Infantry Attacks by Erwin Rommel #bookreview

While reading this book I had a twitter conversation with Tammy Marche which was about taking care of others. It lead to me saying I’d let her know if there was any advice in this book. Turns out there is plenty, after all it is intended for young infantry officers as a text book. There is plenty for military leaders in the book but also things any type leader should be aware of. Thanks for changing my perspective Tammy.

The introduction of the book is written by Dr Manfred Rommel, Erwin’s son. Sadly Manfred, lawyer and mayor of Stuttgart for twenty-two years passed away on the seventh of this month. I’ve also read the Rommel Papers which Manfred helped edit and wrote a few chapters to fill in the gaps his father’s papers left. He admits as a child of wearing his father’s medals. Manfred calls his father warm hearted, devoted time and encouraged him. Manfred calls Infantry Attacks as an exercise in self criticism, something leaders should do in any field.

Manfred Rommel also notes something interesting, until 1933 professional soldiers were not allowed in politics nor could they vote. After Hitler being apolitical was fatal for many soldiers. “In general, it is worth mentioning that all secondary virtues such as bravery, discipline, loyalty and perseverance only have validity so long as they are used in a good cause. When a positive cause becomes negative, these virtues become questionable.” Manfred Rommel.

My only problem with the main text of this book is the American translator converted everything from metric to Imperial measures. Otherwise the book is well written, quick paced and clear. There is some military jargon but it is still readable for those who don’t speak military jargon. The book starts in the manoeuvre war of 1914 until it becomes the siege warfare of the trenches. It then moves with Rommel to the Württemberg Mountain Battalion first to the Rumanian front then to the Italian Front.

After many sections there is a few observations about how he could have done things better, how his detachment should have been stopped, what support was needed for a successful or more successful defence. Some of these are specific to the military realm but most can be translated into any field. Many lessons can be found in other material, Rommel is repeating advice from as far back as iron age Greece or China. You would think after nearly three thousand years some of this advice would be taken up by leaders.

Rommel put into practice the Sun Tzu concept of know your self and your opponent and victory is assured. The leader of a group in any field of endeavour does not have a monopoly on knowledge or wisdom. Knowledge is important with the people a leader deals with but so is the environment, material needs et cetera. Is that slope to much of a climb for men going nonstop in battle for three days? Is that additional project to much for the employee who’s been doing overtime for a month? A leader needs to be around those lead and have knowledge of opponents in order to be effective.

A leader must lead and can not lead in the rear. Many of our current leaders act like those Chateau generals in World War One who read telegrams and messages from the trenches and send more men over the top with no regard to their fate. We have political leaders or corporate leaders who throw people out of work or slash wages with equal lack of care as those generals. A true leader is at the front, not for a photo op or surrounded by their entourage. If there is risk then the leader must have an equal or greater share. Rommel was often in the leading elements of his attack, leading from the front or doing reconnaissance by himself or with a few others. A more current example is Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi during the floods earlier this year, Calgarians had to sign petitions to get him to take a nap.

A leader needs to be effective a communicating clearly and efficiently. Everyone needs to be clear of what the objectives are, what the situation is and there part in it. Leaders must be capable of listening, observing as much as talking, the solution to the problem is often at the lowest levels who deal with the problems first hand. The best consultants are not those from outside, as valuable as a different perspective maybe, but those who are at the scene. Open access to the leader is essential for success in any situation. Rommel gives examples of how forward observers with telephones or the common soldiers information/idea lead to victory.

All leaders must earn the respect, loyalty and trust of those they lead, for these must be top down not bottom up. Be capable of being criticized constructively and only ever give constructive criticism in private. Make sure those one leads have there needs being met, they have an outlet for frustrations or ideas and whenever possible stable conditions to work. Push no further than the limit, the actual limit not the perceived. Never be comfortable until assured those lead are comfortable. Admit mistakes and apologize immediately after making them.

Respect is not just for friends but also for foes. Rommel praised taking prisoners and intact hardware but mourned unneeded deaths on both sides. Even tried to prevent Italian soldiers killing their own officers. Honour the opponents skill as Churchill did in Britain’s House of Commons during Rommel’s great successes in North Africa. Petty demonization de-humans the enemy less than it de-humans those demonizing. When vile hatred is exposed the leader must contain it and remove it before it corrupts the whole.

Leaders need to plan for the worst but with flexibility of the constant unknowns. Discard dogma, blind obedience and irrelevant doctrine or ideologies. If assigned a task that could be costly or doesn’t reflect the situations reality have the order changed. If change is not allowed a leader must do what the situation demands even if it is against orders. Leaders must accept the consequences of their decision without hesitation and protect others from sharing those consequences as far as possible. Rommel’s example of suicide to protect his family and staff officers comes to mind. A leader must always speak truth to power and demand subordinates do the same.

I don’t know which I should admire more, you courage before the enemy or your courage before your superiors.” Captain Kremlin, commander of 1st Battalion of the Imperial and Royal Rifle Regiment, to Rommel’s superior Major Sprösser after ignoring orders from brigade.

Rommel never surpassed the rank of First Lieutenant during World War I, yet he at one point was given sixteen companies to command during an offensive. The German promotions system favoured time served and aristocratic names before merit when deciding promotions. When a leader is looking to elevate a subordinate only merit should count, not old school ties, friendships, seniority or tradition. When a leader has moved past their ability they should be demoted, if they prove incompetent, destructive, distracting or dangerous they should be immediately removed. The leadership position is essential, if not eliminate it, yet the holder of the position is always expendable.

Rommel gives plenty of examples of gaining, maintaining and effectively exploiting the initiative. The above quote about Major Sprösser is from one of those examples of success being imminent and following through will lead to great gains. At times leaders need to be bold so the efforts of those lead aren’t wasted, for a leader is obligated not to waste those efforts. How often in the corporate world do we see employees build a strong company for an executive to ruin with greed and fraud?

To keep the initiative, or momentum a leader needs to improvise with the resources available. Resources in any field are not infinite but that does not mean the correct person/tool for the job should be ignored. “Sweat saves blood” is a quote on page 20, Rommel saw the spade as important as the rifle and even ordered heavier tools forward with assaults so his troops could quickly dig in and avoid artillery barrages. Leaders need to understand the tools almost as much as the people, both have hidden potential and undiscovered uses. The important tools of any activity are not always the shiniest, most expensive or most complicated. However leaders cannot afford to be technocratic or blinded by gadgetry, the people and ideas are always more important (see the John Boyd quotes).

From Plato and Sun Tzu in the Iron Age to T.E. Lawrence, Guderian, Rommel, and Boyd in the Twentieth Century the most important thing for military leaders or any form of leader to oversee is training. This training needs to be intense, constant and evolving with the new lessons learnt. Roman legions at times had higher casualty rates in training than in actual combat, similar for the German military in the first part of World War II. All safety precautions should be attended to in training but if one training death could save hundreds of lives on the battlefield than it would be irresponsible to relax standards to avoid peace time casualties. John Boyd once told a superior that the superior wasn’t killing enough pilots, meaning training his pilots hard enough.

Leadership talent might be natural but so is a block of marble, both need skilled artists to shape them. Both Sun Tzu and Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini named their books the Art of War, with any art anyone can learn the technical skills needed but only true artists will use those skills to astonish. For leaders, or anyone the technical skills are not enough. T.E Lawrence used his education of anthropology, archaeology, geology and history during the Arab Revolt, while Captain Nicolla Godart had an English degree and recommended Roberston Davies’ Fifth Business to her mentor. Limiting the leader’s experience to the narrowest of specialized skills limits the leader’s potential for success and the intellectual tools to draw on.

I should have outlined this post first as it is verbose and jumbled. I’ll end by saying I’d like to take this book to Europe and tour the battlefields mentioned in it. Any volunteers to be my travelling companion? Rommel does stop to say how amazing the views are.


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