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.

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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




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