Funny how things fold in to each other.
I was pondering one of the pivotal scenes of Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms, where in a general retreat, he is pulled to the side by the Carabinieri, as all officers were. They were being briefly interviewed - and then shot. Shot by the very Army that ordered them to retreat in the face of the advancing Germans and Austo-Hungarians.
I decided to dig a bit into the background of the real battle that was the backdrop, and came across this piece of work; Field Marshall Luigi Cadorna.
Historians describe Cadorna as a martinet, excessively ruthless with his troops and dismissive of his country's political authorities. During the course of war he fired 217 officers; during the Battle of Caporetto he would order the summary execution of officers whose units retreated. His harsh approach to discipline has been described as follows by one historian:One in every seventeen Italian soldiers faced a disciplinary charge in the war, and 61 per cent were found guilty. About 750 were executed, the highest number of any army in the war, and Cadorna reintroduced the Roman practice of decimation - the killing of every tenth man - for units which failed to perform in battle.
Why is that of significance? Well ... one of my favorite military minds is Field Marshall Rommel. I got along real well with a German Army 1-star who, much to my shock, had a portrait of him in his office. From him I learned that there are very few WWII officers who are acceptable to have pictures of in your office in the 21st Century German Army - in uniform nontheless. Rommel was one.
One thing that broke Rommel apart from many of his peers was that in WWI he won the "Pour le Merite" - the Blue Max. It is hard to find out how though. Such an award should not be an afterthought.
Well - let's give the good JO his moment. Above you have a horrible battlefield leader - and below let's review the moment that helped bring one of the best battlefield leaders, of any army.
Let's spend a moment to review Rommel at the Tactical level as a JO.
David Irving, in his paper The Trail of the Fox, gives the best account.
General von Below’s aim was to penetrate the main defense line south of the Isonzo River. The high points of the line were the towering Monte Mataiur, Monte Kuk, Kolovrat Ridge and Hill1114. Tens of thousands of Italian troops and well-constructed gun sites commanded each of these high points, and the German unit commanders scrambled to take them, knowing that honors would be the reward. The rivalry among these young officers leading proud units from the German provinces of Bavaria, Silesia and Rommel’s Swabia was ferocious.
Lieutenant Ferdinand Schoerner, a Bavarian commander, set the pace, driving his coughing, staggering volunteers so ruthlessly forward despite their heavy loads of machine guns and ammunition that one of his men dropped dead from exhaustion before the unit reached the objective: Hill 1114, key to the whole Kolovrat Ridge. For taking Hill 1114, Schoerner was awarded Prussia’s highest medal, the Pour le Mérite. That out- raged Rommel. He considered that the credit was due him.
Rommel’s part in breaching the Kolovrat position was in- deed great. As night fell on that first day of the offensive, Scho- erner’s promising position had seemed thwarted by Italian fortifi- cations. Rommel’s superior, Major Theodor Sproesser, commander of the Swabians, wrote a battle report, a faded copy of which still survives, which describes the emplacements. “Like fortresses,” he wrote, “the strongly built concrete gun positions . . . look out over us. They are manned by hard-bitten machine gunners, and bar our further advance to south and west.” During the night Rommel reconnoitered the enemy defenses and found a gap, and shortly after dawn his Abteilung penetrated the Italian lines. Three hours later he stormed Monte Kuk itself. Finding Rommel in their rear, the Italians panicked, their line began to crumble and German infantry poured through the breach.
But Schoerner, the Bavarian, got the Pour le Mérite! Rommel was stung by this injustice, and after the war he asked the official army historian to make petty corrections to the re- cord; he even arranged for future editions to read “Leutnant,” not “Oberleutnant,” in referring to Schoerner, and he persuaded the Reich government to print a fourteen-page supplement which in part set out his own role in more vivid detail describing how forty Italian officers and 1,500 men had surrendered to Oberleutnant Rommel, how he had pressed on ahead of his unit with only two officers and a few riflemen, how the Italians had surrounded and embraced him and chaired him on their shoulders and rejoiced that the war was over for them. This sort of prideful revisionism would become part of the Rommel style.
But Rommel still had a chance for a Pour le Mérite. General von Below had specifically promised one to the first officer to stand atop the loftiest Italian high point, the 5,400-foot Monte Mataiur. Rommel intended to be that officer. His own fourteen- page supplement to the official army history tells the story: “Before the prisoners from the Hill 1114 engagement were removed, some German-speaking Italians betrayed to Lieutenant Rommel that there was another regiment of the Salerno brigade on Monte Mataiur that definitely would put up a fight. . . . Heavy machine gun fire did indeed open up as the [Swabians] reached the western slopes.” By nightfall, after hours of hard fighting, Rommel was at the base of the last rise of Mataiur. He and his men were dog-tired, but he drove them on. The report of his superior, Major Sproesser, takes up the account: “There is an Italian with a machine gun sitting behind virtually every rock, and all the appearances are that the enemy has no intention of giving up Monte Mataiur so easily. Although their strength is almost at an end after fifty-three hours of continual full-pack march and battle, Rommel’s Abteilung crawls in to close quarters. After a hail of machine gun fire, which has a murderous splinter effect among the rocks, the enemy tries to escape into a ravine.”
Hesitantly, one Italian after another came out into the open and surrendered. At 11:30am. the last 120 men on the actual summit surrendered to Rommel. Ten minutes later he stood there himself. He ordered one white and three green flares fired to announce his triumph. Rommel had reached the top first and victory was his all the sweeter, too, for having cost the life of only one of his men.
The victory soon turned sour. Next day General Erich von Ludendorff, chief of the General Staff, announced the capture of Monte Mataiur by the gallant Lieutenant Walther Schnieber, a Silesian company commander. Schnieber accordingly carried off the prize promised by General von Below for the feat, the coveted Pour le Mérite.
It was obvious to Rommel that Schnieber had captured the wrong summit. Choking with anger, he complained to his battal- ion commander, Major Sproesser. Sproesser advised him to forget the matter, but Sproesser did mention in his dispatch of November that during the hour that Rommel’s Abteilung had rested on the Mataiur’s summit they never saw any signs of the Silesian regiment. Rommel was not satisfied, and according to his own account many years later he sent a formal complaint all the way up to the commander of the Alpine Corps, claiming that the medal belonged by rights to him. Silence was the only reply.
This disappointment did not affect Rommel’s fighting zeal. He stayed hard on the heels of the retreating Italians. His Abteilung was at the head of Sproesser’s battalion of Swabians, and that battalion was the spearhead of the whole Fourteenth Army. On November the river Tagliamento was reached. Now Rommel began a relentless pursuit of the demoralized Italians, using the same tactics of bluff, bravado, surprise attack and rapid pursuit that were to distinguish him later as a tank commander.
He had found his métier. He had learned how to exploit sudden situations even when it meant disobeying orders from superiors. He led his troops to the limits of human endurance so as to take the enemy by surprise climbing through fresh snowfalls that were murder to the heavily laden men, scaling sheer rock faces that would give pause even to skilled mountaineers, risking everything to work his handful of intrepid riflemen and machine gunners around behind the unsuspecting Italian defenders. He suddenly attacked the enemy however greatly he was himself outnumbered from the rear with devastating ma- chine gun fire on the assumption that this was bound to shatter the morale of even the finest troops.
His little force’s victories were remarkable. On November 7, Rommel’s companies stormed a 4,700-foot mountain and captured a pass. Two days later he launched a frontal attack on some seemingly invincible Italian defenses and captured another pass.
Then followed an action of the purest Wild West, one that wonderfully illustrates Rommel’s physical courage and endurance.
He was following an extremely narrow and deep ravine to- ward the town of Longarone the kingpin of the entire Italian mountain defensive system. What Rommel found ahead of him was a road blasted into the vertical rock face soaring 600 feet above. The road first clung to one side of the ravine, then crossed to the other side by a long bridge precariously suspended some 500 feet above the ravine floor.
“Relentlessly the pursuit goes on toward Longarone,” Major Sproesser wrote. “Now the big bridge spanning the Vajont ravine lies ahead. Not a moment to lose! . . . Lieutenant Rommel and his men dash across, tearing out every demolition fuse they can see.”
The Swabians took the next stretch of road at a trot. But when they emerged from the valley, they came under heavy rifle and machine gun fire from the direction of Longarone, about a half mile away. Between them and the town lay the river Piave. Almost at once a loud explosion signaled the demolition of the only bridge across the river. Through field glasses Rommel could see endless columns of Italians fleeing south on the far side of the river. The town itself was jam-packed with troops and war paraphernalia. He ordered one of his companies and a machine gun platoon to advance downstream. He himself went with them, then watched as eighteen of his men successfully braved the Piave’s fast-flowing waters under violent enemy machine gun fire. More men followed, and by 4:00 pm they had established a posi- tion on the other shore, a short distance south of Longarone. From there they could block the road and railway line leading out of town. Over the next two hours this small force disarmed 800 Italian soldiers who ran into their trap.
As dusk fell, Rommel himself forded the river, followed by five companies of troops. Taking a small party, he began to advance on Longarone. Stumbling into a street barricade manned by Italian machine gunners, Rommel ordered a temporary retreat, and now the Italians began running after him. It was a tricky situation: there were some 10,000 Italian troops in Longarone, so Rommel was vastly outnumbered. In fact, he had only twenty-five men with him at that moment, and when the Italian officers saw how puny Rommel’s force was, they confidently or- dered their men to open fire. All Rommel’s force here was wounded or captured, but he himself managed to slip away into the shadows.
He reassembled his Abteilung just south of Longarone in the darkness. Six more times the Italian mob tried to overrun him, but six times Rommel’s machine gunners sent them running for cover back into the town. To prevent the enemy from outflanking him in the darkness, Rommel set fire to the houses along the road, illuminating the battlefield. By midnight, reinforcements began arriving from Major Sproesser and from an Austrian division.
Rommel decided to renew the attack at dawn. His official account concludes: “There is, however, no more fighting to be done. South of Rivalta, Rommel’s Abteilung meets Lieutenant Schoeffel, who was taken prisoner during the night’s skirmish, coming toward them. Behind him follow hundreds of Italians, waving all manner of flags. Lieutenant Schoeffel brings the glad tidings of the surrender of all enemy forces around Longarone, written by the Italian commander. An entire enemy division has been captured! . . . Exhausted and soaking wet, the warriors . . . fall into well-earned beds in fine billets and sleep the sleep of dead men.”
In his later published account of the battle of Longarone, Rommel romanticized. There he described how he himself had swum the icy Piave at the head of his Abteilung. Yet there can be no doubt of his own physical courage in battle, even if these 1917 victories over the Italians were purchased relatively cheaply. In the ten-day battle ending in the Italians’ humiliating defeat at Longarone, Sproesser’s entire battalion lost only thirteen enlisted men and one officer (he fell off a mountain). At Longarone, Rommel captured 8,000 Italians in one day. Not for another quarter century would Rommel really meet his match.
One month later, the Kaiser gave him the tribute he ached for, the matchless Pour le Mérite. The citation said it was for breaching the Kolovrat line, storming Mataiur and capturing Longarone. Rommel preferred to attribute it to Mataiur alone unless he was in Italian company; then he took a certain sly pleas- ure in saying he won it at Longarone. Rommel was never diplomatic.