GEORGE Patton grew up in a United States experiencing a social paradox. Founded as a republic, it moved during its early national period toward a democratic configuration: Jacksonian egalitarianism compounded by social mobility epitomized in the phrase “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Alexis de Tocqueville, perhaps the most perceptive of any outside commentator on the American experience, remarked on the potential difficulty of maintaining the identity of a country with such a protean matrix. Between the Civil War and the twentieth century, however, the United States seemed well on its way to developing an aristocracy. “Establishments” combining wealth, talent, heritage, and service moved to center stage in the Northeast and the post-Reconstruction South, merging through intermarriage and common educational experiences. Across a midwest and west, they found imitators anxious to move away from the dirt-farm model familiarized by Hamlin Garland and Ole Rolvaag.
The Pattons of California traced their ancestry to a Scot who reached the New World around 1769 as an indentured servant, then made his way as a successful merchant in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He married above his birth, and one of his sons became a prominent lawyer and politician. John Mercer Patton in turn sent four of his nine sons to Virginia Military Institute, and in 1861, when Virginia seceded, the Pattons, by then relocated to the Shennandoah Valley, took up arms in its service.
Sixteen Pattons fought for the Confederacy. Three died under its flag, including the first George Smith Patton, mortally wounded at Winchester in 1864. With the war’s end, the family was reduced to subsistence farming in the literal sense: following a plow mule and dropping seed into the furrows. In the fall of 1866, the Pattons’ fortunes changed—and did so in a fashion inviting description as “typically American.” George Patton’s brother-in-law had settled in California before the war and sat out the conflict in comfort. Now he contacted his widowed sister Susan and asked her to bring her family west. He underwrote the request with six hundred dollars. It was more hard cash than many Virginians had seen in years.
The Pattons’ links with the South were renewed when, in 1869, George Hugh Smith settled in Los Angeles. A cousin and close friend of Susan’s late husband, Patton family history also has it that Smith had long been in love with Susan and now felt free to court her openly. Apart from any romantic feelings, Susan Patton had poor health, little money, and four young children. She hesitated no longer than propriety demanded before accepting Smith’s proposal. They were married in 1870.
Smith, by all accounts, was a model second father and never tired of telling his oldest stepson George stories of his birth parents’ heroism and nobility. It was scarcely surprising when the young Patton determined to follow his father and his family heritage and attend the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He proved outstanding both in the classroom and the corps of cadets and might have remained in the east—there was a girl—but his mother’s illness impelled his return to Los Angeles.
Ambition may have played a role as well. California was wide open, boom country compared to a Virginia increasingly preoccupied with its past. Admitted to the California bar, young George Patton developed a reputation as an eloquent speaker in an era when high-flown rhetoric was an art form. In 1884, he followed a Patton tradition of marrying upward when he wed Ruth Wilson, daughter of one of California’s most prominent families. Their first child was born on November 11, 1885. The parents named him George Smith Patton, Junior—a tribute to his father and his grandfather, an affirmation of a lineage continued.
Patton grew up in an extended family with dynamics and subtexts that would have intrigued Sigmund Freud, just beginning to establish his reputation as an alienist in a culture seemingly a polar opposite from rural California. But the doctor who treated Anna O might have found fruitful ground in what came close to a ménage à trois, at least emotionally, of Patton’s father, his mother, and her sister Annie, who had been no less smitten with the elder Patton and compensated for finishing second in the marital race by moving in with the family and developing an extremely close relationship with their first-born son.
“Aunt Nannie” built her life around young George, indulging his behavior and making many of the decisions about how he was raised. Patton’s daughter later wondered how “Georgie” grew up to be the man he was with two strong-minded women “baby-sitting him until he married . . .” One answer is implied by the survival of the childish nickname: to the end of Patton’s life, his intimates called him Georgie. That both Nannie and Patton père were heavy drinkers even by the standards of a drinking age might also have given Ruth enough everyday leverage in the relationship to keep the triad stable. More positively, the Patton household normally included a large number of people—close and distant relatives, hangers-on, and acquaintances. Emotional connections that in a more limited environment might have proved spectacularly dysfunctional were instead diffused in a wider dynamic.
Economics influenced Patton’s growing up as well. His father had given up his legal and political careers to handle the affairs of the Wilson estates and became embroiled in a family feud that lasted for fifteen years and resulted in foreclosure. The senior Patton landed on his feet as a manager for Henry Huntington, but there was no doubt that he had come down in the world. Enough money remained in the family to sustain an affluent lifestyle, with a cottage on Catalina Island. There was nevertheless irony in another Patton pursuing another way of life that eroded under his feet. It was something for a man to think about over a drink—and something, perhaps, to forget by telling stories and reading aloud to his son from such works as the Iliad and the Odyssey. Aunt Nannie kept pace with similar heroic classics, ranging from Xenophon’s Anabasis and Plutarch’s Lives toPilgrim’s Progress and the Bible—above all the Bible, three or four hours’ worth of it a day.
From the classics and from Scripture, young George Patton absorbed a sense of the importance of struggle against evil, against fate, and against a cosmos ranging from indifferent to actively hostile. His fundamental inspiration, however, came from human sources rather than literary ones. The elder Patton’s stories of the Old South and the Civil War lost nothing in the telling. If reinforcement were necessary, there was the presence of grandfather George Smith—an authentic hero whose more matter-of-fact depictions of his experiences tempered, if they did not quite balance, his stepson’s “gunpowder and magnolias” perspective. And as a final mentor, Patton enjoyed the periodic company of John Singleton Mosby. Famous—or notorious—for his Civil War career as a partisan leader, Mosby had adapted well to the reuniting of America. Pardoned for his wartime activities, he became a political supporter and confidant of President Ulysses Grant, served as Minister to Hong Kong, then moved to California as an attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad—all without losing his Confederate cachet. A frequent guest of the Pattons toward the end of the century, he repaid their hospitality with tales of the war that left young George in particular dazzled.
Patton’s father did more than talk to his son. He taught him to ride—using the very saddle on which his grandfather had been mortally wounded. He taught him basic swordsmanship. He bought him a .22 rifle and a succession of shotguns, and George responded by developing an affinity for firearms that stayed with him throughout his life.
Almost every account of George Patton’s childhood and youth describes him as having been pampered or spoiled, depending on the author’s choice of words and degree of sympathy for the man Patton later became. A reasonable conclusion at this distance is that “Georgie” benefited from relatives and friends seeking to repay his parents’ kindnesses, but he was also a likeable child. Young Patton seems to have been appreciative of things done for him—a point usually significant for an adult favor-giver. Whatever he was, he was not a brat. He could safely be indulged because he never pushed his boundaries to excess. The trouble he got into was usually the kind of trouble parents even today are prone to interpret as a sign of spirit and energy, especially in a boy.
Until Patton was eleven, he received no formal schooling, instead being tutored at home. This was not unusual in the Pattons’ social sphere. The Pattons extended the experience because of Patton Senior’s belief that childrens’ education must progress in stages, based on developing levels of readiness—John Dewey’s ideas applied by someone who was unaware of them. Georgie’s home schooling was also extended for practical reasons: he was unable to read and write until he was eleven or twelve.
Carlo d’Este, arguably Patton’s most perceptive biographer, has made a strong case for Patton as dyslexic: suffering from a problem of word reversal in reading, writing, and spelling. D’Este notes that dyslexic children tend to grow up feeling stupid, no matter how intelligent they may actually be. Anything but a crude reductionist, d’Este argues that both the adult Patton’s driving ambition and the macho warrior personality he created to express it manifested, at least in part, in his childhood learning disorder.
Stanley Hirshorn, author of a much less sympathetic biography, argues that the weight of evidence is against Patton as dyslexic. Patton had no trouble with mathematics, read voraciously once he learned how, and in later life was a masterful public speaker and a successful writer. He was able to plan campaigns and visualize complex, changing battlefields with a facility few have matched. The only symptom of dyslexia that Patton manifested was an enduring inability to spell. Patton’s spelling was so bad he joked about it in a way he never did about his other shortcomings. It also can be cited as the first set of rules Georgie could not be bothered to learn and keep.
For all the impossibility of determining precisely whether Patton had a learning disability, Patton’s parents, and his aunt, must have varied over time, and from time to time, in their reactions to his situation. Was Georgie a bit slow? Was he poorly motivated? Bone lazy? Just not interested? No one was willing to confront the issue seriously. The family’s choice for Patton’s first formal school was a private, small-enrollment “classical academy”—not the sort of place to put heavy pressure on the son of one of the region’s prominent families. Georgie’s grammar, punctuation, and spelling remained atrocious. But his ability to express himself verbally and in writing flourished—particularly when he was dealing with a military topic. He also cultivated the ability to memorize large amounts of print.
It was during his final year at the school, in 1902, that Patton finalized his decision to make a career in the military. He was under no direct pressure to follow the drum. The Patton family still commanded sufficient resources to sustain the ambience of landed leisure—and there was always the other Patton way of acquiring wealth by marrying it. “Marrying up” through a family’s daughters was so common as to be almost de rigeuer. And in the summer of 1902, Patton had met Beatrice Ayer, daughter of a “new money” Boston family long acquainted with the Pattons. The teenagers were mutually attracted—enough to call it a first love that generated the usual fumbling correspondence.
Patton, however, faced a matter of deeper and more immediate concern: how best to take the first steps in his chosen field. After the Civil War, the officer corps of the U.S. Army was dominated by men commissioned before 1865 who liked the Army well enough, or lacked equivalent prospects in civilian life, to stay on. Chances for senior rank might be limited, but they were willing to accept the slow pace of promotion and the often mind-numbing conditions of service for the sake of retiring as a colonel. By 1898, no fewer than seven of the eight commanders of the geographic departments that provided what structure there was above regimental level were Civil War veterans who had risen by seniority. They had their counterparts in the staff bureaus of the War Department in Washington—filled by seniority, permeated from top to bottom by men committed to keeping the system’s wheels moving and its parts meshing in perpetual motion.
These officers prided themselves as practical men for a practical country, who concentrated on the actual requirements of service. When it came to wider questions of military policy and its integration with national affairs, they tended toward principled indifference. Such things, they argued, were matters best left to civilians, mandated by the Constitution as beyond the province of soldiers whose proper function was as work tools of the state.
On the other side of the issue stood the visionaries. These officers’ immediate goal was an Army comparable, unit for unit, with its European contemporaries—something difficult to conceive of in the existing system of small garrisons and ad hoc flying columns, where a regiment’s companies might never serve together in a quarter-century, and where the concept of service amounted to an agreement between the soldier and the government to exchange labor for wages. That ambition sought support from a developing expansionist/internationalist movement, claiming a reformed army could serve both as a power projection force and an emergency instrument of “homeland security.”
The Spanish-American War lasted just long enough to confirm most preconceptions on all sides of the major debates. The administrative system worked well enough once it found its feet. The same might be said for the field army and its officers. The institutional result in the first years of the twentieth century correspondingly amounted to a compromise. Under Secretary of War Elihu Root, the regular Army’s strength grew to a hundred thousand men—a fourfold increase from 1898. The concept of a power projection force was realized when soldiers were assigned responsibility for the security of America’s new Pacific holdings. The National Guard was elevated from its previous status as a force of strikebreakers to the nation’s second line of defense. The General Staff Act provided for a permanent military planning body. And the Army’s educational institutions were overhauled to provide an officer corps capable of managing the enlarged system and responding to the increased responsibilities.
Since its founding in 1802, the Military Academy at West Point had been something of a paradox. Frequently criticized for being an un-American nursery of elitism, before the Civil War it had functioned primarily as an engineering school on one hand and a socializing institution on the other. Military thought played a subordinate role in the curriculum. Tactical training, as opposed to close-order drill, was neglected. Cadets were allowed to request the branch of service they preferred, and by tradition, the best and the brightest opted for the engineers, with the infantry and cavalry bringing up the rear.
Things changed little after 1865—not least because many of the permanent professors made permanence an art form, retaining their positions long after their counterparts at civilian institutions would have retired. The Academy’s aim in practice was not to produce Army officers, but to graduate second lieutenants with the potential to become Army officers. The curriculum, centered on mathematics and engineering in their most abstract forms, was intended to provide mental discipline. The Academy’s routines were designed to socialize youths into the “Army system.” The rest would be done in the field.
West Point graduates did not automatically side with the visionaries in the “great debate” of the post-Civil War years. Active service often had an opposite effect. The image made most familiar to most Americans by generations of movies is the lieutenant fresh from West Point who sheds his irrelevant book learning under the eyes of grizzled experience. This construction was encouraged by the Army’s failure to develop a body of writing and doctrine on frontier operations to which junior officers could turn for guidance. The voice of experience was the only voice available—however wrongheaded its principles frequently proved.
The frontier pattern prevailed elsewhere as well. Whether the junior officer was assigned to an infantry company at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, or an artillery company in a New York fortification, he learned the details of his job by observation, osmosis, and mentoring. And the details tended to be all there was to bother about in America’s last decades of absolute free security.
In one sense, George Patton was born about five years too late. He might have fitted well—almost perfectly—into the system of officer development as it existed before the turn of the century. West Point’s classes were conducted sufficiently by rote to fit his learning style. His personality would have probably gained him the same kind of approval at the Academy, and in his first assignments, that he had won in Patton family circles. But after the Spanish-American War, matters became different.
First of all, appointments to West Point were becoming more difficult to secure. Since the Academy’s founding, its composition had been a matter of political patronage, depending on a presidential or congressional appointment. But appointment did not mean admission. West Point’s entry examinations were noted for their rigor. Many congressmen had taken to using some version of an exam to determine their own selections. Those who did not were usually at pains to choose candidates whose school records suggested they would be at least competitive after they became cadets. In the aftermath of 1898, it was risky to open oneself to the charge of playing politics with the nation’s military effectiveness.
The California Pattons had ample leverage in theory. Patton’s father was, however, disappointed when he contacted regional congressmen about securing his son a place at West Point. Their replies, which usually mentioned the demanding examinations and the increasing competition, led the senior Patton to reevaluate his son’s educational experience with a more sober eye. The scion of the Patton line might be of “good old American stock,” with a pedigree to rival a blooded racehorse. He had “passed through” algebra and geometry; he was “well up in English composition—and very well up indeed in history.” But “he has never studied any Greek or German at all—and only very little Latin and French. He is also a bad speller in English . . .”
It was, all things considered, a remarkably objective analysis by a doting father. In its context, the best next step seemed one that had always been in the family’s mind as a sure-thing backup: VMI. Although the phrase “legacy admission” was a century away, the Institute took care of its own. Nor was its academic program so formidable that a young man with the right connections, the right attitude, and basic physical endurance was likely to be “found” by the classwork. In September 1903, George S. Patton enrolled at the Institute. He was an instant success. He may have entered as a first-year “rat,” the lowest form of Institute life. He was also a Patton, which even three decades after the Civil War still meant something. The fear that he might not live up to the demands of his heritage put an edge on an already strong motivation. George Patton was an archetype of the spit-and-polish cadet, on every occasion buffed to a high gloss, with a military bearing that drew general admiration. And for one of the few extended periods of his life, he held his tongue through anything the upperclassmen could throw at him.
It was scarcely remarkable, then, that Patton thrived in the VMI atmosphere. His grades improved significantly relative to his classmates—which might say more about the intellectual climate at VMI than any breakthrough in Patton’s study skills or intellectual development. Here again the institution’s goals must be kept in mind. VMI’s connection to the world of higher education at this period was peripheral. Its relationship to the U.S. Army was only slightly less marginal; especially in the post-Civil War years, relatively few graduates sought regular commissions. VMI existed to provide an elite white male leadership cadre for Virginia, and by courtesy, those other states that provided students. George Patton fit its templates perfectly.
Throughout his year at VMI, Patton nevertheless remained focused on entering West Point. His eventual patron was California Senator Thomas Bard. Patton’s father had been cultivating him for several years previously, and Bard was one of the congressmen who conducted an examination for the appointment. Patton finished first out of sixteen applicants. In June 1904, he reportd to West Point for his plebe year.
The Spanish-American War and its imperial aftermaths had given the armed forces fresh publicity. No longer were they seen in Civil War terms, as aging men festooned with the ribbons of veterans’ organizations marching in parades and angling for pensions. America’s military establishments were increasingly presented in contexts of modernization: as cutting-edge symbols of the new century. The Navy, with its growing fleet of battleships brave in white and buff, had a visual edge. But West Point benefited from a major construction program, had its Corps of Cadets expanded from 400 to 500, and experienced a heated discussion of academic reform. Superintendent Albert Mills owed his selection to the favor of President William McKinley, rather than the traditional Army patronage networks. His tenure at West Point was stormy and short. By 1906, he had made enough enemies among enough old guards that he was replaced. But Mills also created a climate of institutional uncertainty that favored cadets who did not quite fit the traditional West Point mold—cadets, it turned out, like George Patton.
Patton went through the initial socialization of “Plebe summer” and the initial assignment to a cadet company with no problems he was unable to handle. His size—as one of the tallest plebes, he was assigned to A Company, the right flank of the Corps—and his VMI-cultivated fitness gave him an edge over most of his classmates. So did his familiarity with button polish and boot cream, the preservation of creases in a parade uniform, and the exact angle to wear a shako.
Perhaps Patton confused these skills with what the Academy called “military aptitude.” West Point and VMI were not quite the institutional rivals they later became. But for a plebe to say as Patton did that the VMI “brace,” the position of exaggerated attention, was more rigid than the West Point version was to invite attention of the wrong kind. Patton’s skill at polishing brass and keeping his uniform spotless also made him a target: the purpose of the plebe system was to socialize new cadets, and someone who already commanded its key details was an uncomfortable anomaly.
As Patton settled in, however, the thing that most distinguished him from his fellow cadets was a burning, unconcealed ambition to succeed as a soldier and an officer—to be, indeed, the first of his class to achieve the rank of general. Here again Patton ran afoul of a paradox. No army can sustain effectiveness with an officer corps dominated by routiniers: ambition is as necessary to armed forces as oxygen is to breathing. West Point’s own academic system, then and for many years, was structured around the principle of every cadet being graded every day in every subject. Class standings were calculated to tenths of a percentage and constantly updated. A similar pattern persisted on the military side, epitomized by a demerit system that precisely punished every observed lapse, from leaving a button undone to dropping a rifle on parade. Where a cadet stood had significant consequences for his present well-being and his future career.
At the same time, ambition unchecked can be devastating. The Army’s experience of officers commissioned during emergencies was that they were obsessed with gaining the highest rank possible regardless of their ability to fulfill its responsibilities. The Civil War in particular had spawned a mythology of “political generals” who had led brigades, divisions, and corps to disaster while deserving and unassuming West Point-trained professionals were overlooked. The result in Academy culture was a certain cognitive dissonance in which cadets were expected to seek brass rings and yet be unobtrusive about it. A cadet such as Patton threatened an entire behavioral system perceived as centrally important to the Army’s well-being.
For Patton, the West Point system was a good corrective to any initial delusions of grandeur. Academics gave him trouble from the first, especially English. His instructor immediately discovered his “utter lack of knowledge” in grammar, and in standard West Point fashion sought to bring him up to standard by drill and recital in class. Under that kind of public pressure, Patton’s already limited composition skills deteriorated perceptibly, as indicated by his letters home. His morale slumped accordingly: “I am a characterless, lazy, stupid yet ambitious dreamer who will degenerate into a third rate second lieutenant and never command more than a platoon,” he informed his father in the early winter of 1904.
Things are seldom as bad as they can seem to a teenager, and Patton was no exception. Though he failed to make the cut for the varsity football team, he made the track team, excelling as a hurdler. He developed an interest in fencing that quickly became a passion, and he became one of the best cadet swordsmen in the Academy. His grades improved—especially his English marks, with some thanks to a section transfer. He passed his December examinations creditably. His relationship with Beatrice Ayer progressed to the point where he described himself as “probably suffering from a bad attack of puppy love.” While George Patton would never be a typical anything, he was well along the path of integration into the West Point matrix. Then, in the spring of 1905, he was for the first time caught in the Army’s machinery.
It began with Superintendent Mills’s efforts to overhaul the West Point curriculum—specifically, its historic emphasis on science and mathematics. Mills declared that their current place in the curriculum fostered an excessively theoretical emphasis. The professor of mathematics responded by declaring that the Academy’s standards in his subject, far from being excessive, were not high enough. In the spring of 1905 semester, he declared 40 percent of the third class deficient. Unpleasant consequences have a way of running downhill. Fourth classman Patton fell foul of a general tightening of standards, failed plebe math, and was “turned back” to the next class.
Patton had many of the same ideas about officer formation that Mills entertained. He, too, was critical in his undergraduate fashion of what he considered an excessive emphasis on abstract book learning in the academic curriculum, at the expense of military history and what today are called “war studies.” He was no less shaken by the turnback. In his do-over year, he built on his plebe experience to lift his academic standing to the top third of his class. Though his academic standing dropped as his classes moved into material he had not previously covered, Patton passed his examinations. He made the football team, albeit as a third-stringer, until sidelined by an injury. He ran track. His emphasis on appearance, discipline, and performance made an increasingly favorable impression—particularly on those who did not experience it directly.
Patton first made rank as a third classman: corporal, with an accompanying assignment to the cadre of plebe summer camp. He was promptly reduced for driving the new intake harder than even the unwritten laws of the Point approved—but his second-class year saw him restored to corporal once more. The end of the year saw him promoted to Cadet Sergeant Major, the highest position then available for a second-year man. In February 1908, his first-class year, Patton made cadet officer and was appointed regimental adjutant.
The appointment was an acknowledgment of Patton’s military attitude and military bearing—that last enhanced by his pattern of changing his uniform, as he described it, “fifteen times a day.” But Patton told his father of a dream: “I was the adjutant and I was having a fine time, then next night I dreamed I was found and I was having a hell of a time. Everybody was pointing their fingers at me and calling me stupid.” Performance-anxiety dreams are common among young adults. This one suggests the unusual effort Cadet Patton devoted to developing his ideas of what made a successful soldier and a great captain.
Even before his collision with the mathematics department, Patton had been working seriously and systematically on the construction of a persona. By the end of his first year at West Point, he had developed a justifiable sense of inferiority—he was inferior, as a student, in mainstream athletics, and as a cadet personality. Not least of his trials was a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice whose timbre climbed under stress and kept alive the nickname “Georgie”—not intended as a compliment in the hypermasculine Academy society.
For the sake of an ideal, Patton submerged his more sensitive, warm-hearted side beneath a stern, autocratic, hard-bitten veneer. Patton’s oldest daughter describes her memories of him standing in front of a mirror, practicing his warrior face and his martial diction. This was not—and is not—unusual behavior at West Point. Young men coming from the surface egalitarianism of small-town and neighborhood America often found it difficult to exercise authority in the approved Army fashion, with a “command presence” based heavily on a loud voice and a mean look. “Command” within the Corps of Cadets was always a somewhat artificial construction, exercised among age-mates in the same situation. As a result, a good many cadets developed on- and off-duty faces: a pattern remaining familiar in the Army officer corps. Patton was unwilling or unable to maintain that kind of balance between personalities. Instead, he lived the role until eventually George Patton was more or less as he seemed to be.
It is easy enough to satirize the contents of any diary or commonplace book, particularly one composed by a young man. In the entries to the one he kept, Patton fused and focused the stories he heard and the books he read as a child, the aphorisms repeated in the classrooms and on the drill grounds and athletic fields of West Point, and his own determination to transform dreams of glory as a warrior and success as a soldier into reality. On one hand, Patton emerges from these pages as seeking the praise of men; on the other, he demonstrates a determination to deserve it. Success for Patton was not a function of inspiration, but of perseverance, desire—and not least, study. Never a long-term star in formal classroom situations, Patton turned the cadet library inside out, reading not only the classics of war but the technical literature as well.
If it is possible to reduce a complex schema to a single idea, Patton’s defining concept was that war allowed no second chances. Do it right the first time. Make an attack and carry it through to the last man. Above all else, allow no second thoughts. Doubt was the enemy of command in battle. It represents no disrespect to an earnest and determined student to observe that these ideas were the common stuff of military thought on both sides of the Atlantic in the first years of the twentieth century. Western armies at any rate, and those modeled on them, were infused with a cult of determination—an emphasis on seeing through a decision whatever the cost—that in 1914, drove them into each other’s fire as one might push candles into a blowtorch.
To a degree, that approach reflected a changing intellectual climate, one that emphasized volitional as opposed to material elements. Friedrich Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, even the often-condemned Sigmund Freud: each in his own way asserted the importance of will in shaping an indifferent universe. Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, the strenuous-life gospel preached by Theodore Roosevelt, and a hundred counterparts took that concept into daily life—particularly for a middle class whose male members were at less and less direct risk in their everyday lives. Few in the factories, in the coal mines, and on the muscle-powered farms needed reminding that life was a high-risk enterprise that no one left alive. For the others, new forms of high-risk sports like skiing, mountain climbing, and the early versions of rugby and American football tested abilities to make decisions and stick with them. Fiction aimed at boys and young men increasingly depicted the triumph of pluck, whether on the football field, in the boxing ring, or in more serious tests. It was scarcely surprising that the emphasis on will spread into the armies, drawing more and more officers from the schooled, if not always educated, classes.
The new concepts fit specifically military developments as well. The exponentially increasing size of armies had, for practical purposes, outrun both traditional, muscle-powered means of communication and the newer electronic media, the telegraph and telephone. The drastic imbalance between mass and nervous systems made managed battles in the eighteenth-century sense impossible. Even the flexible campaigns and battles of the Napoleonic era were widely accepted as impossible without a Napoleon orchestrating them. Instead, the successful modern general was expected to make his plans, make his decisions, and stick to them in the face of all temptation to try to respond to particular situations. A flourishing literature on future and imaginary wars preached the gospel of willpower on every page.
It was intellectually unremarkable, then, that a well-read, autodidactic young soldier ambitious to succeed should distill a similar set of mantras for himself. Less usual is the determination with which young Patton sought to internalize these intellectual principles. And genuinely unusual was the milieu Patton chose to begin applying them. For someone who sought in the depths of his soul to become a great captain, seeking a commission in the cavalry seemed, in the year of grace 1909, to be a contradiction in terms. For a century and more, the cavalry had been a declining institution in Western armies retained, only as an apocryphal horse soldier suggested, “to give tone to what would otherwise be just a vulgar brawl.” The mass charges of a Seydlitz and a Murat were a thing of the past. Even the small-scale attacks delivered in the Franco-German War had produced much mutual admiration, but also resulted in casualty rates of more than 60 percent. The cavalry’s other historic task of reconnaissance was being challenged by the rapidly proliferating airships and aircraft. When the high costs of horses and equipment and the longer time required to train an effective horse soldier were factored in, the cavalry seemed doomed to the fate of a niche arm, fighting a rear-guard action for its place in orders of battle.
In the United States, however, things were different. The cavalry played a major role in the Spanish-American War, contributing one of the Cuban Expedition’s three divisions, conducting the entire campaign dismounted as a matter of course, and leaving nothing to choose between its “fighting power” and that of the infantry, even when Theodore Roosevelt’s grandiloquent paean to his Rough Riders was discounted.
The troopers came correspondingly well out of the increase in force structures in the new century. Indeed, their importance increased: the infantry expanded from twenty-five regiments to thirty; the cavalry’s strength grew from ten regiments to fifteen. Because the official strengths of the regiments were almost identical, the cavalry made up almost a third of the Army’s fighting strength and proved its worth in the tropical environments of the new American empire. The apparent degeneration of Mexico into a “failed state” in the decade before the 1910 Revolution offered an even more obvious field of opportunity.
Cavalry training stressed versatility. “Cavalry country” to a twentieth-century officer was anywhere a horse could walk or be led and the pack mules could follow. American troopers were armed with the same rifle the infantry carried. They specialized in mounted pistol charges—though the prospects of hitting anything with a Colt .45 automatic from the back of a moving horse had to be largely theoretical. Soon they would have the world’s best thrusting sword as well—courtesy of Lieutenant George Patton.
The new cavalry was horse-conscious in a way its predecessor was not. Horse shows and polo, the latter borrowed from an East Coast gentry that in turn lend-leased it from England, were becoming part of regimental routine even in the larger garrisons of the West. And the cavalry still possessed ample panache. Some of it reflected the frontier experience, embodied in old-timers like “Tommy” Tompkins of the 7th. Some was manifested in the tailored uniforms and elegant lifestyles of officers like the 8th’s “Lord George” Langhorne. Second Lieutenant George Patton was not simply giving in to the romantic side of his character when he put his name in for cavalry service and was assigned to the detachment of the 15th Cavalry stationed at Fort Sheridan, Illinois.
Patton had another asset as well. Like a fair number of his classmates, he married immediately after graduation. Beatrice Ayer’s father was a self-made millionaire who got his start manufacturing patent medicines and first met the Pattons while vacationing in California. The Ayers were rock-ribbed Republicans, the Pattons (though none of them would have used such a vulgar expression) yellow-dog Democrats, and the two paterfamilias enjoyed arguing politics in loud voices. Beatrice had the polish money could buy at the turn of the century, and a character money did not damage. She was also beautiful. Their correspondence ripened into a courtship—with a few ups and downs—while Patton was at West Point. If he made most of the early running, he does not seem to have had to run too fast. Bea enjoyed herself thoroughly as a single girl, but women of her class were expected to marry early and well. What the Pattons lacked in money they made up in ancestry, and there was much to love about young George—not least the emotional vulnerability he poured into his frequent letters. Bea’s parents liked him because he had a promising career; officers were a good catch in a way they had never been in the previous history of the Republic. The wedding, on May 26, 1910, was one of the social events of the year.
As a general rule, the Army was unenthusiastic about married second lieutenants. Apart form the issue of supporting a family on a subaltern’s pay, a new officer was expected to spend his early years of service learning all the things West Point did not teach. But when the father-in-law is a millionaire, much can be overlooked. Bea’s father, as was the custom, made her a generous personal allowance, which, as was also the custom, became joint income. George could afford to purchase his own horses instead of depending on government mounts. He performed his regimental duties well enough to be named an acting troop commander in his first year. He also translated French articles on the cavalry; sought assignment to the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas; and considered pushing to be sent back to West Point as a tactical officer. The ambition that marked him negatively at West Point had an opposite effect on his superiors and contemporaries in the 15th Cavalry. The Army produced a transfer to the squadron of the 15th Cavalry stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, residence of the Chief of Staff and just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., the beating heart of Army national politics.
Washington was essentially a small Southern town. It was not quite true that everyone who was anyone knew everyone else—it was rather that the opportunities to cultivate acquaintance were comprehensive. The squadron’s duties were essentially ceremonial, and Patton’s dress, demeanor, and horsemanship caught the eye of civilians as well as soldiers, notably then Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Then an unexpected opportunity emerged. The recently revived Olympic Games expanded their proposed list of events for 1912 to include a modern pentathlon. Sometimes called the military pentathlon, it was expressly aimed at soldiers, who would compete in five events ostensibly based on the ancient Greek competition. It was important for the U.S. Army to be represented, and to make a strong showing. Among potential candidates, one stood out. Patton was already known for his horsemanship and swordsmanship. He had run track at West Point. He had learned to swim in California currents. He was a good hand with a pistol. And he possessed that indefinable quality called style.
The Olympic Games were still a venue for true amateurs, and Patton gave the training and the events his all. He finished fifth—no shame when the three medal winners had been preparing for months. In the fencing competition, arguably the most physically demanding and certainly the one with the greatest crowd appeal, he defeated twenty of the twenty-nine opponents he faced and won plaudits for his slashing, all-out attacking style, a sharp contrast to the more defensive tactics favored by the best European military swordsmen. When he returned to Fort Myer, he was soon able to count Chief of Staff Leonard Wood as a dinner and riding companion beguiled by stories of an ideal test of manhood and character, where participation counted for more than victory.
George Patton was on his way. His Olympic experience led the Ordnance Department, normally among the Army’s most solipsistic institutions, to consult him on the design of a new cavalry sword. The weapon adopted as the U.S. Saber Mark 1913 was designed to his specifications and rapidly acquired the cognomen of the “Patton sword”—a personalization like that of the Garand and Kalashnikov rifles of a later era, and no mean tribute to a mere lieutenant. The weapon also suggested something about its creator. Unlike its predecessors, whose curved blades made them suitable for defense as well as offense, the “Patton sword” was straight-bladed, designed for thrusting—a kill-or-be-killed instrument of war.
In June 1913, Patton was authorized to continue his sword training at Saumur, site of the French Cavalry School. It would be at his own expense, but his father-in-law knew a good investment when he saw one. Enough money was forthcoming to ship not only George and Bea, but the family auto to France while their year-old child stayed with her grand-parents.
Patton’s time in France was a personal and a professional success. He attended lectures at the Cavalry School, developed his French, impressed his instructors, and toured the Loire Valley’s historic sites. Patton’s conviction that he had fought there in a previous life is the first recorded instance of a belief in reincarnation that did much to shape his later mentality. Patton’s experiences were also part of the U.S. Army’s growing French connection. At first glance it seemed anomalous. The Imperial German army was by contemporary standards the finest in Europe and had a record of hospitality to those seeking to learn from it. Japanese, Turks, even Chileans and Bolivians sent missions to Germany and incorporated German methods. The Americans, however, from the beginning of their systematic encounter with Europe, focused on France as a school of instruction in modern war.
This Francophilia owed something to a generalized respect for French ways of war going back to the American Revolution, and to the influence of Napoleon and Jomini. West Point had for a period a cadet “Napoleon Club,” while both Union and Confederate generals sought to internalize the emperor’s military axioms. The decisive element, however, was the West Point library. Sylvanus Thayer, who gave the Academy its definitive form, built the collection around more than a thousand military works he purchased on a trip shortly after Napoleon’s fall. French, moreover, was the principal foreign language taught—for much of the Academy’s history the only one. Although after 1871 the library collection was supplemented with books in German, the number of cadets who could comfortably read the Gothic print was vanishingly small. Not until after World War II did American soldiers cultivate the systematic admiration for the German way of war that one contemporary observer calls “Wehrmacht penis envy.”
The overwhelming majority of officers who spent time improving their military knowledge in France enjoyed the experience mightily. Few had ever been to Europe; many had grown up on isolated farms or in drab small towns. If they were not in the financial position to take the kind of advantages open to Patton, they nevertheless returned with an effervescent admiration for the historic sights, the natural beauty, the cuisine, the wine, and—discreetly, for the bachelors and adventurers—the women. Both by their contributions to professional journals and their reminiscences at regimental social functions, they laid the groundwork for the institutional cooperation of 1917-1918 that shaped the modern U.S. Army.
Patton’s Olympic achievements had established him as the Army’s paramount swordsman; his time at Saumur showed he was more than a public performer. The Army awarded him the title “Master of the Sword” and transferred him to the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, Kansas. The first of these accolades might seem the counterpart of being dubbed “buggy-whip champion” by America’s harness makers. Within months of Patton’s arrival in Kansas, a war began that marked the end of the fifteen-hundred-year reign of thearme blanche in battle, and some of Patton’s contemporary rhetoric on the “spirit of the sword” is all too evocative of similar European fustian. But the Mounted Service School at Fort Riley was by no means an institutionalized atavism where worshippers of the horse led “the life of Riley.” Since 1892, it had been the center of instruction for junior cavalry officers in a branch of service that expected to be employed on missions from small-scale patrolling, through screening and raiding, to commitment in divisional strength in the American southwest or across the border in Mexico. The sword was a corresponding weapon of opportunity, no longer primary but still useful in more than the “nice to have” category.
Yet for all its perceived usefulness, swordsmanship had become something of a lost art in a U.S. cavalry that had spent the past half-century performing essentially constabulary roles on the Great Plains, and whose greatest combat achievements during that period had been achieved dismounted, in the Cuban campaign of 1898. Patton, though a student in the school, was promptly pressed into service as an instructor, which he called “the hardest job I ever tried.” He wrote the drill regulations for the new sword he had designed. In May 1914, he graduated from the Mounted School. In June, he was selected a member of the next U.S. Olympic team. With the help of some judicious string-pulling, he was also chosen for a special course, an extra year at Riley given to promising junior officers. At twenty-seven, George Patton might still be only a second lieutenant. He might periodically indulge in bouts of dissatisfaction at what he considered his limited achievements. His early story is of a prince asserting his heritage.
Erwin Rommel’s story, by contrast, is one of making a new place in a new society—a society that had as many frontiers as its American counterpart, only less visible ones. Rommel was born a citizen of a country only twenty years older than he was. The German Empire had been cobbled together from two dozen independent states ranging from the great-power Kingdom of Prussia to vest-pocket sovereignties from the world of operetta. Its unity had been imposed from the top down. Its founding treaty was signed on foreign soil in 1871. National identity was slow in coming to a culture of regions, where horizons seldom extended beyond the sound of village church bells and neighborhood factory whistles.
Erwin Rommel was also part of one of Germany’s most distinctive regional heritages. He was a Swabian. The medieval duchy of Swabia had long since been incorporated into the Kingdom of Wuerttemberg, but the characteristics attributed to its inhabitants had survived and flourished. Swabians were—and still are—expected to be careful and rational in their approach to life—close with money, reserved to the point of dourness, level-headed rather than imaginative. Swabians are not to be brought to battle by the flash of a lady’s eyes or the rhetoric of preachers and politicians. But once engaged, they never let go, and once they have your back, they will die covering it.
The soldiers of Wuerttemberg had proven their loyalty and their effectiveness as allies and clients of Napoleon in the first years of the nineteenth century. Wuerttemberg’s diplomats proved no less effective defending the small state’s independence and sustaining its rights under the German Confederation from 1815 to 1871. The treaties establishing the Second Empire reaffirmed Wuerttemberg’s autonomy in a federal constitution. The state controlled its own railroad and postal systems. Its king retained his throne. Wuerttemberg’s army was incorporated into Prussia’s but remained a separate army corps, administered by a Wuerttemberg government that also retained the right to appoint most of its officers.
That last concession was of central importance both to the Second Reich and to Erwin Rommel. The mass conscript army that won the mid-century Wars of German Unification and sustained Germany’s great power status was chronically short of officers. Its Prussian predecessor had strongly favored restricting commissions to a limited basis: nobles by birth or service, supplemented by the sons of interest groups closely affiliated to the aristocracy, particularly clergymen and civil servants. Even before 1871 that pool was too shallow. Increasing numbers of officers were drawn from a middle class characterized by property and education: a middle class willing to integrate itself into the Imperial establishment and become aristocrats by ascription.
Rommel was born into that zone of upward mobility. His father, also Erwin, was a secondary-schoolmaster in the provincial town of Heidenheim an der Brenz, deep in the heart of Swabia proper. A man with a local reputation as a scholar, especially in mathematics, he had married a bit above himself socially. His wife, Helene von Lutz, was a child of Wuerttemberg’s service nobility: a category of senior officials and army officers who, though commoners born, could reasonably expect to receive an eventual title as part of their “benefit package,” with corresponding prospects for their descendants. Helene’s father was a Regierungspraesident. In many parts of Prussia, that was sufficiently above a secondary-school teacher to make the marriage a bit of a mésalliance.Wuerttembergers, even Swabians, were both more practical and—dare it be said—perhaps a bit more romantic underneath the dourness.
In any case, the Rommels had four children, a daughter and three sons. Erwin was the second child, born in 1891, and in his youthful years thoroughly unremarkable. His friends and siblings recalled an easygoing boy who at times cultivated the aesthetic sensitivity expected of a German middle-class youth, but as he moved into adolescence, he developed his physical side, including a taste for the relatively new sports of skiing and bicycling.
By comparison to George Patton, Erwin also seems to have been self-contained. His relations with his family show nothing of the intimacy—or the enmeshment—characterizing the Patton household. Although no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors, that pattern was hardly unusual among Swabians, who frequently regard a firm handshake at Christmas and on birthdays as a year’s worth of demonstrative-ness. Rommel’s mother provided the family warmth—a common division of labor in Imperial Germany’s middle class. Erwin Senior is usually described by some variation on “strict” and “authoritarian”—again, no particular anomaly in turn-of-the-century Germany. He was ambitious, earning promotion to head of the secondary school in the small town of Aalen; and caring, providing private elementary tuition for his oldest son instead of sending him to a primary school he apparently considered inadequate.
While Swabian culture values self-reliance, young Rommel came nowhere near deciding on a career by the time he graduated from secondary school. He was sufficiently, if vaguely, interested in aircraft to consider seeking a post at the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen. His father had another idea. The elder Rommel had done his own compulsory service in the artillery, but the family had no other connections with the army. Nor were the Rommels inflamed by the romantic patriotism that was so much a part of the Patton heritage. In his father’s mind, what the army offered Erwin was the prospect of a solid career, with enough outdoor physical activity to satisfy him and a mentality that suited his increasingly practical orientation. Like Patton Senior, Rommel’s father appears to have suffered no inflated ideas of his son’s capacities. In recommending him as a potential officer, he described Erwin as thrifty, reliable, and good in gymnastics—not exactly a glowing endorsement, but sufficient for the purpose.
Rommel’s route to a commission was one by the turn of the century, followed by more than half the army’s career officers. In contrast to the American system, built around passage through a single military academy, Germany employed essentially a “direct-entry” process. Its details were periodically revised, but the essentials remained constant. The candidate must complete some advanced secondary schooling; he must pass an “ensign’s examination” qualifying him as a cadet officer; and he must secure the approval of the officers of the regiment in which he proposed to serve.
Rommel possessed the necessary academic paperwork. Even so, the ensign’s examination was no bagatelle. It involved three days of written exercises lasting from 8 A.M. to 3 P.M., followed by another day of oral examinations—all taken in full evening dress, complete with formal coat and white gloves. Failure rates might have been low, but the test was nevertheless taken very seriously by the vast majority of youngsters subjected to it. And it was only the first step.
The process of securing the approval of a candidate’s prospective fellow officers is frequently misinterpreted. It was certainly designed to maintain certain standards and attitudes by screening out social and religious elements considered as “outsiders”: Jews, Social Democrats, laborers, and small shopkeepers, to name a few. Participants, however, generally understood the system as fair. Though hardly democratic, it neither excluded merit nor demanded extraordinary achievement. Efforts by the War Ministry to raise the barriers by requiring all officer candidates to pass the Abiturexamination that qualified them for university admission foundered on a broad spectrum of public protest, much the same way as standards-based testing in the United States founders when the children of the affluent middle class fall below the success line in significant numbers. Even regarding the particularly sensitive “Jewish issue,” contemporary critics of the German officer corps tended to consider regard the exclusivity that cut off opportunities for reserve commissions more important than the opportunities to pursue a career as an active officer that exclusivity also denied.
Given the German army’s size and complexity, the right of each regiment’s officer corps to approve candidates for a commission also created a kind of free market. A candidate prima facie unsuitable in one regiment might be acceptable, even welcome, in another. The respective criteria of particular units were sufficiently well known to limit overt humiliation, even in the early stages of the recommendation process. The candidate’s formal qualifications were also known beforehand. A direct applicant, like Rommel, he frequently had been introduced socially to his prospective comrades, sometimes even before taking the ensign’s examination. That allowed ample opportunity for raising and addressing objections of any nature before the final, public step of the colonel calling for a vote that was usually unanimous. Significant dissent at that stage was considered to reflect badly on all parties involved and was correspondingly rare.
For most serious applicants, the principal problem involved finding a vacancy that matched their interests and desires. Rommel’s first inquiries were to the local field artillery regiment. The colonel replied that he expected no vacancies in the foreseeable future. That was less surprising than it might seem. Once the army’s red-haired stepchild, the artillery had become a high-status branch in the years after 1871, next only to the cavalry in prestige—not because of its scientific and technical aspects, but because its rapid and continuing expansion offered good promotion prospects, and because it was closely associated with horses. Young men whose incomes or social standing might not reach to the levels expected of a cavalry officer could at least share in a major element of the cavalryman’s life style. By the early twentieth century, it was common for families with sons interested in joining the artillery to begin cultivating good relations with the local gunners while the boy was still in school—a kind of informal preregistration that made it difficult for a late decider like Erwin to find a place in the queue.
Rommel’s technical interests next led him to the pioneers. That branch of the army was historically the most “scientific,” and in the years leading up to the Great War had focused particularly on the craft of besieging and assaulting fortresses. Unfortunately, the army of Wuerttemberg maintained only a single pioneer battalion with a total officer establishment of around three dozen, and an even longer waiting list than the artillery.
There remained one alternative—the same one prospective officers have been following as a last resort since the days of Julius Caesar. The 124th Infantry Regiment, the 6th Wuerttemberg, bore the title “King William I,” after a former Wuerttemberg monarch now remembered only by doctoral candidates. The army’s lineage experts traced its heritage as far back as 1673, but its history recorded no spectacular achievements. Its garrison of Weingarten had received the status of “city” only in 1865. Although preferable to the small towns of Alsace and the villages of East Prussia, Weingarten was still a Kleinstadt, a “home town” remarkable primarily for its baroque architecture. But the regiment needed officers and welcomed a young man with Rommel’s stated qualities of character, physique, and intellect. With a brief sidetrack for a hernia repair, he joined the 124th as a cadet in July 1910.
When the old Prussian army was destroyed by Napoleon in 1806, the reformers who evaluated its weaknesses concluded that one major defect had been the remoteness of too many junior officers from the men they were supposed to lead and command. The solution, which endured in one or another form until the end of World War II, was to require every candidate for a regular commission to serve approximately six months as an enlisted man. During that time he would be instructed in the duties of a junior noncommissioned officer (NCO), then put the knowledge into practice by serving brief terms as a corporal and a sergeant. His company officers, his battalion and regimental commander, kept him under observation for that period. In practice the process involved a significant degree of window dressing. A candidate already screened and accepted by the officer corps was likely to receive the help he needed when he needed it. The rest was a final hazing process, a rite of passage designed to keep the youngster off-balance, keep him from thinking too well of himself as he moved toward the final step on the way to a commission.
Rommel’s regimental service lasted from July 1910 to March 1911. Pushing all the right buttons as junior NCO, he found himself assigned to the War School in Danzig. Since 1810, a network of “War Schools” had prepared students for the officer’s examination. Sometimes confused with the War Academy, the army’s principal institution of higher military learning, the War Schools are better compared to the contemporary U.S. Army’s Officer Basic Schools. Their curricula included only military subjects: tactics, fortification, administration, gymnastics. Their purpose was not to act as “keepers of the gate,” but to bring as many ensigns as possible to levels of proficiency, enabling them to pass the examinations qualifying them for a commission. That pattern is common to entry-level education/training systems everywhere in the Western and Westernized military world. Standards are set to be met; hurdles are designed to be jumpable. High failure rates indicate not rigor but incompetence on the part of the institution’s administrators. Common sense and reasonable application were enough to carry most ensigns through; behavior and attitude were at least as important for students as formal class work. Certainly the examination was not as widely feared as its predecessor, the ensigns’ test.
Sending a Swabian to a land of pickled herring and constant fog may have seemed an example of what author Robert Graves call the “Practical Joke Department” that exists in all armed forces. In fact, it reflected the army’s concern for breaking down local and regional identities in favor of a German mind-set. That was seen as particularly important for cadets from small-state contingents, where particularism might become an obstacle to effectiveness instead of a spur to competition.
On graduating, Rommel was described as “quite good” in rifle and drill practice, “good” in leadership, and “competent” in everything else of significance. Physically still developing, Rommel possessed firm character, strong willpower, high enthusiasm, and a sense of duty. He was punctual, conscientious, and a good comrade. Although not exactly boilerplate, these comments are best understood as the German army’s counterpart of the “health and morals” recommendations written every semester for B+ students whom one really does not remember all that well. Rommel, in other words, made the impression of a young man as yet mostly potential, but likely to become a useful soldier.
Rommel also seized the opportunity to fall in love. Lucie Mollin, like Rommel, was the child of a school director. Her father dead, she had her own way to make and had come to Danzig to study languages—a respectable career for a “higher daughter” at a time when university attendance stamped one a bluestocking. Dark haired and slender, the direct antithesis of the Brunhilde archetype, an accomplished dancer and more than something of a flirt, her relationship with Rommel invites the cliché of opposites attracting. But Lucie was attracted by his steadiness, and Rommel also showed a lighter side as a suitor, wearing a monocle in defiance of regulations, then concealing it whenever an officer appeared on the horizon (rebellion is relative!) and conducting a daily correspondence once he returned to his regiment.
Rommel considered them engaged, or the next thing to it. Lucie, or Lu as she was universally known, was not quite so sure, and her mother seems to have been even less impressed by the relationship. At least Erwin felt constrained to address his correspondence to the post office rather than Lu’s home address. This maternal reluctance may seem surprising to readers brought up on images of the officer as Imperial Germany’s most desirable catch. But Lu was young, and Wuertemberg was far away. Lu was Catholic and Rommel Protestant at a time when such mixed marriages were not common. And above all there was the Kaution, the marriage bond.
An officer’s bride was required by regulations to provide a dowry. Usually deposited in the German equivalent of a blind trust, this was intended to prove the woman’s financial independence, and by extension the couple’s ability to live according to the standards appropriate to the husband’s rank and status. The practice, often described as designed to keep “unsuitable” women from contaminating the Kaiser’s elite, had other roots as well. A junior officer’s pay, although increasingly low by comparison with civilian society, could support a single man if he was reasonably prudent. It was not a family salary. The marriage bond safeguarded army wives from becoming camp followers. The sum, although not insurmountable, probably acted as a practical deterrent to romance in the case of Erwin and Lu. And even when the bond was easily forthcoming, young love—or its equivalents—encountered the convention, amounting almost to a regulation, that junior officers were to remain unmarried, instead devoting their full attention to mastering their profession.
Small wonder then that Rommel conducted a long-distance, low-key romance when he returned to his regiment in the spring of 1912. The 124th had no reputation as a high-living outfit, so his abstence from tobacco and alcohol stood out less than it might in a more flamboyant regiment. He spent more time studying than was usual for a newly minted lieutenant—a probable reaction to his experience at Danzig, where the academic side of the curriculum had given him the most trouble. And like every other junior officer in the Imperial German army, Erwin Rommel trained recruits.
Germany’s conscription system made every male of twenty eligible for military service—two years in the infantry, three in the cavalry and artillery. (The difference was justified by the extra time considered necessary to teach recruits horsemastership.) That meant half the men in an infantry company at any time would be mastering the basics. It meant constant personnel turnover, at levels that would shock an officer in any contemporary Western army. Officers were also scarce. Various forms of detached service kept the usual number at two or three per company, and on any given day, one of them was likely to be performing some regimental assignment. The German army had no room for career privates, the professional rear rankers who did so much informally to shape British and American recruits. For practical purposes, a company’s only old soldiers were its noncommissioned officers. These served for a minimum of twelve years, in return for a pension and generous preferences in civil-service appointments. A fortunate company might have eight or ten of them, ranging from polished instructors and professional role models to brutal dipsomaniacs.
German training correspondingly tended toward the slipshod—a fact demonstrated in the first weeks of the Great War, when recalled reservists who barely remembered how to load their rifles made attack after attack in mass formations best described as columns of flocks, less because of regulations emphasizing shock tactics than because their two reflex actions were to follow their officers and huddle together for protection that turned out to be ephemeral against modern firepower.
Full days on the drill ground accompanied by long nights of administration drove any dreams of martial glory out of most junior officers’ heads soon enough. Although the Kaiser’s lieutenants, unlike their British counterparts, were not expected to participate in sports with their men, the German army did embody a strong paternalistic element. Twenty-year-olds away from home for the first time could find a plethora of ways to get themselves into trouble, both in barracks and on pass. Military service had become a generally recognized rite of passage to adulthood for Germany’s young men. In practice, that usually meant losing one’s virginity, drinking far more than one could hold, and engaging in brawls over turf and women with civilians or men from other regiments.
Like most of the Imperial army’s regiments, the 124th managed to keep the balance. Its court-martial records and its company punishment books were gratifyingly slim. If occasionally a recruit was taught the facts of his new life by a couple NCOs, or received “a visit from the Holy Ghost” at night in the barracks for drawing the sergeant’s attention and wrath onto the whole section, those were not matters that a lieutenant was expected to address. A joke known to every German private involved a senior officer catechizing a new recruit. “Who is the father of your company?” “The captain, Herr General.” “And who is the mother of the company?” “The Feldwebel (First Sergeant), Herr General!” “And what do you want to become in the army?” “An orphan, Herr General!” But then, an easy rite of passage is a contradiction in terms, and as long as there were no wars on the horizon, the officers of the Kaiser’s army could count on a regular intake of tractable recruits—every autumn, one following another, until the proverbial lieutenant’s destiny of “dying in a ditch outside Paris” might seem a welcome alternative.
A correspondingly crucial element of junior officer development was to keep them interested in their craft, as opposed to the “lieutenant’s banes” of strong drink, poor cards, slow horses, and fast women. Even Rommel, normally a model of repressed rectitude, suffered his lapses—one in particular. In the summer of 1912, he met Walburga Stemmer. Their daughter was born the next year. Rommel was a single man, with no more than an informal understanding with Lucie. But the army’s regulations and its unwritten laws alike forbade an officer marrying the teenage daughter of a seamstress, even if somehow the Kaution might be forthcoming.
On the other hand, a father who avoided public scandal while acknowledging and supporting his child was not considered to forfeit his honor. He could count on the support of his superiors and an army reluctant to lose a good officer for a “gentleman’s failing” (Kavaliersdelikt— the corresponding euphemism for gonorrhea was Kavalierschnupfen, or “gentleman’s cold”). Nor did the mother entirely lose social standing and marriage prospects in her community, especially if she had been a “good girl” before her “misstep.”Fehltritt, the common euphemism for such a situation, acknowledged the simultaneous powers of passion and custom in a caste society.
Although Rommel occasionally mused about making a new life with his new and unofficial family, he confined the feeling to late-night correspondence. In the harsh light of day, he does not seem to have extended the liaison unduly, nor did he hold out serious hopes of marriage to a girl who in any case presumably knew the rules or had them explained by her own mother. Rommel did all the right things for an officer and a gentleman who had made a mistake. He supported the mother and child financially. He kept in regular contact with his daughter—signing his letters “Uncle Erwin.” He bit the bullet of telling Lu the story, though the circumstances of the conversation remain unknown. In his later, successful years, with women of every kind available and in a wartime sexual environment increasingly permissive, when not promiscuous, Rommel joked about his opportunities and slept alone. His daughter married in 1942 and had a son of her own. Not a fairy-tale outcome, perhaps, but better than it might have been. Walburga’s apparent suicide shortly after Rommel’s son was born might even have been coincidence.
Omelets and eggs—Lieutenant Rommel had a career to make, and in the decade prior to World War I, the army had grown increasingly concerned with improving the coordination between infantry and artillery. As the gunners increasingly adopted techniques of indirect fire from concealed positions, senior infantry officers grumbled at the risks of diminished morale among riflemen who would no longer be able to see their supporting guns and know their crews faced the same risks as the infantry. To bridge the gap, junior officers were frequently exchanged for brief tours of duty. It was an assignment usually considered a plus point in career advancement; no colonel wanted to risk embarrassing himself, his regiment, and his arm of service by sending any but his best. On March 1, 1914, Lieutenant Erwin Rommel was attached to the 49th Field Artillery, one of the divisional regiments supporting the 124th. He was commanding a platoon in its 4th Battery on August 1, 1914.