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


99 years ago, Marines, north of Paris

100 years ago, Thaddeus Stephenson Allen answered his country’s call and enlisted in the Marine Corps. T.S. Allen soaked up history as a young man, reading

stories of Lexington and Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Lundy’s Lane, Chapultepec. These seemed to me like those stories which begin, “There were giants in those days.” Still, they gave a heroic background in my mind for the closer events of the Civil War, and the brief but glorious episodes of the War with Spain, in reading of which I was first introduced to the Marines.

The internet is an amazing thing. I was reading Alan Axelrod’s “Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps” and he quoted, but did not identify one of the Marines in MAJ Thomas Holcomb’s 6th Marines. Checking the end notes, I found that it was from “Echoes from Over There” (Edited by Craig Hamilton and Louise Corbin), as quoted in Robert Asprey’s “At Belleau Wood“. Fortunately, “Echoes from Over There” is available online, so I was able to not only to find the original quote, but the full, first-hand story of Marine Private T.S. Allen. Not only that, but with a quick visit to Ancestry-dot-com, I was able to find out considerably more details about his family. (Sadly, once I get on that site, it’s a time-sink for me and I emerge hours later knowing many things, most of which are of no relevance to what I was looking for originally!)

He writes vividly of his first experience in combat, drawing on his knowledge of history. He wrote this while still hospitalized due to being gassed in Belleau Wood and one can easily see how he’d eventually end up in the newspaper business…

“Here they come!” a shrill boyish voice piped up.

“Hold your fire!” the injunction ran from officer to officer and man to man.

The German barrage lifted; the French guns almost ceased firing. The men about me were cursing and swearing in that choice collection of profanity that belongs to the Marines. It took me back swiftly, on the wings of memory, to a lonely walk in the woods I had taken, as a boy, when I had whistled to keep up my courage.

The German troops were clear of the woods. On they came with closed ranks in four lines. One looked at them with almost a friendly interest. No particular hate or fear. And yet there was a queer sensation along the spine, and the scalp seemed to itch from the tug of the hair at the roots. The fingers bit into the rifle.

“Hold your fire!”

As the command rang on my ears with a sharpness that enforced obedience, I seemed to be standing on Bunker Hill and hear the command: “Wait till you see the whites of their eyes!”

I think I know how those old Yanks felt that day, as the enemy drew nearer and nearer.

The next I recall is firing. Firing. Firing. My fingers were tearing greedily at more ammunition, then the instinct of the hunter restrained me. I began to fire slower, looking for my mark, making sure of a hit. The Huns now appeared to me almost on top of us and then, all of a sudden, there was nothing more to aim at. A few scattered groups with hands held up, racing for our lines and shouting “Kamerad! Kamerad!”

The Marines weren’t the only ones there, as Army units were on both sides of them, but this fight really does deserve credit for “The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps”. It remains legendary in the Corps and I hope to be able to some more research to learn the stories of these Marines and share them with you. If my cards fall right, I’ll be in Belleau Wood next year, walking the ground. After all, that’s the only way to understand it.

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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.




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