Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Big Critters

The Colonel's vast holdings at the shallow northern end of deep southern nowhere -- known to him and the comely and kind-hearted Miss Brenda as Egeebeegee -- ain't an easy place to find.  As the Colonel told a sub-contractor working on renovations to the big house who remarked about the location, "You've got to be wanting to come here.  You aren't going to just drive by this place."

Everyone who pulls off of the road through the middle of nowhere and up the long drive that curls around Lake Brenda, climbs out of their vehicle with nearly the same comment:

"Beautiful place you got here."

And then, "Any deer in these woods?"

The Colonel has taken to replying to that query with, "Nope.  The elk keep 'em run off."

The response is always a variation on the same theme,  "Elk?  Did you say you got elk out here?  Didn't know we had any elk in Mississippi.  Least wise I ain't never seen one."

 The Colonel twitches the lure enticingly, "Been watching a herd down by Lake Brenda all morning.  You musta drove right by 'em."

"Lake Brenda? Oh, you mean that there little pond between here and the road."  

"It's not a pond!  It's a lake!  Lake Brenda! 

"Uh, okay.  Whatever, mister.



"Not a mister.  Colonel.  Call me Colonel."

"Huh?  Oh.., heh, heh.  You mean like Colonel Reb.  I'm a State fan muhself.  Hayul State!"

"Figured as much, with your diesel pickup all painted up maroon and white..."

"Purdy ain't it.  Hayul State!"

"Musta been the diesel smoke that spooked the elk"

"Seriously?  Didn't see 'em."

The Colonel reels up the slack in the line and sets the hook, "My elk are really hard to spot.  Imported a special breed from Colorado a few years back.  Game ranch out there does gene splicing and crossed an especially elusive elk with a hyperactive chameleon..."

"They crossed a eyulk with one of them little fellas from the insurance commercial?


"Tha's whut ah sayed.  Gecko insurance."


Or..., "Any fish in yore pond?"

"Lake.  It's a lake.  Ponds don't have names.  That's Lake Brenda."

"Uh..., okay, mister..."

"It's Colonel..."

"You mean like Colonel Reb?  I'm a 'Bama fan, muhself.  Roll tide!"

"Never would have guessed, what with the great big A on the hood of your pick-up..."

"Purdy ain't it?  Roll Tide!  Hunnert and fifty-two Nachnul Champ'ships!"

"You ever even been to Tuscaloosa?"

"Nope, but it's on muh buckit list!  Hey, you got enny fish in that there pond?  I'd like to bring the younguns out and let 'em fish..."

"No fish in Lake Brenda -- the gator ate 'em all."

"Gator!  You got a gator in yore pond?!?"

"Yep.  Big one.  Seen it pull an elk down..."

"A eyulk!  You got elk out here!"

Don't even get the Colonel started on the black panthers and sasquatches... 


Saturday, June 02, 2018

"Retreat, Hell...!"

To the west of the French city of Chateau Thierry, just north of the Marne River, a patch of woods, formerly part of a private hunting preserve, bears the name of the village of Belleau just to its north.

Belleau Wood.

The words conjure, in the minds of those who know anything of the events there 100 years ago this week, images of heroism and horror, symbolism and sacrifice.

Beginning on the 6th of June 1918, and raging for the next three weeks, the battle for the key ground of Belleau Wood -- astride a major avenue of approach for the German army advancing on Paris --  would see horrific fighting, even by the standards of a war already known for its horrors.  By the battle's end -- when the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, Major Maurice E. Shearer, signalled "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely" -- the Marine brigade, composed of the 5th and 6th Marine regiments, had suffered over half its initial strength in casualties, including over 1800 killed in action.  

After the battle, the French government renamed Belleau Wood.  Today it is known as Bois de la Brigade de Marine.

But this battle, one of the most famed in the history of the Marine Corps, almost didn't happen.  In fact, that there was a United States Marine Corps at all in 1918 was in itself a bit of a wonder. 

Two battalions of American Marines were raised in late 1775, pursuant to a resolution of the Continental Congress, for service with the fledgling American Navy.  Although they conducted an amphibious raid or two during the Revolution, the role of Marines was primarily modeled after that of the Royal Marines -- maintaining order and discipline on ships crewed by very competent sailors, but men somewhat lacking in the order and discipline department.  As such they were hated by the Navy.

The Army wasn't all that fond of Marines either.  Their existence was viewed as duplicative and competition for scant resources. At the conclusion of the War for Independence, all Marine units were disbanded and mustered out.  As a matter of fact, the Continental navy by and large ceased to exist as well.

But, then, in 1796, the "Quasi War" (an undeclared war -- much like those of the last 70 years) with France broke out over U.S. refusal to repay war debts owed France.  The Quasi War was fought almost entirely at sea and primarily along the U.S. seaboard and in and around French possessions in the West Indies.  During the first year of hostilities the French navy decimated the U.S. commercial fleet.  The U.S. Congress finally got around to funding rearmament of an American Navy in 1798 and on 11 July 1798, Congress authorized the funding of a corps of Marines (a little over 800 officers and men) to man the to-be-built frigates and for other duties ashore "as the President, at his discretion, may direct."

The Marines had a new toehold on existence -- one they would hang onto, precariously at times, for the next century.  The naval expeditionary nature of the, albeit miniscule, U. S. Marine Corps meant that whenever a scrap broke out anywhere around the globe, Marines were nearby and often "first to fight" -- a unofficial motto that, rightfully, rankled the Army. 

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, the Commandant of the Marines Corps, Major General George Barnett, sent several officers to France as observers.  As American entrance into the Great War became more and more likely, Barnett seized on the rush to expand the entire U.S. military (from less than 200 thousand to more than 3 million) and conducted a brilliant and aggressive recruiting campaign to expand the Marine Corps, the chief inducement being voluntary service with an elite formation rather than waiting to be drafted by the Army.  When General John J. Pershing sailed to France with the lead elements of his American Expeditionary Force, a regiment of Marines sailed with him.

Pershing was not a fan of the Marine Corps, however.  He insisted that the Marines wear Army uniforms, and instead of training them for combat used them initially in support roles in the French port facilities unloading ships, and as military police.  As more U.S. support troops arrived, that first Marine regiment in France -- the 5th Marines -- and the newly arrived 6th Marine Regiment, were formed into the 4th Marine Brigade and assigned to the U.S. Army's 2d Division.  Pershing's low regard for his Marines was made manifest by his placement of an Army brigadier general, James Harbord, from his staff as the commander of the 4th Marine Brigade.  So, the officers and men of the 4th Marine Brigade were feeling a bit unappreciated and itching for a chance to prove themselves.

They got that chance at Belleau Wood.

But, wait... the Colonel said something earlier about the Battle of Belleau Wood almost not happening at all, didn't he?

He did indeed.  Here's the story.

In March of 1918, the German Army, reinforced with 50 divisions from their now-peaceful former eastern front with Russia (the Russians had overthrown their Czar and sued for peace), kicked off a series of spring offensives in a bid to end the war before the American Expeditionary Force could be full-up and ready to influence the outcome of the war on the side of the French and British.  By the end of May, the German Army had reached the Marne River just 60 miles from Paris.  There at Chateau Thierry, the Germans ran into the U.S. Army's 3rd Division and were stopped cold.  The 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army to this day refers to themselves as the "Rock of the Marne."  The German thrust turned eastward down the northern side of the Marne valley. 

On the 1st of June, the lead division of the German offensive broke through the French divisions' lines at the village of Belleau and advanced into the northern edge of Belleau Wood.  The next day the Germans advanced through Belleau Wood and attacked south in order to reach and cross the Marne.  The French army retreated in the face of their onslaught.  

The 5th Marine Regiment of the 4th Marine Brigade was the only allied force in the way of the steamrolling German advance.  They had been sent the night before to help plug the hole in the French lines and had reached a position astride wide open wheat fields in front of Belleau Wood.  The French commander in their sector ordered the commander of the 4th Marine Brigade to withdraw and dig defensive trenches much further to the rear.  General Harbord refused, instead ordering the Marines to "hold where they stand."  The Marines dug shallow prone fighting positions along a low ridge through the wheat fields and allowed the Germans to advance to within 100 yards before opening up with their highly accurate '03 Springfield rifles.  Decimated, the Germans fell back on Belleau Wood.

The French wanted the Marines to fall back on defensive trench works several miles to their rear and repeatedly implored the Marines to do so.  In response to these entreaties, Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines retorted with a line that echoes still in the lore of the Corps -- "Retreat, hell!  We just got here."  

Captain Williams succinctly summed up the feelings of all Marines past, present, and future.  When Marines get a chance to fight, they take it.  No backing down.  And, they don't like occupying permanent defensive positions -- it's destructive to morale.

Had the Marines done as the French wanted, the fight likely would have settled back into the stalemate of trench warfare that had predominated the previous four years.  The Germans would have swept through Belleau Wood and it would have remained nothing more than a patch of trees for eternity.

But, Marines are a stubborn bunch.  That stubbornness in the wheat fields before Belleau Wood meant that the Marines would have to go in and root out the Germans in Belleau Wood.             

And as long as one Marine draws breath, Belleau Wood will for eternity be the Bois de la Brigade de Marine



Monday, May 28, 2018


One hundred years ago this spring, the Great War in Europe entered its last phase.  The great continental cataclysm, begun four years previous, had claimed the cream of a generation.   On the Western Front a line of opposing trenchworks stretched from the English Channel to the Alps.  In the East, a similar stalemate line crossed the continent from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  Land operations ranged from Finland to Palestine.  The Atlantic and the Mediterranean hosted unprecedented naval warfare.  

It was a meat grinding mess.

Americans, by and large, were loathe to participate.  Some did, as volunteers, with French, British, and Canadian units; but, U.S. politicians cemented their election campaigns with promises to keep "our boys out of the war."

Unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans ended up targeting American ships and the mood in America began to turn.  By the spring of 1917, German submarine "atrocities" -- denounced by an increasingly vociferous American press -- finally precipitated U.S. entry into the war on the side of the French and British.

Enter the most influential (and largely unknown) Mississippian of the 20th Century -- Fox Connor.  Then-Colonel Connor, of Slate Spring, Mississippi, was the operational brains of Pershing's American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  

When President Wilson tapped "Blackjack" Pershing to command the AEF, he gave Pershing one overarching commandment -- do not allow American men to be fed piecemeal into the trenches.   Pershing's and Connor's plan was to build a 3 million-man  American army in France that would be ready by the spring of 1919 -- two years after America's declaration of war on Germany -- for a war of movement to leave the trenches behind and take the fight to the heart of Germany.  A rather grandiose strategy given the condition of the American military in early 1917.

In April of 1917, the United States of America had less than 5% of the men needed in uniform.  The plan to build 100 divisions from scratch, train and equip them, and transport them to France was mind boggling.  There was no one in American uniform with experience commensurate with the task -- the U.S. Army hadn't conducted a multi-division operation against a peer adversary since the end of the Civil War.  The arms and equipment of the American army were antiquated at best.  But, a year later, the AEF was beginning to grow rapidly and Pershing and Connor were confident that given another year they would have a force ready to end the war.  

German military planners were well aware of the game-changing nature of a full-up AEF, and they were determined to end the war on terms favorable to Germany before the AEF was ready.  When Russia dropped out of the war and signed an armistice with Germany, German high command immediately began transferring scores of divisions from the Eastern Front to the West.  By March of 1918, a German offensive designed to breach the Allied defensive lines between the British and French sectors and roll up the British flank was ready to go.   

Germany needed to reduce the effectiveness of the British army in France to the point that it was no longer capable of participating in the war on the continent. With the British army eliminated, the German army could brush aside the French army and take Paris.  They needed to do all of this before the AEF was strong enough to make a difference.

To effect the breakthrough, the German high command had created several elite "shock troop" divisions by taking the best and most experienced troops from the rest of their divisions.  When the offensive kicked off at the end of March 1918, these lead divisions accomplished their mission.  However, the follow-on divisions, with many of their most effective small unit leaders gone and hampered by logistics shortfalls, were not able to accomplish their missions of quickly eliminating British strongpoints bypassed by the lead divisions.  And, attacking over ground churned by over three years of continuous artillery barrages slowed the German advance to a crawl.  The Allies were able to shift forces quickly enough to restrict the overall German advance.  

By this time, the AEF had only a handful of divisions considered combat ready in France.  To get as much manpower to France as quickly as possible, Connor and Pershing maximized the shipping available by forming divisions with minimal training in the United States and then moving them to France without any heavy equipment (trucks, artillery, heavy machine guns).  This necessitated extensive training time for divisions once they arrived in France.  And, despite continual French and British appeals, Connor and Pershing persisted in their refusal to feed American troops into the trenchworks as a manpower infusion to depleted French and British units.   

With the German offensive blunted, the Allies desired to reduce the salient in their lines.  A position on high ground near the village of Cantigny provided German forces excellent observation from which to direct artillery fires onto French forces, and was the target for a planned Allied counterattack.  Connor and Pershing lobbied the Allied high command for the mission to be assigned to an American division.  Their reasoning was that a successful attack would help them to continue to make their case that American divisions would soon be ready for commitment to Allied offensive operations under American command.  

The most experienced and ready U.S. division was the 1st Division (aka The Big Red One), held in reserve behind the French line.  At first light on the 28th of May, the 28th Infantry Regiment (Reinforced) of the 1st Division climbed over trench parapets and advanced under a rolling artillery barrage.  For the first time since America entered the war a year previous, her boys were in the attack in American units under American command.  Within the hour, they swept over the German position and advanced to more easily defended terrain a half mile beyond.  Over the next two days, the 28th Infantry Regiment withstood several determined German counterattacks.  They stood their ground, proving to the world that American fighting men could indeed fight.

The American victory at the Battle of Cantigny would be quickly overshadowed by bigger and bloodier victories over the remaining five months of the war, but the 199 men who fell should be remembered foremost.  

Until Cantigny, French, British, and German soldiers doubted the elan and effectiveness of American soldiers.  After Cantigny, the French and British had confidence in the AEF, and the Germans had a first taste of American steel.  The German army would test American mettle in the coming days -- at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood.  

But, that story is for another post.