Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Devil Dogs Chronicle: Voices of the 4th Marine Brigade in World War I
reviewed by Courtland Jindra


Devil Dogs Chronicle: Voices of the 4th Marine Brigade
in World War I
Edited by George B. Clark
University Press of Kansas, 2013

Marine Recruits 1918 – "First to Fight"

The first day at camp I was afraid I was going to die. My next two weeks my sole fear was that I wasn't going to die. And after that I knew I would never die because I had become so hard that nothing could kill me.

And so the main portion of George Clark's narrative begins. Devil Dogs Chronicle is an anthology of letters, remembrances, and diaries, with commentary by Clark thrown in from time to time. The Marines really made their name at Belleau Wood and arguably this unit is one of the most written about in the AEF. Because of the wealth of materials on the brigade, the author obviously thought it was best to let the men speak for themselves. This proved to be an excellent decision by and large, as most of these men were fantastic writers.

After a brief overview of the Marine Brigade's exploits in the Great War, Clark throws us right back into boot camp. Much to my surprise, this section was probably my favorite. There are some truly hilarious descriptions of the raw recruits at Paris Island. We follow new marine officers in their training shortly thereafter. This is where we meet Second Lieutenant James MacBrayer Sellers, who is probably the most described of all the men in the book. As one would expect, the journey to and arrival in France, combat, occupation, homecoming, and then a wrap-up on what happened to everyone after the war are also included.

The chapter on Belleau Wood is by far the longest (at nearly 80 pages), but every battle the Brigade was involved in gets special attention. The descriptions of combat themselves are often riveting. However, I wish Clark had included more commentary in these chapters as I had a hard time with what exactly was happening on the ground. Sometimes books that just focus on what divisions and corps are doing can be incredibly dry, but here I needed more of that to ground me in what was going on. The maps that were included were insufficient to be able to figure out where one regiment was versus the other, what one battalion was doing, or where the companies were spread out on the field.

Marines at Belleau Wood After the Battle

This got to be frustrating — especially in the Belleau Wood chapter. I remember in the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War there is an interview with a veteran of the battle who said “the difficulty with Belleau Wood was you never knew where the front was. Little groups of men, little groups of Americans, little groups of Germans got together to fight each other and while you were fighting in one direction, all of the sudden without any warning, you would find that there were some Germans to the rear of you.” For some readers, this confusion will not be a problem, but I really needed some clarity on how the battlefield was laid out. The chapters on later engagements had similar issues, but I was mostly able to follow the action. The best combat segment was First Lt. Cooke's portion on the opening of Soissons. That was an amazing read.


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Mr. Clark obviously did a huge amount of research. Not only are the sheer number of accounts he included impressive, but his footnotes are some of the most extensive I have seen. I think nearly everyone who is mentioned by name in the text gets some sort of notation in the back about their awards, citations, or death (often all three). It appears to me that this was a labor of love the author had been thinking about putting together for some time. I do have one related criticism however — for me Clark's commentary in the course of the book ranges from informational and helpful to borderline annoying. That said, I think military historians would for the most part love this book. It's an important piece for posterity, and I am very glad to own it.

Courtland Jindra

4 comments:

  1. Frank Skidmore nephew of C. B. SkidmoreDecember 29, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    In researching my Uncle's letters as a member of the 74th/1stBn/6th Regmet/4th Brigade I think I have purchased and read every book that George Clark has produced on the Devil Dogs. He is THE master.

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  2. A very informative and lucid review. It gave me everything I need to know in order to make a decision re. buying the book.

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  3. Another book this old Teufelhunden has to buy

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  4. If you are interested in the best account of the Marines in battle in WW 1, than find a copy of 'Fix Bayonets'. Written by Col John Thomason, USMC, in 1926, it was the year's best seller. He served as a platoon commander with the 5th Marines at Belleau Wood, later a company commander fighting at Soissons and finally crossing over the Remagen Bridge as part of the occupation force in Dec 1918. He was the recipient of the Navy Cross and Silver Star. He continued in the Corps dieing in 1944.
    Few remember him today but he was the best known Marine thru the twenties and early thirtys. If you have ever read or seen 'What Price Glory', the character Lt Cunningham was based on Thomason.

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