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The Diggingest Bastard

I finally got around to finishing a long-planned task – reading Marshal Erwin Rommel’s book, Infantry Attacks.

From a book like this one can comment on the documented history, the book as literature, the military tactics, and the lessons one can take away. The book review part of this piece I will get out of the way first.

In any biographical work, especially autobiographical, one must look for a positive bias. Some biographies are written by doting fans of the subject. Even the most earnest autobiography will, if only by omission, skew toward making the subject look good. That said, this work is earnest and limited only by its focus on the subject at hand. The exploits of Rommel and his troops are backed up by both myth and medals.

The particular edition I read, an on-demand print of the hurried 1943 American translation, has unique attributes. As a contemporary artifact of WW2, it is honest history — this is what was actually put in front of American officers at Fort Leavenworth. But later editions are reported to be better translations. The figures in this printing are clear but too few and too small. The text is written relying on the intended maps and diagrams for the reader to follow the action.

The writing is clear, literate, and evocative. Certainly it is not a grand novel or a musky thriller, but the action is dynamic (from the actuality and from the writing) and a reader is entertained.

The place in history of this story is World War I, but it gives a slice through theaters that don’t fit the most popular narratives of that war. Rommel was engaged over the trenches of northern France shortly after the beginning of the conflict. Basic lessons had been learned and passed on to units in training, but the great stalemate had not set in. Dynamic action for small units was still possible — if the right leader set up the attack.

After early action in the French countryside, Rommel took over training up a mountain unit which saw some action in the Vosges before being shuttled to the southeastern fronts. In Romania, Hungary, and Italy Rommel would find great success repeatedly using tactics that he had drilled into his companies. Many will not have learned much about the fighting in these regions, but Rommel makes clear that maneuver warfare was alive and well in these mountains late into the conflict.

Rommel’s consistent tactical approach was to pin his enemy with whatever heavy fire he had or could call up, make him commit against a feint, and sneak around him under cover to attack weak points. Over and over his pin-prick assault squads got behind large units and took many prisoners without firing a shot.

Rommel tells a story of being uniformly aggressive. He explains when to not make a direct attack, but with rare exception comes up with a solution of maneuver. He kept tired troops marching and attacking at every opportunity chasing a retreating enemy. Driving this is his own deep regard for hasty field fortifications.

Rommel explains repeatedly how, by spade and pick, infantry can quickly become almost impervious to conventional artillery. He kept tired troops up all might often digging trenches that would have only a few hours’ use. As a reward they got to carry on with amazingly light casualties and remain coherent fighting units able to beat back counterattacks that should have been overwhelming.

Here Rommel leaves lessons that apply to all warfare with ranged weaponry, from antiquity through today and the foreseeable future. Jumping forward 25 years and halfway around the world, we can look at the long-lasting defenses of Japanese islands. More by digging than by might of arms outnumbered and ridiculously outgunned defenders inflicted outsize casualties on attackers in every place where effort was made to use the ground to full effect. Rommel’s exposition particularly reinforces the wargaming behind X-Day: Japan, the journalistic novel of the planned invasion of Japan. Plenty of picks and shovels are at hand in the Japanese farm land, and plenty of farmers who suddenly have nothing else to do.

I’m glad I read this book. It makes me want to read much more about the time period and the lesser-known theaters of WWI.

Most importantly, finally, I get to say, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

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Welcome to sdmahaney.org, the home of published works (and lesser emissions) of Shawn D. Mahaney. This site will focus on current and upcoming books from Shawn, blog posts about research and writing and publishing, and snippets and previews from upcoming works.

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