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April 08, 2024

The Corps Reborn

By Van Lee

For anyone who was in the United States Marine Corps or have a close friend or relative who were, this little ditty should ring a bell for them, "On November 10, 1775, my Marine Corps came alive..." Though I myself served proudly in the U.S. Army, my father and my wife were both "jarheads." So despite the "sibling rivalry" that exists between the Marines and the Army, the Corps still holds a place close and dear to my heart.

Of course, November 10 isn't the only "birthday" that has been celebrated by Marines. In fact, until 1921, the recognized birthday of the Marines Corps was July 11, 1798. Why the change of date? The first birth of the Marine Corps was indeed on November 10, 1776 by an act of the Second Continental Congress issued for the creation of two battalions of Continental Marines. After the American Revolution ended, in an act that would be echoed after all future wars the United States would come to participate in, the military was cut severely. The Continental Marines were disbanded entirely.

On July 11, 1798, President John Adams approved a bill allowing for the creation of a new Marine Corps. This date became the logical birth date for the Corps. On October 21, 1921, Major Edwin McClellan sent a memorandum to Marine Corp Commandant Major General John LeJeune suggesting that the earlier date of November 10, 1775 be recognized as an official Marine Corps holiday. On November 1, 1921, General LeJeune issued Marine Corps Order No. 47, Series 1921, which gave the history of the Corps along with their mission and their traditions. This order was to be read to and by every command every year on November 10. This order is still carried out in the present day Corps. In effect, General LeJeune is responsible for a new recognition of the birth of the Corps, a "rebirth" if you will. But this isn't the only "rebirth" of the Corps that LeJeune can be associated with.

In World War One, General LeJeune would become the commanding officer of the U.S. 2nd Division consisting of both Army and Marine Corps troops, the Marines making up the division's 4th Brigade Infantry consisting of the 5th and 6th Marine Infantry Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. Using the 2nd Division, primarily the Marine regiments, they stopped an advance of German forces at Belleau Wood. There has been numerous articles, papers, etc., written about the overall effect Belleau Wood had on the outcome of the war. They range from "it had little to no effect" to "the U.S. saved France from falling." I am not going to get into the effects of the battle on the war; however, this battle is still a very significant and important battle for the Marine Corps.

The Marines fall under the Department of the Navy and as such has often been treated as a subordinate of the Navy. In fact, before the war, the Navy viewed the Marines primarily as ship and base security forces. In some locations they were used to hunt down bandits and the such. One thing that they were never viewed as being was a combat-ready infantry force.

Even with war looming in Europe, it seemed that military leaders were still neglecting the potential of the Marine Corps. Still, the 1916 Naval Personnel Bill allowed for the Marines to increase their size by 50% and recreated the rank of Brigadier General. By the time the U.S. entered the war, the Marines had grown to a scant 17,400 enlisted along with 693 officers. While this was the largest the Corps had been since their inception, the entire Corps would have difficulty making up a single division.

Once the U.S. entered the war, enlistment was allowed to increase, yet by the end of the war, only 46,000 Marines were recruited compared to nearly four-million men overall in the American Expeditionary Force. But this is how the Marines preferred it. They recognized that rapid expansion would result in problems in many areas such as supplies, training, pay, etc. The leadership in the Marine Corps were happy to leave these headaches to the Army, but they still wanted recognition as a solid infantry force.

One of the ways to accomplish this was a good initial training course. Seeing that war was imminent, the Marines developed the idea of "boot camp" in 1915. Instead of tying officers down to train troops, they trained non-commissioned officers specifically to train troops. It was designed to build discipline early on, train good marksmen, and weed out the weak ones. This institution alone would change the course of military training within the United States, especially within the Marines Corps and the Army, forever.

The Marines had used the phrase "First to Fight," as their recruitment slogan. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces didn't see it that way. In fact, Pershing was perfectly happy to leave the Marines back home while the Army went to Europe to fight. At least part of this attitude has to be attributed to the idea that the Marines were subordinates of the Navy and the Navy didn't fall under the umbrella of the AEF. But that didn't discourage then Commandant Barnett.

Barnett repeatedly appealed to General Pershing and the War Department to use his men but he was always rebuffed with the excuse that their weapons and tactics were "incompatible" with the Army's. As a last chance, Barnett went direct to President Wilson. Wilson agreed to allow the Marines to go to Europe as part of the first convoy. Not leaving anything to chance, General Barnett personally took charge of gathering the ships needed to transport his Marines. On June 14, 1917, the United States Marine Corps sailed for Europe landing in St. Nazaire, France less then two weeks later.

The initial Marines to land in France were the 5th Marine Regiment. They would soon be followed by the 6th Marine Regiment and together would form the 4th Marine Brigade. But that still didn't end the discrimination aimed towards the Marines. They were scattered throughout France in support of the Army performing tasks behind the lines. General Smedley Butler had this to say about how his Marines were being treated, that they were "to sit in the read and run this filthy mudhole. Although 97 percent of me men were expert riflemen or sharpshooters, troops that hardly knew which end of the gun to shoot were sent to the trenches. My crack regiment was broken up to do manual labor and guard duty."

But this attitude was soon to change. The Marines were moved to the front in March 1918. Still being in their final stages of training, they were moved to Toulon, south of Verdun, which was to be a quite sector. The Marines sat in those trenches for 53 days with no activity other then the regular bombardment of enemy artillery that accounted for 872 Marine casualties without them ever seeing combat.

In May, German commander Ludendorff set forth a major offensive that created three salients, one of which was along the Marne River and threatened Paris. The French government was ready to flee the city and General Foch, commander of French forces, moved American troops into the area to halt the German advance. The 4th Marine Brigade was perceived as being the most battle-ready of the AEF units immediately available and was moved into the sector at Belleau Wood.

As the Marines moved into the sector, they came upon a group of retreating French soldiers. When one of the French soldiers told the Marines they should turn around and go back, Captain Lloyd Williams uttered words that would become a staple of the Marine vocabulary. He said, "Retreat hell! We just got here!" The Marines continued forth.

The Marines arrived at the edge of Belleau Wood where 1200 German veterans of the 461st Imperial German Infantry had set up defenses throughout one square-mile of the woods. Much to the surprise of the Germans, the Marines opened fire on them from 800 yards away. German doctrine at the time stated that rifle fire was only effective from 200 yards. Yet the Marines were hitting their targets and some Germans thought that the Marines must have had machine guns. Though the battle had not begun in earnest, the forces were in position and they were digging in for combat.

On June 6, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment commenced an attack west of Belleau Wood. They were caught in machine gun crossfire and took 410 casualties in short order. A second attempt cost 1087 more casualties but the Marines managed to get a toehold in the woods. Another legend in the Marine vocabulary was born that day when Sergeant Dan Daly uttered, "Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?" On this day, the Marines suffered their highest ever number of casualties on a single day. This record would not be broken until the Marines would land at Tarawa Atoll in 1943.

Men of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments slowly pushed the Germans back until they were beyond their third line of defense. When victory appeared to be close, the Germans unleashed a counter-attack on June 13 that pushed through the woods to the edge of the town of Bouresche. The town was on the verge of falling, but the men of 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment refused to give up the town and defended it heavily, taking 450 casualties. The Germans gave up trying to capture the town.

From June 15-22, an Army regiment relieved the Marines, but they made little progress. On June 22, the 5th Marine Regiment returned to the line and the Army regiment pulled back. They commenced another assault on the evening of June 23, but had to stop the advance due to heavy resistance. The next day, Allied artillery bombarded German positions. The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment charged into the German positions and ran through them and out the far side of the woods. Major Maurice Shearer then sent a telegraph to AEF headquarters, "Woods now US Marine Corps entirely."

With those words the first true infantry operation of the U.S. Marine Corps was a success. The Marines had performed their duty and stopped the German advance through the woods. The Assistant Secretary of Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would one day become President and lead the U.S. during another World War, cabled Washington singing praises of the Marines' performance. The French renamed Belleau Wood to Bois de la Brigade de Marine in their honor. But the best and most glowing report came from Germany. German intelligence stated, "The 2nd American Division must be considered a very good one, and may perhaps even be reckoned as storm troops. The different attacks on Belleau Wood were carried out with bravery and dash. The moral effect of our gunfire cannot seriously impede the advance of the American riflemen."

Another side effect of this battle was a "rebirth" of the Marine Corps. The Corps had traditionally been relegated to security details and small campaigns. It was this aspect that had caused Pershing to ignore the Marine Corps' capabilities. But the Marines had proven themselves in combat. From that time forward the Marines would be viewed as a top-notch fighting force. In every war from that point the Marines would play a vital component.

The tactics used by the Marines would be adapted into U.S. tactics there-after, ideas such as foxholes (rifle pits dug into the ground) were used there and became standard military procedure. The men of the 4th Marine Brigade had changed the face of the U.S. military. They gained respect for the AEF as a whole and forever altered the perception of the United States Marine Corps. The Germans called the Marines "Devil Dogs" during the battle (a nickname that stands today). That is the enduring legacy of the Marine Corps. The Battle of Belleau Wood is arguably the single most important battle of Marine Corps history. In that battle the Marine Corps that had become associated with security details and small action died and the Marine Corps that has come to be both feared and respected was born.

General LeJeune receives a lot of credit for actions by the 2nd Division during World War One, but ironically enough, he was not the commanding officer of 2nd Division at Belleau Wood. LeJeune did not take full command of 2nd Division until July 28, 1918. But LeJeune was not satisfied to let the Marines reputation stand on Belleau Wood alone. He led the division for the remainder of the war with them seeing action at St. Mihiel, the first U.S. planned and executed large-scale operation, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. By LeJeune carrying their hard-earned momentum forward, it solidified the respect they had earned and did not allow the Marines to go back to their old roles as guards for the Navy. He solidified their "rebirth," just as he would later solidify the "rebirth" of the Corps in 1921 by acknowledging their proper birthday.

Article © Van Lee. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-05-16
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