Classic Reading – Company Commander

Craig again at the keyboard.

I often find myself re-reading the better volumes in my library of military history, considering some works as “classics” in the genre.  One of those I’m in the process of re-reading is Company Commander by Charles B. MacDonald.

MacDonald wrote the book as a combat memoir of his service in the last eight months of the war in Europe.  As such he covers at a small unit level three major phases in the American effort in northwest Europe – stalemate along the Siegfried Line, the Battle of the Bulge, and final drive in to Germany.  When first arriving at the front, MacDonald commanded I Company, 23rd Infantry Regiment, in 2nd Infantry Division.  After recovering from a wound suffered in the Battle of the Bulge, he took command of G Company in the same regiment.  He wrote Company Commander shortly after World War II, as his first major publication.

The book appears on most professional development reading lists for good reason.  What stands out in MacDonald’s writing is his evolution as a combat leader.  Early in the book, he tells of his fears in a frank manner – shaking from fear, and being aware of that fear showing through in his voice.  For his first operational mission he wrote, with emphasis, talking to himself:

Be calm.  Be business-like.  This is the same as maneuvers.  Give some orders.  Start things moving.  you’re going to have a look at the German Army.

MacDonald took over a veteran company.  In fact, veteran is actually an understatement, as the regiment had seen action from the Normandy Peninsula across France to the Siegfried Line.  As a new company commander MacDonald sought to inspire confidence, but grappled with his own inexperience:

I must give these men confidence in me despite the fact that they know I’m inexperienced….  I must keep that confidence.  I must!  I must!

“Scared, Captain?” Sergeant Savage asked.

“A little,” I admitted.  I took a long, slow drag on my cigarette.

“We all are,” Savage said.  “We always are.”

In the first chapters of the book, MacDonald depicts the wearisome duty along the line.  The narrative discusses day-to-day action defending a relatively inactive sector, with occasional enemy probes, artillery bombardments, or other harassing fires.  Particularly well accounted are the relief operations as MacDonald’s company rotated into or out of the line.

MacDonald spends several pages recounting the confusion in the opening hours and days of the Battle of the Bulge.  The 2nd Infantry Division maneuvered onto the northern shoulder of the German penetration on December 16-17, 1944.  There, MacDonald’s company played a key role delaying the German advance, buying time for the division to secure a better position along Elsenborn Ridge.  For those who have not read the book, I will not act the spoiler.  But one of the men attached from the support company to MacDonald’s, Richard E. Cowan, received the Medal of Honor by holding his position against near impossible odds.  MacDonald received the Silver Star for his own actions. But readers do not hear much of that.  MacDonald proudly noted accolades from his regimental commander – “Nice work, Mac.”

A few days later, MacDonald received a wound to his leg.  Not until March did he return to the regiment, and then reassigned to Company G.  Arriving near the Remagen Bridge area, soon MacDonald led the company over the Rhine and back into action.  The narrative continues through a series of offensive movements against crumbling German defenses; followed by non-tactical movements to other sectors; where the company again moves forward against weakened defenses.  The combat actions stand out as interesting tactical vignettes on their own.  MacDonald provides, again in rather frank language, the factors weighing on his decisions and his thought process.

MacDonald concludes the book describing the celebration on V-E Day in Czechoslovakia, accompanied by a young woman shouting “Dobri! Dobri!”

I suddenly realized that i could light a cigarette once again in the open and not be afraid of drawing enemy fire, and it did it.  It was a simple thing, but it gave me a wonderful feeling that life was worth living again.

In my humble opinion, what makes Company Commander a classic is the narrative tightly focused at the company level.  MacDonald rarely discusses the “big picture” and never plays up his role as more than an average company commander doing the job.  He could have inserted pages upon pages of background information, explaining the strategic and operational settings.  As the author or co-author of many histories (Many readers will recall Time for Trumpets, perhaps MacDonald’s best known work) of the campaigns in which he fought, MacDonald had the credentials to do so.

But he didn’t.  Instead he provides one of the best combat memoirs of World War II.  Nearly every page offers a quote worth remembering or some story to recall:

I called for a repeat of the barrage, and when battalion said “Roger,” I knew we had won.

10 thoughts on “Classic Reading – Company Commander”

  1. I was just thinking of this book last night. I was re-reading Geoffrey Perrett’s There’s a War To Be Won and was itching to read this again.

    My very first day of training at the Benning School for Boys, when we dumped out our duffel bags, the drill sergeant was busy screaming at everyone and everything. Right up until he saw a copy of this book sitting on my pile of underwear and socks.

    “Excellent choice- Read it, and read it again.”

    “Now drop and give me 20!”

    So I guess I need to find it again.

  2. I have read Company Commander twice, many year ago. A classic. I found his discussions of black soldiers serving as infantry replacements unforgettable. I quoted his information in a blogosphere discussion on discrimination in the military from memory, over two decades after the last re-read. He was a great author.

  3. A classis…one which I gave my son to read on his 14th Birthday…and he learned his love of military history the same way I did…by reading the great body of literature cranked out in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s by the vets themselves.

    MacDonald not only wrote the seminal work on t he Bulge as has been mentioned btu he became the Deputy Historian of the US Army and authored many of the Army’s Green Book histories of World War 2.

    1. Indeed, his work on the “Green Books” is rather important on the military history discipline. In his later years on staff, MacDonald was somewhat a “mentor” to many who documented the Korean and Vietnam wars. You get the sense that MacDonald wanted to “present” the history, with interpretation of the event but would leave his reader to determine right or wrong. Absent are the second-guessing analysis that you see in other military histories.

  4. It is a great book. I like your comments on the difference between leading a new company as opposed to a veteran company. Every time we switched out a company or troop command downrange, that was one of my discussion points with them: “how are you going to lead the company such that they have confidence in you, when they are veterans (of this deployment) and you are “the new guy?” This is key as most changes of command seem to occur in the later third of the rotation.

    1. Would you agree that a strong theme in the book is that an officer must put his/her soldiers needs and trust first? I also saw in the book places where Captain MacDonald was being advised on a professional and personal level by Sergeants. It is important that young officers put aside their ranks and can learn from the experience of their NCO’s, yes? I have to write a report on the main points of the book and I’m looking for more opinions.

  5. Nick,
    Haven’t read it recently enough to say that those themes came out, but you have identified two critical elements of officer leadership. With regard to your first comment, I would rearrange it a bit in that officer and NCO leadership are charged to rank order things as follows: mission, men, self was the old way of saying it, and now it is mission first, Soldiers always. I prefer the former, but they boil down to the same thing. Bottom line though is that sometimes mission requirements preclude Soldier welfare, and the officer better know when to cross that line and when he shouldn’t.
    And yes, if you can’t learn from your NCOs, you are going to fail.

    1. Oh, yeah, mission first. I meant that the needs of Soldiers come before your (the CO’s/my own) comfort.

  6. You know I started in the Infantry and I was totally shaped by those years. I enjoy the CAV but I don’t go in for all of the trappings…
    Strangely, as much time as I have spent in the infantry after branching armor, both sides think I am a traitor.
    When I was a tank PL, I was always cross-attached to the infantry company. Then, mortar (infantry) platoon, then my tank CO was always cross-attached to the infantry. Then I was the HHC CDR for an IN BN. Then I was the HHC trainer for an AC/RC IN BN. Only then did I go cavalry for two years… I wear my Order of St Maurice from the infantry association almost as proudly as my Order of St George! (and my stetson and spurs). But I don’t call my tank a horse.

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