There is more than one story about Ernie’s participation in the German Army during World War I. Today, one hundred years after the War and from the perspective of an American, when one thinks of the German Army one generally thinks of the Prussian-led army of the Kaiser. However, Michael Bauer, grandson of Ernie's brother, Karl, clarifies for us that Ernie was a member of the 1. Königlich Bayrisches Jäger - Regiment (a part of the German Alpenkorps). Ersatz means that they were replacement troops. The initials k.b. refer to "royal Bavarian" (König Bayrisches). It is notable that Ernie was sworn to King Ludwig III, of Bavaria, not to the German Kaiser.
A number of articles about him that appeared years later state that he had been a pilot in the German air force, and this story was repeated by one of Ernie’s most famous students, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. This was also mentioned in the Grand Forks newspaper, March 22, 1921: “Ernest Buehl ... served as an aviator with the German army during the recent war, being stationed for the most part on the eastern front. He came to this country about ten months ago.” However, at a birthday celebration late in his life, Ernie stated that he had been assigned as a cook on the Eastern front, and that he had been awarded the Iron Cross after he was wounded when serving in that position.Was Ernst Bühl (Buehl) a World War I flying ace? The simple answer is “no.” Although later in his life several sources said that he flew for the German Army, he is not listed among the German flying aces of World War I. His activities in the German Army were in the trenches on the eastern front, and later in Munich at BMW, where he did not fly airplanes, he only built their engines. It is unlikely that his battalion even used airplanes. The following is a list of all World War I flying aces:
List of World War I flying aces by nationality
Like many men who have been in intense combat, Ernie did not talk much about his military experience except for the one story about how he earned the Iron Cross. He told that story humorously. However, it did appear that he suffered nightmares and some "re-living" of the experience. Also, certain situations that might remind him of being stuck in a trench made him very uncomfortable. He was frankly claustrophobic for the rest of his life.
We know that the Alpine Corps was stationed for a time in Bukovina, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a fighting unit, they were evaluated after the war by U.S. Intelligence as having been "an elite body, of a genuine combat value." Among the young officers serving in the Alpenkorps was Erwin Rommel, who became very well known in the Second World War. Most of the time during those years the Alpenkorps was stationed on the Western Front. In 1917 it lost more than 70% of its infantry in various attacks at Verdun. In Romania it also sustained heavy losses.
Ernie's military record begins on 4 April 1916. His first rank was Jäger (rifleman). On 4 December 1916 until 19 September 1917, Ernie was assigned to the Karpatenkorps, as a member of a machine gun company. As a rifleman, he was trained on the Gewehr 98, a bolt action Mauser that was the standard rifle used at that time. With its five round magazine, it is likely that this was the personal weapon Ernie fired when he was forced to retreat while trying to pull up his pants. He was also trained on the Maschinengewehr 08 (MG 08), Germany's standard heavy machine gun. In the photograph at the top of this page the men are posing with a couple of MG 08s on sledge mounts. It was water cooled and could fire 400 rounds per minute. Its practical range was two kilometers. An important bit of perspective to understand is that when one is operating a gun like this, one immediately becomes a "preferred target" on the battlefield. That gun and its operator become among the first things the other side will want to destroy.
In his Militär-Paß (green) booklet, page 16, under a section labeled Meldungen und Beurlaubungen (Messages and Furloughs) there is an entry that places Ernie in Munich, dated September 26, 1917. By this time the military realized that Ernie was more valuable in Munich, building airplane engines, than he was in a trench on the eastern front maintaining machine guns. His record shows that he was reassigned under an Indispensable Exemption Regulation (in the record abbreviated UKV). It is possible that after he was assigned by the Army to duty in Munich, at the BMW plant, he may have done some flying in the course of testing the engines he was working on.
We have located four military enrollment books (Kriegsstammrollen) that track something of Ernie's service. Most of the information is difficult to translate because it is handwritten in an archaic script that is difficult now even for contemporary Germans. To compound the problem, a lot of the information is given in military abbreviations.
The first reference we can read is in Kriegsstammrolle: Bd.4, volume 11804. He was issued dog tag number 2243. The information was verified on his birthday, 30 April 1916. In this volume, he is associated with the II. Ersatz-Bataillon/1 bayer. Jäger-Batl. (Kempten). In volume 11787, there appears a stamped date of 22 August 1916. In this volume, he remains associated with the II. Ersatz-Bataillon/1 bayer. Jäger-Batl. (Kempten). The Alpenkorps is mentioned in entries on this page.
There are two other books containing notes of Ernie's war record: volumes 12262 and 12266. In 12262 there is a date stamp in the column for comments: "28.11.16, ins Feld GMG Abt, 209." He is associated with: Ersatz-Gebirgs-Masch. Gewehr-Kompanie-bayer. Armee-Korps in Immenstadt (Replacement Mountain-Machine Gun Company-Bavaria, Army Corps in Immenstadt). The cover of this volume has the title (fr.:Schneeschuh Ers.Abtlg M.G.Kp.). The word Schneeschuh means "snowshoe".
In volume 12266 there are extensive notes in the column recording his assignment, the last one dated 19 September 1917. There is also an entry in the column recording information related to Rehabilitierung (rehabilitation), and there is a longer note in the column for comments. A date appears in this entry, 25 September 1917. This date corresponds to the date found in his Militär-Paß booklet. Evidently this is the time when Ernie is transferred back to Munich, to work at BMW.
A somewhat surprising feature of Ernie's military service is that he was still under military command well after the war was over. His work with Fokker, in the Netherlands, was done under military orders. The relevance of his work with Fokker to the German military related to the potentially suffocating conditions imposed on German by the Treaty of Versailles. As a condition of the Treaty, Germany was not allowed to own submarines, tanks, airplanes, and so on. The reason why the German government sent Ernie and others abroad for this kind of work was so that they would not lose the technical knowledge related to the creation and maintenance of weapons systems. The BMW-III engine was high tech at the time, and Ernie was a leading specialist in its operation. (For another example of covert military cooperation along this line, see the article on the Treaty of Rapallo in the German Wikipedia).
Below are some photos from Ernie's scrapbook, showing civilians in Bukovina, as well as a shot of Ernie relaxing with fellow soldiers. When first looking at these, without an understanding of the situation in Bukovina, it was puzzling that these civilians seemed to be smiling in such a friendly manner when a German occupier was taking their pictures. However, the explanation became more clear when we realized that the people of Bukovina regarded the German troops as protectors, soldiers who were defending them against invasion by Russian troops.
All photos this page -- EBC