May 2018

Spring of 1918: Marines in the Trenches in France

Volume 101, Issue 5

Sara W. Bock

Patricia Everett
Marines stand in a trench near the Verdun sector in the spring of 1918.
Courtesy of Marine Corps History Division

"Why in hell can’t the Army do it if the Marines can?” lamented General John J. Pershing after an inspection of the 4th Marine Brigade in February 1918. “They are all the same kind of men, why can’t they be like Marines?” The commander of the American Expeditionary Force made these laudatory comments to Brigadier General Charles A. Doyen, the commander of the Marine brigade. A U.S. Naval Academy graduate, Doyen served in the Spanish-American War and deployed to the Philippines, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. He had arrived in France in June of 1917 with the 5th Marine Regiment, but with his promotion to brigadier general, he assumed command of the 4th Marine Brigade. His replacement as the commander of 5th Marines was Colonel Wendell C. Neville; Col Albertus W. Catlin led the 6th Marine Regiment.

The 4th Marine Brigade was composed of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments as well as the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. Many of the officers and enlisted men were national athletes and scholars—prime examples of the best young men in America. Prominent among the lieutenants were Albert P. Baston, a two-time college football All-American at the University of Minnesota; John W. Overton of Yale University, who was America’s best middle distance runner in track and field; and Richard H. Jeschke, a Big Ten wrestling champion from the University of Chicago. In the enlisted ranks, many of the young recruits were also athletes representing every sport in the country. Of 250 men in the 78th Company, 72 were over 6 feet tall.

With the first phase of training completed in March 1918, rumors of a move to the front reached a fever pitch with the issue of trench knives, trench boots and supplemental clothing. On March 12, orders were given to pack up seabags and prepare for a move. The local French citizens had become friendly with the Americans. When Private Bacon assured them, “We’ll come back and visit you,” several burst into tears. They explained, “No one who leaves here for the front ever comes back here.”

The 4th Marine Brigade loaded onto railcars and entered its phase of front-line training on March 16, taking over a quiet sector of the trench lines near Verdun the following day. The area occupied by the Marines was on the west face of the St. Mihiel salient, near Sommediue, southeast of Verdun. Fierce fighting took place in the area from the beginning of the war in 1914 until 1916, but since that time the sector remained a quiet place where both sides rested their forces for battle in other sectors of the Western Front.

The French 20-mile defensive front was divided into three sectors—all on the east bank of the Meuse River—and each held by a French infantry division. The front line began with the Toulon sector in the north where 1,000 yards of open plain separated the trench line. The lines then bent back toward the river in the Rupt sector where the trenches were in very close proximity in a forest. The French defenses ended in the Troyen sector on low ground, so close to the Meuse River that artillery and supporting arms were located on the far side of the stream.

German defenders dominated the Troyen sector from a forest overlooking the low ground. Each sector was a mass of supply and communication trenches studded with artillery lunettes zigzagging across the fields and forests to the front line trenches and outposts. The 4th Marine Brigade first drew the Toulon sector, assigned to support the French 33rd Division. On March 17, the 5th Marines took position in the French line at Les Esarges, followed by the 6th Marines the next day in the Bonchamp subsector. The 6th Machine Gun Bn deployed each of its four companies to support two battalions in each regiment. The Marine Corps faced the Germans for the first time in World War I.

“The night we went in the trenches it was raining and we were soon wet to the skin,” Private Gerald B. Clark of the 47th Company, 5th Marines, wrote in a letter home. “We had to walk along a shell pitted road and the only time you could see a thing was in the flash of some big gun way back of the lines. One minute I would stumble over a rock in the road and the next I’d step in a water-filled hole. That was a journey I’ll remember if I live to be a hundred years old. After we got nearer the flares sent up over no-mans land would light up things for a few seconds, but it would be darker than ever when they glimmered out. One of the nicest things of the whole works are the rats. They sure are birds for size and nerve. Some look as big as a dog (especially at night) and delight in sharpening their teeth on your “hob-nails” if you stand still long.”

Both the 5th and 6th Marines began duty following the French traditional style of placing one battalion on the front line, another in reserve and the last in camp. The battalions rotated these three assignments every week to 10 days, so that the Marines limited time in the mud and filth of the front line trenches. Each of the four companies on the front placed one platoon on outpost duty, with the remaining three platoons in supporting distance. Daily activity proved to be the same routine of barbed wire repair parties, daily intermittent shelling across the lines and night raids across no man’s land to search for prisoners for the intelligence officers to interrogate. Battalions in reserve kept busy primarily during the night with details for digging new and repairing old trenches.

The arrival of the Marines brought an immediate change to the region. Previously, the French and Germans established an unwritten truce with unnecessary fighting kept to a minimum. Private Onnie J. Cordes of the 17th Company was astonished to see several German soldiers calmly washing their clothes in a small pond between the lines. “These were the last ones who washed their clothes there,” remembered Cordes, “We declared ourselves and assured the Heinies that we loved ’em not.” In return, the Germans retaliated with artillery fire to the Marine provocations. The historian of the 6th Marines commented on the lack of fight of the German infantry after observing the enemy across the lines. “The enemy artillery, however, showed a marked increase in activity,” he noted, “and endeavored to impress this regiment upon its first duty in the front lines. It gave the regiment a daily shower of shell fire, which proved rather ineffective.”

The French X Corps, 2nd Army set in motion the tutelage of the Americans. The French commanders interspersed the 2nd Division with their own units until the newcomers became proficient in holding the line. The following weeks of duty in the trenches allowed the Americans to become familiar to combat in a static defense. The success of the German spring offensives to the north forced the French to withdraw some of their veteran divisions from the sector, allowing the Americans to expand their zones of control at the end of March, replacing the departing French forces.

Most importantly, many Marines experienced the sensation of being under fire for the first time. The raw conditions of the trenches soon became home to the Marines, who observed the shattered condition of what remained of the trees, which were described as “stumps looked like tombstones in a graveyard.” The dugouts where the men slept were in deplorable condition. “Just a half an inch below the wire netting under our beds there were several feet of stagnant water,” Private Cordes recalled, “There were many rats, who would run across us all night long and also sneak under our blankets and spend the night with us. It was terribly cold and damp.”

One of the legendary characters who rose to meet the challenges of trench warfare was “Jimmy the Anteater,” one the mascots of the 5th Marines. Jimmy was a coati picked up during the occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914. Although the Marines labeled Jimmy an anteater, he ate anything but ants. Described as a cross between the curiosities of a raccoon, the faithfulness of a dog, and the agility of a monkey, Jimmy quickly bonded with the Marines, deploying with them to Haiti and entering the trenches facing an enemy worthy of his talents—the legions of trench rats who ran rampant within the Marine front lines. His battle in a darkened dugout with the huge leader of the local rat pack would become one of the epic legends of the regiment.

The rats did not take kindly to Jimmy’s interference with their free reign of the Marine positions, resulting in a showdown, waking the Marines from their sleep. The observers could barely make out the opponents in the struggle, which seemed to be a seesaw affair, judging from the sounds emanating from the battle. After several minutes of growling, hissing and yelps of pain, the struggle ended. Although covered with wounds, Jimmy proved victorious to the delight of the Marines who properly congratulated the bloody coati on his victory. No rat ever challenged Jimmy again.

On April 13, the 74th Company, 6th Marines rested in unprotected barracks a mile behind the front line, sleeping soundly in double tiers of bunks made from chicken wire covered with thin mattresses. A German mustard gas barrage struck the unsuspecting company with deadly accuracy, placing one shell into a barracks containing 60 sleeping Marines. The men awoke to suffocating fumes of gas, overwhelming the Marines before most could reach their gas masks. Many of those able to pull on their masks did so improperly or took them off before the gas dissipated, causing further casualties. Every officer fell victim to the clouds of deadly gas, sweeping through the entire company area. The first light of morning revealed 290 casualties—40 of those men eventually died.

More Marines would have perished if not for the work of Pharmacist’s Mate 3rd Class Fred C. Schaffner and Hospital Apprentice 1st Class Carl O. Kingsbury. Both were struck by the mustard gas clouds but disregarded their own symptoms to care for the Marines of their company. Schaffner and Kingsbury treated and evacuated more than 100 Marines before their own wounds became so severe they were shipped out as well. Both protested leaving their Marines, declaring they were “all right and not affected,” but Navy surgeon Joel T. Boone ordered them removed to the hospital for treatment. Schaffner died on April 18, 1918, but Kingsbury survived his wounds. Each received both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross.

By the end of April, the brigade suffered few casualties and gained time to learn the lessons of war. The Marines began to act like veterans. The month closed with the same routine as before, but with the addition of German infantry raids on the Marines who wished to find out more about the fighting qualities of the Americans. On the night of April 20, a German box barrage isolated the 84th Company outpost near the town of Villers. The “Hindenburg Circus,” with flamethrowers and a shower of grenades, followed the shells into the barbed wire entanglements, but the Marines held firm and repulsed the attacks that left three dead in the wire and another wounded who died on the way to the aid station.

May brought orders to come off the line and into a training area for instruction on offensive combat. The 4th Marine Brigade passed the tests of a “quiet” sector of trench combat, “where a maximum could be learned with a minimum of loss.” Exposure to artillery, gas, trench raids, air attack and many other experiences proved the Marine brigade was ready to fight. BGen Doyen’s brigade came together as a combat unit during their time in the Toulon, Rupt, and Troyen sectors.

Unfortunately, Doyen would not lead his brigade into the next battle. On April 29, 1918, MG Pershing informed him of the results of a medical board that would force his return to the United States. The new commander of the Marine Brigade would be Army Brigadier General James G. Harbord, MG Pershing’s own chief of staff.

The next phase of combat for the Marines would come in the attack designed to break the stalemate of trench warfare. That test would occur in June 1918 at Belleau Wood, a place destined to become one of the iconic battlefields in Marine Corps history.

J. Michael Miller is Special Projects Historian, World War I at the Marine Corps History Division and is engaged in writing a multi-volume centennial history of the Marine Corps in WW I. The events of Vera Cruz are the starting point for that defnitive work.