Combat Leadersip:Alvin York


Alvin C.
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Corporal Alvin York
U.S. Army France, 1918

The Meuse-Argonne offensive was the last important battle of the First World War. On the night of 25 September 1918, over one million American soldiers moved up to relieve the French forces on the front lines. The American advance that ensued swept easily through the first two lines of German trenches, and then progress slowed. Facing stiff resistance, the reserve division was called up.

Cpl Alvin York served as an infantryman in the 82nd Division. York’s company started across a valley at six in the morning. As they began to move, the company came under heavy fire. From behind a hill, enemy machine guns mowed down the first wave of advancing Americans. No one knew where the deadly fire was coming from, so York’s Platoon Sergeant decided to take the platoon on a mission to find it.

The platoon found a gap in the enemy lines and circled to the rear of where they thought the machine guns might be. The group of Americans stumbled across two German litter bearers, whom they followed back to the headquarters of the machine gun battalion. The Americans walked right into the German machine gun command post, opened fire, and the Germans immediately surrendered.

Upon hearing the firing behind them, the Germans that were dug in near the command post swung their weapons around and began firing at the Americans. Caught in the open, in a hail of automatic fire, the Americans instantly took casualties. Cpl York took aim at the nearest machine gun, about 25 yards away, and killed the man behind the gun. He continued to fire at each German who popped his head out of a foxhole. After watching his troops being massacred by this lone sharpshooter, the German Major in command yelled to York, “If you’ll stop shooting, I’ll make them surrender.”

Within minutes, the remaining American troops had captured ninety German prisoners, but they were behind enemy lines. Cpl York took charge, and quickly organized his platoon. He decided to move back towards friendly positions, straight through the German lines. York ordered the German prisoners to carry back the American wounded. Every time the group came upon a German position, York told the captured German Major to order the troops to surrender. The well-disciplined German soldiers never questioned the order, and by the time York’s small band reached friendly lines, they had acquired 132 German prisoners. In their wake, York’s platoon left thirty-five deserted German machine gun positions and a significant gap in the German defenses.

This gap which York had created was a vital element to the success of the division’s advance. This advance gave momentum to the American forces, and contributed to the success of the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Lessons:

  • Cpl York was quick to exploit the opportunity which had been created. He realized that his actions would affect the outcome of the battalion’s advance and made decisions which supported his commander’s intent. His strong situational awareness guided him in taking action which had decisive results.
  • After taking charge of the platoon, Cpl York led his unit back to friendly lines. His plans changed as the situation developed, but his decisiveness, improvisation skills, and leadership abilities enabled him to lead his withered platoon back to friendly lines while capturing 132 prisoners.

Source:

Lieutenant M.M. Obalde and Lieutenant A.M. Otero. “The Squad Leader Makes the Difference: Readings on Combat at the Squad Level. Volume I”

Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, 1998

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