Wilhelm Zehner was born on the 2nd of September 1883 in Bistritz (Siebenbürgen). After attending the elementary school and four classes at the gymnasium in Bistritz he entered the infantry cadet school at Kamenitz near Peterwardein in 1898 from which he graduated four years later as a Kadett-Offizierstellvertreter and was assigned to the 61st infantry regiment Freiherr von Morawetz. Commissioned as a Leutnant on the 1st of November 1903 he served as a company officer in Brod moving to Temesvar in 1907. There the young officer was employed in recruit training for which he was especially qualified, being himself an excellent shot and the recipient of the marksman's award. Awarded the military jubilee cross in 1908, Zehner also graduated from the infantry equitation course in the same year.
On the 1st of October 1909 he was seconded to the military intendance course from which he successfully graduated on the 31st of July 1911. Promoted to Oberleutnant in the meantime on the 1st of May 1910 his first appointment in his new specialty was with the 1st administration group of the military intendance staff of the VII corps in Temesvar. In 1912 he participated in the Kaiser's maneuvers as an Intendant with the 1st cavalry division and for his achievements during this period he received a commendation from Feldmarschalleutnant Gayer, the divisional commander. During the year ending 1912/13 he took part in the mobilization caused by the crisis in the Balkans and was consequently awarded the mobilization cross. On the 1st of November 1913 Zehner was appointed a Militärunterintendant and assigned with effect from 1st August to the XVI corps in Ragusa where he would remain until the outbreak of the war. It should be noted that Zehner's status at this time was no longer that of an officer but in fact of that unique German and Austrian position of a military official (Militär-Beamte). His position as a Militärunterintendant equated to the line rank of Hauptmann.
The outbreak of the war found Zehner as the 2nd military intendant of the Balkan forces in which he took part in the mobilization and deployment. On the 7th of September 1914 he was appointed as the intendant of the 14th mountain brigade where he took part in the operations against Serbia and on the 31st of December he returned to the intendance department of XVI corps. Here he was responsible for amongst other things, personnel matters and quartering. When XVI corps moved to the Italian front the following spring he remained in this position being awarded on the 10th of July the Golden Merit Cross with Crown on the ribbon of the Bravery Medal. Zehner requested front line service and although still a military official served as an adjutant to the inspector and later commander of march formations in the 1st army Oberst Josef Tihanyi from 1st October 1916 and then, still as an Unterintendant with the XXV Marschbataillon during operations on the Isonzo front in the Görz sector from the 11th December 1916 until the 21st of February 1917. During this period he received a commendation from the commander of the 72nd Infantry Division.
On the 22nd of February 1917 he was assigned to the eastern front as the interim commander of the V Marschbataillon of Infantry Regiment Number 62 in Siebenbürgen and on the 18th of March was further assigned as the commander of the VII battalion of Infantry Regiment Number 63 in which he participated in the defensive fighting on hills 1416 (Kaiser's Bastion), 1420 and 1439. On the 6th of June 1917 he received a further commendation, this time from the chief of the general staff. Zehner remained as the commander of this battalion until the 31st of March 1918 seeing further fighting in the Siebenbürgen and at Husiatyn in Galicia. in the meantime once again becoming a regular line officer as a Hauptmann with seniority from the 1st of November 1913. During the advance into the Ukraine, Zehner's battalion was in combat against red guards at Kupin, Franpol and Golla and the VIIth battalion distinguished itself during the two days of street fighting during the capture of Nikolajew. On the 1st of April 1918 he assumed command of assault battalion (Sturmbataillon) 59 and led this formation until the 2nd of November 1918. As the reconnaissance detachment commander of the 59th infantry division he saw further fighting against red guards including the advance to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov and from the middle of May until October the battalion garrisoned the town of Alexandrowsk on the Dniepr. From the middle of October until the collapse, the battalion was employed on border security duties on the lower Danube at Basias. In addition to the aforementioned Golden Merit Cross he also received during the remainder of the war the Military Merit Cross 3rd Class with War Decoration and Swords, the Karl Troop Cross and finally the Order of the Iron Crown 3rd Class with War Decoration and Swords. He was known by the soldiers of his assault battalion as "Iron Zehner".
During the immediate postwar period he served with Feldjägerbataillon Nr.21 and Infantry Regiment Number 7 being promoted to Major. During the fighting in Carinthia in 1919 he commanded the 1st city of Klagenfurt Marschbataillon from the 2nd of May until the 5th of June and was awarded the Carinthian Bravery Cross. Major Zehner was accepted into the new Austrian Bundesheer and on the 1st of January 1921 was seconded as a "Titular" or Brevet Oberstleutnant to the Carinthian Alpenjäger Regiment Number 11 in which he served until the 10th of June 1924 as a "field officer for special employment" on the regimental staff. From the 11th of June until the 30th of August he served in the 5th department of the ministry of defence as a staff officer with responsibility for infantry training matters followed by an assignment to Alpenjäger Regiment Number 7 in Linz until the 17th of February 1925. On the 1st of May 1925 he was promoted to substantive Oberstleutnant and on the 31st of May of that year he was transferred to Alpenjäger Regiment Number 8 as the commander of the regiment's 2nd battalion stationed at Braunau am Inn. Oberst Zehner married on the 1st of August 1925 Marianne Krasnitzer at the garrison church in Vienna. He was appointed commander of Alpenjäger Regiment Number 7 at Linz on the 1st of January 1928. This regiment which carrried on the traditions of the old Infanterieregiment Number 14 (Hessen) had it's 1st and 2nd battalions at Linz with the 3rd at Steyr. On the 27th of August 1929 Zehner was promoted to Oberst and on the 17th of March the following year he was awarded the Golden Honour Award for Merit of the Republic of Austria. Posted to the staff of the 4th Brigade on the 1st of July 1931 he was replaced as commander of Alpenjäger Regiment Number 7 by Oberst Franz Fischer. He served as an attached officer until ultimately assuming command of the brigade on the 1st of August 1933 in succession to Generalmajor Wolfgang Waldherr and was promoted Generalmajor on the 26th of September that year. During the brief civil war of February 1934 Generalmajor Zehner successfully led his brigade in upper Austria and on the 28th of June 1934 was consequently awarded the Large Silver Honour Award of the Republic.
Following the unrest of February Zehner was appointed as the state secretary for the army in the cabinet of Doctor Engelbert Dollfuß on the 11th of July 1934 as the successor to Generaloberst Alois Fürst Schönburg-Hartenstein being succeeded at his brigade command by Generalmajor Josef Stochmal. Shortly afterwards the Chancellor was murdered by members the SS in an unsuccessful coup attempt in which the Bundesheer suffered the loss of some 4 officers and 44 NCOs and soldiers killed in action with a further 8 officers and 171 soldiers being wounded. Zehner was promoted to General der Infanterie on the 1st of November 1934 and therefore had reached the pinnacle of his military career in a remarkably short period of time. He was awarded the Officer's Service Award 2nd Class the following day.
During the next three years the Bundesheer would modernize and expand under the direction of the State Secretary for the Army , General der Infanterie Wilhelm Zehner and on the 3rd anniversary of his appointment he awarded the Grand Cross of the Austrian Merit Order by Chancellor Miklas. Following the crisis of early 1938 and the subsequent incorporation of Austria into Germany in March Zehner left his post as State Secretary on the 13th of March 1938 the Austrian Bundesheer was officially incorporated into the German Wehrmacht. General Zehner, very much considered an enemy of the National Socialists was found dead at his home during the night of the 10/11th March 1938 with a pistol in his left hand. Although reported as suicide it is very likely that the general was murdered. General der Infanterie Zehner had had a most unusual and successful career spanning various fields of activity from company officer, military official, battalion, regimental and brigade commander culminating in his appointment as State Secretary and untimely and tragic end.
I am indebted to Christian Frech for making his original research into General Zehner's career available to me.
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