Unintended Consequences in World War One

How come the Marines which comprised 1% of the expeditionary force in the WWI received 90% of the favorable coverage and so came to be hated by MacArthur and Marshall who had significant commands in  the first and became the great Army leaders in the Second World War?  Or for that matter loathed by lowly Artillery Captain Harry S. Truman who served in France at the same time and when he became President years later tried to abolish the U.S. Marine Corps?

Read Brute by Robert Coram.  I already knew elements of the story but Coram puts it all together.  Here is a synopsis of the somewhat lengthy  answer with my comments included:

It was the unintended consequence of orders by AEF commander Pershing intended to manage the publicity and deny Marines any role at all in the war.

Pershing had earlier issued orders severely limiting the role of war correspondents – couldn’t mention units names, where engaged, home state blah, blah, blah.  But through natural oversight the orders were restricted to U.S. Army operations as no Army commander would under normal circumstances ever issue orders to touchy U.S. Navy units.  And Marine Corps units were in fact Naval units.  The fact that two lonely regiments were formally attached to the AEF and that Pershing was already using orders to them was overlooked in the rush of things.  It was what we used to call in manufacturing in consequence thinking.  You formulated issued a directive but if there’s time before issuing it you get on your feet, go around and ask people below you in the chain of command, often way below you like the actual machine operators, what they thought consequences would be. The feedback was often amazing and you’d shred the directive with a vast sense of missing a bullet, “Wow!  Good thing I didn’t do that, it would’ve put my ass in a sling.  Big time!”

However the Army doesn’t and still doesn’t believe in that.  And so censors would pass copy for Marines they wouldn’t for Army units.  Meanwhile Pershing in a bid to keep the two Marine Regiments out of the fighting denied them the training in trench warfare the Army units were getting.  Even sent them far to the rear and had them unloading ships and so on.  In consequence the Marine officers spent all of their spare time in training their Marines, already great shots and very aggressive, in marksmanship and bayonet fighting until with constant repetition they weren’t only better at these two skills than the average Army unit, they were in a different universe entirely.

There matters stood until the Germans launched their huge 1918 offensive hoping to crush the allies before overwhelming numbers of Americans had arrived.  Break thru, then containment another break thru and another containment but the British and French were completely fought out.  At least Pershing agreed to commit the AEF.  A humble U.S. Army Intelligence officer predicted a third assault directly towards Paris. the allies ignored him, “inexperienced American, what would he know” but the Americans braced themselves and in his hour of necessity Pershing ordered up the Marines.  But he posted them in a very quiet location of his far left, just west of Belleau Wood an area lightly held by the French. 

The Germans attacked, the line took the shock and so the German vice commander Ludendorff ordered the German armies to wheel to their right drive through the wood.  The Germans took the wood and it would be the closest they got to Paris in the war because waiting on the other side of a vast wheat field on the other side, vastly outnumbered with little in the way of artillery support, were the two regiments of U.S. Marines.  Not retreating  “retreat hell we just got here” an officer replied to a senior French officer who ordered him back and not digging in all that much because with Pershing’s order denying them the training, they didn’t know much.  Instead they simply laid down and adjusted their rifle sights for a thousand yards a distance both the American and German armies thought impossible.  But the German emerged and the Marines shot them down at a thousand yards and shot them down until the German regiments in the lead were  destroyed, “we’re facing a new form of long range machine fire that makes it impossible to advance” the Germans radioed their headquarters.

The when it looked like there wasn’t anything still moving in that field the Marines fixed bayonets and attacked.  They shouldn’t have been able to cross that field in the face of the German machine guns but they did and then went hand to hand with the Germans.  Ten days later they emerged on the other side of the wood covered with mud, black powder stains, grime, human gore (“these Americans Maine kill everything and everybody” a letter taken off a dead German complained) and Paris was saved.

Meanwhile from day one dispatches were being filed by war correspondents and getting passed by the censors because they were about Marines not soldiers.  And as of course, any dispatches about Army operations were being edited.  “Our Marines Smash German Attack”  “U.S. Marines Save Paris” or “Marines Advance Army Stymied” were the headlines back in the U.S. day after day.  Gleefully because they knew it would drive Pershing insane the French then awarded the Fifth and Six Marines the Cross Degeurre and renamed Belleau Wood Boise de Marine.

And that is how the Marines, that tiny part of the AEF got all the publicity and why MacArthur, Marshall and Truman hated the Marine Corps.