunteer Automobile Corps.’’ It is noteworthy here too, that there was a Bavarian and from 1906 on also a Saxonian Voluntary Automobile Corps. These were both less important, though, because of membership numbers being fewer.

Interestingly, a technical development like that of the automobile was not particularly noticed by the German Heer at the beginning. It was in 1907, only two years after the founding of the Corps, that a ‘’motor vehicle’’department came into being. This comprised 5 officers and about 170 enlisted and non-commissioned officers (NCO) ranks. This department was transformed in 1908 into motorised troops, which was primarily dealing with military heavy-goods transportation. For this purpose civil trucks were subsidized when the owner was prepared to make it available for military use.

Certainly two unusual solutions for military acquisitioning: On the one side the invitation for male drivers of the upper classes to take over military tasks – the status of Reserve Officer, membership of an elite and armed Corps – and on the other, a financial incentive for truck owners, whose daily work wearing a uniform with a side-weapon would actually be rather difficult; in that an advance for the purchasing of the truck would be given as a State subsidy.

Looked at from today´s point of view, there appears a rather paradoxical picture of armament endeavours at that time. On the one hand technical developments were intelligently encouraged and transferred to military use. On the other, old-fashioned currasier units parading for their enthusiastic Kaiser in their shining therefore uncamoflaged breast plates, with drawn sable and flying standards. Their enemies stood shoulder to shoulder on training grounds and were clearly not sufficiently informed about the use of their machine guns – and especially their effect.

It is therefore so much less understandable, this don´t-want-to-understand of modern war, as the first machine guns were already being used in practice in the Kaiser´s manoeuvres in 1899[4].

That none of the manoeuvre observers, who were officers of the highest rank, noticed this deadly paradox is completely ununderstandable and basically presents negligence of duty.

[3] Kriegsbrief Fürst Löwenstein, 14.Januar 1916
[4] Frederick Myatt, `Modern Small Arms`, Salamander Books, London , 1978

The German Imperial Automobile Corps and its daggers - By Vic Diehl and H.Hampe