News: Marines Study, Experience European World War I Battle
Story by Sgt. Lydia Davey
CAPORETTO, Slovenia — Following in the strategic footsteps of 26-year-old German Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, and lead by a local Slovenian father and son duo, 35 Marines, staff and family members from U.S. Marine Forces Africa and U.S. Marine Forces Europe sweated up steep wooded grades, and charged down grassy hillsides overlooking the Soca Valley here during MarForEur's first Slovenian non-commissioned officer period of military instruction.
"One of the things we want to emphasize in the Marine Corps is professional military education," said Col. Lester Niblock, chief of staff for MarForEur. "So we selected Infantry Attacks by Rommel to highlight the importance of tactical decision making in warfare. What we're able to do is marry up Rommel's Attacks with a map, then we isolated where specific tactical actions occurred and walked that route. The importance of PME is to learn from the experts."
The group had spent two months preparing for the event with assigned readings, weekly classes and small group discussions about the famous WWI Battle of Caporetto.
"We've tried to take some concepts from the maneuver warfare doctrine, and really recreate the mindset (behind) Rommel's attack," said Niblock. "When you talk about the OODA (observe, orient, decide and attack) loop, we can see that on a tactical level. Rommel sent his scouts out to find a weak point – a gap in the Italian defense – that they could exploit the next day. He observed, oriented, decided and attacked, and was able to roll up that portion of the rank, and bring in 1,000 Italian troops."
During the two-day event, the group visited the museum in Caporetto, Slovenia, and completed a walk along Rommel's famed attack route. The walk included a guided discussion along the 10 kilometer route, as well as a visit to an outdoor museum, where original Italian trenches and bunkers still exist.
"This event emphasized the importance of the strategic corporal and small unit leadership," said Cpl. Andrew Nackley, intelligence analyst with MarForEur. "You could see where [Rommel] was tasking out an [NCO] to go lead a detachment into a trench, and they would come back in a lot of instances with quiet good results. They ended up capturing four times the number of personnel they had. So he needed to have that faith in those enlisted soldiers to go out and perform those tasks."
Another important takeaway, according to Nackley, was the German initiative.
"You really saw that it was the difference-maker for the Germans," said Nackley. "The conditions were effectively the same [for the Germans and Italians]. The weather was crappy, the terrain was tortured and the seasons were changing. And the Germans were quiet hungry and quiet stressed by the conditions, but they said 'The irons are hot, we're going to strike,' and by damn they did."
The value of such events, according to Niblock, is the chance to recreate the battle in the minds of today's NCOs in order to provide new examples of opportunities they can exploit on the battlefield.
"When they see their opportunities, they can take those opportunities, operating under the commander's intent, then, as the situation develops, report back," Niblock said. "They can develop the situation, exploit the situation, and continue the attack."
As the group traversed the rough terrain, they were impressed by how swiftly the Baden-Württemberg Battalion had moved during its attack.
"They were tough," said Niblock. "They were able to attack uphill from 0800 until 2300, and then continue to set up observation points, dig in, and send out scouts until the following morning's attack. It's impressive."
The PME provided a well rounded experience through the readings, discussions, museum visits and the walk, according to Nackley.
"Farewell to Arms (one of the pieces of assigned reading) featured the human element, and my appreciation of it was that it really got inside (the protagonist's) psyche," Nackley said. "The experiential writing, what he's seeing and feeling, paints that personal picture, while Rommel focuses more on the strategic element. (Farewell to Arms) gave a broader focus of what that theater of war was like. I liked that the PME tied in both sides of that. To finally see it, and to live it through the walk was chilling. It wasn't just in a book anymore, it was tangible; it was in my face."
The event, according to Niblock, allowed the Marines to relate in a way to the day to day operations of forward deployed Marines in the high mountains and terrain of Afghanistan; it also provided a teambuilding opportunity for them in the beautiful Alps shared by Slovenia and Italy.