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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Doughboy Basics: Why Did the U.S. Marines Get Everywhere?

After America joined the war, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant was determined his service would play a major role in the Great War, and on 29 May 1917 President Wilson approved sending a Marine regiment of 4,000 men equipped as infantry. This unit, the 5th Marine Regiment arrived in France on 27 June, the first of 32,000 Marines to be deployed to France during the war.  Many of the the later arriving Marines were given security missions, naval shore support duties, jobs with the new Marine Corps aviation effort, and so forth. But historical attention focuses primarily on those first Marines who were joined by a second regiment, the 6th Marines, and a machine gun battalion, also number the 6th. Gathered together they formed a brigade, the 4th, composed of 280 officers and 9,164 enlisted men. The brigade was assigned to the Army's 2nd Division, which formed up and began training in early 1918.

Getting over there early, they were destined to see a LOT of action. The early-arriving divisions, the 1st and 2nd regulars, and the National Guard divisions that were ready to ship over early, like the 26th Yankee, 28th Pennsylvania, and 42nd Rainbow Division, had two things in common, they saw action early, and because they were now the most experienced of Pershing's units, they were sent to combat over and over. The 2nd Division, including the 4th Marine Brigade, was the most extreme case. They fought at Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, Blanc Mont, and the Meuse-Argonne. The division had more men killed and wounded than any other division in the AEF, including 11,366 wounded and 3,459 dead. If you have been following the numbers, you can see that the Marines suffered more than 100 percent casualties.

The 4th Brigade, however,  was a lesser part of the 28,000 man division, and the 2nd Division was only one of 41 divisions of similar size that made it into Europe before the Armistice. Yet, in every general history of the AEF and accounts of every major operation and most smaller operations of Pershing's forces the Marines—totally out of proportion to their relative numbers—put in a major appearance.  Why is this?

The fighting record of the Marine Brigade doesn't fully explain why they are so prominent in accounts of the war. Other divisions had excellent combat records and suffered near comparable casualties.  Why do the Marines continue to jump out?  I have two theories about this; let me call them the Then and Now approaches.

Belleau Wood Captured the World's Spotlight

2nd Battalion of 6th Marines after Belleau Wood

The first major action of the AEF was fought by the 1st (all Army) Division at Cantigny in the Somme sector, and began on 28 May 1918. Cantigny got some attention, but it had been over a month since there was serious fighting in the area, so there wasn't much urgency attached to the action. Two days later, however, Germany launched an offense from the Chemin des Dames pushing toward the Marne river,  apparently intending to cross and head for Paris. Initially successful, the assault  alarmed all the Allied nations because there didn't seem sufficient forces available to stop the enemy. This is when General Pershing released two of his divisions, the 2nd and 3rd, to the French Army to defend the Marne river line.  

The 3rd Division's machine gunners arrived first and prevented any crossing of the river at Chateau-Thierry and to the east. Other elements of the 3rd arrived soon after and stopped any threat of a crossing. The 2nd Division was deployed northwest of the town, with the 3rd (Army) Brigade on the flank of the 3rd Division with the 4th (Marine) Brigade farther north in front of a dense mile-square wood called Bois de Belleau. The Marines launched an assault on the wood a week after the action along the Marne. 

Somehow out of all the action that ensued from the German offensive, what the world heard about most was the action at Belleau Wood. A noted correspondent, Floyd Gibbons, was with the Marines and got himself wounded during the battle, so his dramatic account got a lot of coverage back home. Furthermore, recall now that the Marines were not part of the War Department, but of the Navy Department, and there is much anecdotal evidence that the Navy Department, particularly its assistant secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, sidestepped Army control of the news flow and trumpeted the Marines' part of the victory before anything was known in the States about the actions of the 3rd Division or the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Division. The long-term effect of this is that there are more books written about Belleau Wood than about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive,  which was the largest American battle of the war. The two best-known quotes from the war are from Marines at Belleau Wood:

Retreat, hell we just got here.  Capt. Lloyd Williams

Come on ya sons-of-bitches, ya want to live forever?  Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly

More Than Any Other Service the U.S. Marine Corps Embraces Its World War I Experience

Aisne-Marne Cemetery, Memorial Day 2012

Another aspect of the Marine Corps' strong representation in accounts of the war is that—of all the services—the Marines have done the best job of building upon their First World War experience, and the battle for Belleau Wood is the centerpiece of their effort. The Corps became the Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood, the battle is well represented at the Marine Corps Museum, and all the Corps' publications, and every Memorial Day, there is a huge commemoration at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery at the foot of Belleau Wood, featuring appearances by the U.S. diplomatic community, the commandant, the Marine Corps Band, and the Silent Drill Team.  When I was a U.S. Air Force recruit, I was never told about Billy Mitchell and the St. Mihiel Offensive, which included the greatest American air operation of the war, but, I'm pretty sure every new Marine hears about Belleau Wood very early in his service.

To sum up—The Marines got everywhere on the Western Front because they were attached to the most active division of the AEF.  Their service is probably disproportionately represented in histories of the war, but a part of this is because they have—in the spirit of John MacRae's "In Flanders Fields", taken the "Torch" from their brethren—"The Torch; be yours to hold it high."  Good for the U.S. Marines.


  1. There is a third reason: Pres. Truman said it best,"...the USMC has a better propaganda agenda than that murdering Joseph Stalin".

    1. That was in a letter dated 29 Aug. 1950 to Congressman McDonough (R-Calif.). In September 1950 he apologized saying, "I sincerely regret the unfortunate choice of language I used..." and added, "I am certain that the Marine corps itself does not indulge in such propaganda."

  2. The smallest dog barks the loudest to get the attention.

  3. Back in the 1950s, I was a part of the Marine Corps' propaganda machine. I was a combat correspondent in the 4th Marines and 1st Marines. We put out many stories every week for news services everywhere. It was a great assignment.

  4. As far as I have noticed, it's not just WWI; the Marine Corps seems to be the only service that considers its own history to be an important part of its training. I say this out of my own frustration in trying to show current USAF members how much USAF tradition dates back to WWI.

  5. Three cheers for the Square Heads, Leathernecks, Jarheads

  6. I understand that it was also the US Army's fault. They (command elements) didn't want to talk to the press whereas the Marines welcomed the attention. Having served as a USN Corpsman with the USMC, I'd say they deserve to thump their chests. Richard Engel of NBC News stated in the 2008 book, "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq" that the US Army dithered around with their ops. The Marines KNEW their mission - Kill Bad Guys.

  7. The Marine Corps is America's finest fighting service bar none. The only term that separates the other branches from our Corps is JEALOUSY. The US Army can out-staff anyone; the Navy commands the seas and used to take Marines into combat (no more); the US Air Force are technicians in uniform and are usually in the Club by 14:00; and the Coast Guard tries to keep our nautical borders secure. None can compare to the Air, Ground Combined Arms capabilities of the Marine Corps.