2018 Marine Corps University Belleau Wood Essay Contest: Overall Winner
Walk through the World War I exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and it is apparent what the Corps likes to remember about Belleau Wood: the fields of wheat, the smell of cordite, the whistle of bullets through the leaves.1 The Corps also remembers all the great quotes from that era: “Teufelshunde,” “Retreat Hell! We just got here!” and “Come on, you sons of b…! Do you want to live forever?”2 The Marine Corps rightfully remembers Belleau Wood for the tactical events that occurred on those fields of France 100 years ago this June.
And yet, in the grand scheme of Marine Corps history, the tactical consequences of Belleau Wood pale in significance to the strategic consequences of the battle. Belleau Wood changed the trajectory of the Marine Corps, launching it into its first period of enlightenment and into the Marine Corps we know today. Author Alan Axelrod put it best in his book Miracle at Belleau Wood: “created ... in 1775, the United States Marine Corps was born in that French forest ... in 1918.”3
Now is an exciting time for the Marine Corps. As it slowly extracts itself from prolonged land battles in the Orient, the Marine Corps is rediscovering its future purpose and reassessing its future adversaries. The Corps now has the opportunity to undergo an enlightenment similar to that which occurred following the battle of Belleau Wood. If done incorrectly, the Marine Corps may find itself snuffed out. Done correctly, the Marine Corps can lay the foundation for another century of success.
A Short History of the Marine Corps: Before Belleau Wood
Prior to Belleau Wood, the Marine Corps was little more than a small security force. Presley O’Bannon, the Halls of Montezuma, and Harpers Ferry are all important parts of Marine Corps lore, but these events were trifling in the grand scheme of world events. Just eight Marines fought with Lt O’Bannon in his famous Tripoli campaign.4 During the Mexican-American War, the Marine Corps contributed just one battalion to the four American divisions that marched on Mexico City.5 And, after quelling the rebellion at Harpers Ferry, just a few thousand Marines6 fought in a war between nearly 3.1 million fellow Americans.7 Prior to Belleau Wood, President Harry S. Truman’s quip about the Marine Corps was accurate: the Marine Corps was little more than “the Navy’s police force.”8
At the turn of the 20th century, even duty as the Navy’s police force was in jeopardy. President Theodore Roosevelt briefly removed Marines from their ships, beginning a slow process of disbanding the Marine Corps altogether. Fortunately, a small band of leaders resisted, got the Marines back on the ships, and re-branded the Marine Corps as “first to fight”—just in time for World War I. When the opportunity came, the Marine Corps jumped, sending the 4th Brigade to France as a part of the American Expeditionary Force.9
The Marine Corps’ old nemesis—the United States Army—did its best to keep the Marines out of the fighting, but fortune favored the Marines when the Germans attacked in May 1918; the Marines were rushed to the front. The 4th Brigade stood fast and held the Germans back, laying the foundation for a general counterattack later that summer and eventually the end of the war. 10
Fortune again favored the Marines in the form of Floyd Gibbons, a reporter who covered the Battle of Belleau Wood with the Chicago Tribune. Perhaps unknowingly, Mr. Gibbons ignited the Marine Corps’ “propaganda machine almost equal to Stalin’s”11 when his newspaper ran a story glorifying the great Marine victory at Belleau Wood. His story was later picked up by other papers and reprinted, fanning the flames of the Marine Corps’ warfighting prowess.12
A Short History of the Marine Corps: After Belleau Wood
Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, the Allies went on the offensive against the Germans, and by November 1918, the War to End All Wars was over. The Americans returned home and so began a new chapter in Marine Corps history: the first enlightenment.13 Gen John A. Lejeune, who commanded the 4th Brigade in France, became the 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps and made great strides toward professionalizing the officer corps, building proud traditions and esprit de corps, and testing new concepts via large-scale training exercises. LtCol Pete “Earl” Ellis, who also served in France, though briefly, famously forecast the future island-hopping campaign of the Second World War in his publication, Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia. In 1933, Marine Corps Schools suspended classes for a year and drafted new doctrine: the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations. As prescribed by the manual, the Marine Corps began experimenting with landing craft capable of operating in contested waters and difficult terrain. These experiments would result in a landing craft for the Guadalcanal campaign two decades later.14
The Marine Corps did not evolve perfectly following Belleau Wood, but it made enough improvements to facilitate its success during the Second World War. The “climate of openness, once conducive to introspection and imagination”15 during the inter-war period was indispensable to the growth of the Marine Corps. Without this introspection and innovation, things may have played out very differently in the Pacific; perhaps the Marine Corps would have reverted back to its role as the Navy’s police force.
Gen John A. Lejeune: A Symbol of Rebirth
Few pictures symbolize the rebirth of the Marine Corps following Belleau Wood better than the official portraits of the 12th and 13th Commandants.
The first picture is the 12th Commandant: MajGen George Barnett.16 He became commandant just before World War I broke out in 1914 and saw the Marine Corps through its mobilization, deployment to France, and return home. The second picture is MajGen. John A. Lejeune,17 who fought in France and returned home with fresh ideas for the Marine Corps. He became commandant in 1920.
The uniforms of the two men speak volumes about the shift that took place around the time of Belleau Wood. Gen Barnett’s uniform—the sash, the fringed epaulets, and the bicorne hat—reflect a bygone era. Gen Lejeune’s uniform, on the other hand, is not unlike the Service uniforms worn today. As symbolized by the change in uniform, the First World War and the Battle of Belleau Wood changed the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps emerged from the interwar period with a new lease on life, fresh ideas, and a new sense of purpose. Belleau Wood was a springboard for the Marine Corps to rebrand itself from a security force to a capable fighting force. The leaders in the interwar period embraced this new role and carried its momentum into World War II, where the Marine Corps truly solidified itself as an essential American fighting force.
The Marine Corps Today and in the Future
Today, the Marine Corps finds itself in a situation not unlike it found itself just after Belleau Wood. Having exited from extended land operations in foreign lands, the Marine Corps is reorganizing and re-equipping, trying to determine how it will contribute in an uncertain future. Other similarities also abound. On the fringes of the Far East, a rising power is gaining momentum, challenging the pre-existing world order. Concepts centered around the seizure of advanced naval bases again grace the pages of the Gazette. In the Near East, a wounded but still dangerous adversary agitates, challenging its neighbors and the geopolitical order that has existed for decades. New technologies teased during recent battles promise to play an exponentially greater role in the next major war.
Of course, there are important differences between 1918 and 2018. The 21st century is not destined to be version 2.0 of the 20th century. However, the similarities between 1918 and 2018 are conspicuous. As the Marine Corps enters its next period of enlightenment, many lessons from a century ago still ring true. Many of the lessons of Belleau Wood—including the tactical ones—are still relevant. The Marine Corps would be wise to remember what happened in June 1918 in the Bois de la Brigade de Marine.
Lessons from Belleau Wood
The first lesson comes from the competence, bravery, and esprit de corps that each individual Marine carried across the wheat fields and into the Bois de Belleau.
It was the spirit of the individual, the esprit de corps of the unit, and the dogged determination combined with a unwavering discipline that prevailed in the Battle of Belleau Wood. More than any other single attribute, it was the individual Marine … that, within each man, clutched the bulwark of the intense emotion and pride infused by their Marine Corps training, creating the Marine Corps attitude.18
Since at least Belleau Wood, the Marine Corps’ center of gravity—that thing which it cannot do without—is its individual Marines. Yes, of course, the MAGTF, the Joint Strike Fighter, and Tun Tavern are also important, but it is the competence, attitude, and spirit of individual Marines that makes the Marine Corps great. Snuff out this spirit and the Marine Corps will become just another army; foster it, and the Marine Corps will continue to flourish.
The second lesson comes from the 1,087 casualties at Belleau Wood on 6 June.19 By the summer of 1918, the First World War was well into its fourth year. Machine guns and barbed wire were well-known, but the Marines failed to adapt. At Belleau Wood, the Marines continued fighting with outdated tactics, moving through the wide open wheat fields, “bunched together, one behind the other,” and the German machine gunners baptized them with fire.20 Although the 4th Brigade eventually adapted and won the day, they bled more than was necessary. The casualties at Belleau Wood are a sobering reminder of the importance of innovating and improving before the next fight begins, not during its opening salvos. The third and final lesson from Belleau Wood does not actually come from the battlefields of France. Rather, it comes from the jungles of the Caribbean.
The world finished the First World War intent on securing long-lasting peace. Treaties were signed, armies were demobilized, and constraints on military development were instituted. The Marine Corps, on the other hand, quickly resumed its duties fighting the Banana Wars. For the next two decades, the Marines fought small brush-fire wars in Cuba, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.21 The great war with Japan, which some in the Marine Corps foresaw and began preparing for in the 1920s, did not come immediately or even quickly. Rather, the Marine Corps slogged its way through a series of small wars in the decades following Belleau Wood. As much as the Marine Corps would like to focus on the next big war, it is important to remember that the Marine Corps is much more likely to find itself fighting in small wars close to home. As it reorients on the “four-plus-one” group of peer and near-peer adversaries, “the Marine Corps, as the Nation’s force-in-readiness, must have the versatility and flexibility to deal with military and paramilitary situations across the entire spectrum of conflict.”22
In May and June, we will celebrate the sacrifices and accomplishments of the 4th Brigade in France a hundred years ago. Some of the most famous, thoughtful, forward-looking leaders of the 20th century cut their teeth with the 4th Brigade in France: Lejeune, Daly, Ellis, Neville, Holcomb, Cates, and Shepard, just to name a few. Not coincidentally, these are also some of the same leaders who guided the Marine Corps through the decades of enlightenment and accomplishment in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.
As Marines look forward into the remainder of the 21st century, they should be excited. There are many new challenges but also many new opportunities. Leaders at the top of both the DOD and HQMC have correctly challenged their organizations to continue improving, innovating, and evolving. These leaders have opened new venues for Marines to express themselves and their ideas. And at the same time, they have challenged Marines to “protect what they’ve earned”—that spirit which sustained Marines at Belleau Wood and which will sustain Marines across future battlefields. Though individual Marines may not live forever, as Dan Daly famously pointed out, the Marine Corps certainly can.
1. World War I Exhibit, the National Museum of the Marine Corps, (Quantico, VA). See https://www.usmcmuseum.com.
2. Alexander Merrow, Gregory Starace, and Agostino von Hassell, “Belleau Wood,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: November 2008).
3. Alan Axelrod, Miracle at Belleau Wood: The Birth of the Modern U.S. Marine Corps, (Lyons Press, October 2010).
4. John Hickman, Early American Wars, (Kurose Ross, 1982).
5. Gabriel Santelli, “Marines in the Mexican War,” (History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, Washington, DC: 1991).
6. DOD, “Selected Manpower Statistics – Fiscal Year 1997,” (Washington, DC: 1997), Table 2-11.
7. The Civil War Trust, “Civil War Facts,” available at https://www.civilwar.org.
8. Alan Rems, “Semper Fidelis: Defending the Marine Corps,” Naval History Magazine. (Annapolis, MD: June 2017).
9. Maj Ralph Stoney Bates, “Belleau Wood: A Brigade’s Human Dynamics” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: November 2015).
11. “Semper Fidelis: Defending the Marine Corps.”
12. “Belleau Wood: A Brigade’s Human Dynamics.”
13. “Gen John A Lejeune,” Wikipedia online, available at https://en.wikipedia.org.
14. LtCol Frank O. Hough, Maj Verle E. Ludwig, Henry I. Shaw, Jr., Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Volume I, (Washington, DC: Historical Branch, G-3 Division, HQMC, 1989).
15. LtCol F. G. Hoffman, “Military Innovation in the Interwar Period,” Marine Gazette, (Quantico, VA: February 2016).
16. History Division, Marine Corps University, “Who’s Who in Marine Corps History: Major General George Barnett,” (Quantico, VA).
17. History Division, Marine Corps University, “Who’s Who in Marine Corps History: Lieutenant General John A. Lejeune,” (Quantico, VA).
18. “Belleau Wood: A Brigade’s Human Dynamics.”
19. “Belleau Wood.”
21. Aaron O’Connell, “Lectures in History: U.S. Marines in the Banana Wars,” (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Academy, 26 March 2013).
22. Headquarters Marine Corps, FMFM 1, Warfighting, (Washington, DC: 1989).