IN the decade before 1914, not merely Europe’s great powers, but such middle-size states as Belgium, Serbia, Greece, and Rumania energetically overhauled their military systems. The near-exponential expansion of armed forces after 1905 was accompanied by a near-obsessive symmetry in their structuring. Conciliation was at a corresponding discount not only in Berlin, but in Vienna, Paris, London, St. Petersburg, Belgrade—even Brussels, as a rearming Belgium prepared to defend its neutrality by force against all comers. Colonel Edward House, dispatched on a fact-finding mission by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in May 1914, described the atmosphere as “surcharged with war and warlike preparations . . . militarism run stark mad.”
Yet for all the sound and fury, Europe continued to dodge the bullet. Crises came and went; crisis management techniques repeatedly proved their equal. Armies drilled and paraded; war plans remained in general staff pigeonholes. The summer of 1914 was one of the calmest periods in a decade. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Dual Monarchy’s throne, was assassinated in an obscure provincial city on June 28, initial reactions in foreign offices, war ministries, and newsrooms alike reflected nothing so much as a sense of déjà vu. It was just one more damn fool thing happening in the Balkans: the stuff of speeches and headlines for a week or two, music-hall jokes for a little longer. When the mobilization notices began going up on official bulletin boards, no one was quite sure what had happened.
In the German army, summer was a time to pause for breath. Officers contemplated furloughs and cures. NCOs finishing their careers began evaluating job openings in the civil service. Privates in their final weeks in uniform invested in beer mugs, pipes, and photos celebrating their approaching transition to reserve status. Regimental and brigade exercises were over. It was time to prepare for the autumn grand maneuvers. Rumor said that this year they were supposed to be more realistic than ever.
International crisis or no, there were still schedules to meet. Early in the morning of July 31, the 4th Battery of the 49th Field Artillery took its turn on the exercise ground. Lieutenant Rommel’s mind was on returning to his own regiment: it was, after all, supposed to be a short war. The next day he rejoined the 124th. The barracks was a scene of purposeful chaos. Reservists reported to pick up uniforms presized and equipment presorted. New faces appeared in the officers’ mess and in the ranks of the NCOs, as reservists took the places of men transferred as cadres to the reserve regiment forming as the 124th’s clone.
Like its continental counterparts, the German army of 1914 was essentially a force of mobilized civilians. Even an “active” regiment like Rommel’s 124th included more than 50 percent reservists, who had had no more than brief refresher courses—and many not even that—since completing their tours of duty. Before the war, an increasing gap had developed between the number of twenty-year-olds eligible for service and the number the army was actually authorized to conscript. The remainder were assigned to an Ersatzreserve that received no training at all and was expected to serve as a replacement pool, should the war last that long.
What all this added up to was that an army of virgin soldiers was expected to implement one of the most demanding plans of campaign in modern military history. In twenty previous years of preparing for a great continental war, the German General Staff had come to the conclusion that Germany’s only chance for victory lay in an all-out offensive. The conclusion in 1894 of an alliance between France and Russia did not by itself create an irresistible impulse for that strategy, despite the inescapable image it generated of Germany as a watermelon caught in a vise. Arguably more important was the growing conviction of its military experts that German society could not sustain a long war under any circumstances. It was possible to develop a defensive strategy in which Germany could keep the field against enemies on both its eastern and western frontiers. The domestic stress resulting from the protracted conflict that strategy entailed would, however, bring disaster as surely as would a military defeat.
By the first years of the twentieth century, the General Staff had developed an operational plan that integrated mobilization, deployment, and maneuver in a single, seamless web. The Schlieffen Plan, named for its principal architect Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of staff from 1891 to 1905, proposed to solve Germany’s two-front dilemma by leaving only a minimum force in the east and throwing every available man and gun against France. Its distinguishing feature was a massive sweep through northern France and Belgium that was intended, according to long-standing conventional wisdom, to outflank the French army, drive it away from Paris, and inflict a decisive defeat, enabling Germany to redeploy against a Russia that would probably be willing to negotiate peace with its principal ally driven from the field.
The invasion of Belgium, whose neutrality was guaranteed by the European powers, was considered certain to bring Britain into the war. But an Anglo-German antagonism that had been steadily growing since the 1860s, most recently fuelled by Germany’s challenge to British maritime superiority by constructing its own battle fleet, meant Britain was unlikely to remain neutral in any case. Given the numerical weakness of Britain’s professional army, there were arguably even strategic advantages to dealing with it at the same time as the forces of France.
The Great Plan’s success depended on the army. The Second Reich possessed neither significant numerical nor material superiority in the decisive Western theater. But from Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke down, the army believed war’s decisive elements lay in the realm of morale. The nation’s will to fight must be channeled through it’s armed forces. Bravery, discipline, leadership—these were the qualities that would see Germany to victory.
Popular enthusiasm for the war in Germany was less widespread and much shallower than the grainy newsreels of cheering crowds in public places suggest a century later. An initial carnival spirit rapidly gave way to what the editor of a major Berlin newspaper described as not “what one calls mass enthusiasm, but the release of an enormous inner tension.” Germany’s people understood the war as a defensive conflict against a coalition of implacable enemies, evoking a sense of duty that would survive four years unlike anything all but a few apocalyptic visionaries had been able to imagine. That did not exclude a certain sense of excitement as the reservists reported; donned their uniforms; and renewed friendships, acquaintances, and enmities cultivated while on active duty. Neither did it quench a certain anticipation as the troop trains rolled into the stations, the boxcars absorbed their quotas of men and horses—40 of one or 8 of the other; the size of freight cars were standard in western Europe—and everyone set out for the great adventure.
Rommel was in one of the rear echelons, not leaving for the front until August 5. The 124th, part of the XIII Corps, was assigned to the 5th Army, nominally commanded by the Crown Prince of Prussia. The heavy intellectual lifting was the responsibility of the army’s chief of staff, Major General Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorff. But among the seven German field armies initially deployed on the Western Front, the 4th’s mission was the easiest and most obvious. It was the pivot force on which the three armies of the right wing swung through northern France and Belgium, while the two armies to its south fought a delaying action, pinning the French firmly in Alsace-Lorraine. The 4th Army’s schedule called neither for the man-killing marches demanded of its northern neighbors, nor for the sophisticated tactics of a fighting retreat. All its three active and two reserve corps had to do was keep pace with the great wheel.
The major problem confronting the 4th was terrain. Its sector was the Ardennes Forest, whose impassability would twice be a mistaken article of faith in a later war. Rommel was twenty-three years old and fighting fit. But after only three days of marching, he collapsed on the field of honor after his first experience of combat, “. . . not least the terrible condition of my stomach had sapped the last ounce of my strength.” Defecating for one’s country was almost as bad as dying for it—almost. A quarter of the 124th’s officers and almost a fifth of its men were down: in earlier wars a casualty list to inspire ballads, but just a normal day on the emerging Western Front.
Rommel’s reconstruction of his Great War experiences, first published in 1937 and correspondingly polished by memory, was intended as a guide to junior infantry officers, not a memoir. Rommel’s self-portrait was correspondingly a construction of the ideal infantry officer. The combat narratives he presents, while by no means fictionalized, are structured, for instructional purposes, around what Lieutenant Rommel should optimally have thought, ordered, and done. The image that emerges nevertheless reflects Rommel’s actual 'margin-bottom:6.0pt;text-align:justify;text-indent: 12.0pt;line-height:normal'>The heavily forested terrain through which the Germans were advancing put a premium on that kind of leadership by encouraging the breakdown of larger units. Forty years later, the same thing would happen to American infantry only a few miles north, in the Huertgen Forest. The French army had eschewed field howitzers and heavy guns for their artillery in favor of concentrating on the flat-trajectory, rapid-firing, 75-millimeter field gun. Equipped only with shrapnel rounds that were not much use against dug-in targets, Mademoisellle Soixante-Quinze was nevertheless deadly against anything in the open. Field entrenchment was not a craft initially valued by the offensive-minded German army of 1914. The French guns made believers in a hurry; after a few weeks, even the battalion staff worked alongside enlisted grooms and orderlies to dig themselves in when the first rounds exploded overhead.
Rommel himself spent a lot of time on his stomach, hugging the ground. But unlike the open country of Picardy and Flanders, where conspicuous movement made one a clear target and tended to make aggressive leadership a one-time event, the Ardennes enabled a man with Rommel’s rapidly developing situational awareness to take advantage of cover and concealment to implement fire and movement at small-unit levels. And as is the usual case with survivors at the beginning of a war, he built a reputation in spite of himself. In early September, he was appointed adjutant of the 124th’s 2nd Battalion. The adjutant was the commander’s factotum, his man of all work, and Rommel found himself alternately acting as a liaison officer to other units, commanding leading reconnaissance patrols, and accompanying the battalion’s leading companies on the march or in an attack.
By mid-September, the 4th Army’s advance was beginning to stall. Continuous rainy weather turned unpaved secondary roads into mud. Bogged-down supply wagons meant delayed rations. In an army unused to living off the land, that, in turn, meant hunger—or massive digestive problems, as men ate whatever they could scrounge, and ate it raw or half-cooked because no one had the energy to supervise proper preparation. Tension also contributed to digestive issues. Rommel, who as a headquarters soldier had the best of what was available, suffered from constant stomach trouble during this period—agonizing cramps that wore him out so thoroughly that on one occasion he fell into a comalike sleep from which it took a day to recover. His “normal” sleep was plagued with nightmares. And Rommel was among the toughest officers in the regiment.
Against this backdrop, senior officers sought to sustain the advance by taking chances. On one occasion, the colonel of the 124th ordered a night attack in an effort to gain surprise and escape the deadly French artillery fire. The idea had worked for other German units earlier in the campaign. This time there was no reconnaissance. Orders failed to arrive. The men stood in ranks under a cold rain. The advance did not begin until 3 A.M.—about ninety minutes from sunrise. Despite all this, the initial attack succeeded, only to bog down in the face of unexpected French counterattacks. The 124th spent the rest of the day more or less vainly seeking shelter from French guns. Casualties were more than 200, and the Germans would never get any closer to the fortress of Verdun than they did on that day.
On September 12, the 124th received orders to fall back. The French pursued cautiously. Not until September 22 was Rommel’s battalion sent back into action: ordered to make a frontal attack. The commanding officer (CO) was new, and listened when Rommel suggested instead a withdrawal from the position the battalion occupied, an approach march through concealing woods, and a charge against the French from an unexpected direction. Abandoning ground without orders was enough to cost an officer his command, but Major Salzmann was willing to trust his adjutant’s advice. The 2nd Battalion took the French by surprise just as Rommel predicted, capturing fifty prisoners, a couple machine guns, and best of all, field kitchens with the French dinner almost ready to eat. An entire French brigade withdrew precipitately for a cost of four German dead and eleven wounded—pocket change in the new conditions of war.
There was nothing unusual about the maneuver itself. Both the Infantry Drill Regulations and the army’s collective wisdom enjoined that kind of flanking operations.What was significant was Rommel’s ability to impose his solution—and his will—on his superior officer, take the lead in executing the movement and the assault—and walk away with a whole skin.
Rommel’s numbers nearly ran out two days later. When the lead company stalled under fire, Rommel went forward to get the advance men moving. He took a rifle from a wounded man—officers carried only a pistol, useless at anything but point-blank range—and immediately got into a close-range fire fight with five Frenchmen. The German Gewehr 98 held a five-round clip, and it was by good luck as well as good shooting that Rommel dropped two of his opponents before his weapon clicked empty. German infantrymen went into action with their bayonets fixed; bayonet training was an important part of the peacetime training program, and Rommel considered himself a skilled bayonet fighter. As he tells the story, he was getting ready to rush the three Frenchmen still standing when a bullet from another direction put a fist-size hole in his leg. Two of his men carried him out of the fight. Then it was three miles back to an aid station, a joltingly painful ride by horse-drawn ambulance to the field hospital, and another transfer to a base hospital in the town of Stenay, later famous as the headquarters of the Crown Prince during the battle of Verdun.
Again Rommel was lucky. His was the kind of wound that easily led to amputation in World War I, either because of initial trauma or secondary infection that generated gas gangrene. As it was, he required further surgery, but in October, he was on his way to Germany and a convalescent hospital with what his army called a Heimatschuss, the British a “Blighty,” and the Americans a “million-dollar wound.” He also had a medal: the Iron Cross, Second Class.
The leg kept Rommel away from the front until January 1915. He missed the three months in which open war gave way to the stasis of the trenches and maneuver became a thing of the past. He missed the initial weeks of adaptation, when casualties were especially high among officers constrained to take ever greater risks as the original complements of their platoons and companies gave way to replacements who too often had either forgotten their training or received only superficial instruction in loading their rifles and brushing their teeth.
Rommel also returned as a certified hero whose achievements had lost nothing in the retelling by the old hands who survived. His new assignment was as commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion’s 9th Company—a little more than 200 men on paper, including men detached to do everything from carry rations to dig latrines. A “trench strength” of 120 was about standard for the period. On January 29, the 124th and the rest of its division were ordered to undertake a series of diversionary attacks to pin down the French to their front. The 9th Company was initially detailed as flank guard, but when the 3rd Battalion’s adjudant dashed over, declared his battalion’s attack was going well, and asked if the 9th wanted to join the party, Rommel answered “Naturally.” It spoke for his leadership that most of the men followed him. It spoke for his sense of ground that he led them, first running and then crawling, unobserved to within a hundred yards of the main French positions before again coming under rifle and machine-gun fire. To stay put or to attack—either option would be costly, and Rommel was juggling alternatives when he heard the 3rd Battalion’s bugles sounding “charge.” He ordered his own bugler to repeat the call, and the 9th Company followed its commander through three lines of French defenses, driving their occupants before them and suffering no casualties at all.
That kind of local success was by no means unusual at this stage of the war. The French army was no better trained than the German and had suffered even heavier casualties in the war’s first months. The trench systems were by no means continuous, and the unexpected appearance of Germans on a flank or in the rear was likely to induce precipitate withdrawal. The charging 9th Company’s real problem began when it came under a heavy cross fire and simultaneously ran into a wire entanglement, heavier than anything Rommel had ever seen. He went ahead, found what looked like a passage through, and shouted for the company to follow. This time no one moved. Perhaps some of the veterans remembered other occasions when what looked like a gap in the wire turned out to be a dead end with a machine gun covering it. Rommel crawled back and told the commander of his leading platoon to follow orders or Rommel would shoot him on the spot.
An empty threat? Perhaps. The German army had its rules and regulations—none of which covered summary execution of a subordinate in combat. But Rommel’s words were enough. George Bernard Shaw once observed that one may call a man pirate, bully, or brute, and he will feel a secret pride. Call him coward, and he will give up his life to disprove the charge. First the platoon, then the company, moved through the wire and into the abandoned positions beyond—and found themselves surrounded as French infiltrators cut off their line of retreat.
This again was a common course of events in the Great War: a local success that, when left unsupported, threatened to become a disaster. When a runner shouted an order to withdraw to the 2nd Battalion’s main position, Rommel saw that going back through the wire was impossible. He dismissed surrender as “unthinkable.” Instead, he led an attack forward, broke through the surprised French, and swung back to the German lines by an unobstructed route. Incredibly, the operation cost only five men too badly wounded to be moved and so left behind for the French, plus the usual number of scrapes and nicks dealt with by company aid men and not reported on the official casualty lists.
Rommel’s initiative in supporting the 3rd Battalion’s initial advance was thus part of a respected tradition. His success in getting farther than anyone else in the regiment, and the achievement of bringing back his company intact—those were triumphs beyond the normal standards of duty. A week later he was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class.
This was not usually a junior officer’s medal, and Rommel was the first lieutenant in the regiment to sport its black-and-white ribbon. He had also by this time become a near-legendary figure to the men of the 124th. Not only did he look the part, with his piercing eyes and erect carriage, but he lived up to his reputation by sharing the dangers and privations of the front line to a greater degree than many officers, especially the youngsters. Lieutenant Rommel did not have a sore throat—the polite euphemism for a glory hunter anxious for the feel of medal ribbons around his neck. Nor was he the kind of officer who took chances from a sublime and heedless belief in his own immortality. Instead, his watch-word was “erst waegen dann wagen”: “first consider, then risk.” He wanted an opportunity to be something more than a cog in the machine, a target for enemy shell fire. New weapons, hand grenades and flamethrowers, trench mortars and small cannon were making their appearance. New tactics, emphasizing small groups attacking separately and coming together only upon reaching the objective, were being discussed and tested. On March 2, 1915, the War Ministry ordered the formation of an Assault Detachment (Sturmabteilung) as a test bed for these innovations.
Rommel remained with the 124th through the spring, fighting in the same sector as the trench lines stabilized and the trench systems became more elaborate. At the start of the war, some officers had been left in the regimental depot to supervise training recruits and replacements. Now they were being rotated to the front, and one of them, senior to Rommel, took over the 9th Company. The regimental commander proposed a transfer. Rommel refused, preferring to stay with men he knew and trusted. He reverted to platoon command—most probably with a certain degree ofSchadenfreude as his green replacement coped with having a highly decorated regimental hero looking over his shoulder!
The German army was chronically short of officers, due in good part to a reluctance to expand the social and educational limits of the pool of eligible candidates. Officially a rifle company should have had five; two was a more usual figure. Rommel’s record made him a logical choice as a regimental troubleshooter, transferring from company to company as commander or executive officer, then reverting to platoon command in the 9th as men senior returned from hospital, furlough, or detached duty. He had his own spell of home leave in July, was slightly wounded in the shin, and in September was promoted to First Lieutenant (Oberleutnant). Then his destiny changed utterly.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Italy, France, and Austria had begun organizing units specializing in mountain warfare. They soon discovered that the challenges of the terrain called for high standards of leadership from the officers, initiative from the enlisted men, and fitness from everyone. Mountain troops developed into corps d’elite wherever they existed—which was why the German army eschewed their use before the Great War. The General Staff believed modern war made impossible the deployment of specialist elites to the particular place they might be needed. Only two battalions, the 8th and 14th Jaeger, whose peacetime garrisons were in Alsace-Lorraine, had some mountain training. The German troops originally assigned to hold the line of the Vosges mountains were overwhelmingly reservists in their thirties, who could barely climb the steps of a Gasthaus without pausing for breath.
In December 1914, the French began moving their mountain troops into the sector. The Hartmansweilerkopf, the Vieil Armand in particular, became the site of a series of bitter battles in early 1915. German troops from the flatlands held their ground but were consistently and embarrassingly outperformed by the chasseurs alpins. Bavaria was the center of prewar mountaineering in Germany, and as early as October 1914, the Bavarian army began improvising a “snowshoe” battalion. Wuerttemberg, which had mountains of its own, established tables of organization for a snowshoe company in November. The Wuerttemberg company first saw action in the Vosges in January 1915. It spent the next eight months proving that a company-strength unit was too small for the Great War, even at high altitudes.
Meanwhile, the entry of Italy into the war on the side of the Entente in May 1915 found Austria-Hungary’s southern frontier denuded of troops. As local home guards composed of adolescents and grandfathers held the passes of the Tyrol against the best of Austria’s alpini, the Habsburg high command appealed to Germany. The Germans responded by organizing the “German Alpine Corps.” This formation, an unusual combination of Prussian and Bavarian units, was doubly mistitled. It was not a “corps,” but a division, with extra allowances of mountain artillery and pack trains. And it was not “alpine” in the sense of being trained for combat at high altitudes. Instead, its normal employment was in the foothills and valleys of mountainous regions. That reflected the German opinion that true mountain fighting usually resulted in standoffs because of the impossibility of bringing heavy supporting weapons into play and keeping them supplied. Rifles, bayonets, and a few machine guns cancelled out each other. On the other hand, a “German Foothills Division” was unlikely either to inspire or intimidate anyone.
During 1915 as well, Wuerttemberg’s War Ministry authorized reorganizing and expanding its snowshoe company into the Wuerttemberg Mountain Battalion (Wuerttemberg Gebirgs-Battaillon). The WGB, as it was universally known in an army fond of acronyms, broke ground in several ways. It was the first large German unit to be trained intensively in skiing and rock-climbing. Although never a truly “alpine” unit like some of its French and Italian counterparts, the WGB could operate comfortably on higher ground than the Alpine Corps, and for much of the war the two units would work together.
The WGB’s structure and the tactical doctrines developed to accompany it were pathbreaking. At this stage, all armies were rigidly configured. Chains of command were formal. The WGB was organized along task force lines. In its developed form, it consisted of six rifle companies and three machine-gun companies, a mortar company, and not least an entire signal company. The rifle companies, although seldom reaching their table of organization strength of almost three hundred men, nevertheless were usually strong enough to operate independently. The men traded their long Mauser rifles, the “cowfeet” of army slang, for the shorter cavalry carbines that, slightly modified, would become standard issue in the World War II Wehrmacht. As they became available, the rifle companies also received an increasing number of so-called “light” machine guns—water-cooled, bipod-mounted beasts with the tactical mobility of an engine block, but an indispensable source of close fire support in broken country. Each machine gun company eventually had around 200 men and twelve of the heavy water-cooled Maxims that were the backbone of the German infantry throughout the war. The mortar company had a half-dozen “grenade throwers,” the rough equivalent of the U.S. 60-millimeter light mortar of World War II and Korea fame, and four “light mine throwers.” These last, often described as mortars, had nothing in common with the tube-and-base-plate configuration that word usually evokes. The German “mine thrower” instead resembled a light cannon. It had a wheeled carriage, a rifled barrel, and a range of 1,300 yards with a ten-pound shell. It could be used either for high-angle fire or as a direct-fire weapon, and was particularly effective against the early tanks—a formidable weapon for a formidably armed organization.
From the beginning, it was obvious that this complex combination of units and weapons, more than 2,000 strong on paper and usually between 1,500 and 1,700 in the field, could not be commanded in the orthodox way, by a single officer and a single headquarters. Instead the WGB fought inAbteilungen, or detachments—first three and later two. These had no permanent organization. Instead, they were built around various combinations of rifles, machine guns, and mortars—combinations that changed even during an operation, depending on the development of the action. This flexibility facilitated reinforcing success and exploiting opportunities—the two greatest tactical challenges of the Great War. It also enabled taking advantage of the qualities of the battalion’s officers, tailoring men, missions, and force structures to individual capacities.
Finally authorized in September 1915 and initially built around the Ski Company and its depot, the WGB was brought up to strength by volunteers from every branch of the army. Twelve hundred of the seventeen hundred “originals” were Wuerttembergers. The rest came from everywhere in Germany. Their average age was twenty-four. Three hundred were “war volunteers” from the glory days of 1914. Others were “encouraged” to volunteer by first sergeants seeking to be rid of trouble-makers and misfits. There were draftees thinking anything was preferable to the trenches. There were a few cavalrymen, bored with rear-echelon service in a war that had no place for horsemen. Some were winter-sports enthusiasts. Some had never seen a real pair of skis. A hundred fifty of them wore decorations for bravery.
The officers were an equally mixed bag. Originally there were thirty-nine of them, including thirty with reserve or wartime commissions. One of the nine regulars was the newly promoted First Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, assigned to command the 2nd Rifle Company. Rommel expressed retrospective regret at leaving the 124th, but this new unit offered possibilities far greater than a line regiment in the trenches. Its commander was Major Theodor Sproesser, late of the 125th Infantry—a fellow Wuerttemberger. Forty-five years old, tough and ambitious, he was in many ways an archetype of the middle-ranking officers the war was bringing forward in the German army. The WGB was Sproesser’s big chance, and he closely supervised the battalion’s training.
The general expectation was that the WGB would be sent south to the Italian front. Instead, it went back to the Vosges, taking over its first sector on New Year’s Eve 1915. For the next ten months, the WGB carried out raids and patrols in a region that had become almost inactive since the fighting of early 1915. The main positions were as far as 10,000 yards apart. The French were willing enough to accept a policy of “live and let live.” It was a perfect opportunity for the battalion to shake down and find itself—an opportunity unusual on the Western Front, where losses were consistent enough and high enough that unit cohesion and skill transmission were major problems.
The WGB’s first serious engagement was an exercise in coping with fog and friction matching anything experienced in 1914. The Balkan kingdom of Rumania entered the war on the Allied side in October 1916, partly from opportunism and partly under pressure from Tsarist Russia. A German high command seeking victories for a war-weary populace welcomed an adversary not mired down in trench warfare, and within three weeks dispatched more than a hundred thousand men to the new theater to reinforce the Austrians already on the ground. Among them was the WGB.
Rumanian plans included a two-pronged offensive supported by a Russian contingent and coordinated with a breakout of the Anglo-French-Greek-Serb forces blockaded for more than a year in “the world’s largest internment camp” of Salonika in Greece. The Germans and Austrians turned the grand design to waste paper in a series of coordinated strikes that by early December destroyed Rumania’s army and overran those parts of the country worth occupying—in particular the oil fields, increasingly valuable in a war where horsepower was everywhere giving way to the internal combustion engine.
The Rumanian army had shown well enough fighting its neighbors in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. But its enlisted men were largely illiterate peasants; its regimental officers inexperienced; its generals incompetent. The WGB profited from Rumanian shortcomings even before coming under Rumanian fire. Despatched in October by rail, then by truck, and finally on foot to a front line running along the prewar frontier between Habsburg Transylvania and Rumania proper, the battalion was immediately sent forward into the mountains, without pack animals and without the equipment appropriate for heights of more than 4,000 feet.
Lieutenant Rommel was part of a two-company advance guard. Their clothes and packs were frozen onto them by the time they reached forward positions he describes as consisting of a single hole in the ground and fifty half-frozen horses. A rainstorm turned into a mountain blizzard. When the captain commanding the detachment requested permission to pull back, he was threatened with a court-martial if he gave up a single meter of ground. The prewar motto “halten, was zu halten ist” (“hold everything you’ve got”) persisted even in the face of the medical officer’s dire warning of mass frostbite and worse. After losing forty men in what Rommel calls “a horrible night,” a relief force with mules and firewood allowed the detachment to seek lower and more hospitable ground. Throughout all this there was no sign of the Rumanians, who could have wreaked havoc in the German ranks by offering hot coffee. The WGB learned to keep its supply echelons close at hand. A few days later, on another mountain, Rommel cheerfully reports, “We were heating our tents with small charcoal fires built on suspended tin cans.”
The WGB pushed forward, and on November 11 put in a model attack against Mount Lesului, two and a half companies flanking a Rumanian garrison that had been fixed in place by the rest of the battalion, then driving it off in a coordinated rush. Three points stand out in the reconstructions of the fight by Rommel and by the WGB’s historian. One is the emphasis on using terrain to screen movement. The second is the use of machine guns in direct support of an attack—even the sled-mounted heavy Maxims, that weighed more than a hundred pounds in firing position, were expected to keep pace. The third crucial factor was keeping casualties limited. Rommel’s company lost only one man wounded—unheard of for a frontal attack in 1916, even against a less-than-first-class enemy.
By mid-November, the WGB was moving out of the high country, toward the Rumanian heartland. This was open warfare, not in the style of 1914 with inexperienced, partially trained men fumbling for contact, but shock attacks mounted one after the other by an experienced, worked-in unit at the top of its form. Rommel stood out again for his energy, his situational awareness, and his capacity for taking pains. In his later notes, he stressed the importance of scouting, of keeping contact with neighboring formations, and above all of exercising command from the front. All would characterize his approach to command in a later war.
In the WGB, officers were able to lead from the front because they were able to keep conditions unpredictable. “Deceive, divert, and pin the enemy down,” Rommel noted, as the WGB once again moved back into the mountains. Do not disregard cold, wet, and hunger, which sap energy and judgment. Instead, take advantage of them. Hunger makes men enterprising. On a night too cold to bivouac in the open, shelter can be seized from the enemy. Fog is the attacking infantryman’s best friend.
Rommel put his aphorisms to use in January 1917 in an advance on the fortified village of Gagesti with his own 2nd Company and a machine-gun platoon. There was a foot of snow on the ground, a dense fog, and temperatures so low the machine-gun crews were thawing their weapons with alcohol. Reaching Gagesti around 10 P.M., Rommel planned to seize a few outlying houses, rest and feed his men, and continue the advance at daybreak. But his advance elements got to within point-blank range before being spotted, and Rommel saw his chance. The machine guns and part of his riflemen opened rapid fire, another platoon charged, and everybody made as much noise as they could—“as loud as a battalion.” Rumanian resistance collapsed; Rommel’s detachment tallied 360 prisoners—three times its own strength—without losing a single man wounded.
At midnight the next day, the WGB was relieved by units of the Alpine Corps. After a seven-mile night march, the 2nd Company and its commander were settling into the first comfortable quarters they had seen in days when a dispatch arrived announcing an enemy breakthrough and ordering an immediate return to the threatened sector. The demand, which included a hill climb in the middle of the night, was “almost beyond human strength,” but the Wuerttembergers completed the march—only to find that its presence was unnecessary. Rommel says the Germans returned “in gay spirits” to their previous billets, where mail from home helped compensate for the army’s latest practical joke. It is likely that Rommel described this incident to make one of his favorite points: further effort is always possible.
Rommel had good reason to await the mail. In November, he had taken advantage of a brief leave to get married: a quick wartime ceremony, a foreshortened honeymoon, and a return to the front. Unlike many other war brides, Lu was not left pregnant. Times were hard enough in blockaded Germany during the “turnip winter” of 1916-1917 without carrying a first baby to term. Shops, theaters, even schools were closing for lack of coal for heating. A potato blight cut the harvest of that German staple by half. The prewar Reich had its glaring inequalities, but on the whole it was a country where one could eat well. Now meat was unobtainable and butter rationed by pats. Coffee was made from tree bark. Bread was adulterated with sawdust and chalk.
The traditional image of a “front experience” that isolated the Great War’s soldiers from even their closest family members at home has given way in recent years to an understanding of the comprehensive synergies that in fact existed between home front and fighting front. Furloughs, while never as generous as the soldiers wished, were nevertheless common enough that even just before a major offensive, a typical battalion might have more than 10 percent of its men on leave, or more or less permanently detached somewhere in the army’s rear echelons.1 Mail was monitored, but not censored until 1917, and soldiers who were the products of the best elementary education system in the world took full advantage of the opportunity to let off steam at what they regarded as “injustice” and “misstaende.” Serious physical and psychiatric casualties were returned to Germany—to a point where by 1917 the country seemed at times one vast hospital, and grievously mutilated convalescents were restricted from appearing in public for the sake of civilian morale.
Whether Rommel allowed himself to consider the consequences of defeat remains unknown. His image in the battalion left in any case little room to exchange those kinds of confidences with his fellow officers, to say nothing of enlisted men. In January, with the Rumanian front stabilizing, the WGB returned to its old sector in the Vosges and spent most of the next six months training and patrolling, developing in particular the use of the hand grenade as an assault weapon. The German Stielhandgranate, the familiar “potato-masher,” had a relatively long range because of the leverage its wooden handle provided. Its fragmentation effect, however, was relatively limited. A single grenadier was more likely to alert than destroy an enemy position. A half-dozen, however, had a good chance of keeping heads down long enough for the riflemen to close in and finish the job—especially if they were covered by machine-gun fire and willing to charge into the explosions of their own grenades.
Then in August, the Wuerttembergers were reassigned to Rumania, which the German high command had decided to take out of the war altogether. The WGB was ordered to secure Mount Cosna in the Carpathians, one of the major strong points securing what was left of the country. By that time, the Rumanian army had learned a good bit about modern war, and the middle weeks of August saw Rommel’s nerve and skill tested to the utmost. He became Sproesser’s right-hand man, the one the major turned to routinely for the battalion’s critical missions. On August 9, he began by infiltrating two companies through the Rumanian front, clearing five successive positions, and securing the high ground eleven hundred yards behind the original main line of resistance.
The next day, when neither the battalion’s own mortars nor the supporting mountain guns were able to get far enough forward to provide fire support, Rommel, now reinforced to five companies, turned to his heavy machine guns. The cumbersome weapons’ presence in his forward positions reflected full credit on the pack animals that carried them through the early stages, the crews that carried them the rest of the way, and Rommel’s ability to be patient when necessary. In defiance of conventional Great War wisdom that attacks should begin at first light, it was exactly noon when ten Maxims opened fire and the rifle companies went forward. Rommel ordered his men to shout and keep shouting as they charged. It helped German morale; it might demoralize the enemy; and in theaters where front-line noise was not so overpowering, it was as good a way as any for a commander to keep some sense of where platoons and companies expected to act on their own initiative had actually gotten to.
This time, instead of breaking as expected, the Rumanian first line fought it out. A runner shot one man aiming at Rommel at a range of fifty feet—point-blank with a modern rifle. Shortly afterward Rommel took a bullet in the forearm. The German attack stalled; the Rumanians were on the verge of mounting a counterattack when part of the detachment caught them in a flank and broke the effort. Even though reinforced by most of the rest of the battalion, when Detachment Rommel dug in for the night, it was still short of Cosna’s summit and under increasingly heavy fire.
Major Sproesser came forward and around 10 P.M. informed his subordinate that the WGB had been ordered to storm Mount Cosna the next day. He then asked for suggestions from his senior officers—a recurring pattern in the WGB, and one contributing significantly to its success. The result was a collectively developed plan for a two-pronged advance. Five WGB companies would go forward and attract the Rumanians’ attention; four more, with two battalions of a flatland regiment attached, would flank the Rumanian positions from the right. Sproesser requested Rommel, despite his wound, to take command of the frontal attack.
According to Rommel, “the new and difficult task was most attractive.” He remained with the battalion—though to do otherwise in the face of Sproesser’s request would have cost most of his reputation. And against all odds, he managed to surprise the Rumanians on the morning of July 11, taking advantage of undefended high ground to envelop the Rumanians’ flank, storm their positions, capture several hundred prisoners, and begin digging in his forward elements on a knoll a half-mile from Cosna’s summit under increasingly heavy machine-gun fire.
Company after company straggled into the new position, exhausted by a day of marching and climbing, depleted by straggling and the minor injuries that inevitably accompanied moving quickly in the high country. The WGB was a shock unit, most effective when its numbers—never all that large—were multiplied by careful reconnaissance, hot food, full cartridge pouches, ammunition belts, and canteens. No less important was reorganizing platoons and squads disrupted by casualties and straggling. The battalion depended heavily on its corps of enlisted leaders—the veteran NCOs who commanded the squads and most of the platoons. For them to function at their best, in turn, it was important that everyone knew exactly who was in charge of what.
Rommel correspondingly decided to rest, reorganize, and reconnoiter. Around 1 P.M., Major Sproesser arrived at the head of two “straight-leg” battalions, less than pleased to find his subordinate apparently taking its ease short of the objective. Rommel informed his CO that he proposed to resume the attack in an hour. Two WGB rifle platoons and a half-dozen machine guns formed the front line, with two rifle companies echeloned behind each flank in a loose wedge formation. The orders and tactics were by-now vintage Rommel: advance using local cover, under overhead frontal fire from the Maxims; throw showers of grenades right and left of the breakthrough sector as a diversion; then the assault. Break in; roll up the enemy flanks; push through to the second line and beyond if possible; dig in as reinforcements came up to consolidate. Rommel’s Detachment cracked open the Rumanian lines in minutes, and in a few minutes captured Cosna’s summit.
Most of the garrison escaped. When the Germans started down the far slope after them, they encountered such heavy machine-gun fire that Rommel considered it impossible to continue. Later that night, his patrols made contact with the battalion’s other detachment. It had taken heavy losses, was pinned down only six hundred yards from strong enemy positions, and urgently requested support.
Sproesser’s solution was to use the two fresh infantry battalions to finish the job in a dawn attack, while the hard-hammered WGB followed to exploit the expected breakthrough. Instead, the leading elements were stopped almost in their tracks. Rommel contacted Sproesser by phone, suggested further movement was impossible without strong artillery support, and offered to act as forward observer for the guns. His time with the 49th Field Artillery had not been wasted. After a few false starts, he managed to get the Rumanian position ranged in—only to be told that the artillery was ceasing fire the rest of the day because of ammunition shortages.
Being out of contact with its main lines was not exactly new for the WGB. But this time it was pinned down in front of positions apparently too strong to rush, at distances too short to retreat without suffering heavy losses. Rommel made a quick decision: storm the Rumanian trenches with the force on hand. “I knew my men could do it,” he later declared—and better to be a hammer than an anvil! For a man who had been on his feet for almost two days, nursing an arm wound that by now almost immobilized him, it was a demonstration of what later generations would call “the right stuff.”
That last merits developing. The front-line medics of World War I had nothing like today’s spectrum of sophisticated analgesics and stimulants. Painkillers meant something so strong as to knock out the recipient. Alcohol, armies’ traditional sovereign remedy for light wounds, could only be used sparingly by an officer in Rommel’s position. Nor could the arm be fully immobilized without making it impossible to keep one’s balance on Cosna’s steep, broken, slopes. Every time the arm moved, the bleeding began again and the pain grew worse. A serious part of Rommel’s responsibility, in short, was to decide when his judgment was affected to a point where he must relinquish command.
Rommel was just ready to order the machine guns into position when his phone rang. It was Major Sproesser, announcing an enemy breakthrough farther north and ordering Rommel to notify the infantrymen, cover their retreat, and then get his own force out. It went like a maneuver, the companies falling back through and around each other while the Rumanians on their front remained passive. Rommel reported to Sproesser, and this time he asked for permission to report to the hospital. Instead, around midnight Sproesser called him to a council of war. The enemy counterattack was continuing, and the entire force—WGB, infantry, and several Hungarian battalions by now also under Sproesser’s command—was on the point of being cut off. Sproesser asked Rommel for his opinion.
Sproesser, who himself had small hope of retreating successfully through broken country in the dark, was probably sure of what his subordinate would and did recommend: organize for all-round defense, and fight it out. That was the kind of optimism needed to put steel into the spines of the German and Hungarian strangers and the WGB’s own worn-out captains and lieutenants. To close the deal, Sproesser “urged” Rommel to take command of the WGB’s sector—naturally the most demanding on the front. Rommel later said the seriousness of the situation and his concern for his men impelled his agreement. But he also credited “the stimulation of the difficult task” with keeping him on his feet and on the line for the next five days as Sproesser’s battle group fought it out with a desperate and superior Rumanian force.
For the first time in his career, Rommel was responsible for a major defensive operation. His guiding ideas reflected both his own experience and the hard tactical lessons that were beginning to permeate the German army in 1917. Prewar doctrine of holding every terrain feature in a sector whatever the cost was giving way to a concept of defense in depth. Germany’s front-line infantry was now expected to “resist, bend, and snap back,” giving ground when necessary, mounting local counterattacks to keep a temporarily victorious enemy off-balance until a final, large-scale strike swept him back to his original positions. Rommel needed no advice from the General Staff to decide he had no reason to hold the summit of Mount Cosna, no matter how heroic such a stand might look in the communiqués. Instead, he proposed to cover the high ground with his ubiquitous machine guns, establish two company-strength forward positions on Cosna’s reverse slope, and keep the WGB’s remaining four companies in reserve to plug gaps and mount counterattacks.
The Rumanians gave the WGB everything it could handle in a series of desperate attacks that saw Rommel once again showing a gift for being where he was needed: bringing up reserves, rallying stragglers, leading counterattacks to support positions on the edge of being overrun. The Rumanians climbed slopes so steep that to aim a rifle at them required leaning far forward, suicidally exposing head and shoulders. When the defenders resorted to grenades, the fuses proved too long and the usually reliable potato-mashers just kept bouncing down the ridges.
With casualties mounting, ammunition running out, and phone lines cut, Rommel turned over command and went looking for reinforcements and supplies. Leaving a fight in the middle was not usual practice for a German regular officer. Rommel’s behavior reflected confidence in his position within the battalion. No one was likely to suggest he was shirking or seeking to save his skin. He discovered, however, a situation in his rear almost as serious as the one facing the forward units. The Rumanians had infiltrated through gaps in the German lines and were pressing so closely that companies Rommel considered his reserve were in fact committed on a perimeter that was on the edge of caving in.
Grenade supplies were almost exhausted; ammunition was so low that some of the machine-gunners were defending their positions with pistols; and the Rumanians kept coming. By a stroke of good luck, the telephone lines to Sproesser’s main headquarters were still intact, and Rommel called to request immediate help. This time it was two “leg” companies that bailed out the mountain troopers, reinforcing the perimeter and bringing a welcome supply of ammunition with them. Rommel was finally able to reduce the numbers in his forward positions to form counterattack detachments. German and Austrian artillery, often firing by map instead of direct observation, responded to an injunction the same in all armies: “Lay it close and keep it coming.” Time and again the gunners broke up Rumanian charges before they could get started, or inflicted such losses that the survivors were vulnerable to counterattack. When one of his rifle companies reported casualties so heavy that it no longer could hold its sector, Rommel ordered two machine-gun platoons to range the position, then told the infantry survivors to run for it. The German machine guns shot the closely pursuing Rumanians to pieces; the company reoccupied its trenches.
In a war in which communication was a major tactical problem, the signalers of the WGB played a major role by their success in laying and maintaining phone lines. By late afternoon, Rommel could count on double connections to Sproesser’s headquarters, and to at least some of the more threatened forward positions. Nevertheless, the German situation was verging on desperate. The Rumanian attacks persisted well into the night. Rommel ordered his men to dig—after overcoming the resistance of some WGB officers who had no experience in this kind of sustained close-quarter fighting and preferred to remain above ground. In between inspecting positions, Rommel oversaw the distribution of rations and ammunition to the forward companies and their stockpiling in a battalion reserve. He made sure the signalmen laid a fresh double line to the artillery fire direction center. He checked with his medical officer on the number and condition of the wounded, and on what supplies the aid station and the company medics needed for the next day. And in his spare time, Rommel prepared a report for Major Sproesser.
It was 4 A.M. when Rommel finished. Unable to fall asleep, he embarked on one more circuit of the WGB’s positions. He had not had his shoes off for five days straight; his bandage had not been changed; his coat and trousers were stiff with dried blood. “I felt very debilitated,” he recorded, in what to the comfortable reader of these lines must seem a remarkable understatement.
Fortunately for Rommel, and perhaps for the men under his command, the next days were relatively quiet. The Rumanaian offensive, like so many of its Great War counterparts, was able to break in, but failed to break through or break out. Successful counterattacks in other sectors opened an opportunity for the WGB to retake Mount Cosna. The Wuerttembergers spent two days preparing. Rommel devoted much of that time to working with artillery forward observers in locating targets. Once again he was acting as what the Germans were now calling the “Battle Force Commander,” or Kampftruppenkommandeur. One way of overcoming the communications problem, developed on the Western Front during the 1916 battles of the Somme and Verdun, was to make the commander of the troops in the front lines responsible for directing the actual fighting. His superiors behind the lines were responsible for feeding in reinforcements and supplies. Command was by mission and not seniority. Thus a major bringing up a support battalion acted under the orders of the commander he reinforced, even if the officer was only a captain. A regimental commander, a lieutenant colonel or a colonel, could always make his way forward and take charge. He did so, however, at the risk of being relieved if he did not achieve an outstanding success—he was not supposed to be doing his subordinates’ work.
The revised German approach to battle command persisted, albeit in modified form, throughout World War II. It has been widely praised by those in the best position to know: the armies that fought against it. It nevertheless posed its own unique set of problems. In particular, it depended on a steady supply of high-quality captains and majors—which in turn meant the presence of even more good lieutenants to step up and replace the losses. Casualty rates were high among officers expected to lead from the front and keep on the move among high-risk situations. One battalion of a war-created reserve infantry regiment serving on the Western Front had twenty-four company commanders during a single month in 1918.
Higher orders provided for a one-hour artillery bombardment of Cosina before the attack went in. Rommel proposed instead to rush the first Rumanian line during the barrage, then shift the guns onto the second line and attack that. It was a bold plan for a trench operation, and Rommel stacked his deck by sending forward a ten-man patrol and a telephone squad, with orders to reconnoiter his proposed line of advance and clear away obstacles wherever possible. When the squad was spotted, Rommel pulled it back and turned the WGB’s organic mortars on his intended breakthrough site. A series of feints threw the defenders off-balance; the main force closed in with grenades, pistols, and sharpened entrenching tools. Once again the German machine-gunners kept pace and better, despite carrying loads averaging more than a hundred pounds. Their fire did as much as the redirected artillery to clear the way for a second successful rush. When the smoke cleared, the WGB had taken and consolidated seven hundred yards of the Rumanian second line. The way seemed open for a major breakthrough—especially when Rommel was able to contact Sproesser by phone and describe the opportunity.
Instead he learned that the regiment on the WGB’s flank was hung up. Sproesser promised to send Rommel everything he had: the WGB’s remaining three companies, followed by the infantry battalion still attached to the battle group. Rommel dug in, sent out patrols, and salivated as his field glasses showed him a major Rumanian base less than two miles away. The streets of the town of Tirgul Ocna were crowded with wagons; the railroad station clogged with trains. Thirty minutes, Rommel fumed retrospectively—that was all it would have taken to cut off resupply to the entire sector. But there was no sign of the reinforcements. The Rumanians were beginning to recover from the shock of the WGB’s initial attack; their artillery and machine guns were beginning to range Rommel’s improvised entrenchments.
Rommel stood down for the night, only to face a full-scale counterattack next morning. The WGB beat off somewhere around twenty attacks during the day, borrowing squads and platoons from temporarily quiet sectors to meet threats as they developed. A single blow, properly supported and properly coordinated, might have overrun the position. Such an operation, however, was well beyond the capacity of a Rumanian command that throughout the day dissipated its efforts everywhere along its front of attack in a small-scale imitation of the tactics employed earlier by Russian General Alexi Brussilov.
Rommel by afternoon was unable to move, commanding from flat on his back. The fever accompanying his partly treated wound took hold to a point where he became periodically delirious. In the evening, he walked down the ridge to Sproesser’s headquarters and the battalion doctor. The WGB held on for five more days until relieved. It suffered more than five hundred casualties—a third of its field strength. Rommel was sent on convalescent furlough, joining his wife on the Baltic coast, as far away from mountains as was possible to get. “A few weeks’ leave,” he recorded, “restored me to tip-top form.” In October, he rejoined the battalion.
The fight for Monte Cosna merits description in greater detail than some of Rommel’s better-known Great War achievements because it illustrated and confirmed the approaches he would use in Italy and develop in a mechanized context during World War II. Personal influence at the decisive point, throwing the enemy off-balance by getting inside his so-called “Boyd loop,” the cycle of “observation, orientation, decision, action,” and exploiting victories to the final limit of available resources: that was Rommel’s style of command as it had developed by 1917. It owed a good deal to the German army’s doctrine and experience—but it owed much to the man as well. To the naked eye at least none the worse for wear, Erwin Rommel seemed at the top of his form as the WGB boarded trains for its new theater of operations.
Italy had been an ostensible ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary before 1914. When it declared neutrality in 1914, its government called the policy “sacred egotism.” Everybody else in Europe knew what Italy really was—all that remained was to establish a price. The Allies were able to offer the kinds of concessions, territory to be taken from the Habsburgs, and imperial prospects in the Middle East—impossible for the Central Powers to match. In May 1915, Italy launched a massive offensive against the mountain chains separating it from Austria-Hungary. Two years later, its armies were in essentially the same positions, having fought no fewer than eleven battles, each carefully numbered, along the Isonzo River.
Throughout 1917, Austro-Hungarian intelligence had compiled an impressive amount of data on Italy’s war weariness. It required no mastery of the more arcane aspects of secret warfare—just an ability to monitor headlines. Strikes and demonstrations were increasing to the point where a cavalry division had to be deployed in north Italy, usually considered the bastion of the kingdom, to back up the carabinieri and the local police. The Vatican intensified its half-century cold war with the Italian kingdom by mounting a peace offensive from Italian pulpits and in European chanceries, calling for an end to “useless slaughter” essentially on the basis of status quo ante bellum. Its success would negate the Italian state’s sacrifices. Left-wing speakers and politicians grew ever bolder, with one deputy demanding in Parliament itself, “No one be in the trenches this winter.” Commander in Chief Count Luigi Cadorna complained that domestic unrest was affecting the morale of soldiers returning from furlough. The government replied that soldiers on leave fueled dissent by describing the army’s mistakes and shortcomings.
Put together, the situation seemed promising for a major Central Powers offensive. For three years, military victories had not translated into political consequences. Italy, however, seemed ready to collapse if its armies were hit hard enough. The Austrian General Staff made its pitch to Berlin. The Italians were particularly vulnerable in the high ground around Caporetto in the northern Isonzo sector. A few hundred guns and a few divisions—no more, and it would be enough.
The German High Command was dubious. Erich Ludendorff, whose innocuous title of “First Quartermaster General” belied his true status as the army’s chief decision-maker, believed the proposed operation was too limited to have any long-term results. But professional courtesy required him to send an observer to report on the project firsthand. Lieutenant General Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen was a Bavarian General Staff officer—one of the best. Before the war he had made a systematic study of breakthrough operations. In 1915, he was given command of the Alpine Corps and led it through Rumania before being transferred back to staff work. There was no better man to evaluate the feasibility of the Austrian proposal.
Krafft returned a definite maybe. The operation verged, he said, on the limits of the possible. But it could be done—with the right generals and the right units. As was often the case in the German army, the views of the man on the spot carried weight. General Otto von Below, who had been building a record as one of Germany’s best senior officers since the Battle of Tannenberg, was given command of a new army; seven crack divisions. There was the German Jaeger Division, with its nine battalions of rifles, and the 200th Division, whose high number belied its experience at high altitudes. The Wuerttemberg 26th Division had seen some of the hardest fighting on the Western Front. The Alpine Corps was a natural choice. As an insurance policy, Krafft was appointed Below’s chief of staff, responsible for executing the campaign he had supported. And the WGB was ordered south as a last touch.
With the Rumanian campaign closing down, the WGB took time to lick its wounds and integrate its replacements. The battalion also benefited from a new piece of equipment. The introduction of the light machine gun in 1917 multiplied small-unit fighting power and made small-unit tactics increasingly depend on fire and movement by mutually supporting small groups. Initially, the guns were centralized at company level, but they were rapidly absorbed into platoons. A strong platoon of the new model might have two or three squads of riflemen/grenadiers and two light-machine-gun crews. A weaker one would organize around its guns, with the riflemen in effect becoming spare gunners and ammunition carriers. In each case, the platoon, rather than the company, became the basic unit of both offense and defense. Rommel had utilized light machine guns in Rumania, “borrowing” them wholesale from line infantry units, and he welcomed the firepower and the flexibility they brought to the rifle companies. No longer would close support depend on the ability of machine-gun crews to hand-carry their bulky weapons in broken terrain.
On reaching its new theater of operations, the WGB was informed of such vital issues to the alliance as the fact that saluting distance in the German army was six paces while the Austro-Hungarians were satisfied with three. The battalion was also attached to the Alpine Corps. It was a fortunate pairing, though neither party to the relationship always thought so. The Alpine Corps possessed organic pack trains and mountain artillery that could be attached to the WGB as necessary. Its infantry had enough mountain training and experience to keep pace with—and sometimes surpass—the Wuerttembergers.
On October 18, the WGB, with for the first time a battalion of mountain artillery under its command, began moving toward the front. It marched by night to avoid Italian aerial reconnaissance. Air power had not been a serious consideration in the battalion’s earlier experience. Now it was becoming uncomfortably acquainted with war’s new third dimension. Rations too were slim—a reflection of Austria-Hungary’s declining logistic capability. The Germans were enjoined to requisition from Austrian civilians only in an emergency.
Sproesser had used the time since the end of the Rumanian campaign to work with his officers in evaluating the battalion’s tactical experience. He collated the conclusions in a seven-point order issued on November 5:
1. Keep applying pressure at the head of the attack; do not be distracted by flanks and secondary objectives.
2. Establish and maintain communications day and night, using human and electronic means.
3. Send written messages promptly and use reliable runners. If sketches of terrain or positions are included, keep them simple.
4. Headquarters to be alert at night, monitoring communications closely.
5. Advancing units are to mark the route clearly for their supports.
6. Avoid carrying unnecessary captured material. (This was an injunction not against looting in the conventional sense, but against picking up discarded weapons and supplies rather than take the risk of a logistics failure.)
7. Keep pressing on. Pursuit without pause saves casualties.
There was nothing especially profound there, but every word had been paid for in blood—and not all of it Erwin Rommel’s.
By October 23, the XIV Army was in position. It consisted of four corps, with a total of seven German and five Austrian divisions plus an army reserve of five more Austrian divisions. The Habsburg high command had done its best to match the German quality, contributing its Tiroler Kaiserjaeger division and the experienced mountaineers of the 22nd Kaiserschuetzen Division, as well as a number of elite mountain guide and assault companies. Two thousand guns, from light mountain howitzers to the heaviest railroad pieces, were in support. For the first time in this theater as well, the Central Powers made sophisticated use of gas, which proved unusually effective in the steep Alpine valleys, where it sank close to the ground without dissipating. The barrage opened at 2 A.M. on October 24. Six hours later, the first assault waves went forward. This was another innovation of German artillery specialists, who saw the advantage of taking enemy positions under overwhelming fire by surprise, as opposed to the longer, more systematic bombardments of the war’s early years. It would be developed with devastating effect in the German offensives of 1918.
The attack caught an Italian 2nd Army disorganized and demoralized from the summer’s casualties, in poorly prepared, poorly coordinated defensive positions. Some German and Austrian units advanced ten miles the first day as Italian resistance disintegrated. The WGB was posted on the right flank of the Alpine Corps, in a sector including some of the most difficult terrain on the entire front of the attack. Its eventual objective was a piece of high ground undramatically dubbed Hill 1114 from its height in meters, a key position in the Italian defenses along the Kolovrat mountain range. The ground in front of it was so broken that the pack mules had to be left behind; once again the machine-gunners took their pieces into action on their own backs.
Rommel led the way with two rifle companies and a machine-gun company. Served as well as ever by his scouts, he bypassed the forward positions and found a supply trail leading deeper into the Italian defenses. It was a cold, rainy day, and detachment after detachment of the defenders were taken by surprise in their dugouts. The Rommel detachment captured seventeen guns, including a battery of eight-inch howitzers complete with an ammunition dump.
By noon the rain had stopped, and the WGB waited briefly for reinforcements, meanwhile eating the Italians’ lunch: a hot meal eked out by captured rations. Around 7 P.M., Rommel’s detachment reached the Italian third line, still without encountering significant resistance, and found elements of the Alpine Corps’s Bavarian Guard Regiment (Leib-Regiment) pinned down by fire from Hill 1114 by Italians apparently uninclined to yield any more ground without making a fight for it. The officers on the spot agreed the attack was best resumed the next morning, after a systematic artillery preparation. The senior Bavarian officer, a major, told Rommel he was assuming command of the combined force. Rommel replied that he took his orders from Major Sproesser. The major tapped his insignia—metaphorically at least—and declared that the Guards would lead the attack; Leutnant Rommel and his WGB could follow along and mop up anything the Bavarians left.
Unit rivalry is as old as armed forces. This one was slightly more complex than the pairing of two good dogs in a tandem harness. The Bavarians were their king’s personal household troops, the counterpart of the Prussian Guard, the regiment that led the peacetime parades through Munich’s main streets. But the Leib-Regiment, to give its official title, was more than just a social elite. Selected for conversion to mountain troops in 1915, it was a fighting elite as well, with a record second to none on flat land or in high country. Its hard chargers now intended to be first on the Kolovrat. The WGB was not so old in the German army list but not so young at its trade of mountain warfare, and its hard-bitten young officers were unwilling to give way to the fine gentlemen of the Leiber.
The opinions of the enlisted men of the respective outfits were neither requested nor recorded. But if Bavarian morale in World War I had a subtext, it was dislike for the Saupreussen who were increasingly blamed for getting Germany into the mess in the first place. The WGB for its part still sustained a volunteer image, though its replacements included an increasing number of draftees; and its composition was strongly Swabian and north German. Rommel himself, unused by now to being stood to attention in such obvious fashion, sent an officer to find Sproesser. By the time the WGB’s commander arrived, Rommel also had an alternate plan: to swing west, outside the Bavarians’ sector, and mount a surprise attack without artillery support, while the Guards were still on their start lines.
Sproesser liked the idea well enough to send Rommel forward immediately with three companies. When the Bavarian major showed up to demand the WGB support the Guards’ attack, Sproesser thanked his colleague but answered that the WGB’s advance guard was presently engaged with the enemy in response to Sproesser’s orders, and its progress could be observed through field glasses.
It is an exaggeration to say that Sproesser and Rommel put their respective careers on the line that day. The German army was not inclined to relieve officers for that kind of squabbling over command—some of it, indeed, was expected among young officers with the right stuff. On the other hand, more than mere bragging rights were involved, and by day’s end, Rommel and the WGB made Sproesser look very good.
Rommel’s detachment advanced as patrols cleared its front of Italian outposts and skirmishers. By this time the WGB was as skilled in that craft as any special operations force in either World War. A good reason why Rommel so often achieved initial surprise in his attacks involved the difficulty of sounding the alarm with a bayonet at one’s throat. Another good reason for Rommel’s success was his pattern of seeking dead ground a few hundred yards away from the main enemy position, where his men could catch their breath and stragglers could come up unobserved. There is almost always dead ground in mountains; this time it was a small hollow. When a patrol reported the ridge line unoccupied, Rommel ordered a rush that caught most of the ostensible defenders in their bunkers, secure from an expected barrage that never materialized. Bringing them out was a simple enough process: a shout of “Raus! Haende hoch!” (translation: “Outside! Hands up!”) sufficed—with a grenade bounced down the stairs for effect if the occupants proved recalcitrant.
It was a good morning’s work, especially because, by the sounds from the Bavarian sector, the Guards were having difficult going. It also left, Rommel quickly noted, his detachment in a salient, confronting trench system too strong for his small force to clear, and a counterattack too strong to face head-on. One of his rifle companies, by now reduced to only eighty men, was pinned down almost immediately. Sproesser had promised reinforcements, but they were still climbing. Rommel moved his other rifle company, unobserved, to the Italians’ flank and rear. Two machine-gun crews managed to bring their weapons forward to support an attack that brought 2nd Company’s survivors out of their positions and into the Italians from the opposite direction.
By 9:15, Rommel’s detachment had taken fifteen hundred prisoners—three times and more its own strength. The Germans had also torn a half-mile hole in the Italian defenses of Kolovrat Ridge. They were taking heavy fire from Italian machine guns on even higher ground, and reserves were assembling for a counterattack, some of them arriving by truck from the rear area.
Rommel’s initial adrenaline-inspired reaction was “Bring ’em on!” It did not take long, however, for him to change his mind and decide instead to continue the attack, pushing forward toward Mount Kuk. At 10:30, Sproesser arrived with four more companies At 11:15, German artillery opened fire, and Rommel’s own machine guns began blasting the forward Italian positions. He had sent two strong patrols forward to probe the defenses. One encountered resistance; the other met Italians who surrendered when the Wuerttembergers waved handkerchiefs at them. The way seemed open for a rush to the summit. Then Rommel saw another opportunity. The Italians had constructed a camouflaged supply trail to their summit positions—a trail leading down the Italian side of the ridge and into their rear.
The half-dozen WGB companies by themselves could not simultaneously deal with Mount Kuk and charge off into the blue. But elements of the Bavarian Guards, their initial attack stopped, had followed the route taken by the WGB and were close at hand. As battle zone commander, they came under Rommel’s authority—a mere lieutenant commanding a force of near-regiment strength. Leaving the Guards to deal with Kuk, Rommel led four WGB companies literally on a dead run down the track. His men had marched most of the night and fought all morning. But they were as physically fit as any soldiers in the German army, and no one was shooting at them. Perhaps the most impressive feat of the charge was the machine-gunners’ continuing to carry the heavy guns on their backs and shoulders as they overran supply dumps, battery positions, and command posts one after another with no more than a few random shots fired. They raced through the village of Ravna, scattering soldiers and pack mules indiscriminately, and Rommel led them deeper into the Italian lines, toward the Luico-Savogna valley. Block that, and the Italians in the entire sector were trapped.
Again the Germans moved at the double, snatching eggs and grapes from the baskets of abandoned pack mules, stumbling through bushes and small woods downhill toward the valley floor. At 12:30, the detachment’s leading elements—including Rommel and his staff officers—appeared like wraiths from the underbrush alongside the main road. As surprised Italians scattered in all directions, Rommel’s troopers, the relatively few who had not fallen out along the way, cut the phone wires and began digging in. Italian trucks and wagons continued using the road, and hungry Germans enjoyed the chocolate, jam, and white bread included in their cargoes—delicacies that had disappeared from German rations long ago.
Business was booming, Rommel observed, and morale was wonderful. But there was still no sign of reinforcements, and one of Rommel’s scouts reported a long column of Italian infantry marching toward the roadblock. Rommel by now still had only about one hundred fifty men, but they possessed every advantage of surprise and position. He let the Italians move into the killing zone of his machine guns, then sent out a parliamentarian under a flag of truce to demand surrender. It was scarcely surprising that the Italians, part of the elite 20th Bersaglieri Regiment, did not comply—especially because Rommel’s negotiator had forgotten to remove his pistol. The eight rounds in a Luger’s magazine were not exactly intimidating under the circumstances, but the technical violation of the laws of war prescribing negotiators must be unarmed led the Italians to take the man prisoner, and in the process rough him up slightly.
When Rommel and a few of his staff tried to attract the Italians’ attention by waving handkerchiefs, the response was a scattering of shots from the head of the column. Rommel blew his whistle; German machine guns swept the road; and the Italians fell back. A ten-minute firefight ensued, punctuated by desperate Italian efforts to break through the roadblock. Then resistance collapsed. Fifty officers and two thousand men surrendered to less than a tenth of their number, because less than a tenth of them had a chance to get into the fight.
As his men were disarming and sorting out this new bag of POWs, Rommel mounted a heavy machine gun on a captured auto and drove into Lucio. There he found Sproesser, the rest of the WGB, and the Guards battalion, which had taken Kuk and moved on the town from a different direction. Again Rommel urged action. His detachment, he argued, should move cross-country immediately to the next high ground, Hill 1096. That would put the Germans even deeper in the enemy rear, in a position to cut the main Italian supply routes north.
Sproesser gave Rommel his blessing and six companies, including all the WGB’s heavy machine guns. Even by Rommel’s standards, the advance rapidly turned into a demanding climb, with more and more men falling out or dropping out with minor injuries such as twisted ankles. When his patrols reported strong Italian positions ahead, Rommel camped for the night while his scouts searched for an alternate route forward. Not until 4:30 did one of the officers report that there was a way. An hour later, the Germans moved out—and hit the Italians on Hill 1096, where the defenders were on the alert and ready to make a fight of it.
There was no time and no room for Rommel to follow his usual practice of pulling back and seeking a way round. Instead, the Wuerttembergers went up and went in. By 7:15, they were in control—at a price. Every man had been committed to the attack; no reserves were left. Casualties among the leaders had been heavy. Every officer in 2nd Company was down. So were too many of the senior NCOs on whom Rommel so depended to lead patrols and assaults. Rommel himself became a target for an Italian machine gun. But in addition to several hundred prisoners taken during the fighting, a further sixteen hundred Bersaglieri, cut off on the lower slopes, surrendered, marching into captivity fully armed and equipped.
The next objective was Mrzli Peak, and Rommel pushed toward it so quickly that he lost contact with his own rear echelon. His vanguard, 2nd Company, now commanded by a platoon sergeant, was down to a third of its men, plus a couple of light machine guns. It took until 10 A.M. to assemble the equivalent of three companies from the men who had followed him that morning. As his improvised and attenuated force moved forward, Rommel, leading the way, saw—and heard—what seemed like around three battalions’ worth of Italians. Everyone was armed, but there seemed to be too much noise being made to indicate troops reliably under discipline. Rommel considered it worth the risk to walk forward waving a handkerchief and calling on the men to surrender. Suddenly the mass broke and scattered in all directions. Hundreds of Italians started running toward him, throwing down their rifles and shouting “Long live Germany!” The first to reach him hoisted Rommel on their shoulders. An officer who seemed reluctant was shot by his own men. About that time, the vanguard of Rommel’s detachment appeared on the scene and began the process of disarming more than fifteen hundred men of the Salerno Brigade.
The rest of the brigade, prisoners informed him, was occupying Matajur and would fight. Rommel was preparing to oblige them when he received an order from Sproesser to withdraw. The major had arrived at Hill 1096 and, on seeing the mass of prisoners, assumed the fighting was over and Matajur to be in German hands. Even in a context of “mission tactics,” a direct order could not simply be disregarded even though it showed ignorance of the true situation. But in as neat a piece of superior-finessing as war’s history shows, Rommel sent most of his detachment—and its officers—back to Hill 1096 as instructed. He kept a hundred riflemen and six heavy machine-gun crews with him: enlisted men, who would not be court-martialed for following the orders of their immediate superior.
A hundred-odd men against a regiment might not seem too promising. But Rommel, apart from his belief that one of his mountaineers was worth twenty of any other soldiers, saw that the ground in front of him was too broken to support an interlocking defense system. He was confident that his small force could infiltrate the Italian position and break it from the inside out. A small force, indeed, might well be more useful than a large one in that kind of operation. But as his men came in sight of Mount Matajur, the firing died down. Rounding a bend in the road, the Germans saw another twelve hundred Italians, the other regiment of the Salerno Brigade, downing arms and surrendering.
Matajur’s summit was still a mile away and a two-hundred-meter climb, but what remained of the garrison rapidly unraveled under no more than slight pressure. At 11:40, Rommel sent up the flares announcing Matajur was in German hands. He gave his men an hour’s rest while he dictated his report to Sproesser. Then, relieved by other German troops, the Rommel Detachment moved slowly back down the Kolovrat Ridge.
In a war where gains were measured in hundreds of yards and losses in tens of thousands, the saga of the WGB reads like military melodrama. In fifty-two hours of marching and fighting, a force never much stronger than five hundred men at the contact point accounted for nine thousand prisoners; eighty guns; and more horses, mules, and assorted supplies than anyone had time to count. When the last German stragglers were accounted for and the final combat losses tallied, the price was six dead and twenty wounded. Small wonder that Sproesser turned Nelson’s blind eye and basked in the Alpine Corps’s order of the day, praising the WGB’s “resolute leader” and his “courageous officers” for playing the principal role in the collapse of Italian resistance in the entire sector.
An achievement worthy of recognition, certainly—but one that brought Rommel for the first time in his career into contact with high-level army politics. When Below and Krafft prepared their attack plans, it became clear that Hill 1114 and Mount Matajur were the major initial geographic objectives. They had to be taken for the attack to progress, and to provide incentive, Below secured authorization to award an immediate Pour le Mérite to the officers whose units captured those heights.
The order of the Pour le Mérite, created in 1667 by the founder of modern Prussia, the Great Elector, had evolved on its military side into a decoration reserved in practice for senior officers who achieved major victories. The criteria began to change with the development of air-to-air combat. Shooting down enemy planes on a regular basis initially seemed the kind of superhuman achievement that even an Iron Cross was not enough recognition. Max Immelmann, the “Eagle of Lille,” Oswald Boelcke, and other fighter-pilot lieutenants in their twenties found themselves sporting an award that acquired a new nickname, the “Blue Max,” from Immelman. Similarly, the Pour le Mérite was increasingly awarded to junior officers for a major command achievement. It recognized performance, not heroism, which meant an officer could be a good deal more openly interested in winning a PLM than his British or U.S. counterpart a Victoria Cross or a Medal of Honor. It was also why Below could metaphorically place a Blue Max on the peaks in question, for the most skillful, the most courageous, and the luckiest to pick up.
It was not quite that simple. The Blue Max for Hill 1114 went to an officer of the Bavarian Guards—a Lieutenant Theodor Schoenerer, who would finish out a later war as one of Adolf Hitler’s Field Marshals. The prize for Matajur was awarded to a Lieutenant Schnieber, of the 12th German Division’s 63rd Regment, who reported in mistaken good faith that his company had reached its summit around 7 A.M. The key in both cases seems to have been that the officers belonged to established organizations, able to make ongoing cases for their candidates. The WGB was a wartime creation, a military mule with indiscriminate ancestry and no hope of progeny, having nothing but its deeds to speak for it to senior officers at higher headquarters.
Rommel was sufficiently aggrieved to complain to Sproesser, and according to some accounts, Below was sufficiently convinced of the lieutenant’s claim to request another award, but was refused the authorization. Meanwhile, the WGB pressed forward, improving as it went its cooperation with its neighboring units. Both Sproesser and Rommel were finding that this was a war of divisions, corps, and armies. A battalion was limited in what it could accomplish, no matter how high its quality. So was an officer. Rommel suffered his first defeat on November 7, when his detachment failed to clear the Italians from positions overlooking the German route of advance. By his account, he was coordinating the supporting machine-gun fire on which his attacks usually depended, and the rifle companies held back too long waiting for him to join them. But the Italians abandoned the position during the night. The Austro-German advance continued, crossing the Tagliamento and moving toward the Piave as Krafft and Below defied Ludendorff’s original order to halt at the first river in favor of following up a fleeing enemy.
But the rains grew heavier, and the Austrians had neither mounted nor motorized forces to keep the Italians off-balance as the scene shifted from the mountains to the riverine plains of northern Italy. The WGB filled part of that gap in the central powers’ order of battle, spearheading the advance to a town called Longarone on the Piave’s far side. By that time, the battalion had taken advantage of abandoned material and empty homes and stores along the line of advance to improvise a mixed bag of transport, and to festoon itself with enough gimcrack loot that Sproesser saluted one of his companies with “Good morning, Sarassani,” referring to the famous German traveling circus. Just as promptly, his troopers began referring to their commander as “the circus director.”
Rommel, ever the pragmatist, was by now using an improvised cyclist detachment on “liberated” vehicles as his vanguard, supplemented by a few mounted staff officers. In a wild ride down a steep road, the Germans shot curves, ran tunnels, and scattered Italian demolition squads and stragglers. Any reference suggesting the foreshadowing of panzer operations in France 1940 or North Africa in 1942 would be redundant. Suffice it to say, Rommel and the WGB reached the valley—again with the machine-gunners somehow keeping pace and holding on to their weapons—improvised a river crossing with men swimming and wading through the Piave’s freezing water, and blocked the road south. Then, with Rommel preferring the risks of a night attack to giving the Italians a chance to escape past him in the dark, they marched on Longarone.
Rommel’s detachment spent the early hours of the night along the road, repelling increasingly desperate, increasingly disorganized attempts to break out to the south. At the end, it was captured Italian weapons and ammunition that enabled the Germans to hold as their own supplies ran out. Even then the machine guns were down to fifty rounds apiece, and Rommel was holding down one of his flanks with a half-dozen men by the time reinforcements arrived and Rommel took three companies forward.
He was greeted by one of his officers, captured the night before, riding a mule, accompanied by hundreds of cheering Italian soldiers, and bearing a message from the commander of “Fortress Longarone,” placing himself at Rommel’s disposal in the best eighteenth-century style. This last was in good part the work of Major Sproesser, who the night before, with other elements of the WGB, had advanced to about a thousand yards north of the Piave, then sent a message across the river into Longarone to the effect that the town was surrounded by “elements of” a German-Austrian division, and all resistance was useless. At final count, the bag amounted to more than ten thousand men; two hundred machine guns; three mountain batteries; and the usual accompaniment of horses, mules, and trucks.
Rommel, Sproesser, and the WGB were developing into figures of folklore on both sides of the battle line. On December 13, Major Sproesser announced to the WGB that he and Rommel had both been awarded the Pour le Mérite—an unheard-of honor for a single battalion. When, on December 18, the WGB’s mail caught up, it included two small packages, each containing one of the coveted medals. It was not exactly a formal award ceremony, but though the record is silent on the subject, it seems a reasonable assumption that the WGB’s Christmas celebration was correspondingly enhanced.
The medals were about all the mountaineers had to celebrate. Taken in isolation, the narrative of its exploits in Italy supports a joke told in many versions, to the effect that Italians accepted the Fascist salute because it was easier than putting up both hands. Even when maximum allowances are made for self-congratulation by the Germans and Austrians, the Italian performance at the sharp end of Caporetto was distinctly shabby. When the battle began, the Italian army had sixty-nine divisions in the field. By November 9, that number had shrunk to thirty-three. More than three thousand guns, almost half the army’s total, had been lost. Forty thousand Italians were dead or wounded. But 280,000 more were prisoners, and 350,000 more were counted as stragglers or outright deserters.
Even as Below’s forward units drove deeper into Italy during the first days of November, he and Krafft were concerned at the corresponding extension of their supply lines. The Germans, true to their tradition of front-loading, had contributed fighting troops, not rear-echelon formations. The Austrian army’s logistic system in the Italian theater was geared to support defensive operations. By the end of November, too many of its trucks had broken down. Too many of its draft and pack animals had died of exhaustion, or been converted to ration supplements. The heavy bridging equipment necessary to sustain a full-scale attack across the Piave was finding heavy going through the steep mountain passes. The onset of winter would make bringing up supplies exponentially more difficult. Below’s German and Austrian troops were tired—not merely from the previous weeks of constant marching and fighting, but from months and years of shortened rations that told on their strength and endurance. Replacement depots were emptying, even for elite units like the Alpine Corps and the WGB.
On November 21, Below wrote that it was time to call off the operation. Austria’s Emperor Karl also urged Below to close down the offensive. On November 26, the German high command reminded their subordinate of the increasing risks generated by the slowdown in the rate of advance. And if Below needed any warnings from the sharp end, he received an unmistakable one on November 25. The WGB had been transferred from the Longarone sector to the Grappa massif, where Below’s attack was encountering determined resistance. Given the battalion’s reputation, its use as an assault force was a given. The Wuerttembergers, however, were beginning to find their limits. The Italians were no longer the obliging enemy who left gaps in their positions for Rommel’s patrols to discover and exploit. Their main defenses were developed enough that two or three understrength companies could no longer break into positions and unravel them from the inside.
To improve his striking power, Sproesser was reinforced, eventually commanding three battalions of elite Austrian Kaiserschuetzen, in addition to his own WGB, which he turned over to Rommel. On November 25, the battle group attacked the key Italian position on Monte Salarol. The Austrians were stopped in their tracks, with heavy casualties. Around noon, Sproesser sent in the WGB. But the route Rommel followed brought him into the operational zone of an Austrian division whose commander was not pleased at what he considered interference. The allied attack essentially petered out. Rommel and Sproesser offer different accounts, both exculpatory, of the event. The clearest evaluation was probably Below’s. The WGB, he declared, simply lost its way.
The events of November 25 proved Bellona is no man’s trull. The WGB had been challenging the law of averages for weeks and months; fog and friction were bound to end its run of success sooner or later. The operation also suffered from planning problems. Sproesser’s headquarters, small to begin with, was attempting to control twice as many men as usual, half of them strangers, in a complex attack operation. Sproesser, moreover, had reached a point where he took as given “the tested and brilliant Rommel would find a way to break through,” no matter what the circumstances It was time enough for a rest, and the WGB was pulled out of the line for two weeks.
Below and Krafft were in any case planning to shut down the offensive—after one more series of efforts to improve their tactical position. How many men died for that reason between 1914 and 1918? The WGB returned to action on December 17, its objective again being Monte Salarol. This time most of the battalion was initially held in reserve, and the weather was so bad that when the battalion leading the attack was pinned down, the divisional headquarters directing the operation called the whole thing off on account of winter.
That was the WGB’s last serious fighting on the Italian front. Rommel and Sproesser, after unwrapping and celebrating their medals, returned to Germany on leave. If, at this stage of his career, Rommel came nowhere near George Patton in his cultivation of friends in high places, he had been unusually fortunate in his commanding officer. Sproesser recognized Rommel’s talent and potential. Professionally ambitious and critical of the orthodoxies of trench warfare, he was sufficiently confident to cultivate a synergistic relationship with his gifted subordinate instead of regarding him as a rival. Sproesser allowed Rommel to extend himself without overextending the battalion, shaping his talents while never letting him forget who was the WGB’s commanding officer. Rommel, for his part, respected and admired his commander, as much as a young man of Rommel’s temperament was capable of admiring a superior who periodically exercised a restraining role.
The WGB was transferred to the Western Front in February and committed to the German spring offensive, fighting on the Chemin des Dames. In May, the battalion was renamed a regiment and its detachments retitled battalions. Though a regiment was in principle a colonel’s command, Sproesser, who resumed command in March, remained a major until handing over command on June 3. The regiment fought on the Western Front, taking heavy losses, rebuilding with whatever men could be scavenged from nearly empty depots, and earning a Blue Max for its new commander. Briefly transferred to Macedonia in August and returned, the mountaineers finished the war near where their most famous member began it—around Verdun and on the Meuse River, and disbanded in the early weeks of 1919.
Rommel never returned to its ranks. When his leave ended, he was assigned to the staff of LXIV Corps, a holding formation on the Western Front. Even that deep into the war, regular officers at Rommel’s stage of their careers were regularly shifted from field duty to gain some staff experience and see which of them might have the potential for eventual assignment to the General Staff in Berlin. In the Great War’s final weeks, Erwin Rommel was just another junior officer who moved documents around his desk and carried them from room to room. He did some lecturing on his Italian experiences, but in that backwater command, no one seemed particularly interested. His promotion to captain was similarly routine, having nothing to do with his combat career.
In one sense, Rommel’s “soldier’s luck” nevertheless held: he was far away from both the slow-motion collapse of the German front in the autumn of 1918 and the revolutionary upheavals that accompanied it and eventually brought down what remained of the Second Empire. On December 21, he was administratively reassigned to his old regiment, the 124th, which shortly afterward disappeared like the state it served.
For George Patton, the outbreak of the Great War occasioned one of the more melodramatic gestures of a career studded with them. On August 3, he wrote to Leonard Wood, requesting a year’s leave of absence to go to France and participate in the fighting at his own risk. “I will never apply to the United States for help if I get in trouble or am captured,” he informed his superior. This was more than braggadocio. During his sojourn at Saumur, Patton had made friends with a French officer who assured him that should war come with Germany and the United States remain neutral, he could procure Patton a commission in his cavalry regiment.
Wood replied matter-of-factly that should Patton go to Europe, it must be as a spectator. His enthusiasm, however, was noted to his credit by his superiors. By the time he graduated from the second-year course, he had also established himself as the Army’s leading authority on modern swordsmanship and fathered a second child, a daughter, Ruth Ellen. The only cloud on Patton’s immediate horizon was the imminent transfer of his regiment to the Philippines. He traveled to Washington, pulled some strings, and pushed some buttons. He was reassigned to the 8th Cavalry, rotating home from the Philippines to service at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Not too much should be made of Patton’s actively seeking a transfer. Regimental loyalty in the U.S. Army was nowhere nearly as strong as in Britain. Applications for exchange when a regiment changed assignments were familiar, and an officer with Patton’s credentials and potential was deemed more useful in the States than doing constabulary duty across the Pacific. He successfully passed the examinations for promotion to first lieutenant and patrolled a border increasingly disrupted by the spillover of a Mexican Revolution that transformed into a civil war of near-Hobbesian dimensions.
In March 1916, Pancho Villa crossed the border and attacked the garrison town of Columbus, New Mexico. This culmination of a several months’ campaign of reprisal for U.S. support of Villa’s rival Venustiano Carranza led President Woodrow Wilson to order a punitive expedition into Mexico. Its commander was Brigadier General John J. Pershing—an officer whose career had benefited even more than Patton’s from cultivating personal and political connections in Washington. Patton’s regiment was not on the troop list, but Patton was determined to participate. He went unannounced to Pershing’s quarters and offered to do any job, even handling correspondents—one step above personally cleaning stables in the minds of most Army officers. “I want to go more than anyone else,” he informed the general. When Pershing phoned the next morning and asked how long it would take him to prepare, Patton said he was already packed and ready to go. “I’ll be God damned,” replied the usually imperturbable Pershing. “You are appointed aide.”
A general’s aide in that informal era was far more than the proverbial dog robber dedicated to keeping his patron comfortable on campaign. Patton managed the headquarters, arranged Pershing’s schedules, assumed administrative responsibilities, and won the favor of a man not easily impressed. Patton, in turn, responded strongly to Pershing’s passion for order, established and maintained by personal supervision. An autocrat was arguably necessary in organizing an expedition whose senior subordinates were conditioned to acting on their own responsibility, in an army where staff officers were little more than extensions of the commander’s authority. Patton watched, noted, and approved.
President Woodrow Wilson’s aim in launching the intervention was to strengthen his influence with the Carranza government while meeting the vociferous demands for security along the border. His orders to Pershing correspondingly established a constabulary mission as opposed to a military one. Mexican soldiers, officials, and citizens responded by conducting a small-scale but comprehensive irregular campaign against U.S. columns that marched futilely across northern Mexico in pursuit of an elusive enemy whose popularity, at a nadir earlier in the year, increased as he and his followers made fools of the Yanquis almost at will.
Logistics and communications problems proved far more intractable than had been expected in earlier considerations of military intervention. Patton grew increasingly irascible, venting at least part of his spleen in periodic verbal outbursts against Mexicans of all classes and conditions. Then chance came to his rescue. On May 14, Pershing put him in charge of a foraging expedition: a dozen men sent to obtain corn for the headquarters’ horses. But instead of riding out on horseback in traditional fashion, Patton’s party took the field in three automobiles. The mission itself proved routine. Most Mexican merchants were quite wiling to take American money while rejecting America’s presence. But in the process of making his purchase, Patton decided to investigate a nearby ranch reputed to be sheltering the commander of Villa’s bodyguard, the famous Dorados.
The upshot of a story often told and retold in later years by Patton himself, his admirers and his critics, was a close-quarters gunfight that left the Dorado captain and two other Mexicans down for no American casualties. Patton’s personal score remains debatable; there was a lot of lead flying around the ranch that afternoon. But it was Lieutenant Patton who tied the dead Mexicans across the hoods of his cars and delivered them to Pershing in person. And it was Patton, with the two revolvers he habitually wore low on his hips, who attracted the attention of the increasingly bored contingent of reporters hanging around the expedition’s headquarters with no stories to file.
As the Bandit Killer, Patton received national attention, albeit briefly. With the Punitive Expedition winding down into a series of patrols to nowhere, the incident might well have proved his fifteen minutes of fame. He was promoted to first lieutenant. He began writing an article on cavalry tactics and quarreled with Pershing—as much as a lieutenant quarrels with a general—about the continued importance of the saber. He was thirty-two years old, needed reading glasses, and although not exactly at a dead end, seemed in a career position that led nowhere in particular. Becoming a professional general’s aide was definitely not part of his career portfolio, even though Pershing, who had overcome the tragic loss of his wife and three children in a fire to become a ladies’ man in the best French stereotype, had begun paying assiduous court to Patton’s sister.
With Patton in his letters home regularly advocating war with Mexico and denouncing Wilson as a poltroon, in April 1917, the president asked Congress for a declaration of war—against Germany. U.S. entry into the conflict was influenced but not determined by its economic relationship with the Allies. France was the real “arsenal of democracy” in World War I, with America valued as much as a source of raw materials as a supplier of finished weapons. Despite an increasingly sophisticated Allied propaganda campaign, the American people manifested no more than a fan’s interest in the Great War for its first two and a half years. The same, however, could not be said for their government. What brought the United States into the war were the calculated policies of President Woodrow Wilson.
Initially sincerely espousing neutrality, Wilson grew committed as the war progressed not only to shaping a peace, but to developing a future world order preventing similar conflicts by making the world safe for democracy and business. The president’s conviction was sharpened by an increasing conviction that U.S. security was vitally threatened by German domination of Europe. Steam had made the Atlantic for the United States what the channel had been for Britain: a barrier that could all too easily become a highway. Any expectations that a victorious Reich would prove a benevolent hegemon were challenged by a pattern of direct provocations that were both deliberate and clumsy. The submarine campaign; the Zimermann telegram with its rhetoric of undoing the results of the Mexican War; the heavy-handed contempt with which the German government reacted to U.S. protests—by 1917, these had become impossible to ignore in an international climate offering no institutional means of resolving such issues and behaviors short of war.
The country’s first-line force, the U.S. Navy, was vestigial under the conditions of 1917. Badly unbalanced, emphasizing capital ships at the expense of smaller craft, it was able to provide no more than a token force of destroyers for the convoy work that had become the focal point of the war at sea. To secure Allied victory and establish the postwar position Wilson desired, the United States required above all an army—a mass army—on the ground in Europe.
Creating such a force was a daunting task, one the Germans dismissed as impossible and the Allies found difficult to credit. With an authorized strength of only 108,000 as late as 1916—half the strength of the British army at the outbreak of war—even the regular Army’s potential as a cadre was limited. The National Guard’s strength and effectiveness varied wildly among the states that controlled it. To personnel difficulties the United States added a complete lack of infrastructure. Neither the buildings nor the equipment for a mass army existed. As for equipment, as late as January 1918, one division reported itself lacking a third of its allocation of rifles and all of its cartridge belts and haversacks.
The United States became the first modern state to create a mass army from a zero point along industrial lines. Britain’s Great War mobilization was artisanal; the work of society’s “little platoons.” America turned to the factory system. From its beginnings, the new Army was a conscript force, inducted, tested, processed, and trained en masse. Between May and September 1917, cantonments were established all over the United States, absorbing as many as fifty thousand men each. The new Army was also homogenized. National Guard units, with their strong local ties, were amalgamated, consolidated, and assigned new roles. Draftees were at first generally organized along regional lines for convenience, but the system broke down as men were transferred en bloc to meet the needs of formations with higher priorities for overseas deployment and replaced by others from those lower on the scale.
John J. Pershing was selected as the commander in chief of an American Expeditionary Force that eventually included more than two million men and women. His appointment was no surprise. He might not have had any relevant credentials as a battle captain—but neither did anyone else in the Army’s senior ranks. But his record indicated he was a first-class administrator and manager, albeit on a small scale—just the man to get the fledgling AEF off the drawing boards and into the field.
The Army that reached Europe by stages was strongly Gallicized. The French army occupied, in Lorraine, the sector of the front best suited initially to introduce the green Americans to the trenches, and eventually to allow the kind of open campaigning the American high command wanted. The ports of southwest France and the railroads running eastward were less burdened than Channel ports and northeastern rail lines already straining to support the British. France was able to supply the high-tech weapons systems the Americans lacked. French training techniques and staff methods proved both reasonably effective and easily assimilated. This was particularly true in the technical combat arms, artillery, engineers, and signals.
Underlying these specifics were questions of affinity. For all their common language, Americans and British simply did not get on well at any level much deeper than the exchange of courtesies. The French had the charm of difference. And if the French among themselves were just as scathing as the British in describing American shortcomings, Gallic courtesy and American ignorance of French usually combined to limit the damage.
Pershing, whose European experience was as limited as his knowledge of French, thus had good reason to take George Patton, newly promoted captain, with him—in charge of his small advance headquarters. It was a long way from the trenches, and a longer way still from glory. For a while, Patton was dazzled at meeting the leaders of France and Britain, enjoying the accolades that greeted the new arrivals, making plans (which eventually fizzled) for his wife to join him. Using her family money, Patton purchased a luxury auto, a twelve-cylinder Packard. He attended the Bastille Day parade. He did a quick tour of the British sector. When Pershing established his headquarters at Chaumont, Patton’s responsibilities increased exponentially—but they were all administrative. As a cavalry officer, he was at the end of the queue for assignment to any other combat arms unit. Then a new horizon opened.
“There is a lot of talk,” he wrote Beatrice, “about ‘Tanks’ here now, and I am interested as I can see no future in my present job . . . lots of them get smashed but the people in them are pretty safe. . . . I love you too much to try to get killed but also too much to be willing to sit on my tail and do nothing.”
The origins of the tank have been traced back to the armored “war wagons” of the medieval Bohemian Hussites, and to some sketches made by Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, the development of the armored fighting vehicle depended on the internal combustion engine. Even before 1914, speculative military writing had discussed the possibilities of gasoline-powered armored vehicles running on caterpillar tracks. By early 1915, the French and British armies were using increasing numbers of gasoline-driven tractors, originally designed for agricultural purposes, behind their lines to move guns and supplies through the north European mud.
It was nevertheless the Royal Navy, in particular First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, that began the process of developing “land ships.” By the end of 1915, experiments with tracks, transmission, and armor progressed far enough to produce “Little Willie,” a metal box with no armament, but a vehicle that ran. The next step was the rhomboid-shaped design still identified with World War I tanks. Dubbed “Big Willie,” then “Mother,” its transmission was primitive and for steering, it depended on two exposed wooden tail wheels. The noise was such that the crew had to communicate by hand signals. The engine gases alone made the vehicle almost unendurable for any length of time. But “Mother” carried two small cannon. With a bit of luck and some inspired steering, she could cross trenches and climb through shell holes. Within weeks of the first trial, the War Office ordered a hundred fifty like her.
“Mother” was a bit too domestic a designation. (The obvious alternative, “Mother-in-Law,” was both too long and politically incorrect even for the time.) The origin of the familiar cognomen reflected concern with keeping the new weapon at least semi-secret. Describing them as mobile water carriers for the Middle East was credible given their appearance. Besides, they looked more like tanks than anything else. They were introduced to battle on September 15, 1916, and played a limited role in the remainder of the Somme campaign and throughout 1917. The British High Command nevertheless sustained faith in tanks’ potential. It was the 3rd Army headquarters that came up with the idea for a “tank raid” in a sector where the ground was relatively undisturbed. The Battle of Cambrai, which began on November 20, 1917, was essentially a draw. But the role of tanks in its early stages was prominent and positive.
The French, too, had developed and employed tanks in 1917. Working on their own, they introduced two variants of an armored box on treads. The 13.5-ton Schneider and the 23-ton St. Chamond were originally designed as what a later generation would call assault guns, following attacking infantry and giving it fire support with their 75-millimeter guns, as opposed to leading the advance, smashing down wire entanglements, and crossing trenches like the British heavies. Their hulls overhung their tracks in both front and rear, making them extraordinarily subject to ditching or hanging up. Both also caught fire easily, incinerating their crews in a fashion grisly and spectacular even by Great War standards.
Colonel J. B. Estienne, commanding the tank arm, returned to the drawing board literally and conceptually by sponsoring the development of an entirely different vehicle. The six-ton, two-man Renault FT, mounting a machine gun or a small one-pound cannon in a revolving turret, was also intended as an infantry-accompanying vehicle. But it was more mechanically reliable than its predecessors. Its cross-country capacities were exponentially superior. And its small size and relatively low height made it a less-conspicuous target. The first battalions were organized and equipped in March 1918.
Initial reports filed by U.S. observers of both French and British tanks were generally unenthusiastic. Pershing, who was far from the rifle-and-bayonet tactical troglodyte of general-history myth, nevertheless considered tanks as meriting further study. He established his own board, which—hardly surprisingly—reported that tanks were “destined to become an important element in this war.” Patton, meanwhile, was recovering from an attack of jaundice that put him in the hospital, and concluding that his connection with Pershing was eroding his chance to be anything but a glorified caterer. He debated seeking a post as a bayonet instructor and considered requesting a transfer to the infantry. Then one of his former troop commanders, currently in charge of the Tank Department, asked Patton if he was interested in directing an AEF tank school.
Patton vacillated briefly. A few months earlier he had been introduced to a French officer, a tank enthusiast, and came away concluding “the Frenchman was crazy and the tank not worth a damn.” Increasingly, however, he saw that he was being offered a unique opportunity. The Great War had rendered regimental officers anonymous. It was a war of administration and management, a war in which even the most heroic deeds were likely to go unobserved and unreported. The AEF, Patton mused, would have hundreds of infantry majors, but only one of light tanks. He would begin by running the school, then move to command the first battalion organized from it. If he and the tanks made good, and the war lasted, he could expect to command a regiment, then a brigade. And Patton would pin on a brigadier general’s star. For a professional soldier, the prospect was irresistible.
Writing to Pershing, Patton stressed his familiarity with gas engines and mentioned that he was the only American soldier who had ever made an attack in a motor vehicle. Patton also from the beginning interpreted the missions of tanks in this war as similar to those of cavalry in less-industrialized conflicts. British tanks had been fostered by the Navy. Throughout the war, the spirit of their crews and the tactics they employed invited comparison to gunboats on a cutting-out mission. Estienne was an artilleryman, and French tank units were called artillerie d’assault. Patton was the first cavalryman to receive a position of authority in an armored force. On November 10, 1917, he was assigned to the Tank Corps and ordered to establish the First Army Tank School.
This was a patronage appointment: Patton got the job because of connections. That was the way the entire AEF operated. The prewar Army officer corps had been small enough that an officer with a reasonable circle of professional contacts would have access to information about almost anyone he wished. Written evaluations took second place to personal ones in an Army where staff systems were limited and officers, from their cadet days at West Point, were taught to trust their evaluations of “character.” That pattern survived even as the Army commissioned tens of thousands of new officers: in a sea of strange faces, familiar ones were correspondingly welcome—and frequently advantaged. The reverse side of patronage was a policy, beginning with Pershing and eventually informing the entire AEF, of ruthless insistence on performance. Especially for regular officers, one mistake was the rule of thumb; third chances were all but nonexistent. Pershing shed generals like a farmer shucking corn. It was a pattern that would persist in the U.S. Army throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Captain Patton, in other words, was not being handed a sinecure—particularly because he knew nothing specific whatever about tanks. He toured the French training center for the new Renault battalions, and after Cambrai, he visited Colonel J.F.C. Fuller, already recognized as the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) leading thinker on tank warfare. The result of a month’s work was a lengthy memo Patton later considered the best technical study he ever wrote. Part of it addressed the specifications of the Renault. Another part covered the proposed organization of a tank battalion. A third discussed training methods: an assembly line that could produce two complete battalions in three months.
Of more interest is the section on doctrine and employment. Some of this is derivative: Patton borrowed the French concept of a light tank as an armored infantryman. Some is common sense: the text noted that tanks failed whenever they operated without infantry support. And some is prophetic: when resistance broke, tanks must assume the historic role of cavalry and “ride the enemy to death.” This was a glittering generalization, which no tank on the Western front by November 11, 1918, was capable of implementing. It was also a signpost to the future of armor.
A new commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Rockenbach, took over the Tank Corps in November 1917. Like Patton, he was a cavalryman, but the two men were opposites in temperament. Rockenbach was experienced in the ways of Army politics, a conventional thinker content to work within the box—and a good judge of subordinates’ talent. Patton once called him “a good hearted windbag,” then also, “the most contrary old cuss I ever worked with.” But Rockenbach divided the initial labors of the Tank Corps perfectly, assuming responsibility for the heavy lifting in negotiating for men and equipment with the British, the French, and the rest of the AEF, while giving Patton, his energy, and his ambition full scope to bring the institutional framework on line.
Patton from the beginning insisted on a spit-and-polish regime, describing it as a necessary measure to convince men who only weeks ago had been civilians that their status had changed utterly. When officers began to arrive in numbers but there were still no enlisted men, Patton put them to work building barracks, storage facilities, and workshops for the school that had yet to hold its first classes. Like almost every regular officer in the World War I Army, Patton believed in a caste system that separated officers and men. But he was just as firmly convinced that the privileges of an officer depended on performance of duty, whatever it might be. In this case, it was construction work. When the men arrived, the training center was ready.
Patton, now a major, oversaw the details of the operation to a degree inviting characterization as obsessive. In part, this was his legacy from Pershing. But his behavior reflected as well the fact that there was no one in the center to whom major responsibilities could safely be delegated. Patton taught by rhetoric and example, standing in front of classes, then getting his own hands and uniform dirty to demonstrate a point. His embryonic tankers put in twelve-hour days and six-day weeks, spending as much time at drill as they did in the various classrooms, devoting a high proportion of their off-duty hours to cleaning their uniforms and equipment to Patton’s exacting standards.
In the first weeks, Patton belonged to a tank corps without any tanks. The French needed every Renault they could manufacture for the battalions they were organizing. The United States was in the initial stages of developing its own version of the Renault. Not until March 23, 1918, would the first real armored fighting vehicles arrive—all ten of them. Their crews were ready. By mid-April, Patton was staging field exercises and inviting the students of the nearby Army General Staff School to attend. The first tank maneuver in the history of the U.S. Army was a major success, showcasing both the potential of the Tank Corps and the capacities of the tank school commandant, newly promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Patton’s approach fit well into the insistence of Wilson and Pershing that the United States play an independent role in the Great War. Even the great German offensives of March and April 1918 that shook the BEF to its foundations and brought the German army to the outskirts of Paris did not sway the president and the general from their shared conviction that America and its expeditionary force make an identifiable military statement, not merely for the sake of immediate victory but because of Wilson’s grand plan for the postwar reconstruction of Europe and the world. Wilson was no naïf. He may have put his principal faith in the Fourteen Points and the League of Nations, but he recognized that faith was best accompanied by works—in this case the work of the AEF in demonstrating U.S. military effectiveness beyond reasonable doubt.
In the summer of 1918, Patton got his chance. Allied Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch allocated, albeit reluctantly, the newly created U.S. 1st Army its own operational sector, in the region of St. Mihiel, and an independent mission, the reduction of the salient the Germans had established in 1914. This was not a center-ring operation. St. Mihiel had been a quiet zone for years, where divisions exhausted elsewhere on the front came to rest and recuperate. Operations were dominated by an ethic of “live and let live.” Allied intelligence, moreover, had considerable evidence that the Germans were preparing to shorten their line by withdrawing from a sector that no longer had any strategic meaning. All in all, the St. Mihiel sector was close to ideal. It provided the Americans with the chance they demanded. Should they prove unequal to the test, there was no possibility of a catastrophe resembling the first day on the Somme, or the French disaster on the Chemin des Dames in 1917. The Germans lacked the strength to do more than bloody the Yanks’ noses, hurt their pride, and perhaps make them more receptive to counsel from their elders and betters.
So at least ran the subtexts in French and British headquarters. Pershing, his staffs, and his subordinates correspondingly put forth every effort to make a good showing. That included committing the 1st Brigade, Tank Corps, under Lieutenant Colonel Patton: the 326th and 327th Tank Battalions reinforced by a French battalion of Schneiders. The preparations were a staff officer’s nightmare, involving a last-minute change in the divisions to be supported, ongoing battles with the supply services over fuel and lubricants, and elaborate coordination with the French railroads that moved the tanks from their base to the front. To compound Patton’s difficulties, most of his tanks did not begin arriving until the last week in August and had to be prepared for the field on the fly.
The men of the brigade were eager to go, brave with the valor of ignorance. Patton issued an appropriate order. “AMERICAN TANKS DO NOT SURRENDER . . . squash the enemy with your tracks . . . This is our BIG CHANCE.” One of his junior officers later said their commander left no doubt that a tank officer was meant to die. If your tank is disabled, Patton repeatedly insisted, then go forward with the infantry: “If I find a tank officer behind the lines I will . . .” The threat was left un-stated; the officer who filled it in as “probably shoot him” was probably about half serious.
Bloodthirsty rhetoric had no effect on French railway schedules. Not until two hours before the first waves were scheduled to jump off did the final tank leave its train. The last units of the brigade moved into position ten minutes before the ground attack went in. After the challenges of getting where they were supposed to be, the fighting was almost anticlimactic. The major obstacle to the tanks’ advance were abandoned trenches in which tank after tank got stuck. French and American drivers would, in time, develop and pass on techniques for moving the little Renaults across trenches often widened for the express purpose of hanging up tanks. In this first action, drivers frequently either could not see out of their wildly pitching vehicles, or tried to take trenches at a straight run.
Within the first couple hours, Patton also confronted the fundamental challenge of tactical command on the Western Front. By 1918, both radio and wire-based communications had been sufficiently improved that regimental-level headquarters could usually count on maintaining contact with echelons higher up the chain. Rockenbach had given Patton a direct order to keep in touch. Instead, Patton went forward—on foot. Because tanks had no means of communication, the ultimate way for any senior officers to influence their action was to move from tank to tank and pound on the hull until someone replied.
It was George Patton’s first time under fire, and he freely admitted wanting to duck. But he soon saw the futility of dodging. If he needed any encouragement, it was provided by his brief encounter with Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, also leading from the front in a style that became familiar throughout the AEF. In later years, as old roosters, each spoke at times of a testosterone contest in which neither wanted to be first to leave. Patton continued forward, crossing a bridge erroneously reported to be mined, passing through a village recently captured by the Americans, eventually catching a ride on one of the few tanks still running.
By this time, the infantrymen, tired and disorganized from their successes, many of their officers and sergeants down, were following the tanks by reflex, and when the straggling advance reached the next village on the road, they went to ground. Patton told them the tank would lead the way. On emerging from the buildings, it came under fire. Patton jumped off, landing in a shell hole. The tank drove on; the infantry continued to hang back; and Patton found himself in the beaten zones of no fewer than four German heavy machine guns.
He managed to work his way back to the infantry—itself no mean feat of fieldcraft—and requested their commander to send a runner to fetch the tank. The officer, according to Patton, responded, “Hell no, it ain’t my tank.” It was a situation in which giving an order was almost certain to prove embarrassingly futile. Instead, Patton ran after the vehicle at top speed—too busy to be scared, as he later confided. He overtook the tank, and when the sergeant commanding it asked him what he wanted now, Patton led the way back to the main American position.
During the balance of the day, Patton got the advance moving, walked cross-country to contact his other American battalion, found its tanks out of gas, struck out for the rear in search of fuel, was bombed from the air, and received a monumental reprimand from Rockenbach for abandoning his post. There was no room in this war, Rockenbach informed his subordinate, for personal courage. It was a business proposition—a place for everyone and everyone in his place.
By the time the reports arrived and were sorted out, however, it was nevertheless conceded that the American tanks had done well. Certainly there had been no reluctance to go forward and take risks. If anything, the willingness of the brigade’s rear echelons to replace casualties contributed significantly to the logistical breakdown that limited the tankers’ effectiveness after St. Mihiel’s first day. The mechanics, truck drivers, and cooks were scattered all over the sector instead of fueling and repairing the tanks and feeding their crews. That was part of why Rockenbach tore into Patton—and part of why a new set of brigade orders threatened court-martial to anyone leaving his post for any reason in the next action.
By September 16, Patton reported 131 tanks on line from or an official establishment of 150. That was a substantial administrative achievement in a war where one of the major problems confronting Allied armor was attrition due to tactical and mechanical losses. It was significant as well because of Pershing’s determination to follow St. Mihiel closely with an even larger offensive against German positions in the Meuse-Argonne—the same sector where Erwin Rommel met his baptism of fire four years earlier.
Pershing’s original plan had a whiff of blitzkrieg. It involved smashing through the German front, making a deep penetration on each side of the high ground around Montfaucon, then combining for a massive single thrust through the main defensive system, the Kriemhilde Line. Success depended on an advance of ten miles on the first day—this in a war where gains were measured in hundreds of yards. In contrast to St. Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne incorporated some of the best defensive terrain in Europe: hilly and heavily wooded, its trails, rides, and clearings overgrown with underbrush after years of neglect. Also in contrast to St. Mihiel, the Germans proposed to fight for it.
The French high command believed their ally was most likely to stall in front of the Kriemhilde Line and bog down in a winter campaign. Pershing believed the risks were worth taking. Given the terrain, the AEF could have used the WGB or a counterpart. Lacking such specialized formations, Pershing and his staff proposed to combine surprise with mass: nine of the large AEF divisions, deployed in depth and under strict orders to keep moving. Patton’s brigade was assigned to support two divisions of I Corps, on Pershing’s right. The 35th, National Guardsmen from Kansas and Missouri, was to attack across the open ground between the villages of Varennes and Cheppy. The Pennsylvania Guardsmen of the 28th would go in on the 35th’s left, along the Argonne Forest’s eastern edge.
Patton undertook a detailed reconnaissance of the terrain and concluded the most favorable ground for tanks was the mile and a half or so between the Ardennes and the Bois de Cheppy, the communal woods east of the village. Instead of assigning one battalion to each of the divisions, he decided to use two companies of the 326th, now renumbered the 344th because two of the battalions organized in the United States had the same numbers as Patton’s, to support the 35th’s initial advance, with the third company going to the 28th. On the second day, the 327th, now the 345th, would take over, using the same disposition. The French Schneiders, which Patton seems to have regarded as a liability in the early going, would be committed when the 345th was expended.
This was neither a sophisticated deployment nor one embodying the principle of concentration of armor. It is a corresponding warning against seeing Patton as a tank-warfare genius from his early days in command. Patton’s dispositions nevertheless reflected the terrain over which he had to operate, the general intentions of 1st Army, and not least the material with which he had to work. This time he devoted even more effort to providing reserve stocks of fuel and ordered each tank to carry two full cans despite the heightened risk of fire. At the suggestion of a Tank Corps private, a repair tank followed the advance of each company to handle emergency maintenance. That the idea came from the ranks, in passing, was not unusual. Patton, recognizing that he had not ever taken a tank into combat himself, began going beyond the old Army caste system by encouraging suggestions from subordinates who had. He further announced his intention to move forward from his headquarters (codenamed Bonehead—an unsubtle statement of his opinions of Rockenbach’s approach to command) an hour after the attack began: “The brigade commander . . . will be up with the leading tanks at H+3½ hours.”
This time, Patton went forward accompanied by two officers, a dozen runners, several carrier pigeons, and a supply of field telephones with extra wire. It was a foggy morning, and the American artillery was using a large number of smoke shells. This may have blinded the German machine gunners; it did reduce the attackers’ visibility to a point where Patton and his staff first began following the tank tracks, then to navigating by compass, and finally advancing well ahead of their own tanks.
The American attack had achieved initial surprise, with the tanks in particular generating alarm and confusion. But as the fog lifted, German resistance stiffened. The Renault’s small size made it a difficult target for field guns, but the ten-pound shell of a light trench mortar firing at flat trajectory was quite sufficient to destroy or cripple a tank at medium range. German heavy machine guns were issued armor-piercing ammunition, which, depending on the range and the angle of fire, could turn a tank into a colander. German infantry were trained in the use of geballte Ladungen: the heads of a half-dozen stick grenades unscrewed from their handles and tied together in an improvised forerunner of the World War II satchel charge. For the very brave or the very desperate, there was the antitank rifle: an enlarged version of the standard Mauser, a single-shot weapon firing a 13-millimeter armor-piercing round with a shoulder-breaking recoil but a devastating effect if it struck home in a fighting compartment.
The British and the French had developed an obvious solution to the problem of close-quarters antitank defense: tank-infantry cooperation. This was particularly important for the Renaults. The heavy tanks, especially the British rhomboids with their multiple machine guns, were small fortresses, capable even when disabled of all-round self-defense, at least for a while. The two-man Renault, whose commander was also entirely responsible for handling the armament and spotting threats, depended heavily on infantry support in everything from ground guiding to avoid the worst of the shell holes and other obstacles, to taking advantage of the tanks’ gunfire to knock out machine-gun positions.
All that was—and is—easier described than done. Infantry advances by using ground; tanks by overcoming it: a fundamental difference. To men whose only protection was the cloth of their uniforms, the sight of machine-gun bullets sparking off a tank’s armor created a feeling that the machines were able to take care of business on their own. Tank crews, conscious of their limited vision and relative vulnerability, tended to use their vehicles’ mobility to evade trouble, as opposed to seeking and tackling it. Patton’s tankers and the infantry of the 35th Division had no opportunity to work together before going into action. Few of the infantrymen had even seen a tank, much less had any idea of what they could and could not do. The 35th, like many of the U.S. divisions in the first assault wave, had no previous combat experience. Shortly before going into the line, the division commander made a clean sweep of his senior subordinates. Both of the infantry brigade commanders and three of the regimental colonels, the chief of staff, and the commander of one of the three artillery regiments were replaced—a purge unprecedented and unmatched in the history of the U.S. army.
It did not take long for everything to go simultaneously wrong. The tanks pushed ahead of infantry that suffered heavy casualties among officers and NCOs who led from the front until shot down. German artillery found the range as the fog lifted; German machine guns savaged doughboys, who increasingly lost direction and purpose. American artillery, firing blind according to preestablished schedules, began shelling its own men. After-action accounts determined that there were at least twenty-five machine-gun positions in the village of Cheppy alone, and the prompt capture of Cheppy was crucial to the 35th’s mission.
Into the growing confusion came George Patton. He rallied straggling infantrymen, men without officers, some inspired or intimidated by his leadership and others reluctant to risk the machine-gun fire cutting across the way to the rear. Spotting a platoon of tanks held up by two wide trenches, he got the crews out of their vehicles and set them to work making passageways as he supervised, fully exposed to German fire. Urged to take cover, he answered “To Hell with them—they can’t hit me.” After the tanks got started, Patton returned to the infantry and led them forward, waving his ash plant and shouting “Let’s go get them.”
It was leadership by example at its best. And when his ragtag force crossed the crest of a small hill into even heavier machine-gun fire, Patton led by going to ground. Even experienced machine-gunners firing uphill were likely to set their sights a bit high. Even so, as bullets whizzed through the grass, Patton thought of a lawn mower back home. He was afraid. His hands were sweating; his mouth was dry; he felt a great desire to run. Then, by his own account, he thought of his ancestors and seemed to see them looking down on him. “I became calm at once, and saying aloud ‘It is time for another Patton to die,’ called for volunteers.” No more than a half-dozen men accompanied him—a rational response to a gesture even Patton’s principal academic admirer places in the context of Don Quixote. The outskirts of Cheppy on that day were no place for a walk in the sun. “Come on anyway,” was Patton’s answer. Only his orderly was with him when he found his bullet.
The shot was fired at battle range—about fifty yards. It hit him in the upper left thigh and exited “just at the crack of my bottom, about two inches to the left of my rectum”—close enough to give even an unimaginative man castration anxieties. Patton made the cover of a shell hole, where his orderly bandaged him. By that time, German infantry had filtered back to within forty yards or so and took the shell hole under fire every time one of the occupants moved. Twice Patton sent his orderly out to inform passing tanks of nearby machine-gun positions. An infantry medic stopped to check and rebandage Patton’s wound. By about 1:30, the advance had progressed far enough to bring a stretcher forward. When in an ambulance, Patton ordered the driver to take him to the command post of the 35th Division, where he reported to one of the staff officers before continuing to a field hospital.
Patton’s tankers had managed to join forces with what was left of one of the 35th’s infantry battalions to outflank and capture Chieppy around 1:30 P.M., but that was their last notable achievement. Forty-three tanks were lost to enemy fire and mechanical failure the first day. By the 29th, the brigade’s two light battalions had only 55 runners. More than half the officers and a quarter of the enlisted men had been killed or wounded. Even after a few days of rest and reorganization, Rockenbach informed Pershing that the brigade had no more than a week’s combat effectiveness remaining.
George Patton’s war was over, but the Americans in the Meuse-Argonne continued to claw their way forward at a high price in casualties and a higher one in straggling. Individual AEF divisions had generally high learning curves, responding quickly and effectively to shortcomings once perceived. But the policy-driven demands for a rapid increase in American numbers meant that fewer and fewer of the divisions committed to active operations had even the time to become effectively second-rate. The familiar cliché that the valor of ignorance may compensate for the absence of expertise was less applicable in 1918 than it had been earlier in the war. The AEF learned its craft against an enemy that overlooked few mistakes and charged high tuition. With winter approaching, and the influenza pandemic beginning to spread among the millions of debilitated men in uniform, would the AEF have been quite as formidable as everyone expected had the war gone into 1919?