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

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Activation of Marine Corps Units for the Great War


By:   Colonel William T. Anderson, USMCR (Ret)

From:  The Bravest Deeds of Men: A Field Guide for the Battle of Belleau Wood

1 May 1918: Marines Ready for Action
(2nd Division Website)

Although America’s participation in the Great War began officially on 6 April 1917 with the declaration of war, the secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, anticipated dramatic increases in requirements for the naval service. With the Naval Act of 1916 (Public Law 64-231, dated 29 August 1916), both the Navy and the Marine Corps expanded dramatically. Supported by Secretary of the Navy Daniels, Major General Commandant George Barnett concluded he could provide two regiments of Marines for service with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

The first of these, the 5th Regiment, was hastily organized from existing  companies at various posts, stations, and ship detachments throughout the Marine Corps with an activation date of 8 June 1917. By order of President Woodrow Wilson, the regiment was transferred to control of the War Department, which was responsible for the AEF vice the Navy Department. This new regiment was among the first AEF contingents to go to France, with the 1st Battalion arriving on 27  June 1917. The second, the 6th Regiment, began assembling at Quantico, Virginia, the new Marine Corps base, on 11 July 1917.

After considerable pressure for the use of the Marines, the War Department authorized a brigade of Marines on 20 September 1917 to replace an Army brigade originally planned for the Army’s 2nd Division. Joining the 5th Regiment, the battalions of the 6th Regiment arrived in France on 5 October 1917. On 23 October 1917, the brigade was organized formally, consisting of the 5th Regiment and elements of the 6th Regiment, plus units of a machine gun battalion still embarked, with newly promoted Brigadier General Charles A. Doyen, commander of this new 4th Brigade. Doyen opened the 2nd Division headquarters on 26 October 1917. On 8 November 1917, he turned over command of the division to Army Major General Omar Bundy.

The Marine Corps formed a machine gun battalion on 17 August 1917, consisting of the 77th and 81st Companies for service with the regiments. When the 5th Regiment left for France, each of its battalions included a machine gun company. Later, as the Marine battalions arrived in France, the machine gun companies were reorganized into the 6th Machine Gun Battalion with four companies (15th, 23d, 77th, and 81st) to support the brigade. In addition, each Marine regiment contained one machine gun company: 5th Regiment (8th Machine Gun Company) and 6th Regiment (73d Machine Gun Company). By 28 December 1917, the reorganization was completed and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion joined the brigade. 

Since coming to France, the Marines had performed mostly stevedoring and guard duties. According to many accounts, it was a dreary experience for the Marines. With the coming of the New Year, activity picked up and training began in earnest. On 12 January 1918, Colonel Albertus W. Catlin opened 6th Regiment headquarters. With the arrival of the 2nd Battalion on 5 February 1918, the  regiment was now intact. Major Holland M. Smith served as the brigade adjutant or operations officer.

When Doyen returned to the United States in early May due to illness, Army  Brigadier General James G. Harbord, formerly the AEF chief of staff, became the new brigade commander. 

June 1918: Marine Machine Gunners and French Poilus
Near Belleau Wood

The 2nd Division went to the trenches on 13 March 1918 in a so-called “quiet sector” southeast of Verdun, France, for frontline training. From 17 to 30 March, these elements participated in the occupation of sectors on the west face of the Saint-Mihiel salient. The division continued its service at the front until 13 May, when it was relieved to conduct further training. On 18 May, it was assigned to the French Group of Armées of Reserve. As a result of the German offensive on 27 May 1918, the brigade’s scheduled Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day) festivities were canceled. The division was placed at the disposal of the French Sixth Army on 31 May and directed to the French XXI Corps sector near Château-Thierry to assist in the Aisne defensive, which put the Marines on the road to Belleau Wood. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bravest Deeds of Men by Col. Anderson can be download from the Marine Corps University free here:

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