2 – Rommel was far from just a Second World War hero – he distinguished himself in World War One too.
Rommel graduated from the military academy in Gdansk – then known as Danzig and an integral part of Germany – in 1912 and was immediately posted back to his home region of Baden-Württemberg.
When war broke out in 1914, Rommel was ready to face his first major conflict posting. As a battery commander within the 124th division of the German army, he would distinguish himself and gain his first recognition from the higher-ups.
Erwin saw his first action at the age of 23 on August 22, 1914, near the French town of Verdun. Rommel led his platoon into a French garrison, catching them by surprise and personally leading the charge ahead of the rest of his men, earning credits for bravery and ingenuity. He would be awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, for his actions, a promotion to First Lieutenant and a transfer into the Royal Württemberg Mounted Battalion as a company – rather than platoon – commander.
Rommel would go on to fight in the German campaigns in Italy and Romania, with particular note being taken by the German Army hierarchy of his conduct in the Italian campaign. The Royal Württemberg Mounted Battalion fought at the Battle of Caporetto, the twelfth battle to be fought along the Isonzo River in modern-day Slovenia, and one that would go down as probably the largest military defeat in the history of Italy.
Rommel would play a central role, leading the Royal Württemberg, with just 150 men, to capture an estimated 9,000 Italians, complete with all their guns, for a cost of just 6 of his own men.
The young Rommel used the challenging, mountainous terrain of Caporetto – now known as Kobarid – to outflank the Italians and convince them that they were totally encircled by Germans, when in fact there was just one battalion. Fearing that they were surrounded, the Italians surrendered en masse and were surprised to find that so few men were able to capture them.
The efforts of the German Army to break into the Italian Front through the Slovenian Alps – at the time, part of Italy – were vital in furthering an advance towards Venice, though the Germans were eventually stopped and turned back.
Rommel was awarded the Pour Le Merite award by the Kaiser for his leadership at Caporetto, but also gained the respect and loyalty of his men, who were not only impressed by the way in which his tactics had won the battle, but also by the way that he had stood up to the German Army high command and argued for more and better food for his men. The legend of Rommel was growing apace.