I like to do anniversary posts, such as my current series of 70th anniversary posts on events of WWII. I’m not going to wait for 2018, the 100th anniversary of these events. I just finished reading the book, so now is a good time to do the review.
I made a vow never to purchase another hard copy book, but a few days ago I broke down. Half Price Books was having a 1/2 off sale, so I picked up three books related to military history. This one is from WW-I.
Book Dust Jacket
I am slightly acquainted with the events of the Great War, which later came to be known as World War One after it turned out there was going to be a World War Two. I knew loosely the United States Marines were somehow involved in the Battle of Belleau Wood, but I always pictured it as something like Battle of the Ardennes, which ranged over many miles. It turns out the geographical scale of Belleau Wood is minuscule, but it’s impact is lasting. It was the battle that produced the Marine Corps that exists today.
The subtitle of The Miracle at Belleau Wood is The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps. Here’s the story. Former Marines and anybody else thoroughly familiar with the Corps can skip on down. The book is by Alan Axelrod.
The United States Marine Corps was established in 1775, the year before our country declared its independence from England. The idea was that our navy (what there was of it) needed some people on board to manage man-to-man combat. The navy needed soldiering skills, something usually lacking in sailors. So the Corps was founded to support landing parties and shipboard fighting. Marines were also expected to act as on-board enforcers.
Early in the history of the United States Marines saw land combat when we decided to take on the Barbary Pirates (“shores of Tripoli”). We later used Marines to fight in Mexico (‘halls of Montezuma”). With the demise of sailing vessels, close-in ship-to-ship fighting fell out of fashion, and boarding parties became a thing of the past. We just stood off and traded shots with ships almost on the horizon. Marines manned the guns in those days, as did sailors. But sailors did that anyhow, so what need was there for Marines.
Marines still worked security on ships of ever increasing size. Two ships I was on had Marine detatchments of about 50 men. In particular, one day when we were loading ammunition I observed a Marine with a loaded weapon standing guard over some strange looking pieces of munition. I did not have to ask what kind of bombs these were.
So, that was the deal. Sailors were sailors, and Marines were soldiers. Sailors received some basic training with small arms but rarely needed those skills in their daily duties. A former boss of mine is a certified gun nut (small arsenal of handguns). He is also a Ph.D. in mathematics and former U.S. Navy officer. The first weapon he ever fired in his service tour was a 16-inch gun. That means 16-inch bore. On my ship we had pilots, whose job was to fly off and be mean to the opposition. Ordinary sailors loaded the ammunition, and when there was no ammunition that needed to be loaded we chipped paint and repainted where we had chipped off the paint.
Anyhow, by the beginning of the 20th century powers that were had begun to doubt the usefulness of the Marine Corps. We had ships that needed sailing, and we had sailors for that. We had land battles that needed to be fought, and we had soldiers to do the fighting. We didn’t need the Marines. Teddy Roosevelt proposed eliminating the Corps. Then The Great War came along.
Congress had repealed the president’s executive order to eliminate the Corps, and the Marines had been allocated a strength of 17,400. Major General George Barnett was commandant of the Marine Corps, and he saw the war as a chance to expand the Corps. In 1914 (the year the war started) he sent a contingent to observe what was going on. Colonel John A. Lejeune analyzed the findings, particularly with regard to the war’s modern aspects: trench warfare, poison gas, machine guns and airplanes. The Marines were going to need to fight a modern war.
As tensions with the Axis powers ramped up, President Wilson ordered an increase in naval strength, including 7000 more Marines. Recruiters had no problem filling their increased quotas. With the slogan “First to Fight,” the Corps attracted men who did not want to get caught in the draft and spend the war peeling potatoes. Recruiters were able to be selective. They rejected 75% of applicants.
Barnett’s idea was to make the Marines a select force—training was intense, and marksmanship was emphasized. In fact, compared to European forces, United States Marines and Army placed much more importance on firing for effect. French commanders had ideas that seem to have been left over from the previous century when ranks of soldiers from opposing armies faced each other on flat ground and fired into masses of colored uniforms. Shooting skills were destined to play a large part in the effectiveness of American forces once they showed up on the forward line of defense. Jeff Shaara’s fictional work, To the Last Man, based on history, emphasizes this point.
Marines arriving in France in 1917 were put to work unloading ships and keeping order. Their colorful dress uniforms got themselves likened to glorified bellhops. Marine commanders had other plans for their troops—they wanted Marines in the fight where they could distinguish themselves. Therein was a problem.
British and French forces welcomed America’s entry into the war. They had been fighting a 20th century war with 19th century tactics. The supposed method for pushing the German army out of its defensive trenches was to run masses of troops into the teeth of German machine guns. The result was sometimes to lose more than 18,000 dead in a single afternoon. The European armies needed fresh American bodies to fill the gaps as their own soldiers were taken off to cemeteries behind the lines. American commanders did not want any part of this. They wanted American troops to fight as American groups under immediate command of American officers. They waited for their chance.
That chance came in June of 1918.
With the Russians knocked out of the war, Germany army Quartermaster General Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff used newly-available troops and resources in a push to knock France out of the war. By late May the Germans had advanced on Château-Thierry, just 35 miles northeast of Paris. This caused great panic, on the part of the French at least. For them the capture of the capital city would be tantamount to defeat. The German advance in that region needed to be stopped at all costs. Could American commanding General Pershing supply some units to hold off disaster? Pershing was eager, and he could.
Elements of the American Third Division (army) moved in and foiled the Germans’ plan to cross the Marne at Château-Thierry, and the Second Division was rushed forward to block the Germans in the Belleau Wood area. The attached Fourth Marine Brigade would figure prominently in the battle.
If the Ardennes is a forest, Belleau Wood is a game preserve. It’s about half the size of New York City’s Central park, and it really was a private hunting ground for “a wealthy Parisian sportsman.” In 1918 it was wild, rugged, completely un-manicured, a tangle of uncut growth and a jumble of freight car-size boulders. It was a perfect defensive position, and the Germans made the most of it.
The Germans were skillful in the use of the machine gun. They had early recognized its strength as a defensive weapon and had developed tactics to a fine edge. Machine gun squads were specially selected. They were men who would not retreat and would (almost) never surrender. In Belleau Wood gun positions were carefully positioned to protect each other from attack. The Germans were prepared to make this a killing ground. They were not prepared for the kind of men who would come to kill them.
This was a crazy time for the world. The Maxim machine gun was the first self-powered machine gun, invented in 1884 in England by American-born Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim. The Germans adopted it and made excellent use of it. They produced their own version for the war and paid royalties to the patent holder.
Rushed into the fight on a few hours notice, the Marines prepared to advance on the Wood in evenly-spaced ranks, as they had been trained by the French. As somebody who has never seen organized combat, I can only wonder what people were thinking back then. Author Axelrod wonders, too. There was no waiting for dark. There was no creeping along the ground behind bits of cover. There was no firing of smoke shells to provide concealment. There was no artillery bombardment to even frighten the machine gunners. The approach to the German positions concealed in the woods was across a wheat field, in one region a march of 400 yards. It was recipe for slaughter.
The American approach was to lean into the withering machine gun fire as though walking into a gale wind. Where the distance was short the advance wave was able to reach the woods and engage the enemy. The advance that attempted to cross 400 yards of wheat was reversed, although some men managed to crawl forward into the trees.
What amazed the Germans, however, was the action of the Marines as they advanced. They aimed their rifles and killed Germans one by one.
This tactic was something the Germans were unaccustomed to during the four-years of combat. They understood artillery, machine gun fire and massed rifle fire. These threats were impersonal, and if you were exposed there was nothing you could do about it. If you got hit, you got hit. It was all a matter of chance. The German troops were mentally prepared to take the chance.
The Marines’ rifle fire, however, was personal. A Marine put you in his sights and killed you personally. And Marines were very good at this. If a Marine shot at you, you were very likely to take the hit and die. The Germans did not like that.
What’s more, as the battle progressed over the next few weeks, the ferocity of the Marines’ fighting spirit fell upon the Germans. The Marines seemed to take a personal interest in their victims. They wanted to kill Germans. They liked to use the bayonet, on or off the rifle barrel. They got in close to the enemy and made each encounter a fight to the death. The Marines quickly got the name teufelhunden, literally “devil dogs.” They began to ship out German machine gunners who had surrendered. In the end the American Marines prevailed and established a history for themselves.
Elsewhere American troops gained the reputation for tenacity and effectiveness. Other units distinguished themselves on the ground, particularly in the last month of the conflict in Europe. An Army battalion commanded by Major Charles White Whittlesey held place in a wooded slope protruding into the German front from 2 to 8 October, most of the time completely cut off from friendly forces. The battalion resisted all offers from the Germans to surrender and suffered tremendous casualties while posing a constant threat to the German line and inflicting heavy losses on the Germans who tried to rout them. The men were a collection of roughnecks from such places as the American Mid-West and Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, and they fought like thugs. The Germans called them “New York Gangsters.”
On the same day that Whittlesey’s battalion was relieved Alvin York from the backwoods of Tennessee used his shooting skills to kill twenty of the enemy after his squad infiltrated the German lines. York and his seven surviving troops brought 132 prisoners back to American lines.
On 11 November the Germans were finished. Ludendorff had resigned the previous month, and he went home to blame politicians back home for Germany’s defeat. He joined up with an ex-corporal of the army who was promising to regain German honor and dominance, but instead took the country down to the gates of Hell.
The American Army came away from the war with renewed respect, and the Marines earned a reputation that would ensure their permanence.
As it has turned out, in more recent conflicts the Marine Corps has been misused as front-line troops when their real value is as a shock force. However, the most recent news on the home front is the Secretary of Defense wants the Marines to be whittled down to an elite cadre, somewhere between the Army Special Forces and front line troops. They will likely be carried to combat regions aboard Navy ships and will be “The First to Fight.” They will travel light and take strategic objectives but will not be put into extended battles of attrition that will sap the strength of this elite corps.
The other two books I picked up at the Half Price Books’ half price sale are Enemy at the Gates, the history of the Battle of Stalingrad by William Craig, and World in the Balance, a history of the Battle of Britain by Brooke C. Stoddard. I previously reviewed the movie that seems to be based on Enemy at the Gates. The happy news is the book provides a lot more detail and contains about 1000 times as much reality as the movie. I will review these other two books in April.
Axelrod’s book seems to be thoroughly researched and includes an abundance of personal quotes from people who took part in the battle. Like all books I have read, however, this one can benefit from hard-eyed proof reading. For example on page 23 the text reads:
Ludendorff’s first offensive was launched along the Somme River, beginning on March 21, 1918, days before the United States declared war.
Of course, the United States declared war in 1917. Not many readers who are recent high school graduates will notice that typo.