ST. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne were part of a series of coordinated Allied offensives, the “Advance to Victory” during the “Hundred Days” of autumn 1918. They were limited victories. The internal-combustion engine was too undeveloped to convert tactical successes to operational ones. Tanks were essentially one-shot, throw-away weapons. Aircraft were vulnerable to ground fire. Radios were bulky, fragile, and short-ranged. Nevertheless, as its casualties mounted and its morale declined, the German army was no longer able to mount the ripostes its operational doctrine demanded. Instead, it fell back, covering and counterpunching like an overmatched boxer inexorably forced into a corner of the ring.
Between July and November, the German army lost almost a million men dead, wounded, and missing. Hundreds of thousands more were prostrated by influenza. For the survivors, getting home alive became the primary objective. On October 1, Ludendorff declared the war lost. On October 8, Germany officially became a constitutional monarchy: a case of too little, far too late. On November 9, the Kaiser fled to Holland, and a republic was proclaimed in Berlin. That republic was granted an armistice. On November 11, 1918, the guns of August finally fell silent.
The end of the war left Patton at loose ends. He was able to write Bea in early October that he “was missing half my bottom but otherwise all right.” As the senior casualty in an officer’s ward, he could count on unobtrusive preferential treatment. He had several fellow tankers with whom to discuss experiences and tactics. He had hopes of a decoration—the Medal of Honor danced in his head—and enjoyed the honor of what amounted to a battlefield promotion to colonel. At the end of the month, he returned to command of the tank center, with a towel plugging a still-bleeding exit wound that would have kept him off the line for a long time had the war not ended on November 11.
Once back on duty, Patton began by issuing a new order on “dress, deportment, and discipline.” He continued by commencing an essay on “German and Allied Theories of War.” The paper argued that the Allies emphasized fire as a means of movement, enabling a final closing with the bayonet. The Germans, on the other hand, saw movement as a means of fire, expecting to maneuver to use fire to erode resistance until the bayonet provided the finishing touch. The direct lessons of the war, however, had limited relevance. Nowhere but in Europe could force to space ratios be so high that armies without flanks would be the norm. Nowhere save in Europe could the infrastructures support and supply the masses of artillery and small arms that defined Great War tactics. Everywhere else it would be possible by using cavalry, armored cars, and light tanks to get behind an enemy and prevent the concentration of guns that in Europe consistently checked infantry advances. Those advances, made more deadly by automatic rifles and machine guns, would, in turn, sustain the mobility restored by cavalry and armor.
In other lectures and memos written about the same time, Patton described tanks as a primary weapon of exploitation (once across the main belts of trenches, tanks “could roam at will and demoralize the enemy”). But they were also a supporting weapon for the infantry whose advance ultimately decided battles “now as in the time of Gustavus Adolphus.” The U.S. Army that fought in Northwest Europe in 1944-1945 would have more of its tanks allocated to infantry support than assigned to armored divisions.
Patton looked forward to a return to wife, family, and home. He also saw himself cut off from further chances for professional advancement and self-actualization through the disciplined heroism he had spent his life cultivating. His poem “Peace—November 11, 1918” begins:
I stood in the flag-decked, cheering crowd
Where all but I were gay
And gazing on their extecy,
My heart shrank in dismay.
“It would be funny,” Patton wrote Beatrice, “to be commanding a cavalry troop and be through by noon each day.” He asked Pershing to consider awarding him a Distinguished Service Cross, one level below the Medal of Honor, for his encounter with the Villista officer in Mexico, and was bitterly disappointed when it seemed he would receive no medals for his combat service anywhere. “I would rather be a second lieutenant with the DSC,” he wrote, “than a general without it.” He rejoiced inordinately on learning he had, after all, been awarded that decoration, primarily on the recommendation of General Rockenbach. “I wish I had gotten an M.H. [Medal of Honor]. . . . I will get an M.H. in the next war I hope,” he noted.
A later generation may well find Patton’s concern with medals at the least unseemly. Prior to World War I, ambition for decorations was accepted among junior officers of all armies. As a British lieutenant, Winston Churchill made no secret of his desire for recognition. His fellow officers stationed in India or Africa pulled strings to be included on frontier expeditions in the hope of receiving even the been-there award of a service medal with an appropriate clasp. A large number of awards, moreover, were made for rescuing men left wounded or otherwise isolated, and facing death probably accompanied by torture at the hands of enemies whose customs of war differed sharply from those of the West. The decorated hero of a French or British expedition was able to do well and do good simultaneously—a Victorian ideal.
George Patton had gone to France as a lieutenant, in a staff appointment best described as factotum. Less than two years later, he was a colonel with the “red badge of courage,” albeit in an awkward location, decorated for valor by a grateful French government as well as his own. Among his final acts in France was to write Pershing a letter thanking him for his “kindness and consideration” and describing Patton’s efforts “in a small way to model my self on you.” Pershing’s episodic romance with Patton’s sister was headed for its final collapse; Patton had no real idea of what awaited him in a reorganized peacetime Army. He shared that uncertainty with dozens and hundreds of other AEF officers who had seen their careers flourish beyond any dreams they might have entertained at West Point, all of them busily contacting superior officers, congressmen, newspaper editors, and anyone else who might possess either knowledge of events or power to influence them.
Patton’s transport docked in New York on March 17, 1919. Overwhelmed by reporters eager for firsthand information about the new weapon of war, he proved comprehensively quotable. Noteworthy in the light of his later career is the deft touch he showed handling the reporters: eschewing controversy, sharing credit—and providing useful individual hooks for composing different stories, as opposed to giving one boiler-plate account.
Patton’s immediate preference seems to have been an assignment to what was then called the School of the Line at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was bubbling with ideas about the shape and nature of war that he sought to share with—or impose on—almost everybody with whom he came into official contact in those first months back home. While still in France, Patton had expressed the desire to stay with armor, and his first post-war assignment nevertheless was Camp George Gordon Meade, the new home of the Tank Corps. Located between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., it was well placed for the lobbying and log-rolling necessary to establish the tanks as a permanent part of the Army.
Though Patton’s experience had for practical purposes been restricted to light tanks, the AEF had been no less interested in the heavy British models. At war’s end, an improved heavy tank, the Mark VIII, designed cooperatively with the British, was coming off the assembly lines alongside the American version of the light Renault. While Patton was briefly on detached service in Washington, command of the brigade devolved on its senior heavy tanker. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been commissioned into the infantry in 1915 and spent his war in the United States, most of it training tankers in Pennsylvania. He did well enough to be promoted from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel in seven months—as steep a rise as Patton, without Patton’s influence and reputation. Eisenhower’s luck ran out when he finally got a tank battalion of his own; the armistice intervened before he got overseas.
The two men formed an odd-couple friendship in the course of 1919. Both Patton and Eisenhower enjoyed riding and hunting. Both were intense, with incandescent tempers that demanded rigid controlling. But Patton was marked as a comer even in the peacetime army; Eisenhower carried the tag of a role player. Patton was wealthy; Eisenhower worried about bills. Patton was effusive and efflorescent; Eisenhower favored self-effacement. Both had reputations as the best of hosts, but the Pattons entertained high society on a lavish scale wherever they went. The Eisenhowers concentrated their socializing on the officer corps of the posts where Ike served.
Both men were also poker players, in an era when skill at the game was widely considered a sign of an officer who combined brains and nerve. Patton, although he did not embarrass himself at the table, seldom came out a big winner. It is a reasonable speculation that he recognized the consequences of a moneyed officer regularly cleaning out his less-favored colleagues and was correspondingly aware of “when to hold and when to fold,” no matter what his cards. Eisenhower, by contrast, was good enough to supplement his Army pay with his winnings. He was good enough that wherever he was stationed, officers passing through sought the opportunity to test his reputation. And he was consistently able to retain the friendship and goodwill of those he outplayed. That last tells more about Eisenhower the general and Eisenhower the president than any number of learned treatises on battles and elections.
The taproot of their friendship, which Eisenhower described as a simultaneous source of “delight and dismay,” was professionalism. “Both of us were students of current military doctrine. Part of our passion was our belief in tanks . . . George and I had the enthusiasm of zealots.” They talked of a spectacular future role for tanks attacking by surprise and in masses. They envisaged new designs incorporating speed, firepower, and reliability. They disassembled a light tank, put it back together, and had the gratification of seeing it run. Twice they almost managed to kill themselves—once when an overstretched cable snapped, then again when a machine gun they were test-firing overheated, “cooked off,” and blasted the surrounding landscape at random.
As the brigade conducted route marches and provided vehicles for parades, mechanical reliability was becoming a central issue. Wartime tanks could be treated as expendable. Peacetime budgets demanded durability. Nor did it do the Tank Corps’s prospects any good when its men were observed spending most of their time in the field repairing serial breakdowns. Hopes at Fort Meade were raised by a visit from J. Walter Christie. An inventor, a designer, a technician, like Edgar Allan Poe “three fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” Christie discussed extensively the officers’ ideas of what they wanted in a tank and then produced the first armored fighting vehicle designed to military specifications.
The “Christie tank” remains best known for its convertibility: being able to run on wheels while on roads, then shifting to tracks for cross-country operations. The Fort Meade tankers were at least as enthused by its speed. At sixty miles an hour on tracks, it was ten times faster than anything in the Army’s inventory. Christie’s design also had an exponentially better obstacle-crossing capacity than anything seen in any army. There were all the flaws and bugs to be expected in a radical new design—notably engine reliability and suspension weakness. But in Patton’s words, “We are buying a principle, not a vehicle.” By some accounts he put money as well as words behind Christie’s work and appears to have been one of the few soldiers able to get on for any length of time with the cranky and contentious designer.
In the spring of 1919, Pershing had culled his most successful senior commanders and staff officers to create the AEF Superior Board on Organization and Tactics. Its stated purpose was to study the AEF’s arms and services and recommend how each might best function in a future war. Only two of the final report’s 184 pages were devoted to tanks. The committee described them as an infantry-supporting weapon, incapable of independent action, and recommended their normal use as being attached by battalions and companies to corps and divisions as the situation required. Pershing in his comments went further, suggesting the employment of tanks would be increased many times, and recommending that they be concentrated for use at decisive points. He also recommended that tanks for the present remain closely linked to the infantry.
Chief of Staff General Peyton C. March and Secretary of War Newton D. Baker both favored an independent tank corps. But Pershing and March were professional rivals whose clashes had grown increasingly bitter during the war. Baker was a civilian, challenging the recommendations of America’s most successful soldier since Ulysses S. Grant. And looming behind them were the killer B’s of peacetime: budget and branch.
In the course of the postwar hearings on Army reorganization, a Michigan congressman said he could understand that perhaps in case of war a case could be made for a separate tank corps. He could not, however, see any reason during peacetime to create the overhead necessary to add a new branch of service to an already complex army. That sentiment was echoed by the soldiers. The U.S. Army’s historic counterpart to the British regimental system was branch identity. Infantry, cavalry, field artillery and coast artillery, engineers, signal corps, and the rest—each had its own structure of patronage and promotion. The National Defense Act of 1920 wrote practice into law by giving each branch a chief, who in most cases was appointed precisely because he was an archetype, incorporating in his person and his principles the core values, strengths, and weaknesses of his branch.
In the infantry, that meant focus on the rifleman. World War I may have been decided by combined arms, but the infantry saw itself as the core of the combination and saw the individual soldier as the heart of the infantry. The branch nevertheless lobbied strongly for the tank corps’s absorption into the infantry, partly for operational reasons—the tanks had proven themselves in direct support of an infantry depending primarily on rifles—partly for reasons of budgets and personnel—the more men in the infantry branch, the higher the funding and the better the promotion possibilities—and partly from a desire to trump the other branches.
That last posed few problems. The artillery, which in France had been the tanks’ initial patron, in the U.S. Army was busy refining its role as the purveyor of indirect, long-range scientific gunnery. No interest existed in sponsoring direct-support weapons systems, as the German army’s artillery would later do with the assault gun. As for the cavalry, the AEF Superior Board had essentially affirmed its traditional roles: disrupting enemy communications, providing flank and rear security, conducting reconnaissance before battle and pursuit afterward. As yet, however promising the Christie design might be, no tank existed that could contribute significantly to those missions in an American context. It was hardly surprising when the National Defense Act of 1920 abolished the tank corps and assigned its components to the infantry.
Debates on the nature of future tanks continued. But discussion was restricted not merely by budgetary factors—every dollar spent on tank development was one less for the “real” infantry—but by a War Department policy requiring light tanks to weigh no more than five tons, and the medium designs projected to supplant the cumbersome Mark VIII to be kept to a fifteen-ton limit. Those restrictions reflected the carrying capacity of the Army’s trucks and pontoon bridges, and the weight limitations of the country’s roads, bridges, and railroad cars.
Meanwhile, there was weeding to be done and there were choices to be made. Patton had, for more than a year, been writing on the nature and the prospects of armored war. In the May 1920 Infantry Journal, the official branch magazine, he published an article strongly advocating maintaining the independence of the tank corps and allowing it to develop its own doctrines and tactics. Grafted onto another branch—the infantry, for example—it would be “like a third leg to a duck—worthless for control, for combat impotent.” In the November issue of the same periodical, Eisenhower advocated a future tank, “speedy, reliable, and efficient,” possessing “swift movement and great fire power,” and useful in situations other than the trench warfare even tank enthusiasts tended to describe as its principal milieu.
The two junior officers were not exactly isolated in their advocacy. In 1919, J. F. C. Fuller had won the gold medal prize in Britain’s Royal United Services Institute military essay contest for a futuristic argument that tanks could and eventually would replace both infantry and cavalry. The next year, a former infantry officer, Basil Liddell-Hart, delivered a lecture at the RUSI describing an “Expanding Torrent System of Attack” that simultaneously widened and deepened breaches in an enemy front. Eisenhower nevertheless found himself summoned to an interview with the Chief of Infantry, in which his ideas were dismissed as not merely wrong but dangerous. In future, he was to keep his opinions to himself and publish nothing that did not reflect “solid infantry doctrine.” The alternative was a court-martial—or more likely in practice, a series of negative fitness reports combined with assignments to the most remote posts on the infantry’s list.
Eisenhower believed Patton received the same message. If so, he did not record the conversation. But on August 15, 1920, Patton did request formally to be returned to duty with the cavalry. He described his services to the peacetime tank corps, declared his willingness to work with the tankers in the future, but stated that he had no wish to transfer to the infantry. That at least was a sentiment few of his fellow cavalry officers were likely to challenge. Patton had recently been reduced to his permanent rank of captain and almost immediately re-promoted to major. Given the National Defense Act’s reduction of the regular Army’s strength to only 17,000 officers and 280,000 men, it was the last step up he could expect for a long time if he depended on the usual processes. Patton had no network in the infantry branch, nor was he likely to develop one as a Johnny-come-lately outsider associated with a marginalized weapons system. Since his return to the States, moreover, Patton had freely indulged his passion for hunting, polo, and horse shows. As a cavalry officer, participation in such activities was expected.
Patton’s decision was also a product of reflection on his wartime experiences. Tanks were specialized weapons whose effective use even under the unique conditions of the Western Front had been highly situational. In Germany, Britain, and France, postwar military writers were suggesting that the tank had been a response to particular operational circumstances unlikely to be repeated. Patton disagreed but understood from direct experience both the mechanical limits of existing and projected armored vehicles and the unlikelihood of major technological breakthroughs that could or would be financed in the relevant future.
The prewar cavalry, moreover, was intellectually open. Patton’s notorious article had appeared simultaneously in the Cavalry Journal—albeit in part from a shortage of other submissions. The next year he published a commentary in the same journal on a piece by a fellow tanker who had also returned to his old branch. Major Bradford Chynoweth described tanks as a natural auxiliary to the horse: an iron steed that should be welcomed to support horses of flesh and blood. Patton replied that he could not picture tanks operating in the mountains of Mexico, the rice paddies of the Philippines, nor—against well-handled artillery—on the sandy, gully-scarred plains of Texas. But properly used, he declared, “the tank will mean the difference between victory or defeat,” and he recommended creating a separate tank corps as part of the Army’s general reserve.
For a student of war ambitious for distinction in combat, return to the cavalry represented arguably the best in a spectrum of professional options. Cavalry was mobile. Horses were dependable all-terrain transport—and predictable, compared to armored vehicles. The cavalry division as theoretically constructed before the Great War, with nine regiments and a strength of up to 18,000 men, with its own artillery and engineers, an air squadron, and organic supply systems including pack trains, wagons, and trucks, was a legitimate successor to the Civil War mounted forces of Phil Sheridan and James Harrison Wilson, capable of independent operations in cooperation with a main force—arguably even capable of operating entirely on its own under the conditions to be expected, for example, in Mexico. And it was Mexico, and the southern hemisphere generally, that seemed the most realistic theater for the future employment of significant U.S. ground forces.
The prospect of participating in future conflicts on the far side of the world may have appealed to Patton’s romantic side. It did nothing at all for his professional half—especially when his return to the cavalry was greeted with the equivalent of the fatted calf: command of the squadron of the 3rd Cavalry now assigned to Fort Myer. From a branch perspective, it was a display assignment. Patton had arguably the best, certainly the best-publicized war record of any officer eligible for the job, while his family wealth made him able to sustain the social demands accompanying it.
The match proved perfect. The Pattons became recognized among Washington’s premier host couples. Patton spent time “dining and lunching with Belmonts, Harrimans, Penn Smiths . . . the nicest very rich people I have ever seen.” He honed his skills in cultivating the useful, the great, and the near-great; his daughter describes it as “terribly exciting to watch Georgie doing his stuff” at social functions. Patton composed extensive memoranda on improving Army polo, arguing that encouraging officers to play cultivated qualities of aggreation and teamwork indispensable in war. He was a spit-and-polish commander whose squadron never failed to impress at the parades and ceremonies central to duty in Washington, and whose barracks and stables were as immaculate as his horses and men. He continued his tinkering, designing a carrier for the Browning Automatic Rifles coming into cavalry service as a fire support weapon. And he began remembering concepts of warmaking that had been temporarily obscured by his three-year involvement with an instrument of war able to move no faster than five miles an hour.
Patton in his Myer years read widely, spending most of his evenings absorbed in theorists of war from Clausewitz and Xenophon to J. F. C. Fuller, the writings of great captains like Frederick and Napoleon, and histories of the Great War and its antecedents the Russo-Japanese War and the Wars of German Unification. Like most autodidacts, he had eclectic study habits, one idea or one book leading him to another without any particular system. It may have been his developing interest in the work of German military thinkers and commanders, a field he had overlooked before the war, that brought him to assert that even the most inspired strategy might be negated by poor tactics, while good tactics could compensate for incompetent strategy. With that conclusion, which he modified but never abandoned, Patton came down squarely on the “operational” side of an enduring debate in U.S. military thinking. Especially in the twentieth century, the crucial problems of American military planning have been at the levels of policy and strategy: deciding where to send forces and determining how to keep them there. Operational art and tactical proficiency have been secondary concerns. U.S. ground forces have as a rule been put to school by their enemies charging disproportionately high tuition. Patton provided the yin to the yang, arguing that strategy that is not implemented at the cutting edge of battle is worthless.
That mind-set reflected, in turn, Patton’s developing concept of command. George Patton and Erwin Rommel had as different combat experiences as it is possible to have in the same war. Yet Rommel the assault infantryman and Patton the displaced cavalryman arrived at essentially the same conclusions about mastering industrial war. Mass and machine triumphed only when men allowed them to—only when commanders reacted to numbers and technology, instead of using them as means to an end. “The Golden Rule of War, Speed-Simplicity-Boldness,” he reminded himself in a notebook he kept while at Myer. “YOU ARE NOT BEATEN UNTIL YOU ADMIT IT. Hence DON’T . . .” “War means fighting—fighting means killing, not digging trenches. . . . Try to make fanatics of your men. It is the only way to get great sacrifices.” Again and again he repeats in bold and capitals. Lecturing on “The Cavalryman,” he ascribed success in war as “getting to the right place at the right time.” The cavalry officer, Patton declared, must train himself to possess “a GAMBLER’S courage” and educate himself to say “CHARGE.” Educate—because the man is not born who can say it out of hand.
In these words, for the first time it is possible to see clearly the outline of the general in the persona of the major. The commander must keep his twentieth-century clarity of vision: the dominance of the forebrain that was a product of the Age of Reason. Yet at the same time, he must be “a personal LEADER.” “You must school yourself to savagery,” Patton advised his fellow officers. You must overcome the abhorrence of personal encounter, the brakes on emotions, the denial of anger, that are among the central tenets of modern civilization.“At one and the same time,” Patton concludes, “you must be a wise man and a fool.” Few great captains have taken their own advice so much to heart.
Patton’s gratified superiors sent him in January 1923 to the Field Officers’ Course at the Cavalry School. In modern terminology, he aced the five-month curriculum and was an obvious candidate for appointment to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, just down the road. Established in 1881, the school, under several different names, had developed into the single most important educational assignment for an Army officer. The normal pattern involved students being given a series of problems to address, basing their presentation on a set of documents provided in a course handbook. Each problem had an approved answer, in principle based on the Army’s general doctrine, and students were graded in terms of their conformity to the “Leavenworth solution” or “school solution.” Both terms survive in the Army as synonyms for routine, by-the-book approaches to operational problems.
Patton had his own methods for avoiding collapse. He described himself as studying between 7 and 11 P.M. from Monday to Thursday, then going to bed whether or not he was finished. On Friday afternoon he had “several big drinks” and otherwise avoided alcohol. Success, he declared, depended on technique more than intelligence. Never read or discuss an approved solution before getting marked for your own work. Never look for subtle ramifications in a problem—“there ain’t any.” Patton’s approach, seasoned by large infusions of polo, helped him graduate with honors—twenty-fifth out of a class of 248.
Patton kept an extensive notebook chronicling his Leavenworth year and forwarded it to his old study partner when Dwight Eisenhower was assigned to the school in 1925. Ike finished first in his class, and in responding to his expression of gratitude, Patton made the frequently cited observation that Leavenworth concentrated on tactics and administration but ignored morale “. . . what is it that makes the Poor S.O.B. who constitutes the casualty list fight.” In the next war, he opined, victory “will depend on EXECUTION, not PLANS.”
Patton’s observation probed the core of a major anomaly in the U.S. Army’s approach to war between 1918 and at least 1945 or 1950. American military thinkers saw the key to victory as the conduct of mobile offensive operations—“open warfare.” Key to the offensive was the “offensive spirit”—in other words, morale. In principle, the human element, men and their will to fight, was at the heart of American doctrine. The “principles of war” on which the Leavenworth system was based were applied in an environment defined by human behavior. U.S. planners believed Americans were aggressive, resourceful, self-reliant. Americans were able to take the initiative in a crisis. Thinkers like General John M. Palmer insisted on the continued effectiveness of the citizen soldier, the National Guardsman and the wartime conscript, even in the circumstances of industrialized, mechanized war. In evaluating the AEF’s record, the Army assigned primary credit to the front-line soldiers’ high morale and individual fighting power. If those qualities were not obviously manifested, as for example when straggling became endemic during the later stages of the Meuse-Argonne, then the problem lay with the system, with the kind of shortcomings in command and administration the Leavenworth curriculum was designed to overcome. Lectures and articles iterated and reiterated such mantras as “in man we have the essential human factor in war” [sic] and “moral force is the soul of battle.” Until well after World War II, the subtext of Army training methods and tactical doctrines was that the ordinary American in uniform was a natural soldier and a natural warrior, whose inherent qualities required only cultivation and polishing. Only a few like George Patton went outside the box to ask Martin Luther’s question: “What happens if it is not so?”
To a degree, the Army’s faith in the military version of the common man was a product of necessity. The National Defense Act and its successors essentially defined the regular Army’s peacetime role as a matrix for national mobilization. Tables of organization became nominal and notional, with regiments being scattered across the country and battalions frequently able to muster less than a company for duty once the housekeeping details were assigned. Equipment was of wartime vintage, on the principle of “waste not, want not.” When the Army had last been so dispersed, frontier service and colonial expeditions provided at least a degree of operational focus. After 1918, Caribbean and Asian expeditions became things of the past; Hawaii and the Philippines were garrison assignments with palm trees, where liquor and women were cheaper. For the overwhelming majority of officers, going to war from a standing start would have meant taking the field at the head of a body of uniformed caretakers whose previous service had been focused on the skills of the janitor rather than the warrior.
Patton’s post-Leavenworth assignments reflected the Army’s circumstances more clearly than he would have preferred. From Leavenworth he went to Boston as a corps staff officer. Eight months later, he was assigned to Hawaii, again on staff duty, which allowed ample time to associate with the islands’ elites, haole and native, to sail, and to revitalize the Hawaiian Department’s moribund polo program.
Patton’s polo-playing was not—at least not entirely—a rich man seeking a sublimated substitute for the medieval tournament and the Napoleonic charge. Polo, especially the national-championship level at which Patton participated, demanded a degree of comprehensive physical fitness surpassing anything in an interwar officer corps not known for its commitment to exercise. As he grew older, Patton owed a fair part of his standing among his fellow officers to his regularly demonstrated toughness on the polo field in a military culture where manliness was too often built around late-night elbow-bending at the officers’ club.
Nor did Patton sublimate his military intellect to the Islands’ social whirl. In November 1926, he was appointed G-3 of the Hawaiian Division: staff officer responsible for plans and training. He swept into his new post by critiquing the command’s dress and discipline and savaging what he considered a botched major training exercise. A flurry of aggrieved complaints from fellow officers resulted in Patton’s transfer to G-2, the intelligence department, with the comment that he was too outspoken. This was the first time in Patton’s career that his fingertip situational awareness of his professional environment failed him. It would not be the last.
Patton nevertheless continued developing his concepts of motivation. In a 1927 lecture on “Why Men Fight,” he insisted on one hand that superiority in war was hereditary, and argued that the United States was handicapped in developing leaders because of its lack of class distinctions. At the same time, he established a case for an aristocracy by ascription, saying that class distinctions could be conferred by achievement and behavior. Such trappings of war as decorations could transform a coward into a brave man. His emerging status as a central intellectual figure in his branch was recognized by his reassignment in 1928 to the Office of the Chief of Cavalry: the mounted service’s powerhouse.
Mechanization, the Chief remarked, loomed large among issues the cavalry faced, and Patton’s experience in the field was considered valuable. What he did not say was that Patton was considered a patron of the horse, at a time when an increasing weight of opinion considered the horse obsolescent as an instrument of war. For the artillery serving with the AEF, the conditions of autumn 1918 had demonstrated the limitations of the horse beyond debate. Loss rates had been so high that projections for the campaign of 1919 included replacing horses with small tractors in about half the light artillery regiments. The cavalry’s eclipse during the Great War combined with the increasing stabilization of Mexico to force the branch into a rear-guard action during the 1920s. Regiments were disbanded; those remaining were reduced in strength to a point where even cavalrymen questioned their operational effectiveness. No money was available for large-scale changes. The tables of organization drawn up in 1928 were still built around the “escort wagon” and its four-mule team.
Change began with a civilian. In 1927, Secretary of War Dwight Davis was visiting England and observed the British army’s newly created Experimental Mechanized Force maneuver at Aldershot. He was sufficiently impressed that on returning home he ordered the Chief of Staff to create a similar force. In July 1928, it assembled: a battalion each of light and heavy tanks of Great War design, a battalion of infantry and one of artillery carried in trucks, a troop of armored cars provided by the cavalry, and supporting units.
The force staged a series of marches and maneuvers that proved obsolete, broken-down equipment could prove nothing. It was disbanded in September. In October, the War Department authorized a permanent Mechanized Force, but as assembled in 1931, it included no more than a company each of tanks and motorized machine guns from the infantry, a troop of armored cars, and a battery of truck-drawn artillery. Total strength was less than seven hundred men.
The commander was a cavalry officer, Colonel Daniel van Voorhis. Though he was sympathetic to motorization, his appointment reflected the cavalry branch’s bureaucratic skills rather than an embracing of mechanization at branch level. George Patton found himself squarely in the middle of the action—and for the first time in his life, he seemed to have wished himself somewhere else. The Office of the Chief of Cavalry was expected to develop the doctrines and weapons systems the cavalry needed to perform effectively. As the new head of the Plans and Training Division, Patton played a central role in that process. It was the first time since his Tank Corps days at Langres that he had a hand on the levers of power.
On the other hand, branch headquarters during the 1920s had become the focal point of traditionalism within the cavalry. Lobbying and publicity, within the Army or in the halls of Congress, focused on maintaining the place of the horse. One of Patton’s early assignments was to consider the disadvantages of mechanization. He replied by stressing the limits imposed on motor vehicles of all kinds by weather and terrain. In a later essay along the same lines, Patton observed that horses required no developmental costs.
Horses did not need spare parts and elaborate repair shops. Writing on the “Value of Cavalry,” Patton mobilized authority: contemporary experts from every major army who affirmed the continuing value of the proverbial “well-bred horse.” He dismissed JFC Fuller as someone who “during the course of four years’ war replete with opportunities attained only the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel,” and described “Captain Lyle Hart” as “a hack writer”—which in this case invites a pot-and-kettle comparison.
Patton entertained no doubt that he had been assigned to the branch office because of his reputation as a cavalry intellectual—one of the mounted arm’s relatively few—and because of his social and public prominence. His superiors expected him to be a representative figure for his branch, promoting and embodying its interests as they defined them. That raised the vexed question of loyalty. The Army’s staff system was—and is—a form of what Communists call “democratic centralism.” Debate on a particular point may be free and open, but once a decision is reached, discussion and dissent come to an end. A subordinate unable to follow the program had, of course, a right to ask for a transfer and pay the professional price. Otherwise, an American commander had—and still has—a right to expect that his staff officers implement his policies as though they had originated them. Patton’s recent Hawaiian experience had been instructive in that regard, and he was junior enough to be still feeling the shock.
Patton also loved horses. He considered hunting “the sport of kings.” He believed contact with horses was a good thing for men who were soldiers, helping them remain grounded in war’s physical realities, as opposed to becoming desk men focused on abstractions. “We attempt to make leaders out of a large percentage of [military school] students. [E]ach new invention from the chariot to the airplane—from gunpowder to the gas engine—has been heralded as the final solution, and yet in no instance has the adoption of a new weapon materially affected war.”
In that context, the dirty little secret of the traditionalists was their near-complete lack of experience in long-term, large-scale mounted operations away from stables, granaries, and veterinary hospitals. The “well-bred cavalry horse” was in fact among the most fragile of large mammals, requiring regular feedings of grain and large amounts of water, depending on elaborate and systematic physical care to maintain basic conditioning. A vehicle even in the 1930s could be neglected, at least temporarily, with fewer negative consequences than those arising from failing to pamper a horse. The old-time troopers’ nostalgic memories of the Indian Wars elided the numerous times when on combined-arms expeditions the cavalry’s mounts “played out” and it was up to the infantry, the “walk-a-heaps” in Plains pidgin, to complete the mission.
Patton himself had spent relatively little actual field time as a cavalryman. Even in the Southwest, as the twentieth century progressed the cavalry increasingly operated for short periods from permanent facilities. It was one thing to take a troop on patrol or a squadron for field exercises for a few days, even a week or more. It was quite another to keep the field for months with the same complement of animals, especially under the kind of unfavorable conditions traditionalists argued were the cavalry’s enduring milieu.
The British cavalry had learned that lesson during the Great War in the Middle East. By the culmination of the great mounted flank maneuver at the end of the 1917 campaign in Palestine, enough horses were on the edge of collapse from thirst that the only solution was a desperate charge to seize the wells at Beersheba before the Turks could blow them up. In Mesopotamia, the summer temperature grew so high that by 1917, improvised motorized formations using American Model T Fords were taking over the patrolling duties of a cavalry whose horses could not endure the heat. When a Ford overheated, a brief pause and a little water usually brought it back on line. For an overheated troop horse, the only remedy was too often a pistol shot.
In his previous writings, Patton had tended to emphasize the “cavalry spirit” as a metaphor for initiative and flexibility at junior and field officer levels; and more important, for the ferocity he considered necessary for the modern soldier: “The psychology of the bayonet and the saber are identical—you have to get close to use them . . . To charge effectively a man must be in a frenzy; you cannot have controlled frenzy.” Now he began cultivating a broader perspective as well. The U.S. Cavalry’s heritage and doctrine had a stronger operational focus than those of its tactically oriented, battle-centered European counterparts. The employment of cavalry in small detachments or for indefinite missions was a mistake, Patton argued. When an opportunity for decisive results offered, the cavalry must be used to its limits and “ruthlessly expended.” The cavalry was vestigial only for incompetent commanders.
To maintain its position, the cavalry could not remain static. Patton saw a possible takeoff point in the armored car. Even cavalry traditionalists were able to see the uses of a vehicle that could move quickly on roads, that provided armor protection to a machine gun or a light cannon, that could scout and patrol ahead of mounted units, and that could deliver exactly the kind of mobile fire support mounted units could not furnish themselves except at significant cost to the mobility and flexibility that were cavalry’s primaryraisons d’être.
Armored cars had been widely used by cavalry in the Great War. The British employed them in Mesopotamia, in the Western Desert, and in the Palestine Campaign of 1918, where they proved valuable auxiliaries to the horsed regiments. Under the much different conditions of the Western Front, by 1918, each French horsed cavalry division had one or two “groups,” each of a dozen armored cars, assigned; and their machine guns and one-pound cannon were consistently welcomed by the horsemen during the Allies’ final offensive. After the war, though armored cars were assigned to the Royal Tank Corps, a fair amount of British professional writing was devoted to the future cooperation of cars and horses. In France, the cavalry divisions not only kept their armored cars—which ironically were usually built on the chassis of White trucks built during the war in the USA—but during the 1920s, steadily added to their complement of motor vehicles and motorcycles. This process of “blending gasoline and manure” was regularly and positively featured in professional journals like the Revue de Cavalerie, and Patton never lost touch with French military literature.
The U.S. Cavalry’s direct contribution to the Mechanized Force had been a handful of what were called armored cars by courtesy: commercial chassis with varying combinations of armor plate and machine guns, none of them developed beyond prototype status, all of them exponentially inferior to the purpose-built armored cars coming into cavalry service in Europe. Patton nevertheless touted the armored car, not as a panacea—they were road-bound and susceptible to even improvised obstacles—but as a complement to the horse as an instrument of maneuver. Armored cars, he argued, must never become merely “a perambulating source of fire power.” Instead, they must be given the same freedom of movement as horsed cavalry. Their principal means of combat should be audacity and surprise. Some advocates of armored cars for the cavalry saw them as continuing a prevailing American tradition of the dragoon and mounted rifleman, carrying large crews that would usually dismount to fight. Patton answered that armored cars “will restore the cuirassiers to the cavalry,” and spoke of a future when squadrons of them would open a hole “through which our equine squadrons will thunder to victory.” Substitute infantry in trucks and half-tracks for the horses, and the scenario is prophetic.
In 1928, Walter Christie returned to the military marketplace with his “National Defense Machine.” The M1928 was a prototype of propulsion and suspension. With a powerful engine and combining a track suspension with large road wheels, it offered the practical possibility of an armored vehicle capable of working with horsemen both on roads and across country. Patton successfully urged the purchase of several examples for testing, regularly repeating the argument that mechanical progress could only result from physical experiment.
At the same time, Patton continued to emphasize the “chief characteristic of the cavalry” as “horse-induced mobility.” While lecturing the Pennsylvania National Guard on “Cavalry in the Next War,” he used his exensive experience with mechanized forces to insist that “machines have defects as great as their advantages.” His efforts were recognized by a performance rating in which the Chief of Cavalry recommended him as an ideal commander of a cavalry division in war—not only because he was an outstanding horseman, but because he was also “an outstanding authority on mechanization.”
During his time in the cavalry office, Major Patton was the cavalry’s house intellectual, the go-to man for a few well-chosen words on any subject relating to the cavalry’s welfare—a public relations officer without the title. He combined social and military prominence, a distinguished war record, facility as an after-dinner speaker, and a remarkable ability to write simultaneously in-house memoranda, articles for military journals, and think pieces for the public press. His reputation as an outspoken maverick who was best kept away from typewriters and microphones lay in the future.
It is correspondingly unsurprising that Patton tailored his remarks to his audience frequently and consciously. When Major General Guy V. Henry became Chief of Cavalry in 1930, he turned to Patton to draft his lectures promoting the branch. The commandant of the Tank School submitted a staff study proposing to create on mobilization six tank divisions, one for each Army district, to cover advances and retreats, threaten enemy flanks and rear, exploit breakthroughs, seize key points ahead of a general advance, and fill gaps on one’s own line as necessary. Patton countered that such a force could be used in only three areas: Asia, Western Europe, and the United States. No prospects of U.S. involvement in the first two existed, while no country had the capacity to mount a mechanized threat in North America. In the immediate context of 1930, Patton was correct on all three counts. But was it scarcely coincidental that the missions assigned to the projected tank divisions he criticized precisely overlapped those traditionally assigned to the cavalry?
For most people in Patton’s position, however, the question eventually becomes one of integrity—professional, intellectual, and personal. In 1930, Patton tried and failed to secure the post of Commandant of Cadets at West Point. It was the kind of escape hatch that combined purpose with nostalgia, offering what seemed a refuge from current high stress—the counterpart to that teaching post at a small liberal arts college for which today’s officers with pressure assignments often yearn in theory. Sixty years earlier another frustrated hero of a great war whose current career was tangled had sought appointment as Commandant. George Armstrong Custer was also turned down. First Custer, then Patton, overseeing the discipline and character formation of the Army’s future officers! The might-have-beens invite at least a counterfactual-history short story.
Patton’s stress levels were reduced to a degree by events outside his control. Facing budget constraints only likely to grow worse as the depression worsened, the Army chose to concentrate on maintaining its numbers as opposed to investing in technology. There were limits below which unit strength could not be reduced and maintain operational efficiency. There were limits on the number of units that could be disbanded without affecting the Army’s dual missions of an initial protective force and a nucleus for national mobilization. Personnel factors also determined the fate of the Mechanized Force; none of the Army’s branches of service were willing to sacrifice even a few hundred men to a potential new rival.
In 1931, Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur ordered the force disbanded and declared that in the future, infantry and cavalry would share responsibility for tank development. To avoid rewriting laws and to spare the infantry’s feelings, cavalry tanks would be called “combat cars.” This was a shrewd decision for two reasons. It gave each branch the opportunity to mechanize according to its perceived needs. And it made mechanization an Army issue rather than a branch issue. If either infantry or cavalry neglected the mechanization issue, it was by default making a major concession to its rival.
Patton meanwhile was winning accolades and publicity in horse shows and on the hunting field. No less important to a man in his forties and increasingly pessimistic about his prospects for seeing active service again, he was assigned to the Army War College in Washington for the 1931-1932 term. The AWC had existed since 1919 as the top Army educational institution. Its purpose was to prepare senior officers for the highest level command and staff appointments. Its curriculum involved preparing reports on the world’s major nations, reports emphasizing the study of armed forces but integrating economic, social, physical, and political characteristics. These reports became the basis of war plans for a variety of contingencies. While the planning process was the school’s heart, its spirit was seen by many participants to be the “information periods,” consisting of lectures, conferences, and student research projects designed to expand students’ general knowledge. Unlike Leavenworth, the school integrated external resources. Reserve officers, businessmen, academicians, government experts, and foreign officers attended classes and gave lectures. The AWC and its counterpart the Naval War College were the only national institutions where civilian and military came together to discuss national security issues.
As a rule, the classes incorporated the best and the brightest. Dedicated work for the welfare of a particular branch was seldom enough by itself. In January 1931, Patton had published an article in the Cavalry Journal. Titled “Success in War,” it brought together a set of ideas he had been developing since before his assignment to the cavalry board. Success, Patton reflected, was not the fruit of knowledge. Defeated generals frequently knew more about war than their conquerors. Planning by itself was not a sovereign prescription. Hooker’s plan for Chancellorsville was excellent. Systems ensured nothing. The Germans built in the years before the Great War a mighty machine but neglected the crucial factor. That factor, in Patton’s mind, was the commander, the leader. He must be a living presence, linked to his men by outward forms as well as inner connections. Patton saw the “warrior soul” as susceptible of acquisition and cultivation, as opposed to being an inherent quality. But its essential characteristics of courage, enthusiasm, self-confidence—these were not enough by themselves to make a warrior a commander as well. They must be communicated. Thus the leader must be an actor—but “an actor who lives his part,” and thus becomes larger than life.
This conclusion helps explain much of Patton’s personal and professional behavior over the next decade, as he continued to mold himself into a model of a commander that could become a reality. The essay also helps resolve the issue of Patton’s conflicted behavior during his tenure at the cavalry branch. By the time he finished his tour, George Patton was in his own mind neither a trooper nor a tanker. He was becoming a man of war.
Patton’s major project during his AWC year was a fifty-six-page essay on “The Probable Characteristics of the Next War.” Not the least of its significance was its challenge to a growing body of Army opinion that studying anything but the most recent conflicts was a waste of time because of the “military revolution” brought about by technology. Patton applied twenty years of private reading and reflection to an account that began in 2500 B.C.E., concluded with the South African War of 1898-1902, and classified armies in two general categories: mass and professional. Based on that body of data, he drew a conclusion revolutionary in its implications. Mass armies, the kind of force to which U.S. national policy was committed de facto and de jure, were socially useful in conveying a sense of security through size, creating a reality of shared obligation, and facilitating the homogenization of complex societies. They were politically useful in that they were considered cheap, and in providing governments with a ready-made explanation for defeat, namely that nothing more could be done. Militarily, however, the best Patton could say about mass armies was that they could fight a multiple-front war.
Professional armies, on the other hand, compensated for their inevitably smaller size by being easier to supply, train, and discipline. Professional armies were less tied to their logistical systems. They were better able than mass armies to disperse without becoming disorganized—a quality demanded by the growing influence of air power on the battlefield. They were more maneuverable and more likely to remain functional under stress. They were more reliable tools in the hands of commanders seeking to exercise the intiative that wins wars. Battles, Patton argued, were primarily fought at their grass roots, by junior leaders who acted without orders. The role of higher commanders was essentially inspirational—an argument Patton extended to the point of supporting the death in battle of senior officers because of its positive moral effect on the rank and file. And professional armies by their nature were more susceptible than mass forces to influence by inspiration, just as the high-bred race horse or polo pony responded in a way impossible for the larger, stronger draft horse. The text concluded by asserting that small professional armies would restore mobility to a next war Patton believed would be shorter and more decisive than its 1914-1918 predecessor.
Patton’s essay had a good portion of red institutional meat. He argued that the current U.S. Army of 130,000 men fell 200,000 short of the minimum needed for a professional field army that would be more than a collection of housekeeping details for citizen warriors. He called for increases in the number of trucks and armored vehicles, citing in particular the importance of motorizing the Army’s rear echelons. He advocated as well a comprehensive reorganization of the infantry from the division down, including the adoption of a light machine gun on the European model as the basic squad weapon—the latter a fundamental challenge to orthodoxies in the infantry branch.
The wider flaws of history and logic in the presentation are nevertheless so obvious that the paper’s forwarding to the War Department and the AWC’s commending its author for “work of exceptional merit” at first glance seem incomprehensible by present-day standards. To cite only one obvious example, Patton was too widely read in military history to be unaware of the fact that mass possesses a quality of its own. The wars of the French Revolution and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 were only the most recent examples of the problems professional armies could face when confronted with mass—especially mass multiplied by enthusiasm. Emory Upton, whose post-Civil War writing on the nature of armies was widely interpreted in the United States as supporting a professional army over a mass conscript force, conceded that there was a point beyond which even the highest quality could not prevail over time against superior numbers.
As for Patton’s concept of directly inspirational leadership, its day—if one ever existed—had passed by the time of the Civil War. Patton’s own concept of future battle, with small units acting independently, communicating with each other only episodically, the positive impact of a commander’s heroic personal sacrifice was likely to be subsumed by the immediate problems of fighting and surviving. One cannot help wonder if Patton’s memory cast him back to his own experiences in the Argonne, and whether he would have done anything differently had he learned of General Pershing’s dying in the front trenches with a pistol in his hand.
When the two presentations and their matrices are considered together, Patton appears to have followed a pattern of reasoning that moved from the particular to the general to the particular. Based on his initial reading, he developed a master idea in the early 1920s, almost an ideology: a theoretical construction of the kind of leadership needed to win wars. From there, during his Cavalry Office and War College years, he defined the kind of Army for which that leadership style would be most effective and mined the history of war for examples supporting his preconceptions. Such an approach is common among soldier-historians, especially when their ideas do not generate much feedback. And Patton’s concept of heroic leadership did not challenge enough myths on levels fundamental enough to inspire the kind of discussion his more practical articles evoked.
Patton left the AWC with a rating of “superior,” and a note that he was “an aggressive and capable officer of strong convictions” who also “qualified for duty with any civilian component.” His next assignment, executive officer of the 3rd Cavalry at Fort Myer, brought him into direct contact with civilians in a different fashion. Patton’s regiment was one of the units called out to deal with the Bonus March of 1932, a desperate effort by unemployed veterans to secure by marching on the Capitol early payment of a small bonus Congress had voted Great War veterans after the Armistice. From a maximum of around twenty-five thousand, their number had shrunk to around ten thousand when the administration, increasingly frightened of civic disorder and red revolution, called out the troops. The cavalry used the flats of their sabers to drive the veterans from downtown Washington into the “Hooverville” on Anacostia Flats. Fires broke out and spread, destroying most of the improvised shelters, and the marchers began leaving Washington that day.
It was scarcely the kind of active service for which Patton yearned. Being hit in the head by a thrown brick was scarcely the kind of heroic sacrifice he described in his War College thesis. Even more ironically, one of the participants in the march was the former corporal who had brought Patton in when he was wounded in the Argonne. When the next morning he asked to see Patton, Patton first denied knowing him, then explained to witnesses of the incident that he had supported his rescuer since the war and would continue taking care of him.
The mixture of anger, embarrassment, and noblesse oblige Patton demonstrated was closer to typical of the officers who participated in suppressing the march than was the cautious sympathy manifested by Dwight Eisenhower, then on duty at the War Department. To date, the Pattons had scarcely felt the effects of the depression. Their money was soundly invested, continuing to produce dividends through the worst of the hard times. They continued to co-sponsor a hunt patronized heavily by congressmen and senior officials and officers, opening the 1934 season by treating twenty-five hundred guests to an entire steer roasted over an open grate—an early example of the barbecue coming to Washington. In June, Patton’s older daughter was married, predictably if not naturally, to an Army officer. In March, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel: his first step in rank in fourteen years. George Patton was forty-nine rising fifty and beginning to ask if that was all there was going to be.
Terms such as “midlife crisis” and “male menopause” have entered the West’s vocabulary with the late-century self-help movement. They correspondingly invite dismissal as what critics call psychobabble. Yet anyone surveying George Patton’s personal life in the mid-1930s is likely to find themselves falling back on self-help conventions. There is nothing quite like a daughter’s marriage to remind a father of his mortality—assuming Patton needed reminding. Patton’s father had died in 1927, a loss not untimely, but for Patton extremely significant. His doting and beloved aunt Nannie died in December 1931, and her half-sister’s family contested the will: in Patton’s eyes, a betrayal of family loyalties. While his everyday health was sound, when being honest with himself, Patton had to admit that in recent years he had been drinking more than was good for him even though he held it well. He wore a partial plate. His hairline was receding, and his nearsightedness increasing. It was small comfort that Gustavus Adolphus, too, had been myopic. With no war on the horizon, the promises Patton had made to himself in his younger days seemed to be returning now in shades of mediocrity.
British author Robert Graves was a soldier before he became anything else and once described armies as consisting of only three agencies: the Circle Game Department, the Practical Joke Department, and the Fairy Godmother Department that makes the other two bearable. When, in March 1935, the Pattons learned that George was being reassigned to Hawaii, it seemed that the Fairy Godmother was smiling. Instead, the assignment revealed itself as the work of the Practical Joke Department.
Patton bought a small boat, had it shipped to California, and sailed to the islands in style. He arrived just in time to observe and report on the summer maneuvers and dissected his new colleagues for their lack of initiative, flexibility, and imagination. He mocked the concern for comfort in the field, the pattern of commanding from the rear that required unsustainable levels of communication, and—by now predictably—the focus on machines. “The Army exists to kill men,” he concluded, “not to groom vehicles.”
It was not the most tactful way of making an entrance. As the Department’s G-2, Chief of Intelligence, Patton developed an internal security plan for the contingency of war with Japan that involved declaring martial law, suspending habeas corpus, and holding more than a hundred prominent Hawaiian Japanese, citizens as well as aliens, as hostages for the good behavior of the islands’ Japanese population. While nothing in the document expressly violated American precedents or existing laws of war, it demonstrated a lack of concern for both the rights and the welfare of Hawaii’s Japanese that would arguably have been self-defeating had the plan been implemented. A beleaguered island garrison did not need the additional risks of an uprising behind its lines.
Both the maneuver critique and the internal security plan arguably reflected a deeper crisis. Both at social functions and on the polo field, Patton’s behavior rapidly spiraled out of control. As his athleticism declined, he compensated not with technique, like most aging polo players, but with an increased aggressiveness that led to a hard fall on his head. The doctor called it a slight concussion, and Patton continued to function. Three days later he asked, “Where the hell am I?”
That was no bad question. During a later game in the Hawaiian polo championship series, Patton’s language and behavior led to the Department’s commanding general, Hugh Drum, who was attending the match as a guest, to summon Patton to his box and administer a scathing reprimand that culminated in relieving Patton as captain of the Army team and ordering him to leave the field.
Drum was not officiating the match and, therefore, was acting entirely as Patton’s military superior. The captain of the opposing team, one of the richest, most powerful men in the islands and a close friend of Patton’s, informed the general that if his order stood, his team would refuse to continue to play. The captain of another team in the tournament asserted that he had never heard “Georgie” use foul language—making him either hearing-impaired or the biggest liar in Hawaii. Drum backed down, told Patton to watch his language, and left the grounds.
More was involved here than Hawaii’s horsy set rallying behind one of its own. Since the U.S. annexation of the islands after the Spanish-American War, a struggle for precedence had existed between the civilian plantation owners and businessmen, most of them Hawaiian-born, and the senior Army and Navy officers who represented mainland authority. Drum was a dour man of humble origins, accepted only by courtesy in circles where the Pattons moved by virtue of their wealth. The chance to show him, and by extension the rest of the uniforms, his place was too good to miss—not least because Drum himself had gone over the line and knew it.
At the same time, Patton’s polo-playing friends acted as enablers. The Patton of a few years earlier possessed too much situational awareness to become involved in a public altercation with a two-star general over a polo game. Now his mood swings and temper outbursts grew more extreme, less balanced by the effervescent bursts of kindness and good cheer that previously compensated for them.
It is possible to speculate that the polo accident resulted in an undiagnosed head injury that affected Patton’s ability to control his behavior. The accident certainly diminished his tolerance for alcohol. Where he had been a hard social drinker nevertheless able to hold his liquor, he became alternately a mean and a sentimental drunk, with an unpleasant sideline of verbally abusing Bea when she tried to warn him off, and another of playing humiliating practical jokes on friends and family. An even clearer—and professionally far more serious—indication of his loss of control was a pattern of getting stumbling drunk in the company of junior officers. The interwar Army had a good number of colonels who had to be walked back to their quarters after a long night at the club. Most of the time the youngsters found it amusing. The bill came due on duty, when the boozy superior found himself encysted and sidetracked by subordinates who no longer trusted his judgment.
Patton’s children still at home, his younger daughter Ruth Ellen and his son George IV, born on Christmas Eve 1923, began avoiding him systematically. His wife cultivated separate friends and activities—including writing a romance novel that even in another century remains readable. Patton himself noted that he had too much time on his hands—“too much alcohol and too little persperation.”
Bea eventually had a deeper reason for withdrawing. Her niece Jean Gordon stopped off in Hawaii on her way to the Far East. Twenty-one, attractive, and unmarried, “she found herself a husband—but he wasn’t hers.” That a battered fiftysomething, already believing himself a back number, did in public every stupid thing possible for a middle-aged man besotted by a young woman is unremarkable. What remains obscure—and of corresponding interest—is why Jean made the initial running. Patton was by no stretch of the imagination the suave older gentleman of a Bette Davis movie. The family money was Bea’s. Jean’s mother was Bea’s half-sister—a situation offering ample room for speculation about rivalries and grudges in which Patton was a mere pawn. But the family kept silent on that topic. In the end, Jean continued her travels, with Patton waving farewell from the end of the pier. Bea, as recorded by her daughter, based her behavior on the Yiddish proverb that an erection has no brains: “even the best and truest of men can be be-dazzled . . . I stuck with [your father] cause I am all that he really has, and I love him and he loves me.”
Left unsaid was the fact that Patton seems to have been a first offender. He had a consistent eye for the ladies but enjoyed shocking women rather than seducing them. He might offer to display his wound at parties. But on one occasion he had begged his wife to save him from a would-be temptress seeking to take advantage of a moonlight swimming party. Now, behind the closed doors of the marriage, he bent every effort to atone for his lapse, and whatever he did, it worked.
More was involved here than middle-aged folly and adult forgiveness. The armed forces of the 1930s was still strongly conventional in matters of scandal. Womanizing was by no means uncommon in the officer corps. A future Chief of Naval Operations was allegedly admonished by his dinner partner to “remove your hand from my thigh, Admiral King! This is a tablecloth, not a bedsheet!” Ultimate power usually rested with the wife in the case. It was possible for the career of an officer of low rank and low profile to survive an unpleasant martial breakup. The Pattons were too well known outside the Army for a divorce to be kept quiet. When the third party was Bea’s close relative, the result was sure to be the kind of compound scandal that would sufficiently embarrass everyone involved to encourage the alternative of Bea’s playing what a later generation might call the Hillary Clinton card and assume the persona of a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man.
Noblesse oblige has its own forms of payback. Patton worked to clean up his public act as well as his private one. When he left Hawaii in June 1937 for his new assignment to the Cavalry School at Fort Riley, he was surrounded by a nimbus of high ratings—including a significant comment from General Drum: “Heretofore I have noted on this officer’s Efficiency Report a weakness in ‘Tact.’ In the last year he has overcome this weakness in a satisfactory manner” and demonstrated “those qualities so essential for a superior combat leader.” The point here was not whether Patton had, in fact, reconfigured his personality. It was that Drum unmistakably acknowledged that his altercation with Patton was resolved.
Irony, if not karma, defined the next stage of Patton’s progress. Before reporting to Fort Riley, he took some accumulated leave at the family estate in Massachusetts. He was riding with Beatrice and their son-in-law when a kick from Bea’s horse broke his leg. Complications included a near-fatal embolism. The only treatment was immobilization, and Patton sank into a depression his daughter, at least, considered suicidal. It was Bea who held him together, and she lost patience about the time he tried to beat to death with his crutch the horse he considered the author of his misery.
Few people who have spent any time involved with a depressive have not entertained the question of just how unable the person is to control their behavior, and to what extent they are throwing a long-term adult temper tantrum and getting away with it. Certainly Patton was able to control himself in the presence of outsiders. His over-the-top high spirits kept the hospital in turmoil during his initial recovery: his room was christened the “Hula-Hula Night Club.” As a convalescent, he donned a facade of good cheer that sent away friends, relatives, and fellow officers of higher rank laughing and shaking their heads. But on one occasion when Bea asked her daughters to try to cheer up their father temporarily, they drew straws. The loser baby-sat Dad.
Patton’s psyche improved as it became clear that he would not have to retire on disability. In February 1938, he reported to the Cavalry School as a member of its faculty and Executive Officer of the 9th Cavalry. The black troopers of this segregated regiment had won fame on the Plains and in the Spanish-American War, earning the cognomen of “buffalo soldiers” for their courage and endurance. In a postwar Army that denied blacks possessed the qualities of fighting men, the 9th and its sister regiment the 10th had been relegated to housekeeping duties at places like Riley. The title of “school troops” deceived no one, and Patton’s command assignment was understood to be nominal.
Patton’s tour at Riley acted as a tonic. Recovering his physical strength and coordination rapidly, he was soon able to ride again. Feeling himself among kindred spirits, he began dealing with the black moods that had so contributed to his bizarre behavior, to the relief and delight of the family, Bea in particular. Fort Riley in those months was overflowing with middle-aged cavalrymen believing they would never have their own war, and Patton found corresponding resonance for his anxieties in that regard. He began once more to take a consequent interest in his career—by sending three models of a heavily redesigned cavalry saber to the new branch chief, Major General John Herr.
There was a long story behind the blades. When General MacArthur made mechanization a joint responsibility of the infantry and cavalry, the mounted branch responded by converting the 1st Cavalry to a mechanized regiment stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. In 1936 the force was increased to a two-regiment brigade. Though its missions were defined in traditional cavalry terms as reconnaissance, pursuit, and exploitation, its status was that of an unwelcome stepchild. Certainly Patton made no effort to secure an appointment to Fort Knox on his return from Hawaii.
In contrast, Colonel Adna Romanza Chaffee, who stood alongside—and arguably ahead of—Patton as the cavalry’s branch intellectual, did two tours at Knox in the 1930s. Like Patton, Chaffee was extroverted and charismatic. He argued eloquently in print, in lecture halls, and not least in officers’ clubs, that the cavalry’s future depended on acculturating to the internal-combustion engine. Chaffee and his supporters initially proposed to use mechanized regiments as part of horse cavalry divisions, following the infantry pattern of using armored vehicles to support the branch’s dominant element. What was needed in that context above all were light tanks.
That requirement was not branch-specific. Infantry and cavalry alike in the late 1930s regarded mobility and reliability more important than gun-power and protection in a tank—or a combat car, if one prefers. Between 1936 and 1938, the Spanish Civil War had highlighted the sovereign importance of durability. In the broken terrain of the Iberian Peninsula a stalled tank was an easy kill no matter what its armament and armor. A light vehicle placed less of a burden on engines and suspensions.
As much to the point, at this stage, neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. Army had any concrete sense that substantial U.S. forces would be deployed overseas in a high-tech, high-risk environment. Should expeditionary forces be necessary, shipping space would be at a premium. So would maintenance facilities on arrival. Heavy armored vehicles seemed a correspondingly dubious investment. The same criteria applied in reverse to any possible invasion of the United States. No enemy in the Western Hemisphere had any tanks to speak of. Armored forces deployed from Europe were hardly likely to reach North America in strength. The correspondingly probable missions for U.S. tankers, no matter whether they wore cavalry yellow or infantry blue, would depend for success on two abilities: “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee,” and “take a licking and keep on ticking.”
These criteria above all defined the M-2 light tank. The first armored vehicle put into serial production since the old Mark VIII, more than a hundred of them were acquired in the mid-1930s. At 7.5 tons, they carried only machine guns. The most familiar infantry variant sported a pair of fixed turrets that earned it the nickname “Mae West,” in tribute to the buxom movie star. The cavalry’s “combat car,” confusingly titled the M1, carried its weapons in a single rotating turret. Mechanically, the designs were essentially the same.
The new M-1’s posed tactical problems from their arrival at Fort Knox. The mechanized regiment, on paper, consisted of a troop of armored cars, two squadrons of tanks, fifty-four altogether, and a machine-gun troop that included only a single rifle platoon. The original premise of mechanizing the cavalry had been that the trooper and his rifle remained the primary combat unit, whether riding a horse or a truck. Patton’s tentative concept of tanks as successor to Napoleon’s cuirassiers and the “all tank” theories of Fuller and Liddell-Hart found little acceptance in a branch with the U.S. Cavalry’s strong dragoon heritage. Mechanization’s critics and supporters instead agreed mechanized cavalry regiments needed more riflemen to serve as holding and support elements for the armored vehicles.
Some officers recommended increasing the strength of the mechanized regiments. Others favored creating a mechanized cavalry division, incorporating the Knox Brigade, and combining tanks and infantry in light-armored scout cars. Chaffee spoke and wrote of a mobile army, built around light, fast tanks and able to maneuver in enemy flanks and rear. Branch-conscious pragmatists looked with concern to Germany, where the once-strong cavalry arm was being dismembered, absorbed by the new armored force on one hand and the increasing number of “straight-leg” infantry divisions on the other.
The principal stumbling block to change in any direction was the branch chief. Herr’s commitment to preserving the horse in the U.S. Army bordered on the irrational. In January 1942, with Hitler’s Panzer divisions at the gates of Moscow, he published an article in Cavalry Journal that attacked “motor-mad advocates . . . obsessed with a mania for excluding the horse from war” and that advocated replacing trucks with animals in half the Army’s divisions. In 1953, he co-authored a book advocating the remounting of the 1st Cavalry Division, which he alleged “still longs for its horses”!
Patton had not lost his situational awareness. Clearly this was the right man to offer a redesigned saber despite the fact that the U.S. Cavalry had not carried them since 1934. The cavalry branch was running low on competent field officers who shared Patton’s apparent belief in horsed cavalry’s future. In May 1938, Herr informed the Army’s adjutant general that he wanted Patton promoted so he could be assigned to command the 5th Cavalry at Fort Clark, Texas—a historic post and a horsed regiment, part of the 1st Cavalry Division.
In June, Colonel Patton, eagles fresh on his shoulders, took up his new assignment. The 5th partied hard, but Patton took pains to report to Bea that he confined himself to beer, which he drank “till my teeth floated.” He took the regiment in hand, starred in the annual maneuvers by penetrating the “enemy’s” rear unobserved, and hoped for war with Mexico. Perhaps his greatest interwar disappointment came in November, when he was transferred back to Fort Myer as commander of the post and its garrison regiment, still the 3rd Cavalry.
It was an economic decision. Patton’s predecessor, with no income but his pay, had gone into debt keeping pace with the social requirements of the job. Despite the recommendation for promotion to brigadier general that accompanied the transfer, a disgruntled Patton blamed Bea and her money for ruining his career by taking him away from troop duty! Bea, too well bred or by then too fed up to throw a lamp at him, retired to her room—initially, one hopes, with a long-term headache, but eventually with a debilitating kidney ailment. Part of her recovery involved cultivating a horseback-riding friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. Patton left no record of his reaction to the relationship.
Change winds were blowing in the Army as war spread through Asia and approached in Europe. When, in 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dipped deep into the pool to select George C. Marshall as the new chief of staff, it was a surprise to Army insiders: the smart money was on Hugh Drum. Marshall took office determined to create an Army large enough and modern enough to balance the threat he saw developing from the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis. Word had it that a major part of the process involved clearing out the dead wood in an officer corps with too many old men and too many back numbers.
Patton made plain in correspondence and conversation his immediate availability for a higher command. What he wanted, he declared, was to be part of testing the weapons and developing the doctrines the Army would take into a next war that suddenly seemed closer than Patton—and many of his military contemporaries—had believed possible. Patton may have restored sabers to the 3rd for parade and exhibition purposes. He also built, while building on the 3rd Cavalry’s reputation as spit-and-polish show troops, to introduce realistic training programs featuring live ammunition that developed the regiment into a formidable field force. Yet whenever he looked into a mirror, he saw more past than future. The erratic behavior and the black moods returned with a vengeance—arguably even worse than during his last tour in Washington. When Ruth Ellen married, her father enlivened the newlyweds’ departure by jumping onto the roof of their car, emptying two pistols into the air, and walking nonchalantly away.
Shifting focus from Patton to Rommel in the interwar years involves shifting perspective from the stage center occupied by Othello’s title character to Henry V, with its warriors for the working day. Patton was the star of his personal psychodrama. Rommel was glad enough to have a place in the chorus. If Patton was thrown off-balance by the armistice, Rommel was cut adrift. He was twenty-seven, married, and knew nothing except soldiering. But whether Germany would even have an army was an open question in the last days of 1918. What kind of army it would be and what kind of officers it would want or need were matters far beyond the purview of a mere captain. Rommel had a distinguished combat record—but so did dozens and hundreds of other junior officers. He had done his greatest deeds in a specialist formation that no longer existed—he could not count on the old boys networks that began to function in the officer corps almost as soon as the war ended. Would even the Blue Max Rommel wore with such pride count against him in a revolutionary environment where officers were deprived of their insignia on streets and in railway stations by bands of disgruntled soldiers?
Rommel helped supervise the demobilization and disbanding of his old regiment. He was then sent to Lake Constance as commander of an “Internal Security Company,” an ad hoc organization dominated by soldiers and sailors who had nowhere else to go. As far as they were concerned, the government, whoever might be in charge of it, owed them “three squares and a sack,” and they were determined neither to drill nor to fight. Rommel turned the full force of his personality on the recalctrants. When they commented sarcastically on his medals, he answered that he wore them now to remind himself of those days in combat when he prayed to God to save the German fleet—“and my prayers were answered, because here you are.”
German humor has its own unique flavor. Perhaps one had to have been there to appreciate the impact of Rommel’s speech and the others that accompanied it. It represents no denigration of Rommel’s charisma and command power to suggest that his men for a while may have welcomed more than they admitted a daily routine that had structure and purpose, at a time when whirl seemed to have become king in the Reich.
David Irving says that the few existing photos of Rommel in civilian clothes show “an awkward shambling misfit . . . somewhat reminiscent of a small-time hoodlum.” They certainly show a man whose appearance could have been significantly improved by a reasonably competent tailor. They show a man whose carriage is a far cry from the front-line officer, cap cocked at a jaunty angle and eyes bright with confidence. They also suggest someone who, all of a sudden, has no tools to defend himself against his limitations. Without the uniform, without the army, without his position as an officer—who exactly was Erwin Rommel?
Patton from his adolescence was intensely self-aware. From VMI and West Point to the Argonne Forest, he was the conscious central figure of his own psychodrama. Rommel, by contrast, was a creature of circumstances. He had found by the random processes of war something he did superlatively, and increasingly defined himself in that context. But contexts can be changed. They can even be removed. And Germany in the Great War’s aftermath was not a promising environment for a man lacking a gyroscope.
The twin shocks of defeat and revolution had an impact more surface than seismic. The Allies never attempted to change Germany’s identity by direct application of superior force. The German Revolution of 1918 was thus completed on German terms. It was more a turnout than a turnover, more the removal of a discredited government than the reconstruction of a society rejected as dysfunctional. The Weimar Republic established a new political order, which its founders considered a necessary beginning for deeper social and economic reforms. The Versailles Treaty affirmed Germany’s continued existence as a power, partly in an effort to establish the new republic as a bulwark against the tide of chaos that seemed to be swamping central Europe and partly from recognition that a prostrate, bankrupt country would be unable to pay the reparations French and British politicians alike promised their people as some compensation for their wartime sacrifices.
The reduction of the German army to a force of 100,000 long-service volunteers without aircraft, armored vehicles, or heavy artillery was a stunning blow to a sovereign state—and to the soldiers who contributed so much to its definition and image. Even without Versailles, however, the German army would have faced a comprehensive overhauling. Total war and industrial war generated new styles of combat and new methods of leadership. The officer no longer stood above his unit but functioned as an integral part of it. The patriarchal/hegemonial approach of the “old army,” with professional officers and NCOs parenting youthful conscripts and initiating them into adult society, was giving way to a collegial /affective pattern, emphasizing cooperation and consensus in mission performance. “Mass man” was a positive danger in the trenches, argued Germany’s military futurologists. What was necessary was “extrordinary man”: the combination of fighter and technician who understood combat both as a skilled craft and an inner experience.
The Prussian army had historically regarded itself as a transmutator of national effort into military effectiveness. The Great War seemed to indicate that the army must become part of an even wider synthesis, incorporating and coordinating businessmen, politicians, and intellectuals in a total enterprise. At General Staff levels, the paradigm of professionalism as focused reason began expanding to incorporate ideological elements foreign to what was generally understood as the Prussian tradition. Officers like Max Bauer began developing expanded definitions of national spiritual mobilization, with the Volk, the community, replacing both Kaiser and state as the focus of loyalty and identity.
The emerging Weimar Republic thus confronted not the “old army” but rather an institution whose identity had been significantly modified by the Great War. Generals like Wilhelm Groener and Walther Reinhardt had little use for even the trappings of a traditional system they regarded as having failed Germany in its ultimate test. Their initial responsibility was to create an army out of the fragments of defeat and the provisions of Versailles. Officer procurement was a particular problem. The Versailles Treaty limited the number of officers to 4,000. That was just about one-sixth the number of wartime officers who had stayed with a demobilizing army in hopes of gaining a permanent commission.
They were a mixed bag. On one hand, prewar professional officers who had begun the war in batteries or companies were increasingly assigned to duties increasingly remote from the front lines, sometimes while recovering from wounds or shell shock, sometimes because their administrative skills were needed. In their own minds, these men were hardly shirkers. Their current service was honorable. Most of them worked hard at their jobs. Besides, their absence from combat was temporary. Soon, they told themselves and each other, they would request return to the front. Some may even have believed it. At the other end of the spectrum, the wartime “trench officers” posed problems as well. Not since the days of Frederick the Great had Germany possessed such a crop of battle-tested hard cases, muddy-boots soldiers with authentic combat credentials, who believed a soldier needed nothing else. Toughness, charisma, readiness to stake one’s life in battle—such qualities far outweighed professional education, and often self-discipline as well.
Erwin Rommel had peacetime training and wartime staff experience. His front-line credentials were impeccable. If he had any ideas of reordering German society, he kept them to himself. He spent eighteen months on a variety of internal security duties that grew easier as time passed. Domestic disorder subsided to a point where riots could be handled with fire hoses instead of machine guns. The Reichswehr’s senior leadership continued massaging the force’s structure and reducing its numbers to conform with the Treaty standards. The forlorn and the feckless, the traumatized and the indifferent left the barracks and faded back into civilian life—like the Austrian-born private first class who had fought the war in a German uniform and now decided his future lay in the politics of his adopted country. New recruits were beginning to present themselves: youngsters who had been just too young for the trenches but were enthralled by the war stories in the popular press; older men willing to accept a twelve-year term of service in return for the security and the promises of army life. In January 1921, Rommel received his permanent Reichswehr assignment as commander of a rifle company in the 13th Regiment, 5th Division: two officers in addition to himself, one hundred sixty-one enlisted men at a full strength seldom reached, and only God knew how many years to make major. It was a long way from the physical and professional heights of Italy. It was also better than nothing.
The biggest institutional change in Rommel’s early postwar career came in 1924, when he was transferred to command a machine-gun company in the same regiment. His personal life was no less ordinary. He dabbled in peacetime pastimes, trying his hand at stamp collecting and resuming, at intervals, a prewar interest in the violin. He helped organize an Old Comrades’ Association of the WGB and participated actively without becoming a professional veteran. He studied engines, dismantling a motorcycle and reassembling it much as Patton stripped down old tanks, riding it around the Wuerttemberg countryside in his free time.
In 1927, he took the bike, and his wife, on a trip to his old hunting grounds in Italy for the purposes of refreshing his memory and collecting photographs to supplement the recollections. That excursion terminated unpleasantly in Longarone, when he was asked with more force than courtesy to take himself and his camera elsewhere. Longarone was a frontier zone, and Germans were unpopular in Benito Mussolini’s Italy: there was much about the Great War that government and people alike were trying to forget.
Rommel also remained an enthusiastic outdoorsman. His attempts to share that passion with his wife foundered on Lu’s sedentary nature—plus a stubbornness that on one occasion kept her sitting in the snow of a mountainside until her husband relented and abandoned the planned climbing expedition. Lu had a more acceptable excuse to keep close to easy chairs and warm fires after 1928, when their only child Manfred was born. The younger Rommel eventually became Lord Mayor of Stuttgart, a prominent figure in the post-World War II Christian Democratic Union and an eloquent voice for the “decent Germans” who had been caught in the meshes of Hitler’s Reich. That combination colored his stories of childhood—stories that in any case were naturally shaped by incomplete memory and frequent repetition. What emerges from his recollections, and those of other family members and friends, is a paint-by-numbers presentation of a conventional German family from the cultivated professional class, with some sharper edges eroded by the wartime experience.
The Rommels’ circle was neither wide nor prominent. They associated almost exclusively with soldiers, and Rommel’s off-duty relationships were more likely to be Korrekt than warm. Lu set the domestic tone. By prewar standards, she did not quite fit the template of a “typical” officer’s wife, but four years of war had expanded the army’s conventions to a point where she was not an anomaly. Lu fit well into the routines of garrison-town life, though she did determine the family’s guest lists and social agenda with perhaps a bit more freedom and authority than most of the regiment’s ladies.
Captain Rommel was not a hands-on father, but most of the time he had time for Manfred and interest in his enthusiasms. He brought his work home to a degree, as any successful man does, but was not obsessed with his career in Patton’s fashion. The house was not dominated by military symbols and trophies, nor did Rommel speak much of his wartime experiences. When Manfred did ask him what he had done in the war, the reply was a set of verbal images conveying a sense of devastation that left Manfred, at least, completely uninterested in following his father’s career path. In short, the kitschy domestic conventions so often associated with bourgeois Germany, Geborgenheit, “Trautes Heim/Glueck allein,” and the rest, suited Rommel well. He loved his wife, enjoyed his son, and seems to have been seriously plagued neither by nightmares from his past nor by a sense of unfulfilled destiny. One might almost call him boring.
The concept of the Reichswehr as an “army of leaders” has been worn threadbare with repetition. It is worth emphasizing the relative modesty of much of the Reichswehr’s practical approach to rearmament and the revision of Versailles, even by those who expected revision to require force. Its institutional vision of the force required to restore the Reich’s position seldom went beyond twenty or thirty divisions, with proportionate amounts of tanks, aircraft, and heavy artillery. In such an expansion, most of the officers would still be performing duty at regimental levels.
Thinking about war at its higher levels was considered the province of the General Staff. Forbidden by Versailles, the institution had survived with only the thinnest camouflage, as the Troop Office (Truppenamt). The training program for admission to that body emphasized grand tactics and operational art, staff rides, and war games, rather than strategic theory and policy formation. The final year, spent in Berlin, included lectures on political, economic, and diplomatic issues. After 1927, selected officers were also assigned to an extra year at the University of Berlin, taking liberal arts courses with a military emphasis. The Reichswehr’s institutional intellectual climate was nevertheless not calculated in general to encourage its officers to extend themselves.
At the same time, the Versailles Treaty was putting an essentially new set of demands on the German army. Its peacetime heritage was as cadre for a mass army of short-service draftees: citizen soldiers to be taught the rudiments, then cycled back into civilian life and replaced by a new batch of recruits. The concept of a professional army was so emotionally alien that military German did not even have a developed vocabulary for it. What the British or Americans called a “regular” was likely in German to receive the appellation “Soeldner,” which meant something entirely different: a mercenary who served only for pay, eschewing any higher considerations. In the same context, much of the everyday process of maintaining the Reichswehr’s institutional effectiveness reflected the importance of preventing its personnel from stagnating as a consequence of too many years of doing the same things in the same places with the same people.
The Reichswehr shared attitudes and value systems to a degree impossible in a conscript force drawing on the entire spectrum of Germany’s population. Liberal and Marxist critics frequently charged recruiters with discriminating against urban applicants and those with left-wing sympathies in favor of rural youths with nationalist orientations. There is truth in the accusation. It seldom hurt a candidate for enlistment to have the endorsement, written or verbal, of a veterans’ organization like the Stahlhelm, or a retired officer, or the village pastor. At the same time, the Reichswehr was deeply committed to preventing the development of partisan politics in its ranks; and a record of political activism on the right as well as the left could render a prospective recruit unsuitable.
The Reichswehr’s formal and informal personnel criteria were scarcely secret, and to that extent, the pool of volunteers was self-screening and self-selected. They were disproportionately children of farmers, craftsmen, and lower-ranking officials. Their background usually included fathers, uncles, or brothers who considered their experiences in the army as positive. A fair percentage of them had at least some secondary education, and Reichswehr soldiers as a rule took full advantage of the opportunities for training in civilian occupations, and the accompanying veterans’ preference connections, offered to enlisted men. The food was good: ample, well prepared, and served on china plates in clean dining halls. New barracks, comfortable and spacious, began replacing Imperial mausoleums. The Reichswehr was popular everywhere it was stationed and almost everywhere it went. It was small enough to be unobtrusive, and its men were well behaved. That made it easy for them to attend dances, patronize the better restaurants and bars, and meet respectable girls. It was a good life by comparison to many of the Weimar Republic’s available alternatives.
Men committed to a minimum of twelve years’ service could no longer be expected to regard their time in the army as a rite of passage, with discomfort and disorientation only enhancing the mythic aspect of the transition to adulthood. One of the best ways of preventing it was held to be the systematic involvement of officers with their men. The barriers existing in the mass conscript army of the Second Reich had been eroded by the Great War. Now officers and enlisted men, close to the same age, sharing a common ethos, were expected to form a community. Training methods sought a dialectic between understanding and obedience. In the field, everyone ate from the same kitchens and used the same latrines. Captains and lieutenants took their men on hikes, on swimming expeditions, on cultural excursions—a pattern borrowed from the prewar youth movement and from the Vereinsleben, the proliferating number of associations, characteristic of Weimar society. The Imperial army had paid little attention to athletics apart from gymnastics. The Reichswehr emphasized every form of sport. In contrast to the U.S. Army’s tendency to replicate varsity and professional athletics by emphasizing a star system and regimental teams, Reichswehr sports were structured intramurally—though a particularly talented individual usually received a chance to develop his skills, especially if they were applicable in the Olympics and similar competitions. Officers, NCOs, and men participated together, and ability rather than rank determined playing time and status—though no sensible recruit deliberately embarrassed a sergeant who had lost a few more steps than he realized.
Rommel adapted readily to the conditions of everyday service in the new Germany. Team sports were not his forte, but he did everything else, including organize dances for the men of his company, taking the opportunity to provide as well instruction in current middle-class social courtesies and table manners. He continued to command respect for his unusual physical fitness. Qualifying as an instructor in mountain warfare, he also regularly took his own men on climbing and skiing expeditions. His superiors consistently rated him highly as a company officer, highly praising his tactical skill, his eye for ground, and his management methods. Rommel occasionally complained that his Pour le mérite was a handicap in peacetime service because it aroused the jealousy of his colleagues. His official records offer no indication that Rommel was medal-proud. They describe a tactful, modest man, measured in speech and behavior, who let his deeds speak for him.
That Rommel was never assigned to attend the War Academy or given an opportunity to serve in the Truppenamt is frequently noted by his British and American biographers. German students of his career seldom find it surprising. That he was not a nobleman made no difference, though there were in fact higher proportions of aristocrats at the army’s higher levels. More likely, determinants were Rommel’s wartime record and his peacetime development as a regimental officer. He showed no interest in studying the craft of war in any but limited, practical contexts. Nor did he demonstrate any particular aptitude in abstract theories. His persona was of a hands-on, uncomplicated battle captain who was happy in that role: what you got was what you saw. The Reichswehr of the 1920s had dozens of officers cut from similar cloth. Few had Rommel’s combat achievements to their credit—but among the 250 or so commanders of infantry companies, Rommel stood above his colleagues rather than apart from them.
That evaluation was by no means a dismissal. By 1923, the new Reichwehr proved that it could provide for Germany’s internal security. The Freikorps and similar paramilitary groups on the right and the left were losing their appeal. The neighborhood gangs and local self-defense associations that had stockpiled weapons in the aftermath of the army’s collapse were turning them in. Social relations generally tended to demilitarize; political intercourse took a less belligerent tone.
Those developments, in turn, highlighted the Reichswehr’s effort to develop into a military instrument capable of defending the German Republic against external threats. The process had begun almost as soon as the Armistice was signed, with systematic evaluation of the Great War. The initial fault line lay between those officers who took their cues from the experiences of the Western Front and those believing that the experiences in France and Belgium had been anomalous. Initially “Westerners” predominated—natural enough given the wartime distribution of forces and talent. The problem they faced was that on “Western” terms, those established in the trenches, Germany’s security situation was prima facie hopeless: the Reichswehr as organized by Versailles lacked the human and material resources to put up even a token fight for its own territory.
General Hans von Seeckt, appointed chief of the High Command in March 1920, was an aristocrat and a Prussian Guardsman who fit few of the stereotypes associate with either background. In an officer corps whose reading tended to be confined to professional journals, Seeckt was well up on contemporary English literature. Educated at a civilian secondary school rather than a cadet academy, he spoke several languages and had traveled widely in Europe and visited Egypt and India before the war. More to the point, he had made his wartime reputation on the Eastern Front instead of in the trenches of the West. As a staff officer, he planned the 1915 breakthrough of the Russian front from which the Tsar’s army and empire never recovered. That fall, he orchestrated the overrunning of Serbia. In 1916, he structured the German/Austro-Hungarian overrunning of Rumania in which Rommel and the WGB participated.
Untarred by the brush of disaster on the Western Front, Seeckt was the logical choice to succeed national hero Paul von Hindenburg as chief of the General Staff in the summer of 1919. He brought to his new appointment a healthy skepticism regarding the “lessons” of the war of positions fought by the German armies in France and Flanders. As early as February, he broke decisively with recent German military experience by calling for a small, elite professional army recruited voluntarily instead of by conscription. That was three months before the Treaty of Versailles required Germany to create such a force. Though the rumor mills in Paris were making it clear that something like it was a virtual certainty, Seeckt was not merely making the best of a situation. He even accepted the forbidden word mercenary for the force he was proposing. Its tentative structure was a minimum of 200,000 men, enlisted for two-year terms and backed by a militia based on three months’ compulsory training for all eighteen-year-old males.
For Seeckt, however, form took second place to concept. For a century, he argued, Germany and Europe had striven for numerical superiority. This “universal levy in mass” had outlived its usefulness by being taken to its logical development in 1914-1918. Instead of decision, it produced attrition: a sequence of mutually exhausting struggles until one of the combatants collapsed materially, then morally. Mass, Seeckt argued, is able only to crush by sheer weight and, therefore, cannot win victories except at costs rendering them meaningless. For Seeckt, the touchstone of future war was mobility. But in an age of firepower, mobility was a function of quality. The modern army must be better than its opponents—not bigger. The Reichswehr needed force multipliers, and in the Weimar years, it concentrated on two in particular: technology and leadership.
In December 1919, Seeckt instructed the Truppenamt to produce a series of position papers addressing the experiences of the war, structuring them around the questions of what entirely new situations had developed, how effective were prewar doctrines in dealing with those situations, and what new problems remained unsolved. He next presented a list of fifty-seven specific aspects of the war to be analyzed—everything from leadership to correct use of the weather service. By 1920, more than four hundred officers were at work studying Germany’s military experiences in the Great War. Their reports became the basis for a new operational doctrine: a doctrine based on the infantry.
That approach was not a consequence of the Treaty of Versailles. In the immediate aftermath of the Great War, infantry was the only tactically mobile arm. The cavalry’s vulnerability to terrain and firepower meant its mobility was at best operational. Not until the mid-1920s would the technology of the internal combustion engine develop the qualities of speed and reliability beyond the embryonic stages that for practical purposes still restricted tanks to a supporting role. Aircraft as well were limited in their direct, sustained contributions to a ground offensive. Wire-and-strut, fabric-covered planes with fragile engines, even the specialized ground-attack versions developed by the Germans, were terribly vulnerable to even random ground fire. Artillery, despite the sophisticated fire-control methods of 1918, was a mass weapon of mass destruction. And because the Reichswehr possessed neither tanks nor aircraft, and only light field artillery, that left victory in the hands of the infantry—which had been the heart and core of Germany’s armies since the days of Tilly and Frederick the Great.
The foot soldier’s central position in the Reichswehr was as far as can be imagined from the contemporary French mantra “the artillery conquers; the infantry occupies.” Nor was that perspective confined to France. Sir John Monash was widely regarded as the best British battle commander on the Western Front by November 11, 1918. His Australian Corps included five divisions of the fiercest warriors and finest soldiers ever to dominate a battlefield. Yet Monash, in evaluating the Australian victories in France, concluded that “the true role of the infantry was . . . to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward; to march . . . to the appointed goal and there to hold and defend the territory gained . . .” Germany was going its own military way well before it discovered the tank, and the path had been marked out by officers like Rommel. On October 1, 1929, he was assigned to the Infantry School as a junior instructor.
That post was in the same category as service in the Truppenamt. The Reichswehr considered every officer an infantryman somewhat in the way the U.S. Marines consider every Marine a rifleman, and cadets spent a year at the Infantry School before transferring to their own branch schools. The school was originally established in Munich in 1920. Twice relocated after some of the students joined Adolf Hitler’s 1923 Putsch, it wound up in Dresden in 1926. The developed curriculum included courses in civics and foreign languages, as well as specifically military subjects such as aerial warfare, motor technology, and communications, and battalion-level tactics. Halfway through the year, a rigorous comprehensive examination separated future officers from those returned to their regiments for discharge.
Rommel taught his own experiences. His lessons were built around the problems of conducting small-scale independent operations in difficult terrain—lectures that formed the basis of his later book Infantry Attacks (Infanterie greift an). It has been said that inside every German officer there lurks a historian seeking to break free. Rommel insisted on a practical orientation. Unlike a number of his colleagues, and in sharp contrast to Patton, he did not use case studies as a springboard for speculation on such military generalities as the nature and future of war. He made no secret of his belief that he was there to teach cadets how to be good company commanders. Because that was what all of them needed to learn and most of them wanted to know, Captain Rommel’s classes were among the most popular in the curriculum.
Rommel favored modern classroom technology, making constant use of sketch maps displayed on screens by the projectors just coming into use. Then as now, a major challenge of such visual aids involved keeping students awake in a dark room. Rommel, with his energy and his charisma, never found it a problem. As a fellow instructor later observed, Rommel remained eternally a lieutenant, eagerly making instant decisions and acting on the spur of the moment. At the same time, he established himself as a mentor who may have taught the past but did not live in it, whose presentations stressed moral as well as technical aspects of small-unit combat leadership and emphasized the importance of character to command at all levels. His efficiency reports described “a towering personality,” “a genuine leader,” “a first-rate infantry and combat instructor . . . Respected by his colleagues, worshipped by his cadets.”
If there was a hair in Rommel’s soup during his tour at Dresden, it was the presence of Ferdinand Schoenerer, who had also stayed in the peacetime army and was assigned as an instructor during the same time. The professional rivalry between the two officers on the whole remained in professional bounds. But Schoenerer, a Bavarian, had a Bavarian’s sense of humor: direct rather than subtle. One of his favorite jokes involved surreptitiously placing silverware in the pockets of his colleagues on formal occasions in the officers’ mess. Sooner or later it fell out, usually to the victim’s embarrassment. Rommel was among his victims; he did not appreciate being the butt of schoolboy humor. On the other hand, a practical joke, especially one played on others as well, was scarcely an appropriate justification for a personal feud.
In October 1931, when his Dresden tour ended, Rommel received command of the 3rd Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment. In April 1932, he was promoted to major—his first permanent advance in rank in fifteen years. The assignment was something more than routine. Each division of the Reichswehr had one of its battalions designated as Jaeger. Wearing the green facings and preserving the traditions of Germany’s elite light infantry, those stationed in high country also emphasized training in ski and mountain warfare. Rommel’s new battalion was garrisoned in Goslar, in the Harz Mountains. Its ancestors had served in the army of the Electorate of Hanover, fighting in the ranks of the King’s German Legion in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. As the 10th, theGoslarer Jaeger, it had suffered more than three thousand casualties in the Great War, when its reserve battalion had served in the Alpine Corps alongside the WGB. It was as close to a homecoming as Rommel was likely to find.
Battalion legend has it that on the day of his arrival, the officers tested their new commander by asking him to join them climbing and skiing down a nearby mountain. After three up-and-down cycles, Rommel invited them to a fourth. They respectfully declined. If the story is not true, it deserves to be. Certainly Rommel impressed all ranks with his physical fitness, and the accompanying strength of will that time and again drove a forty-ish major forward on exercises that left young lieutenants and veteran sergeants alike longing for the sound of “das Ganze halt” that signaled the day’s end. The woodsmen and farmboys from Lower Saxony who made up the bulk of the rank and file performed so well for their major that the 17th’s regimental commander, who would himself rise to general’s rank and have a distinguished career in World War II, described his third battalion as “the Rommel Battalion”—an accolade rare in a Reichswehr that, as a rule, shrank from that kind of personalization, and unusual, too, from an immediate superior conceding his subordinate’s superior charisma and influence.
Rommel’s colorful attacks during World War II on what he considered Germany’s military “establishment,” the Prussians, the noblemen, and the General Staff, has led to a certain exaggeration of his “outsider” status. He was anything but marginalized during his Reichswehr years. Nor was he encysted and dismissed as a throat-slitting hard charger, anomalous in a modern, scientific military establishment. In October 1933, the Army High Command issued Part I of Truppenfuehrung (unit command). This document, and its second half issued a year later, distilled fifteen years’ worth of considerations on the nature of modern war. It began by defining war as “a free and creative activity founded on scientific principles.” That Hegelian paradox, in turn, placed “the very highest demands on the human personality.” Truppenfuehrung from its first page to its last stressed the centrality of leadership. Throughout the text, officers were exhorted to believe in themselves and trust subordinates molded by instruction and example. War’s defining characteristics were risk and uncertainty; the best means of overcoming them were intellectual energy and strength of character.
Erwin Rommel was not the only field officer in the Reichswehr who fitted that template—but he fitted it as though it was made for him. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1935, he had every reason to expect to advance to regimental, and in due course, division command. Higher appointments were probably beyond his reach given his lack of advanced staff experience. But as suggested earlier, that lack was in good part a career choice as opposed to a caste-based exclusion. It made small sense to waste a staff appointment on an officer who made no secret of his dislike for desk work and was at the same time a gifted trainer and leader of troops.
The infantry centering of the Reichswehr that directly shaped Rommel’s postwar career was only part of the army’s reconstruction. A major weakness of the German army of the Great War—arguably its fatal weakness—had been its failure to develop an exploitation capability. The High Command concluded early that mounted warfare was obsolete on the Western Front, and eventually converted most of the cavalry divisions in that theater to infantry formations. Germany did far less than the western allies to integrate the internal-combustion engine into its land-war effort except for using heavy trucks to transport personnel and supplies and haul guns well behind the lines. The notion of developing vehicles able to move men and weapons forward of the main lines of advance, in poor terrain and against opposition, never got beyond the remote planning stages.
Exploitation remained the task of infantry, specifically the special assault battalions, the storm troopers, who proved so effective cracking open enemy positions in the first stages of German offensives during the war’s final year. But eventually casualties and fatigue wore down the assault forces. Eventually, as enemy reserves arrived, the survivors ran out of weak spots to probe and penetrate. And the following waves crested behind them, exhausting their own momentum as the Allies prepared to counterattack.
As early as spring 1919, a series of articles in Militaer-Wochenblatt, the army’s leading professional journal, dealing with the army’s projected reconstruction included two on cavalry. General Maximilian von Poseck, Inspector-General of the arm, argued that in the east, large mounted units had been effective for both reconnaissance and combat, and mobile war was likely to be more typical of future conflict than the high-tech stalemate of the Western Front. Seeckt strongly agreed. Charges on the grand scale might be a thing of the past, but cavalry still had a crucial role to play as the central element of mobile divisions, including armored cars and motorized infantry and artillery. These light divisions, in Seeckt’s vision of the future, would retain traditional cavalry functions of scouting and screening. A new mission, no less important, would involve completing the work of the infantry, taking up pursuit of a defeated enemy, conducting both tactical and operational-level envelopments of exposed or emerging flanks.
Seeckt’s concept of the cavalry’s role antedated the structures imposed by the Versailles Treaty, which required Germany to maintain the highest proportion of mounted troops of any army in Europe: eighteen regiments, more than half as much again as the authorized strength of the artillery, a force structure hearkening back to the days of Frederick the Great. The army was correspondingly impelled to take its horse soldiers seriously, to consider how they could participate directly and effectively in preserving Germany’s frontiers and guaranteeing its sovereignty.
The postwar cavalry’s regimental officers initially included a high percentage of men without experience in the new ways of war—men who had spent their active service in staffs or on dismounted service, and now were anxious to get back to “real cavalry soldiering.” In the early 1920s, Seeckt consistently and scathingly criticized the mounted army’s tactical sluggishness, its poor horsemastership, its inaccurate shooting both dismounted and on horseback. Too much training was devoted to riding in formation—a skill worse than useless in the field, where dispersion was required—and in training with the lance and saber. Not until 1927 was the lance abolished, over the opposition of all eighteen of the regimental commanders.
The Reichswehr high command entertained an entirely different approach. The “modern cavalry division” proposed in Leadership and Battle as early as 1923 was an all-arms force, including cyclist and machine-gun battalions, and an infantry battalion capable of being carried in trucks, an armored car battalion of twelve vehicles, and an air squadron of twelve observation planes. The artillery incorporated a horsed and a motorized battalion and an anti-aircraft battalion. With signal, supply, and medical troops, horsed and motorized, this division on paper combined mobility, firepower, and sustainability to a greater extent than any of its predecessors or counterparts in Europe. On the defense, it could hold ground against a superior enemy by virtue of its flexibility, with its three cavalry brigades controlling combinations of forces in the pattern of the combat commands of a World War II U.S. armored division. Offensively, the division could operate independently behind a fixed enemy front, disturbing movements with “shoot and scoot” operations while creating and exploiting opportunities for more comprehensive penetrations. Given a bit of luck, the modern cavalry division with its own resources had the potential even to break through thinly defended sectors of a front.
This was the kind of cavalry division the Reichswehr deployed in its annual maneuvers, testing the structure as far as possible by making temporary attachments although most of the elements had to be stipulated, or represented by flags and other symbols. Standard accounts of German violations of the Treaty of Versailles focus on small-scale cooperation with Russia in testing tanks and aircraft, or on purely theoretical speculations on the nature of possible future mechanized operations. Arguably the pattern of directly subverting the treaty began with the combinations of mobile forces the Germans presented openly and regularly for attaches and observers to evaluate.
The institutional result was the development of a modernizing urge from below. A new generation of cavalry officers increasingly accepted motorization and mechanization as essential for their branch in a Reichswehr that had no surplus to spare for nostalgia. While as a group they still saw the horse as important, they did not remain committed to the extent of their U.S. counterparts. They acquired increasing influence as the wartime veterans retired. They profited from the absence of institutional rivals. There was no air force to lure free spirits and forward thinkers. Unlike France and Britain, even the United States, Germany had no tank corps to claim technical expertise, to challenge the cavalry’s position, and to encourage the branch loyalties that absorbed so much of the latter armies’ energy on the mechanization question. To a degree as well, Germany’s cavalrymen were likely to find motor vehicles attractive because their branch was deprived of them.
Ironically, the Versailles Treaty itself created what became a major institutional loophole for motorization and mechanization. The Treaty allocated to every Reichswehr infantry division a motor transport battalion. This was intended as a logistics formation, but its men and vehicles were likely to be significantly underemployed for most of the year once the peacetime garrison system was in place. The first inspector-general of the branch correspondingly requested an officer with General Staff training to work with him in considering the motor troops’ future development. He was assigned a man who had attended the War Academy just before the outbreak of war in 1914 and spent most of the next four years alternating field service in signals with troop staff appointments.
Captain Heinz Guderian knew just enough about motor vehicles to be able to start an engine. But he was intelligent, hard-driving, and ambitious. Some branch officers may have agreed with the general who allegedly told Guderian that army trucks were there to haul flour. But a century earlier, advocates of railroads had depicted a Germany made invulnerable by troops shuttled behind steam engines. Now a new potential form of strategic/operational mobility was attracting notice. The Reich’s steadily improving road system had even the state railway service investing in busses to supplement its locomotives. Even conservative officers saw the prospects—and career advantages—of eventually establishing a transport force that could shift regiments, perhaps divisions, quickly to threatened sectors and regions.
The hundred-odd men of a motor company had access to two dozen heavy trucks and eleven smaller ones; six passenger cars; four busses; seventeen motorcycles, including five with sidecars; and two tractors. Treaty interpretation even allowed a complement of five wheeled armored personnel carriers like those used by the civil police. With that kind of vehicle pool on call, small wonder that as early as 1924, units conducted on their own responsibility small-scale experiments with organizing motorcycle formations, and provided dummy tanks for maneuvers. The motor transport battalions rapidly became foci of practical support for operational motorization
Initial Reichswehr theory on the use of tanks closely followed contemporary French concepts in projecting a first wave of heavy tanks, followed by a second wave of lighter vehicles maintaining close contact with the infantry. Evaluations of the best way of using tanks were, however, shaped strongly by their technical limitations. In particular, they were considered too slow and too unreliable to play a central role in the fast-paced offensive operations central to Reichswehr tactics. In contrast to the French, who saw tanks as the backbone of an attack, Seeckt in particular warned against the infantry laming its offensive spirit by becoming too dependant on armor.
At the same time, German thinkers, Seeckt included, recognized that even with their current limitations, tanks were general-service systems, able to engage any objective and move in many different formations. In that they were like the infantry and essentially different from other arms. Their future correspondingly seemed to lie with emphasizing their essential characteristics—speed, reliability, and range—rather than developing them as supporting weapons built around armor and armament.
Heinz Guderian eventually did such a good job exaggerating his role in the development of Reichswehr thinking on armor that those who correct his overstatements run a certain risk of going too far in the opposite direction. Guderian’s fondness for the first person singular should not obscure his early investigations of armored vehicles’ possibilities at a time when even his progressive colleagues were thinking of mobility in terms of trucks and motorcycles. Guderian was also, at this stage of his career at any rate, willing to learn. Lieutenant Ernst Volckheim, a wartime tank officer who found himself in the motor transport faute de mieux, specialized in studying the use of tanks in foreign armies, introduced Guderian to French and British literature, and made him aware of the practical tests going on in those countries and elsewhere in Europe.
Guderian responded by writing articles for the military press—not on armored forces as such, but on the potential of increasing the army’s mobility as a whole, through motorization. He attracted enough notice to be appointed in 1924 as an instructor in the staff training school at Stettin—a three-year tour that, in the same way as Dresden did for Rommel, enabled him to bring together his ideas, general and specific, on the possibilities of motorized warmaking. In 1928, he was assigned to the Transport Department of the General Staff to study the question of large-scale troop transport by motor vehicle. He continued as well to discuss and lecture on tank tactics. In 1929, he finally even got to test-drive one of the vehicles for the first time during a trip to Sweden.
At the same time the Reichswehr continued field testing. In the winter of 1923-1924, maneuvers incorporated cooperation between motorized ground troops and simulated air forces. In 1925, the 1st Division in East Prussia included armored cars, motorized artillery, and dummy tanks in its maneuver orders of battle. Such exercises highlighted the Reichswehr’s limited achievements in motorization. They also offered opportunities to consider problems as they arose—and foreign observers noted the Germans seemed well able to correct mistakes involving motor vehicles.
Design work on tanks in Germany began in 1925, when specifications for a “large tractor” of twenty tons and a “small tractor” of half that weight were established. In 1928-1929, the firms of Krupp, Rhenmetall, and Daimler-Benz built two “large tractors” each as test beds. In 1926, work commenced as well on a new generation of radios, small and reliable enough to be mounted in vehicles. These would provide the basis for the communications system panzer generals like Rommel were to use to such devastating advantage in the early years of World War II.
The Germans paid increasing attention to foreign models. Guderian, Werner von Blomberg, Walther von Reichenau, and their colleagues read and translated the works of Liddell-Hart and Fuller. They followed assiduously the British maneuvers of 1927 and 1928, with their emphasis on armor-heavy combined-arms mobile forces. The Truppenamt was beginning to argue that tanks employed in brigade strength, 300 to 350 vehicles, would be the offensive weapon deciding future battles. It was beginning as well to develop theoretical training schedules for tank regiments.
Motorization and mechanization alike received a major institutional boost when, in 1926, Colonel Alfred von Vollard-Bockelburg took over as Inspector General of Motor Troops. He expanded and transformed the branch officers’ course from a focus on technical details of maintenance to a program incorporating, then emphasizing tactical studies. It would eventually become the Armored Forces School. In 1929, a motorized “Reconnaissance and Security” Battalion, drawn primarily from the 6th Battalion, took the field for maneuvers. In 1930, the 3rd Battalion was completely reorganized as a fighting formation, including mock-up tanks, improvised armored cars, and antitank guns as well as the more orthodox mix of trucks, cars, and motorcycles. The battalion also received a new commander: Major Heinz Guderian.
Decisive as well was the appointment in 1931, when Bockelburg’s term expired, of Colonel Oswald Lutz as his successor. Lutz had begun his career as a military railroader, served as director of motor transport for the 6th Army in the Great War, and spent much of his early postwar career in the Truppenamt as a technical specialist with a focus on mechanization. Transferred back to the Motor Transport Troops in 1928, he fostered enthusiastically the branch’s development as a combat force. As Inspector, he appointed Guderian his chief of staff and conducted a series of exercises centering around the dummy tanks, which were widely disliked at unit level because they were so obviously “toys.” Based on the results, Lutz nevertheless argued eloquently that technological developments currently feasible would exponentially enhance tanks’ value as a mobile arm.
The Reichswehr’s focus on motorization reached its first plateau in the maneuvers of September 1932. Held in the area of Frankfurt an der Oder, they were designed to stress mobility at all levels. The defending force, designated Blue, had two cavalry divisions and only a single infantry division. The Red invaders included an entire cavalry corps, with motorized artillery, cyclists and motorcyclists, and motorized reconnaissance elements. Although the combat vehicles were almost all simulated, radios were liberally supplied. Results were mixed, particularly when horses and motor vehicles attempted to cooperate. But the speed and scope of the exercises impressed all observers. Some motorized units advanced 300 kilometers in three days—a pace unmatched since the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages. These last maneuvers before the National Socialist rise to power set the Wehrmacht’s operational course beyond alteration. Its moral and political development in the emerging Third Reich would prove quite another matter.
The preceding pages may seem surreal. A German army expressly forbidden the use of aircraft and armored vehicles nevertheless systematically investigates, analyzes, and begins to implement in exercises the techniques of modern mechanized war. No mention is made of the Treaty of Versailles. Instead, the text repeatedly refers to foreign observers taking notes at Reichswehr maneuvers. Just what was going on?
Weimar Germany was a sovereign state. Its soldiers could not reasonably be prevented from speculating on the nature of the wars they might have to fight. When the issue came up, German spokesmen made a convincing case that the very circumstances of German disarmament required the Reichswehr to be highly cognizant of possible threats it could not match directly. In practical terms, moreover, the Germans kept well to the Treaty’s terms. The few dozen imitations and improvisations that took the field for a few days each autumn were hardly fear-inspiring and were quickly dismantled. The collaboration with the Soviet Union, the tank school at Kazan, and the air school at Lipetsk were likewise known to the Allied agencies responsible for enforcing the armistice terms. Their combined contributions to Germany’s military system was correctly judged as marginal.
From the perspectives of France and Britain, and from the perspective of the League of Nations as well, standing on details was considered counterproductive when compared with the prospects of drawing Weimar Germany into a general program of European disarmament. In 1927, the Foreign Office successfully negotiated the withdrawal of the Inter Allied Control Commission, which since 1919 had supervised the nuts and bolts of disarmament. The diplomats saw this as a step toward national security in an international context. The Reichswehr considered it an opportunity to pursue and expand its programs of preparing for a bigger future. By April 1931, a plan was in place for assembling material for a twenty-one-division army. By 1933, about two-thirds of the basic weapons for that force were in hand. The immediate problem involved personnel, and it was on this subject that the army began finding common ground with Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists.
The Nazi Party has been compared by scholars to almost every possible human organization, even medieval feudalism. The one adjective that cannot be applied is “patriarchal.” Hitler’s public persona was that of leader, elder brother, perhaps even erotic symbol, but never a father. Change, progress, was the movement’s flywheel. Nazi nostalgia found its essential expression in domestic kitsch. It had no place in military matters. The Reichswehr and the “Movement,” Die Bewegung as the Nazis preferred to be known, thus had the common ground of emphasizing a commitment to the future rather than a vision of the past. Hitler’s initially enthusiastic wooing of the soldiers was based on his intention of using them first to consolidate his hold over both the Nazi Party and the German people, then as the standard-bearers of territorial and ideological expansion until they could safely be replaced by the party’s own Waffen-SS. The Reichswehr, for its part, also saw the Nazis as a means to an end, albeit the more pedestrian one of increasing the armed forces’ resources.
National Socialist views of war were different in important, arguably essential respects from those of the Reichswehr. But on such subjects as anti-Marxism, antipacifism, and hostility to the Treaty of Versailles, the military’s values were not incongruent with those avowed by Nazi theorists and propagandists. Those positions were also respectable across a broad spectrum of Weimar politics. Germany wanted normalcy in the years after 1918 but was unable to achieve it at the price of abandoning the illusions and delusions of the Great War. The gradual turn to Nazism that began in the late 1920s represented a “flight forward,” an effort to escape that cognitive dissonance, as much as a belief in the Nazis’ promises to make things better.
The concept of a nonpolitical Reichswehr has been so frequently critiqued that there is a certain risk of overcompensation. The army was not a Fascist coup or a right-wing conspiracy waiting to happen. From its inception, the Reichswehr had regarded itself not as an independent player, but a participant in a common national enterprise based on rearmament and revision. Refusal to identify the armed forces directly with the Republic facilitated the transfer of loyalties from the Empire. It enabled avoiding on one hand the problems of a Soviet model of military professionals reduced to technicians while commissars wielded real power, and on the other the risks of saddling Germany with an officer corps of mercenary technocrats out of touch with state and society.
Yet as the gulf between soldiers and politicians widened, as the Republic’s crisis deepened during the Great Depression, few officers saw their responsibilities to the state in any but the narrowest terms. The war game of December 1932, with its predictions of domestic disaster should Nazis and Communists combine against an overextended, outnumbered, and probably outgunned Reichswehr, were presented with a kind of malicious pleasure that reflected more than simple anti-republican sentiment. It suggested instead a fundamental detachment from the processes of governance that had been alien to a Prussian army with its comprehensive ties to state and society.
The Reichswehr’s everyday emphasis on focused professionalism offered limited guidance, particularly below the levels of high command. Erwin Rommel, for example, encouraged his wife to vote for “centrist” parties: the German Democrats and their successors—at least according to their son’s account. Other versions have Rommel taking “socialist” positions, at least when it came to an aristocratic class he often criticized as dangerously narrow in its perspectives. His first systematic exposure to National Socialism seems to have occurred during his tour at Dresden. The school drew students and faculty from the entire Reichswehr. Its atmosphere was more free-wheeling and permissive than the average unit mess; and newspapers everywhere on the political and cultural spectrum were running stories on the court-martial of three lieutenants alleged to identify more closely with National Socialism than regulations permitted. It would have been unusual for a respected faculty member such as Rommel not to be solicited, informally and unofficially, for his position. It would have been even more unusual for Rommel to take the professional risk of strongly affirming or denouncing any political development.
Rommel’s reaction to the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 was similarly conventional. In the most basic terms, as a serving officer, there was no reason for him to do anything at all. The “pseudolegality” of what academicians like to call the “seizure of power” (Machtergreifung) was as lost on Rommel as it was on most Germans. The National Socialists represented a significant plurality of the voters. Combined with their allies the German Nationalists, they had a majority in Parliament. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor by legal processes and affirmed by Germany’s president, the respected national hero Paul von Hindenburg. The public euphoria that spread across Germany in the next six months or so may have been largely orchestrated by the Nazis themselves. It nevertheless encouraged the keeping of doubts and questions to oneself. The train to the future was leaving the station: board it or miss the opportunity Germans had been saying they longed for ever since November 1918.
Rommel, it must also be noted, was not what the Germans call an “intellectual deep-sea diver.” He was no complex, self-searching character out of Henry James, able to see the fourth side of every three-sided question. Indeed, it might be said that one could walk through Erwin Rommel’s deepest thoughts on any subject outside of soldiering and emerge with dry ankles. He saw the public impression Hitler made and the public enthusiasm with which he was received. He approved the Nazi program of militarizing German youth and their promise to remilitarize the Reich despite the Treaty of Versailles. Rommel supported the breaking of the Stormtroopers, the SA, in June 1934 both for their radical image as a possible focal point for a “second revolution” and because of the organization’s apparent challenge to the army’s monopoly on armed force in Germany. Though he privately criticized the massacre of SA leaders and their families as excessive and unnecessary, it seemed the kind of one-off occurrence that could be processed as an unfortunate lapse of judgment on an otherwise promising administration.
None of that, however, added up to a belief that National Socialism offered a quick ticket to accelerated promotion through political means. Selling out, moreover, or even changing patrons, is a two-way street. Rommel, who was nothing more than one promising field-grade officer among many, initially did not have much to bring to the table. His first direct encounter with Hitler was while commanding an honor guard when the Fuehrer visited Goslar in 1934: an entirely official occasion. More significant was his transfer in October 1935 back to the Infantry School, now located at Potsdam. In March, Hitler had ordered the reintroduction of conscription to support a projected army of thirty-six infantry divisions plus specialized formations. The new Wehrmacht, in contrast to an Imperial predecessor that in peacetime had places for only about half those eligible, now drafted virtually every fit man. As a consequence, it was a people’s force in ways foreign to Moltke or Frederick II. Its officers, especially the lieutenants, were drawn from a broad spectrum of the educated male population. The 4,000 regulars of 1933 grew to 24,000 in 1939, and the number of reserve commissions increased proportionally.
Rommel had lost none of his classroom skills. On this tour, he memorized the logarithmic table and was correspondingly able to do math tricks impressive even to students with engineering specialties. Rommel was a master of triangulation in another way as well. He took no pains to conceal his intellectual and professional distance from the “theorists” of the General Staff who predominated in the school’s faculty and administration. He was impatient of any reference to doctrine or authority at the expense of a student’s own mental processes. At the same time, he completed the process of turning his lectures and experiences into a book, making him one of the relatively few instructors who did any major publication in their military fields.
Infanterie greift an (Infantry Attacks), published in 1937, stands with Heinz Guderian’s Achtung-Panzer as the best-known military work published in interwar Germany. It stands alone in terms of its quality. While Rommel was writing for a professional readership, the book possessed two prerequisites for general-audience success that endure today in military writing. It told an exciting story, and it had a personal dimension. Nor did it hurt that Rommel was honest. He had his critics, and he had his enemies. No one ever succeeded in demonstrating mendacity in the combat narratives that are the work’s substance. Appearing at a time when Great War narratives were undergoing a resurgence in popularity, Rommel won critical praise for avoiding the heroic-pathetic tone, the “high diction” present in so many of the newer works. His matter-of-fact approach combined with an unusual clarity of style to produce a work that even at seven decades’ distance leaves the taste of cordite on its readers’ tongues. It also made so much money that Rommel wound up seeking to balance his taxes by having his publisher defer most of the royalty payments—which on balance were in any case more windfall than wealth. Although he may have occasionally expressed dislike of making money by describing how other men died, Rommel was too much the Swabian to donate his profits to the WGB’s regimental fund, and none of his old comrades went on record as grudging him his new and modest affluence. He had paid his dues in advance.
The broader question was whether Rommel’s painstaking analysis of the dynamics of small-unit infantry tactics would have anything beyond specialist interest in the new Wehrmacht. Even before Hitler’s rearmament, the army was institutionalizing the concept that future campaigns would be decided at neither tactical nor strategic levels, but in that intermediate zone called “operations” or “operational art.” Mobility, surprise, and concentration, originally developed as keys to tactical survival, now became the basis of operational power projection. In the late 1920s, several private automobile manufacturers developed models of half-tracked vehicles for towing artillery. In 1933, the Reichswehr ordered the design of a light tank that by the end of 1934 was entering service in some numbers.
The Mark I was never regarded as anything but a stopgap. Its small size, weak armor, and an armament of only two rifle-caliber machine guns put it well below the standards of other nations’ flagship tanks. But the Mark I was able to do twenty-five miles an hour on level ground. It had a long range. Its relatively spacious turret facilitated command by providing room for two crewmen. And it could mount a radio. The Mark I set the technical parameters of the armored vehicles with which Germany would fight World War II.
In 1933, some German cavalry officers affirmed the concept of linking motorized and horsed units in orders of battle. Some infantrymen still regarded that tank’s principal task as facilitating the advance of the infantry. They were outflanked on the political front. The advocates of motorization and mechanization wasted no time after March 1933 in showing their wares to the new chancellor. Hitler was impressed. Though unwilling to plunge forward immediately with a full-blown mechanization program, he recognized its potential and supported, by not interfering with, the decision to organize three Panzer divisions as part of the rearmament program.
These formations were from the beginning conceived in combined-arms terms. Built around a tank brigade with no fewer than 560 Mark I’s organized in four battalions, the division also included three infantry battalions, two truck-borne and one on motorcycles, a motorized artillery regiment, a reconnaissance battalion, and a full complement of supporting troops. Their component units came from every branch of the army; their personnel was largely composed of new draftees. It said much for the Reichswehr’s heritage that the divisions were ready for the 1936 maneuvers, and more that they showed so well in the field.
In 1937, four infantry divisions were motorized as well. The cavalry, hemorrhaging its best and most energetic officers to the new armored force, began in 1938 reorganizing into “light” divisions with four battalions of infantry and one of tanks, intended to perform traditional cavalry missions of screening and exploitation. Even the “ordinary” infantry benefited—at least in the active divisions. While the majority of its guns and vehicles remained horse drawn, and the new reconnaissance battalions had only a few armored cars, each regiment was allocated a motorized company of antitank guns, and each division a full battalion—a total of seventy-two pieces. The artillery became a player indirectly, responding to a growing awareness of the gap between its fire-power and the weight of metal the arm could throw in 1918, and to concern that the German infantry of World War I had at seventh and last become excessively dependant on mass artillery support. When General Erich von Manstein of the General Staff’s Operations Section in 1935 suggested instead developing a direct-fire, close-support vehicle, an infantry gun mounted on an armored chassis, the artillery responded positively. The eventual result was the turretless assault gun, which made its operational appearance in the spring of 1940.
What began as rearmament rapidly developed into peacetime mobilization. By 1936, the army was projecting a war footing of 102 “divisional units”; a force profile comparing favorably to France’s mobilized strength. That projection heralded the takeoff of a growth that rapidly became its own justification and increasingly outran available resources. The German army that took the field in 1939 was the product of comprehensive improvisation.
Since the 18th century, the Prussian/German army had stressed the desirability of a high average. One regiment, corps, or division had been considered as capable as any other of performing a specific mission. That concept had been shaken to a degree during the Great War. Ludwig Beck, Chief of Staff from 1935 to 1938, sought to combat it by saturating the army with tanks and armored vehicles. The Reich’s industrial capacity and industrial policies made that impossible—particularly in a political environment where Hitler’s clock was perpetually set at five minutes to midnight. Instead, the army was constrained to develop a full-blown hierarchy of reliability, with the mobile divisions created from peacetime formations at the apex. Most of the new divisions were formed by “waves,” each wave with differing scales of equipment and levels of training. All of them were infantry. Few had even the full theoretical complement of motorized antitank guns, while the new assault guns took the field only in 1940, and then only in token numbers.
That put increasing emphasis on personnel. In the context of an emphasis on motorization and mechanization, the quality of the ordinary infantryman must be as high as at any time in the German army’s history. That was the aspect of National Socialism that most appealed to military professionals from the general staff to the rifle companies. As the Wehrmacht expanded and rearmed, its conscripts were motivated, alert, and physically fit to degrees inconceivable in all but the best formations of the Kaiser’s day. Thanks to the eighteen months of compulsory labor service required of all seventeen-year-olds since 1935, they required a minimum of socializing into barracks life and were more than casually acquainted with the elements of close-order drill.
The soldiers were confident that once Germany’s young men changed their brown shirts for army Feldgrau, their socialization away from any superficial influences of National Socialism would be relatively easy. The relevant virtues the Nazis preached—comradeship, self-sacrifice, courage, community—had been borrowed from the army’s ethos. The army knew well how to cultivate them from its own resources. The new Wehrmacht had new facilities. Barracks with showers and athletic fields, plenty of windows and ample space between bunks, were a seven days’ wonder to fathers and uncles who had worn a uniform under the Empire. Food was still well cooked and ample. As in the Reichswehr, officers were expected to bond with their men, leading by example on a daily basis. One anecdote may stand for many experiences. A squad of recruits was at rifle practice. The platoon leader asked who was the best shot among them and offered a challenge: “Beat my score, and you can have an early furlough.” At the end of three rounds, the private won by a single point—by grace of a lieutenant who knew how to lose without making it obvious. When the wheels came off in a combat situation, such officers seldom had to order “Follow me!”
The backdrop of this situation was an increasing tug of war between the army and the party for influence over German youth—a tension neither side wished to boil to the surface. The mid-1930s were the golden age, at least in public, of Hitler’s “two pillars” rhetoric: the argument that the Wehrmacht and National Socialism were the “two pillars” of a reborn Germany. Rommel’s Infantry Attacks was a popular Christmas, confirmation, and graduation gift for teenage Nazis and a popular guidebook for Hitler Youth field exercises. Rommel had an unusually high reputation for working with young officers, and his freshly burnished image as a front-line warrior set him apart from the “General Staff Prussians” against whom the Fuehrer so often railed in private. He was a logical choice when the War Ministry sought a liaison officer to Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, and assumed the post in February 1937.
Von Schirach argued that Rommel—and by extension the army—sought to introduce too much direct paramilitary training of the hut-two-three-four variety into the Hitler Youth program. Rommel’s proposal to require unmarried lieutenants to devote part of their weekends to Hitler Youth activity set even less well with Schirach and his subordinates, who disliked the notion of that kind of competition. Rommel, for his part, was a schoolmaster’s son and a German paterfamilias whose relationship to his own son had included some spectacular clashes over the appropriate exercise of parental authority. To his military associates, he increasingly criticized the Hitler Youth for incorporating too much “military education” of the wrong kind: the sort of ruffles and flourishes that involved adolescents playing soldier: saluting each other and conducting inspections. The Hitler Youth’s leaders, he said, knew nothing of soldiering and less of war.
Professional differences were exacerbated by personal dislike. Schirach, a decade younger than Rommel, with an American mother, had been a Nazi youth organizer since the mid-1920s and had a legitimately high opinion of his qualifications and talents in the field. He did not take kindly to what he considered Rommel’s categorizing of him as a promising junior officer who needed have his bark removed. Rommel took little time to decide that Schirach was the kind of arrogant ignoramus who gave the Third Reich a bad name. The two clashed over everything from Rommel’s war stories to seating precedence at a theater function.
The failure of Schirach and Rommel to find common ground in youth training arguably had longer-term significance for the Wehrmacht’s Nazification. Rommel’s final judgment that the army was better advised to train its recruits as soldiers once they were sworn in gave the party a free hand over adolescents it was quick to exercise in later years. But whatever his low opinion of von Schirach, Rommel had been impressed by his direct exposure to the New Order at its highest levels. There was no question either that he was Hitler’s kind of army officer: a blunt-spoken man of action, uncontaminated by aristocratic social origins and unreflective on matters outside his professional sphere.
Those qualities made him particularly useful to the army in the autumn of 1938. Senior army officers, including Chief of Staff Beck, had grown sufficiently dubious about the risks of Hitler’s free-wheeling foreign policy in the context of Germany’s still uncompleted rearmament that they had developed plans for a “housecleaning.” These involved eliminating Nazi Party radicals, restoring traditional “Prussian” standards in justice and administration, and putting Hitler firmly under the thumb of the military leadership. Should that last prove impossible and the Fuehrer suffer a fatal accident—well, no plan survives application, and the state funeral would be spectacular.
In March 1938, Hitler bullied the right-wing government of Austria into accepting Anschluss, or union, with the Third Reich—a more fundamental violation of the Versailles settlement than rearmament had been. He convinced the rest of Europe to accept it through the application of diplomatic smoke and mirrors. Diplomacy, however, is always a credit operation. States unable to settle the bill in the hard cash of war face bankruptcy. And the military aspects of the German takeover were farcical. In particular the Panzer division ordered to march on Vienna left behind it a trail of broken-down vehicles that reduced its commander, Heinz Guderian, to an unusual condition of silence.
It was poor preparation for the propaganda and diplomatic offensive against Czechoslovakia that Hitler mounted almost immediately. Czechoslovakia had a large army supported by one of Europe’s leading arms industries. It had a formidable system of frontier fortifications. It had an even more formidable diplomatic network of allies and supporters. The possibility of disrupting Czechoslovakia without initiating a general war Germany had small chance of winning seemed so limited that Beck resigned in August. His successor, Franz Halder, inherited the outlines of a generals’ plot to seize Hitler’s person as soon as he issued orders for an invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Whether anything would have come of it remains a subject of speculation. The agreements secured from Britain and France at the Munich conference of September 1938 left Czechoslovakia twisting in the wind, and hung any potential military conspirators out to dry. Czechoslovakia’s western provinces, the Sudetenland, were ceded to the Reich without a shot fired. Those who had urged caution on the Fuehrer were correspondingly discredited, despite Hitler’s private rage as being cheated of the war he wanted by the “poor little worms” in Paris and London. Then Hitler decided to celebrate by touring the newly annexed region. Responsibility for his security fell to the army. And the War Ministry had just the officer to take charge of security.
Rommel was no stranger to the Fuehrer. He had been attached to Hitler’s escort during the 1936 Party rally in Nuremberg and won favorable notice for preventing a traffic jam of followers on a day when Hitler wanted to take a drive relatively unaccompanied by only a half dozen cars. Hitler, who at this stage made much of his own experiences as a front-line infantryman, had read—or at least paged through—Rommel’s book. The conflict with Schirach, far from being an obstacle, was the kind of thing Hitler liked to see at all levels of the Reich: personal antagonisms that left him free to act as he saw fit. Rommel’s assignment, in short, was politic at all levels, a gesture of goodwill and reconciliation at a time when the army’s stock with its government was arguably lower than at any time since the aftermath of Jena.
All went well—well enough that in November 1938, Rommel was assigned as commandant of the new officer cadet school at Wiener Neustadt in Vienna. The appointment—accompanied by promotion to colonel—was by no means a political reward, but the position was recognized as highly political. Austria had its own army, now in the process of being assimilated into its larger compatriot; and its own long military heritage—much of it a sharp contrast to Prussian practice and experience. While cadets from all over the Reich would be assigned to the school, the institution would inevitably have a strong Austrian savor. The commandant bore a heavy responsibility for setting the new institution’s tone.
Here again Rommel was the right man in the right spot. He was a walking counterpoint to the stereotypical rigid, humorless Prussian officer. He had extensive Great War service with the Austro-Hungarian army and left a positive image behind. And he was sufficiently wired into the regime’s power structure and value system that he could be expected to make Wiener Neustadt an integral part of both Reich and Wehrmacht. Rommel had taken to signing personal correspondence with Heil Hitler—not a usual step for a senior officer at that stage of the Reich’s history, but not necessarily a statement of principle, either. Like most of his military colleagues, Rommel he had serious reservations about the developing military pretensions of Heinrich Himmler’s SS. Expansion and rearmament, however, offered not merely promotion, but challenging and responsible work in his chosen field. He had been impressed by the enthusiastic reception accorded the Fuehrer by the German population of the Sudetenland: the flowers, the tears, the unforced cheering. Rommel seems as well to have decided that most of the members of Hitler’s personal entourage were not all that bad on closer acquaintance. On balance, his behavior offers a case study in what party ideologues called “working toward the Fuehrer”: doing things in ways Hitler would approve.
Certainly that would have included his plans for making Wiener Neustadt a model institution, combining intellectual and physical elements of education, practical and theoretical aspects of war. He was to have, however, no real opportunity to institutionalize his theories. In March 1939, he was again temporarily transferred to command Hitler’s field headquarters. This time Hitler was spearheading the occupation of what remained of the Czech lands after Munich and the subsequent breakaway of Slovakia. Rommel met him at the frontier. A snowstorm had delayed the SS troops who were supposed to be Hitler’s personal bodyguard. A senior army general, Erich Hoepner, suggested that the army was perfectly capable of guaranteeing the Fuehrer’s safety. Himmler disliked the idea. Then, according to his own account, Rommel took charge, telling Hitler he had no real choice but to enter the waiting car and drive through Prague to the Hradcany Castle, symbol of sovereignty and government. “To a certain extent,” he boasted later to a friend, “I made him come with me. He put himself in my hands . . .” The story no doubt improved with the telling: colonels are seldom inclined to give unsolicited and unsupported recommendations to a head of state. But Rommel’s words did influence Hitler—who was no coward—to follow the bolder course of action, and when it proved successful, to mark the officer in his memory.
With Czechoslovakia gone, Hitler’s attention turned to Poland—guaranteed now by a treaty with France and Britain, but no less tempting a next step. Rommel did not follow closely the complex negotiations that produced the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and cleared the way for the outbreak of the Second World War. He expected a war whatever the diplomatic circumstances, and like a high proportion of the officer corps, found the prospect welcome. Poland was seen as a country that through the Versailles Treaty had profited from a victory it had not earned, severing East Prussia from the Reich by the infamous “Polish Corridor,” using its protected status to detach as well the city of Danzig and seek to make it a Polish dependency. Poland had been the Reichswehr’s favorite “designated enemy” during the Weimar years. Now was the time to settle accounts.