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Review of Erwin Rommel's "Infanterie Grieft An" (Infantry Attacks)

Review of Erwin Rommel's "Infanterie Grieft An" (Infantry Attacks)

“Infantry Attacks” by Erwin Rommel is the definitive description of infantry life and combat during World War I. Interspersed with narrative of his experiences on the battlefield, Rommel inserts his observations of military strategy and tactics that he gleaned from such experiences. He captures, in essence, the rush that German battle plans represented: almost endless maneuver, little sleep, and exhaustion that slowly diminished combat effectiveness. It is fascinating watching the slow transformation of a mobile military to that of trench warfare from a first-person perspective. Rommel perfectly captures the claustrophobic feelings of combat in trench warfare:  the soul crushing cycle for the soldiers of digging in, having French artillery annihilate that position, and working hard to dig new trenches before the shelling begins anew. There is a true sense of futility in the process of description; a visceral understanding of how life had been reduced to numbers in trenches.

The book is divided into sections ordered chronologically, by major combat theaters of operation and the type of warfare experienced there. The first two sections detail warfare on the Western front: the first, initial shock movements by the Germans; the second, trench warfare. In his third section, Rommel talks of his experiences with mountain warfare on the Eastern front while commanding units in Romania, and how that differs from the warfare he experienced while fighting the French. The final three sections deal with combat in Italy. By presenting this book chronologically, Rommel allows the reader to witness the evolution of his experience and thinking as an officer through the course of the war. By further subdividing major theatres of the campaign he participated in, to the types of tactics they were using make the book useful for examining different tactics that emerged throughout the course of World War I.

As Rommel spent more time in battle, his approach to war more closely resembled that of Sun Tzu, whose conclusions on war could most easily be distilled to the oft quoted phrase, “all warfare is based on deception.”[1] Rommel’s most essential tactical and strategic developments lay in use of deception to increase the impact of maneuvers while reducing the costs associated with them. For example, he readily employed tactics that called for simulation of frontal attacks by small raiding parties with hand grenades and small arms fire while maneuvering the rest of his forces to the flanks and rears of the enemy forces. Doing so allowed him to beat superior forces while protecting more of his men.

Erwin Rommel was born in 1891[2] and entered German military service at the age of 19[3] and rank of Ensign[4] in the Imperial German Army. Through his experience in WWI and military teaching career in Germany between the Two World Wars, he quickly rose to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall, the equivalent of Field Marshall. Rommel would come to be known as the “Desert Fox” due to his ability to conduct war in North Africa against the British and the French during his service in World War II. After his campaign in North Africa had ended, Rommel was implicated in an attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler and was forced to commit suicide by cyanide in 1944.

Like anything written by military commanders, especially those coming out of Germany post-World War I, this book should be approached with a level of skepticism. Rommel’s purpose in writing this was two-fold: to distill his own experiences in warfare to teachable lessons and to explain—and perhaps sugarcoat—why Germany lost the war. Both of these purposes lead to different critiques of his writing. The former lends itself to exaggeration of military expertise, easily leading to inflation of achievements or valiance while describing the course of individual service within the armed forces. Tales of individuals' record and service should be critiqued because it is easy for such retellings to fall prey to bias when looking back on the situation. The latter criticism stems from regarding other similar explanations as to Germany’s loss in World War I.  Many of these tales have a propensity to lapse into blame of individuals or groups for which the author has bias against. Indeed, this is especially true for the literature that came out of Germany between the two wars and how easily it enabled blame to be placed on liberal factions as well as Jewish groups with the “stabbed-in-the-back” myth.

To address Rommel’s first purpose for his writing, he portrays himself as a competent military commander, brave, and willing to directly lead his troops into battle. A perfect example appearing in the opening days of combat in Belgium when he states, “Did I tell my colonel that this job was beyond my strength, that I had been on the go for eighteen hours and was now exhausted? No; although a tough job lay ahead it had to be done.[5]” By all secondary accounts this is most likely true, as the writings from allied troops and commanders in later years during World War II portray him as such. Of course, to what extent can the reader know if events transpired exactly as he claims, or if his writing influenced by later reasoning? To that it seems like any first-person narrative, unknowable, but the real value of this book comes not from the tales of combat, but the analysis he performs at the end of each section.  These observations can be as simple as, “Shining articles such as bayonets and cooking utensils may betray the location of troops,”[6] to more advanced tactical conclusions that Rommel reached in his time on the battlefield.

The second critique is more difficult to quantify. While it is true that Rommel was forced to commit suicide after being implicated in an assassination attempt of Hitler, he was still a member of the Nazi party most of his adult life. He entered the service of the SA in 1922[7], which calls into question his political and potentially social beliefs, and could challenge the assumption that this was written merely from a tactical and strategic standpoint. The redeeming factor for the book is lack of any standout bias. Rommel portrays the enemy as fair fighters; no mention of race or “inferior” attributes of colonial forces like other high-profile German military authors; and a focus more or less on combat and nothing more.

Through careful analysis it is clear that Erwin Rommel wrote this book as much for his own benefit as for those around him in the German military. Rommel was not seeking fame or even vast publication of his work; the fact that the German Army saw it as valuable gives us significant insight into the new ways of thinking the German Army had in preparation for World War II.  Many of the tactics that Rommel developed fighting in the mountains of Romania and Italy can clearly be seen as influencing his later tactics in Tank Warfare during the North African Campaign. Rommel was a central figure of the German military and understanding his development as a general is key to contextualizing German military strategy and tactics in World War II.

Julian Strachan is studying for a Master's in strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Works Cited:

[1] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, (trans. Samuel B. Griffith. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press), 66
[2] W.E. Hart, Hitler’s Generals (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1944), 71 Chicago Style Formatting
[3] ibid
[4] ibid.
[5] Erwin Rommel, Infantry Attacks (Great Britain: Greenhill books, 2006), 5
[6] Rommel, 13
[7] Hart, 74

Image from Wikimedia.

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

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