A Firsthand View of the Trenches: Rommel's Infantry Attacks


Today we are going to take a look at a very influential book in both tactics and military history, famous for it content, but probably more so for its author: Infantry Attacks, by Erwin Rommel. He wrote the book prior to World War II, and it was published in 1937, quickly translated into several other languages and became recommended reading for officers in many armies, including the US Army.

Rommel had been a junior officer during World War I, and fought on most of the major German fronts, although not necessarily at the biggest battles. The book is a combination of war memoire, and an analysis or lessons learned from the different engagements that Rommel experienced during the war. The book is particularly interesting for the perspective on late 19th and early 20th century combat in World War I, which differs in some material ways from the popular perception of the war, with a matter-of-fact description of the events, as this books is not meant as a political or social statement, but as a cold review and analysis of tactical and strategic operations.


Rommel joined the German Army in 1911, and by the start of the war he was the equivalent of a Second Lieutenant. He commanded infantry platoons in Eastern France, at the start of the invasion with the 124th Infantry. At this stage it was a mobile war, the trench warfare the typified the Franco-Belgian front had not yet begun. Instead, the warfare was more like late 19th century, with skirmishing infantry maneuvering through forests, villages, and farms, making use of cover and digging shallow trenches and foxholes. Rommel was an aggressive commander, often leading from the front. As the war transitioned to static trench warfare, Rommel lead his forces in the Ardennes, not so far from Verdun, although this was some time before the horrific Battle of Verdun. After being wounded, but also promoted and decorated for his audacity and tactical skill in the Ardennes, he was sent to lead troops in the High Vosges, a mountain range in Eastern France, where the trench warfare persisted, but not with the same ferocity as in the lower country. From there, he was withdrawn from the French theatre, and lead mountain infantry in the AlpenKorps against Romanian and Russian forces in the Carpathians, and subsequently against Italian forces in the Alps around Austria.

Following his descriptions of the action, Rommel provides an observations or lessons learned section, presenting things for an officer or soldier in the field to take into consideration. Examples include: The winner of a man-to-man fight is the one with one more bullet in his magazine. This came about after Rommel, while leading from the front early in the war, picked up a rifle to engage a lone French soldier; a recurring problem for soldiers on both sides early in the war was rifles firing high because the sights were calibrated for much greater distances than engagements were occurring at, so Rommel and the French soldier exchanged fire, until they were both out of ammunition. More of Rommel's men arrived then, so he survived, but running out of ammunition in the gun could have been disastrous.


Another lesson, following a temporarily successful trench assault in the Ardennes, was: Don't get too far ahead of your support lines, or you risk losing your gains. Rommel lead a very successful assault on French trenches, where they overran their objective, advancing several hundred yards and clearing the French lines, but getting too far ahead of the German main force. Rommel's company attempted to fortify and hold the captured positions against increasingly fierce French counter attacks, but they ran low on ammunition and other supplies, and their was no safe route for resupply, eventually forcing them to fall back.

A third lesson, coming from his experience leading the Wurttemberg Mountain Infantry in Romania, is to be properly prepared for your environment. In the high mountain positions they were first deployed to, the cold, snow, rain, and fog was a greater threat to his men than the Romanians were, when they arrived in position without proper winter gear. Much of his force was initially incapacitated by frostbite and hypothermia, and the available wood was too wet from the rain to build warming fires.

For me, as a modern reader, I had a number of takeaways, both regarding tactics, as well as the realities of late 19th and early 20th century warfare. First, Communication is essential, Rommel's men got shelled by their own artillery because they overran a French position, which had been identified some hours earlier by a cavalry patrol. By the time the French position was reported to the artillery and bombardment began, Rommel's unit had taken the positions, and there was no way to communicate that back to the lines. That brings up the next observation: 19th and early 20th century warfare was nearly blind, although radio and aircraft existed. Wireless units were too bulk to have on the front lines carried with the men, and telephone was too fragile. Communication with command was mostly accomplished using runners.

Other take aways, for me included how much of the time was spent digging trenches and dugouts. Rommel repeatedly emphasizes that the spade is as important as the rifle. Battle was met at very short ranges compared to what was planned. Trench lines were often less than 200 yards apart, and sometimes as little as 40. Weapons had been designed for much longer distances, rifles zeroed for 400 yards, for effective volley fire at 1000. This made rifles less accurate at combat distances. For that reason, high angle, indirect fire is critical to trench warfare. Mortars and “mine throwers” (heavy trench mortars) are key weapons, along with hand grenades.


Casualties were lower than the modern perception of World War I, but a steady attrition. Most of the casualties are from Artillery; Rommel is able to repeatedly move his men across “no mans land” without incident because they carefully rehearse before an assault, and move quietly without shooting until they are at their objective.

The book is fairly readily available online, from a variety of publishers, because it is in the public domain. Still, the book is very interesting to both students of military history and modern warfare, as it gives a clear, rational, presentation of the First World War, written by someone who was there, and who understood both the small picture (life and action on the front) and the big picture (strategic operations). This is one of the clearer illustrations I have seen of how warfare is essentially personal combat writ on a larger scale.


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