Far away from the Altai Mountains of Central Asia in August 1914, the young Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, future field marshal and commander of the Afrikakorps, had mobilized with his regiment, the 124th Infantry (King William 1, 6th Württemberg) in the old monastery at Weingarten in south Germany. Rommel was a regular officer, the son of a schoolmaster, a subject of the King of Württemberg but, as events would shortly prove, one of the most effective soldiers in the army of the German Kaiser. His Swabian soldiers would also show themselves to be hardy, brave and resolute.
The 124th Infantry, with the 123rd Grenadiers, formed 53 Brigade of the 27th Division in the Württemberg Corps, part of the German Fifth Army. After mobilization, and a pause for hasty refresher training of its reservists, it was moved by rail to the border of French Lorraine where, in the third week of August 1914, it deployed to begin the invasion of France. Rommel had never before been in action and was disabled in the early stages of the operation by a severe stomach upset, which he attributed to undercooked army bread. His later medical history suggests that the symptoms were psychosomatic. Though exceptionally brave, Rommel was also highly strung and, during the Second World War, succumbed to illness in stressful situations.
Nerves or not, Rommel demonstrated outstanding qualities of leadership in his first engagement. He was a keen observer of the enemy’s behaviour under fire — intimates would later ascribe his success as a commander to his possession of finger-spitzengefühl, feeling in the end of his fingers or sixth sense — and he showed this ability to detect enemy moral weakness in his first firefight. By close observation of the French reaction to the opening exchange of fire, he decided that they were operating by the drill book, advancing bravely but failing to take cover or to identify the source of the resistance opposite. He, with a handful of riflemen, shot men down as they rushed forward, stopped and turned the rest of the French unit back and went on to occupy the ground they defended. His little victory, the outcome of personal bravery and cool-headedness, was to set the pattern for many others that would follow, on an increasing scale, during the First and then the Second World War. In 1917 Rommel, then a company commander in the Württemberg Mountain Battalion, won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest decoration for bravery. In the Second World War he would become, in Western eyes at least, Germany’s greatest soldier. The foundations of his glittering career were laid in this tiny action in the cornfields of Bleid.
To the right and above us lay Hill 325 still covered with fog. In the tall fields of grain on its southern slope, we could not recognize friend or foe. Off to the right and about half a mile ahead of us on the far side of a draw, we saw the red breeches of French infantry in company strength on the front edge of a yellow wheatfield behind fresh earthworks. (They belonged to the 7th Company of the French 101 st Infantry Regiment.) In the low area to the left and below us, the fight for burning Bleid still raged. Where were our company and the 2d Battalion? Were some still in Bleid with their bulk farther to the rear? What was I to do? Since I did not wish to remain idle with my platoon, I decided to attack the enemy opposite us in the sector of the 2d Battalion. Our deployment behind the ridge, our movement into position, and the opening of fire by the platoon was carried out with the composure and precision of a peacetime maneuver. Soon the groups were in echelon, part of them in the potato field, part of them well concealed behind the bundles of oats from whence they delivered a slow and well-aimed fire as they had been taught to do in peacetime training.
As soon as the leading squads went into position, the enemy opened with heavy rifle fire. But his fire was still too high. Only a few bullets struck in front of and beside us, and we soon became accustomed to this. The only result of fifteen minutes’ fire was a hole in a messkit. Half a mile to our rear we saw our own skirmish line advancing over Hill 325. This assured support for our right, and the platoon was now free to attack. We rushed forward by groups, each being mutually supported by the others, a maneuver we had practiced frequently during peacetime. We crossed a depression which was defiladed from the enemy’s fire. Soon I had nearly the whole platoon together in the dead angle on the opposite slope. Thanks to poor enemy marksmanship, we had suffered no casualties up to this time. With fixed bayonets, we worked our way up the rise and to within storming distance of the hostile position. During this movement the enemy’s fire did not trouble us, for it passed high over us toward those portions of the platoon that were still a considerable distance behind us. Suddenly, the enemy’s fire ceased entirely. Wondering if he was preparing to rush us, we assaulted his position but, except for a few dead, found it deserted. The tracks of the enemy led off to the west through the field in which the grain was as tall as a man. Again I found myself well in advance of my own line with my platoon.
I decided to wait until our neighbors on the right came up. The platoon occupied the position they had just gained; then, together with the commander of the 1st Section, a first sergeant of the 6th Company, and Sergeant Bentele, I went off on a reconnaissance to the west to learn where the enemy had gone. The platoon maintained contact. Some four hundred yards north of Bleid we reached the road connecting Gévimont and Bleid without having encountered the enemy. The road became higher as it went to the north, passing through a cut at this point. On both sides of the road large clumps of bushes interfered with the view to the northwest and west. We used one of these clumps of bushes as an OP (observation point). Strange to say, nothing was to be seen of the retreating enemy. Suddenly, Bentele pointed with his arm to the right (north). Scarcely 150 yards away the grain was moving: and through it we saw the sun’s reflection on bright cooking gear piled on top of the tall French packs. The enemy was withdrawing from the fire of our guns which were sweeping the highest portion of the ridge to the west from Hill 325. I estimated that about a hundred Frenchmen were coming straight at us in column of files. Not one of them lifted his head above the grain. (These soldiers belonged to the 6th Company of the French 101 st Infantry Regiment. They had been attacked on the west slope of Hill 325 by elements of the 123d Grenadier Regiment and were now retreating toward the southwest.)
Was I to call up the remainder of the platoon? No! They could give us better support from their present position. The penetration effect of our rifle ammunition came to mind! Two or three men at this distance! I fired quickly at the head of the column from a standing position. The column dispersed into the field; then, after a few moments, it continued the march in the same direction and in the same formation. Not a single Frenchman raised his head to locate this new enemy who had appeared so suddenly and so close to him. Now the three of us fired at the same time. Again the column disappeared for a short time, then split into several parts and hastily dispersed in a westerly direction toward the Gévimont — Bleid highway. We opened with rapid fire on the fleeing enemy. Strange to say, we had not been fired on even though we were standing upright and were plainly visible to the enemy. To the left, on the far side of the clump of bushes where we were standing, Frenchmen came running down the highway. They were easily shot down as we fired at them through a break in the bushes at a range of about ten yards. We divided our fire and dozens of Frenchmen were put out of action bv the fire of our three rifles.
The 123d Grenadier Regiment was advancing up the slope to the right. I signalled my platoon to follow, and we then advanced northwards on both sides of the Gévimont-Bleid road. During our advance we encountered a number of Frenchmen in the bushes along the road. It took a lot of talking to get them out of their hiding places and make them lay down their arms. They had been taught that the Germans would behead all their prisoners. We got more than fifty men out of the bushes and grain fields, including two French officers, a captain and a lieutenant who had been slightly wounded in the arm. My men offered the prisoners cigarettes which increased their confidence.
To the right on the hill the 123d Grenadier Regiment also reached the Gévimont-Bleid road. We were being fired on from the direction of the forest-covered peak, Le Mat, which was five thousand feet high and lay northwest of Bleid. As quickly as possible I got the platoon into the cut on the right so they would be under cover, with the intention of resuming the fight with an attack on Le Mat from this point. Suddenly, however, everything went black before my eyes and I passed out. The exertions of the previous day and night; the battle for Bleid and for the hill to the north; and, last but not least, the terrible condition of my stomach had sapped the last ounce of my strength.
I must have been unconscious for some time. When I came to, Sergeant Bentele was working over me. French shell and shrapnel were striking intermittently in the vicinity. Our own infantry was retiring toward Hill 325 from the direction of the Le Mat woods. What was it, a retreat? I commandeered part of a line of riflemen, occupied the slope along the Gévimont-Bleid road, and ordered them to dig in. From the men I learned that they had sustained heavy casualties in Le Mat woods, had lost their commander, and that their withdrawal was executed on orders from a superior commander. Above all, French artillery wrought great havoc among them. A quarter of an hour later, buglers sounded ‘regimental call’ and ‘assembly’. From all sides parts of the regiment worked their way toward the area west of Bleid. One after the other the different companies came in. There were many gaps in their ranks. In its first fight the regiment had lost twenty-five per cent of its officers and fifteen per cent of its men in dead, wounded, and missing. I was deeply grieved to learn that two of my best friends had been killed. As soon as the formations had been reordered, the battalions set off toward Gomery through the south part of Bleid.
Bleid presented a terrible sight. Among the smoking ruins lay dead soldiers, civilians, and animals. The troops were told that the opponents of the German Fifth Army had been defeated all along the line and were in retreat; yet in achieving our first victory, our success was considerably tempered by grief over the loss of our comrades. We marched south, but our progress was frequently halted, for in the distance we saw enemy columns on the march. Batteries of the 49th Artillery Regiment trotted ahead and went into position on the right of the highway. By the time we heard their first shots, the enemy columns had disappeared into the distance.
Night fell. Nearly dead from fatigue, we finally reached the village of Ruette, which was already more than filled with our own troops. We bivouacked in the open. No straw could be found, and our men were much too tired to search for it. The damp, cold ground kept us from getting a refreshing sleep. Toward morning it grew chilly — all of us were pitifully cold. During the early morning hours, my complaining stomach made me restless. Finally day dawned. Again thick fog lay over the fields.