Captain Adolf Von Schell was a veteran German officer of the First World War. In 1914 he first served in Belgium, then saw extensive action on the eastern front in both Romania and the Russian border. After the end of the conflict in 1918, he stayed in the army; he was even sent to one of the US Army’s military schools in Fort Benning in 1930. He delivered many lectures to American officers on his combat lessons of the Great War; these were later collected and published under the title Battle Leadership.
One incident Von Schell describes illustrates the importance of keeping one’s head under fire and providing a good example of coolness to one’s men. The ability to remain calm in the middle of a firestorm is a skill that has applicability in every arena of life. Here he describes how he once saved his men’s frayed nerves during a Russian artillery bombardment on the eastern front in 1916:
One out of every three or four shots fell short bursting close to the shed in which my company was sheltered. Until night fell or the Russian balloon went down we could not move. The shells continued to fall around our shed. No one said a word. I noticed that my men were highly nervous. Several came close to me and asked permission to go outside, giving more or less trivial excuses. I refused, for it was apparent that they only wanted to reach a place of safety. The nervous excitement became intense. Suddenly a shell came down right in the middle of the company, but it failed to burst.
Nerves were frayed almost to the breaking point. We were like a kettle which would soon boil over. In order to obtain a feeling of security, somebody had to act. Then I had a good thought; I called the company barber, sat down with my back to the front, and told him to cut my hair. I must say, that in my whole life, no haircut has been so unpleasant. Every time a shell whistled over our heads, I jerked my head down and the barber would tear out a few hairs instead of cutting them.
But the effect was splendid. The soldiers felt that if their company commander could sit quietly and let his hair be cut, then the situation was no so bad, and that they were probably safer than they thought. Conversation began; a few jokes were played; several men began to play cards; someone began to sing; no one paid any more attention to the shells, even though two men were wounded a few minutes later by a shell which struck in the vicinity. Two points stand out in this incident. Instill a sense of security in the men; by doing so you will help them to overcome their fears.
Do something to induce action among them; if they have been on the defensive for a long time, send out patrols even if there is no special reason to go on patrol. Patrolling instills a feeling of self-confidence and superiority. I served for a long time under a regimental commander who demanded that one patrol be sent out from each company every night. Each patrol was required to bring back clear-cut evidence of its activity, such as a prisoner or a piece of hostile wire. Soon there was a regular competition among the companies. Everyone wanted to go out on patrol.
When one takes action, one feels in control. He believes that his fate lies in his hands, and that he is doing something to advance his purposes. We should never underestimate the importance of these psychological truths.