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Bundeswehr admits failures in deadly training march

Samantha Early
September 1, 2017

Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr, has acknowledged mistakes in a midsummer training exercise during which four soldiers collapsed. One of them died in hospital. The defense minister wants a detailed investigation.

An archive image of Bundeswehr soldiers on the march
Bundeswehr soldiers on a training march (archive image)Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

A military investigative committee said in initial findings released Thursday that multiple inappropriate decisions and protocol breaches by army leaders in the planning and execution of the training contributed to the recruits collapsing.

However, they said that as investigations stood these were not the sole cause of the "tragic developments."

"It is becoming clearer that in each case there was an unfortunate chain of circumstances and factors," the Bundeswehr report said.

During a training march on July 19 in Munster, Lower Saxony, four soldiers collapsed. The army said they had suffered heatstroke. One of them died in a hospital 10 days later. More than six weeks later, one soldier remained in intensive care in critical condition; the other two were receiving treatment at home.

What exactly caused their illnesses hadn't yet been confirmed, the Bundeswehr report said, though it did outline areas where things went wrong.

Multiple failures

Some of the failures detailed in the report include the fact that many of the leading officers were on holiday or at meetings at the time of the incident. This led to an "oversight vacuum."

The uniform the soldiers were ordered to wear, including a field jacket over their flak jackets, was not considered suitable for the level of exertion and the day's weather, which reached 27.7 degrees Celsius (81.86 Fahrenheit).

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Most of the soldiers in the group also ended up having to march longer than planned, which contravened protocols relating to how far soldiers should be pushed physically in the initial stages of their training.

Discrepancies in investigations

The Bundeswehr report said disciplinary investigations were continuing, also to clarify "discrepancies and contradictory statements between internal and external investigations and statements from third parties." Parallel investigations were underway, including by the state prosecutor.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen emphasized the importance of the probes in statements published in the Neuen Osnabrücker Zeitung newspaper.

"It's important for the whole Bundeswehr that we closely analyze the causes and draw the right conclusions, to minimize the risk of a tragedy like this ever happening again."