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U.S. MARINE SQUAD IN WORLD WAR I, 1918: YOU TAKE COMMAND

You are U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Louis Cukela, leader of a nine-man squad from 66th Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. You are no stranger to heavy combat – just last month your company fought in the June 1-26 Battle of Belleau Wood – however, the rest of your squad mainly consists of new, inexperienced replacements. Thus, in battle your Marines will have to rely on your leadership, judgment and tactical skill.

Currently, 5th Marine Regiment is taking part in the Allied effort to roll back the gains the Germans achieved in northern France during their spring offensive (March-June 1918). Fifteen minutes ago, at 4:45 a.m., 1st Battalion, with 66th Company positioned on its right flank, launched an attack to clear German defenders from the Retz Forest (Forêt de Retz) near the town of Villers-Cotterêts in the Soissons region. Your squad is positioned on the 66th’s far right flank, so your men have no friendly units to their right.

Shortly after advancing to attack, your squad came under heavy fire from two German machine-gun positions located directly to your front. You immediately ordered your men to take cover in a shallow ravine. While none of your Marines were hit, the enemy rounds continue to rake the ground in front of and behind them.

You recognize the distinctive sound of the enemy weapons as that made by German MG08s – 7.92-caliber heavy machine guns capable of firing 450-500 rounds per minute. Typically, an MG08 is served by a four-man crew, and the Germans usually deploy the weapons in pairs or greater numbers.

Fortunately, you have not heard any enemy rifle fire or observed any muzzle flashes, nor have you seen individual German soldiers moving about, except for those in the machine-gun crews. This would seem to indicate that the MG08s are operating without infantry support.

Meanwhile, your Marines are armed with M1903 .30-06-caliber Springfield bolt-action rifles tipped with 16-inch M1905 bayonets. Since your men have neither artillery nor machine-gun support for their attack, they must rely solely on their weapons to overcome the German defenders.

As you consider what action to take in this tactical situation, the young Marine closest to you whispers, “Gunny, do you think we can rush ’em? Just say the word and we’re ready to try!”

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, GUNNERY SERGEANT CUKELA?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

Although the German spring offensive made significant gains and pushed back British and French forces, in many sectors it had the effect of moving the opposing armies out of the lines of formidable trenches that had caused the tactical stalemate for the last three years on the Western Front. Thus, as Allied armies seek to roll back those gains, much of the fighting consists of infantry assaulting hastily prepared positions situated on more open terrain, either by attacking frontally or by maneuvering against vulnerable flanks. This, in fact, is the type of combat your squad now faces.

In the current tactical situation, you must determine how your nine-man squad can overcome the firepower advantage of the two German machine guns. The weapons are well sited to provide interlocking fields of fire to their front, and this overwhelming firepower could quickly cut down any Marines who attempt to overrun them in a frontal attack.

The enemy positions, however, have a couple of disadvantages you could exploit. First, since the MG08s are extremely heavy and cumbersome to move, the Germans will be unable to reposition them quickly to respond to any tactical maneuvers you initiate. Second, the lack of supporting infantry leaves the machine-gun positions highly vulnerable to being outflanked by “fire and maneuver” tactics.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

You quickly develop two possible courses of action:

The first option is to form your squad into two sections and simultaneously maneuver them against both German flanks. This divides the enemy firepower by forcing each machine-gun crew to engage the Marines approaching from the nearest flank. Although this plan gets all of your men actively involved, it has the drawback of requiring an inexperienced Marine to lead one attack while you lead the other.

The alternative is to order your men to remain in the ravine and fire their rifles to hold the Germans’ attention while you work your way around the enemy’s right flank to get behind the machine-gun positions. Once there, you will assault and destroy one and then the other. The advantage of this plan is that it exposes only you to enemy fire; yet if you are killed or seriously wounded, the squad will be left without an experienced leader for subsequent actions.

SQUAD LEADER’S DECISION

“All right, Marines,” you shout, “listen up! When I give the word, start firing at the enemy positions and then keep it up, but without exposing yourselves too much. Don’t get your heads shot off – it’s against Marine Corps policy!

“I’m going to work my way as far right as possible and get behind the machine-gun positions and then take them out one at a time. Even if the Germans see me coming, they likely won’t shift their main axis of fire from their front to their flank – nine Marines represent a prime target, but one on his own will seem like a waste of ammunition.

“Now, get ready to start firing!”

 Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of the must-read book “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).

HISTORICAL NOTE: This article is based on the July 18, 1918, combat action for which legendary Marine Louis Cukela was awarded both the Navy and the Army Medals of Honor. After working his way around the flank of the enemy machine-gun positions, Cukela single-handedly attacked the first one and killed or drove off its crew with his bayonet. Then, using German hand grenades he found at the first position, he “bombed out” and destroyed the second one. That September, he received a battlefield commission.

Later, during World War II, Cukela served stateside and then retired in 1946 as a major after a distinguished 32-year career. He passed away in 1956 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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