Most people have heard of Erwin Rommel, at least in passing. But most people probably associate his name with only two events: World War Two tank battles in North Africa, and Rommel’s forced suicide by Hitler because of his ancillary association with Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler. And most people probably have a general sense that Rommel was not so bad a guy, relative to the Nazi regime as a whole (as low a bar as that may be). This book contradicts none of that, but provides a broader sense both of who Rommel was, and also provides a different perspective on World War One than we commonly have.
Infantry Attacks is basically a war travelogue. It is an autobiography not of war anguish, but of war practice. Informally written, it features Rommel leading small units, usually involving fast action against other small units. We typically associate World War One with Western Front trench warfare, and although Rommel did fight there and records it, much of the book is concerned with other fronts.
The first other front is the Carpathian border between Rumania and Hungary. (Well, what was then the border, before Transylvania was taken by the victorious Allies from Hungary, of which Transylvania had been a part for more than a thousand years, and given to the Rumanians to reward them for finally entering the war in 1916, when they figured out who was winning the war. Then the Rumanians also switched sides to gain advantage in World War Two.). The second is mountain warfare on the Austrian/Italian front, including the Battle of Caporetto, where Rommel won the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military honor (informally called the Blue Max. and jarringly formally named in French, for historical reasons).
The book is written primarily as an instructional manual, drawing lessons from the detailed small unit actions Rommel describes. In passing, it also burnishes Rommel’s reputation (which grew in interwar Germany in part due to this book), even though Rommel not infrequently criticizes his own performance. Finally, the book serves as a platform for Rommel’s thoughts on what constitutes an honorable German soldier, which are pretty much as you’d expect for the time and place.
What strikes the modern reader most about the book is that it has a very different view of World War One fighting than we are used to. Most of the time, we think of World War One as unrelieved horror to no point, led by clueless generals and political leaders, featuring such low points as endless static trench fighting, Verdun, poison gas, and Gallipoli. Rommel enjoyed war, and he was good at it, and it shows continuously in the book. He frequently mentions how “exciting” a particular fight is, often in reference to “grenade duels.” He doesn’t spend any time at all navel gazing or reflecting on what lessons about human nature are being taught.
His men apparently worshipped him (although that is only obliquely evident in the book). One gets the impression, though, that was not due to his common touch, which is nowhere in evidence, but to his demi-godlike stature as a man who led from the front and was able to minimize his men’s casualties. As he says, “Winning the men’s confidence requires much of a commander. . . . . But once he has their confidence, his men will follow him through hell and high water.” Sounds easy, but reading the book you can see the things he did to really put that into practice successfully. (Someone would doubtless have written a book on applying the lessons of Rommel to business, if not for the unfortunate Nazi overtones that such a book would generate.)
We may think it’s odd, but we should remember that history and armies are full of examples of people who actually don’t mind, or actually positively enjoy, war, who nonetheless aren’t psychopaths or insane. It’s not just generals standing back from the battlefield, either—it’s just as much people like Rommel, engaged in “retail” war, who enjoy it.
Infantry Attacks can feel repetitive, particularly for a reader who doesn’t know the relevant geography or military tactics in detail. I’m sure for a military practitioner, each skirmish and battle in which Rommel describes his and his men’s part in detail, complete with Rommel’s hand drawn maps and sketches, teaches its own valuable lessons. But even for a causal or non-military leader, there is a lot of value in reading the book. It gives an invaluable flavor of the time and the war, very different from what normally receive, and is therefore very much worth reading.