Proximity Case Study — Patton at Saint-Mihiel

The Battle of Saint-Mihiel

Young George Patton Battle of Saint Miehiel

Young George Patton
Battle of Saint Miehiel

Patton complained to his commander, Colonel Rockenbach, who intervened in Patton’s favor. But Rockenbach ordered Patton to keep out of the actual combat. The night before the battle, Rockenbach told him explicitly: “Keep control of your reserve and supply, you have no business in a tank and I give you the order not to go into this fight in a tank.” Like the infantry officers, Patton had to stay in a particular spot with a telephone so that Rockenbach could call him in case he had further orders. Patton was then supposed to send messengers to the tank commanders to pass on Rockenbach’s orders. That was how the chain of command worked in World War I-and made flexible, mobile war impossible.

Patton stayed behind at his post with six of his men, just like Rockenbach ordered. They inched forward as much as possible, until the telephone wire stretched straight and could go no farther. Patton stood on a hill to peer out over the battlefield. He saw ground burnt bare and black by constant bombardment, huge craters filled with rain, rows of barbed wire raised onto Xes of twisted wood, mud and debris splashing up as German artillery met the attackers, the bodies of dead soldiers contorted in every possible position. There was a deafening din of whining shells, the rattle of machine guns, crackling rifles, and exploding bombs.

Shivering with cold, Patton kept his eyes on his tanks. Some took direct hits by German shells. Others had to change course as they reached the German trenches. As Patton predicted, the ground was firm enough to hold the tanks despite the rain, but some of the trenches were too wide and deep for the tanks to cross. The Germans pulled back from the trenches, but the tanks could not pursue them. The tanks changed course to find a way over, only to encounter more trenches. They lurched back, around, and looked for another route. Even when they found a way across, the tank officers had trouble locating their new position on the map. So they wandered around, shooting at retreating Germans and wondering where to go. The infantry came up behind and started wandering too.

Despite the rain, Patton was able to see well enough to know what to do. The tanks needed a commander to lead from the front, to show the way again and again as the battle unfolded, like Napoleon at the Lodi bridge. But Patton had orders to stay out of the fighting. His frustration mounted. Then, at seven o’clock, two hours after the start of the battle, Patton broke. He disobeyed his superior and left his post. He ordered one of his men to stay behind at the telephone. The other five he took along. They just walked down the hill into the thick of battle.

As a lieutenant colonel, Patton outranked both his own men and most of the infantry he met. So he was able to gather contingents of foot soldiers and tanks wherever he found them and point them the right way. On one occasion there were five tanks poised to enter the village of Pannes, but they feared a German ambush in the narrow streets ahead. Patton jumped on the lead tank and took them through.

One time he went first across a bridge that everyone thought was mined. Word of his courage spread quickly through the ranks-in a war where commanding officers stayed safe behind the lines, ordinary soldiers were quick to praise the exception.

By nightfall, the Germans had fallen back a few miles, so the battle was a success. Many American soldiers received medals for bravery. Patton came close to a demotion. Rockenbach was furious that he had left his post. It was a clear case of insubordination, and of the very worst kind-during combat. Both sides in World War I punished insubordination severely – sometimes with a firing squad. It kept the troops obedient. How else could you get them out of their trenches to attack the enemy? But in the end Rockenbach let the incident pass. After all, Patton did not refuse to go into battle. He refused to stay out of it.

 The above is an excerpt from Napoleon’s Glance:  The Secret of Strategy by William R. Duggan

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