We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France


Through the Wheat: The US Marines in WWI

In preparation for Tuesday night’s Military Classics Seminar Series, which covers both Max Hastings’ Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I; Barbara W. Tuchman’s Great War Series, I got a little derailed by a recommendation from the Marines I usually sit with and read a book by two former MCSS members, BG Edwin H. Simmons and COL Joseph H. Alexander, Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I. Colonel Alexander passed away in late September and would be a familiar face to just about anyone who has seen History Channel shows on the Marines.

At the September meeting, I won a great book in the monthly raffle, Peter Owen’s To the Limit of Endurance: A Battalion of Marines in the Great War. That got down to the nitty gritty of movements of companies and small groups of men in the attacks from Belleau Wood to the end of the war. I didn’t have any perspective in between that and Tuchman’s grand overview, so I eagerly snatched up the Kindle edition of “Through the Wheat”.

To slip into an aside, I really have found two compelling reasons for e-books. Now, I love real, live books. There’s nothing like reading and turning pages, smelling the book, having the tactile sensations of the book, and getting the author to sign your book. You don’t get those with an electronic book, but you do get two other things: portability and maps.

While “Through the Wheat” is no massive volume, it’s really nice to always have it with me. I have a tablet and phone, so I’ve always got a copy of whatever Kindle books I’ve read with me. So, I could be carrying 6 or 7 books on WWI, or a few dozen on Marines, and quickly cross-reference or simply read while walking to lunch or sitting down somewhere for a drink. I was reading both this one and Hastings (though I have not finished Hastings yet). As a book-addict, I could sneak 5 minutes of reading in at obscure moments. I didn’t even need to plan it.

As I’ve noted before, the greatest leap involved in having a book on a tablet is that you can just load Google maps or some other application and pull up the location being covered in the book. That is, if the book doesn’t have maps, you suddenly do. While you may not have a thematic map, with unit symbols and direction of movement drawn on it (“Through the Wheat” has some beautiful maps, by the way), you have two other abilities beyond just being able to get any map — zooming and terrain. Sometimes, it’s hard to place the action in relation to known landmarks or in context to the rest of the campaign. The zoom really allows you to do that. Looking at the terrain in Google Earth or even just contour lines and satellite imagery gives you a perspective far closer to actually walking the ground than anything else.

To return to the subject, “Through the Wheat” is a well-written book with extensive research behind it and a great ability to keep the story and the people flowing. One of the great problems in writing military history, especially in a unit study in which there are so many casualties, is to keep the story flowing, rather than jumping from place to place and from personal story through unit perspectives to some kind of overview. Alexander and Simmons were masters of the art, learned over decades, and had a mastery of the material. So, the movements of the various battalions in the Marine Brigade and of the officers transferring between those units (and occasionally both out-and-back-into them), I didn’t feel a sense of confusion and wonder who was who or how the Brigade suddenly ended up on the other side of Rheims. Of course, another aspect of this is deciding which interesting stories would detract from that by being too singular or too detailed for a study of the entire Brigade.

Getting one’s mind around the Marine experience in World War I is not easy, but I think “Through the Wheat” offers a great introduction to it. It deals with the entire range of issues, from the rapid expansion of the Corps, through training, the political maneuverings to get the Marines into the fight (both with the Army and the French) as well as the insights into each of the 5 battles the Brigade fought during the war.

I fully expect to walk the ground in Belleau Wood in 2015, with my trusty tablet in hand, reviewing Cates’ commentary on the assault through the wheatfield. If I’m lucky, I’ll have found Peter Owen’s friend and guide, Alain Romelot, and won’t be as lost as one would expect.



Military Classics Seminar Series

Last Tuesday, I attended a seminar session that’s part of the Military Classics Seminar series. The MCS is now in it’s 57th year and, shockingly, this is the first I’ve heard of it. They meet on the 2nd Tuesday of every month from September to June at the Fort Myer Officer’s Club for a dinner, a speech about a book (or a pair of books) and discussion. For my first meeting, the topic was David Ulbrich’s book, Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936–1943, published by the Naval Institute Press, and the speaker was Dr Charles Neimeyer of the Marine Corps University.

It was a fantastic event. The group contains many retired military officers and historians – so, exactly the people who are interested in what I and the readers of this blog are interested in. They are quite friendly to first timers, so don’t hesitate to attend. They do have a website, but the skinny is, send an email about a week in advance to Eric Joyce at this e-mail address militaryclassics@gmail.com and bring your $35 when you arrive on the second floor for cocktails at 5:30pm, dinner, the book talk and discussion. Expect to finish around 9:00pm and bring a few dollars for the open bar and a few for the book raffle (I won a book on Holcomb’s battalion, 2/6, in WWI).

I’ve been looking for a group of like-minded individuals interested in the broad expanse of military history for quite some time. So, I’ve found a home!

This year’s schedule:

October 21, 2014

Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. New York: The New Press, 2011.

Speaker: David Ucko, Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

November 18, 2014

Dual selection: Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. New York: Knopf, 2013; and Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962).

Speaker: Dr. Thomas Parker, George Washington University

January 20, 2015

Steven L. Rearden, Council of War: A History of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1942–1991. Washington, D.C.: Joint History Office, 2012.

Speaker: Walter S. Poole, OSD Historical Office

February 17, 2015

Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944–1945, vol. 3 of The Liberation Trilogy. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2013.

Speaker: David W. Hogan, Jr., US Army Center of Military History

March 17, 2015

Richard Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Beginnings of the Military Establishment in America (1975) (Free Press, paper, 1985). [reviewed 1980]

Speaker: Eliot Cohen, Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies, The Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

April 21, 2015

Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976. [reviewed 1978]

Speaker: Arthur M. Eckstein, Professor of History and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, University of Maryland, College Park

May 19, 2015

Luigi Albertini, The Origins of the War of 1914. London; New York, Oxford University Press, 1952-57.

Speaker: Tom Julian, Independent Historian

June 16, 2015

Tracy Barrett Kittredge, Naval Lessons of the Great War. Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1921.

Speaker: Mark Mandeles, President, The J. de Bloch Group



Top-ranking posts

Being the end of the year, I thought I’d look at some statistics and share them.

My top-ranking posts since I started this blog is dominated by one post, but the top 5 are all good posts:

Thanksgiving 1944         1,413

This got a huge number of hits due to being linked at Ace of Spades, thanks to our friends at Bring the Heat. On Thanksgiving of 1944, Eisenhower ordered that all soldiers have a turkey dinner. For airborne engineer John Carter, that provided a very humorous story that I was able to post the video of. I have some further videos of an interview with Carter and a couple of other stories. He’s quite a comedian.

Young Marine Passes         297

While the Marine Corps is made up of strong men, they also have strong hearts. A couple of times recently, they’ve made young men with terminal illnesses honorary Marines. The story of Cody Green and his honor guard, SGT Mark Dolfini, can’t help but move one to tears.

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House         236

Denzel Washington is among my favorite actors. He has great range and conveys the emotions of his characters very well. Some of his roles have been as military men and he’s gotten attached to the Fisher House. Fisher House Foundation is best known for a network of comfort homes where military and veterans’ families can stay at no cost while a loved one is receiving treatment. When Washington visited the Fisher House at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2004, his generosity launched an urban legend.

The Beast of Omaha         148

Heinrich Severloh was a German machine gunner at Omaha Beach and the horrors he helped inflict that day stayed in his dreams until his death in 2006.

The end of an era         136

For about a decade, Paul Woodadge built up a battlefield tour business in Normandy, expanding from a one-man operation, hiring several others to lead tours. Battlebus was the best tour company in Normandy and even had tours in Bastogne. Unfortunately, running a complex business and dealing with French tax and employment laws meant that Paul stopped being able to lead tours himself. While I lamented the end of an era, it meant that Paul could go back to doing what he loved. He also had time to publish Angels of Mercy: Two Screaming Eagle Medics in Angoville-au-Plain on D-Day (Normandy Combat Chronicles) (Volume 1)



2014 Iwo Jima Association of America Reunion
1 November 2013, 07:00
Filed under: Marines, Veterans, WWII | Tags: , , ,

Just wanted to get the word out that the 2014 reunion of the Iwo Jima Association of America will be held 13-16 February at the Sheraton Pentagon City, where we hold the Operation Dragoon and Colmar Pocket events. The strong turnout from active duty Marines always makes for a robust event and there were also many WWII veterans in attendance last year (fewer every year, though). I was able to get my photo with GEN James N. Mattis after his luncheon speech and truly enjoyed dancing to our favorite swing band, Radio King Orchestra at the banquet. It’s a marvelous event and I suggest that if nothing else, you spend $15 for the general registration to meet some of the veterans and enjoy the Saturday symposium (lunch is extra, but will include another excellent speaker and the banquet is extra, but includes not just a speaker, but plenty of dancing time as well!) The schedule can be found online and registration via Armed Forces Reunions is also available online. I’ll be present for the whole kit & kaboodle, since touring the Marine Corps Museum and visiting the Memorial with veterans of Iwo Jima is simply priceless.



Lessons from 30 years ago

Over on Bring the Heat, Bring the Stupid, UltimaRatioRegis wrote about the bombing of the Beirut barracks 30 years ago today. Fortunately, some lessons were learned and on the morning of 22 April 2008, LCPL Jordan Haerter (1/9) and CPL Jonathan Yale (2/8) had fully-loaded weapons. Recently, I finally saw the footage of the truck coming down the alley in Ramadi, thanks to a Facebook posting on In Jordan’s Honor. The footage is part of a CBS News report made when Haerter and Yale were awarded the Navy Cross.

As you watch the video, you see an Iraqi policemen at the gate, who lets in one person, then returns to his position to watch down the alley. Haerter and Yale are inside their sandbagged bunker, so you can’t really see them. As the truck bangs it’s way down the alley, you can see their efforts however, since their firing both generates little puffs and the vehicle is impacted by the rounds. The policeman, like any sane person who wants to save himself, turns and runs. Haerter and Yale do not.

That policeman survived.

Everyone in the barracks behind them survived.

My own favorite Marine, CPL Alex Apple, who was on post nearby, survived.

Haerter and Yale had the means to save the lives of their fellow Marines and the Iraqi policemen in those barracks, and they used them. Neither Haerter nor Yale survived.

In Beirut, 241 Marines perished and taught a lesson. In Ramadi, 2 Marines died demonstrating the value of learning that lesson. Let’s hope that their efforts and the lesson are not forgotten.

Also visit: Video remembrance of the Beirut Bombing produced by the Marine Corps.



How to fail at seizing a weapons cache, 1775 edition, Part II: Pitcairn and Adair

We’ve mentioned a number of the British commanders and linked to some biographical information, but it may be useful to learn a bit more in-depth about the two Marine officers who played such significant roles in the Battle of Lexington.

Major John Pitcairn

Major Pitcairn was 52 years old at the time, so, no spring chicken. When Pitcairn had joined the Marines in 1746, they were still a part of the Army, though they did serve on Navy ships. He fought in the French and Indian Wars as a Captain, so he may have served between 8 and 17 years as a Lieutenant. Then he served at least 8 years as a Captain before his promotion to Major had come in 1771.

Unlike the British Army at the time, in which officers purchased their commissions, advancement in the Marines was purely by seniority. Since the Admiralty had determined that field grade commissions in the Marines had been largely honorary, no Marine officer was promoted to Colonel until 1771. This neatly coincides with Pitcairn’s promotion to Major, so his stalled advancement was greatly helped by that change.
When he arrived in Boston in 1774 to command the Marines, the situation was not exactly what we would imagine when we think of “Royal Marines”:

In Boston, he found that the marines he was to command were lacking adequate supplies, clothing and were an ill-disciplined lot. Drunkenness, fueled by the potent and cheap rum available in Boston, was so bad that Pitcairn took to living in the barracks with his men to keep them from drinking rum and wrote directly to the First Lord of the Admiralty describing the problem. He even blamed the rum for deaths in his regiment. Pitcairn enforced harsh discipline and marched his regiment hard and often on Boston Common. This toughening-up up proved invaluable to his marines on the long and bloody retreat from Concord.

– From Edward Witek‘s post on Pitcairn at Lexington

On the other hand, I might hear some arguments from those who have commanded Marines in garrison that, under poor leadership, that is exactly what a garrison can devolve to regardless of lineage.From the initial designation of Duke of York and Albany’s Maritime Regiment of Foot in 1664 until the disbanding of what had grown to 10 regiments of Marines in 1748, the size and organization of Marine units within the Army seems to have varied widely. While we always think of the elite Royal Marines today, they hadn’t been awarded that designation by King George III until 1802.

In 1755, the Marine Corps expanded to 50 permanent companies, each of which belonged to one of the Grand Divisions – Chatham, Portsmouth or Plymouth. Interestingly, the Marines companies in Boston were from all three Grand Divisions. My impression is that their nominal roots in a particular Grand Division had little affect on whether they were familiar with each other, as they would not often be formed into battalions anyway. Since that hadn’t occurred in the Americas since 1759 at Quebec, it is likely that few of the officers, NCOs and certainly none of the privates had ever “seen the elephant”.

Pitcairn would not survive the war, dying in the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Lieutenant Jesse Adair

Adair is characterized in some of the passages that I’ve read as a young, impetuously aggressive officer. One would imagine that in a Marine Lieutenant from an Irish family with a strong military heritage. However, Adair was not a young officer. He was somewhere between 35 and 44 years of age at the time, though he certainly was aggressive. He may also have served in the French and Indian Wars with Pitcairn. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Adair would be noted , not only for his courage in surmounting the colonist’s defenses, but also as the “Eldest Lieutenant”. (That makes his promotion with the seniority system not indicative of any particular merit.)

There is also a story of Lieutenant Adair as not quite the sharpest officer during the 1776 evacuation of Boston as he was dispatched along Boston Neck to impede any pursuit.

Lieutenant Adair of the Marines, an acting engineer, was ordered to strew crow-feet in front of the lines to impeded the march of the enemy, as it was supposed they should attack our rear. Being an Irishman, he began scattering the crowfeet about from the gate towards the enemy, and, of course, had to walk over them on his return, which detained him so long that he was nearly taken prisoner.

Though it may simply have been an ethnic joke at the Irishman’s expense.

Adair did survive the war, rising to command of the 45th Company of Marines, “but was not the sort of officer who flourished in peace. In 1785, Captain Adair was ‘reduced’, and disappeared from the Marine List.” (Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, p282.)



Mattis on reading

There’s no mistaking the respect of the Marines for many of their Generals and high in the pantheon must be General James N. Mattis. Back in 2004, “a colleague wrote to him asking about the ‘importance of reading and military history for officers,’ many of whom found themselves ‘too busy to read.’” Mattis responded in an email that has since gone viral. Mattis continues the grand tradition of well-read Marine officers who also excel in combat, following the example of none other than Chesty Puller, who carried a copy of Douglas Southall Freeman’s “Lee’s Lieutenants” with him in the Pacific. In his email, he dispenses with those who think there is nothing to learn for the modern warrior from books:

For all the “4th Generation of War” intellectuals running around today saying that the nature of war has fundamentally changed, the tactics are wholly new, etc, I must respectfully say … “Not really”: Alex the Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying (studying, vice just reading) the men who have gone before us.

Unfortunately, Mattis had been planning on retiring this year. Evidence of the regard in which he is held are two hilarious articles posted on the military satire site, The Duffel Blog: Chaos: General James Mattis Announced As Next Commandant Of Marine Corps and James Mattis Retires To Search For Ancient Artifact.
At the Iwo Jima Alumni Association‘s annual reunion, Mattis spoke and I asked him if he’d ever had the chance to visit Iwo Jima or other Pacific battlefields with veterans of WWII. While he had done so on Okinawa, he’s not been to Iwo Jima. Mattis’ retirement may enable him to make that trip during the 70th anniversary of the battle with the IJAA. It might be the last trip authorized by Japan, as it may be the last trip involving veterans of the battle.



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