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During World War I, U.S. Marines fought in an Army
division under a Marine commanding general.

By Calvin G. Bass

When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, General George Barnett, commandant of the U.S. Marines, was adamant that the Marines, traditionally “First to Fight,” should take part in the conflict. General John J. Pershing was just as adamant that there would be no “Second Army” in France. As George B. Clark demonstrates in his new book Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War I (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1999, $39.95), both Barnett and Pershing had their way.

The Marines fielded two brigades, but only the 4th saw active combat. The 5th was used as guards and military police, though many of the 5th Brigade men joined the 4th Brigade as replacements. The Marines had hoped to field a division, but Pershing assigned the 4th Brigade to the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division. It was truly a composite unit–Marine officers commanded U.S. Army units and vice versa, and the division commander was Marine Maj. Gen. John A. Lejeune.

The 4th Marine Brigade was first blooded in the Verdun sector but saw its first major action at Belleau Wood. There, on June 6, 1918, the 4th suffered more casualties than the Marines had incurred cumulatively since their beginnings in the American Revolution. Deadly accurate Marine rifle fire, however, wreaked havoc on the Germans. An unfortunate dispatch by correspondent Floyd Gibbons gave the Marines full credit for the costly victory at Belleau Wood, neglecting to credit the 2nd Division’s Army units. This created bad blood between the two branches.

The Marines’ next action was a month later in the Soissons area, as the Germans launched their last major offensive of the war. Again the Marines came through with flying colors, with one member receiving the third of nine Medals of Honor earned by Marines in the course of World War I. On September 12, 1918, the 2nd Division took part in the St. Mihiel offensive, and October saw the division’s bloodiest action at Mont Blanc, where the Germans had dug tunnels and used natural caves to make their position almost impervious to artillery. Army and Marine infantrymen had to dig them out, one machine-gun nest, gun battery or infantry platoon at a time–and suffered more casualties than they had at Belleau Wood.

By the time the armistice was signed on November 11, the Marines had proved themselves to be fighters of the first order and received the congratulations of their countrymen, including General Pershing. Their aggressiveness had also resulted in an overall casualty rate of 150 percent.

Military historian George B. Clark has written an extremely detailed account, using unit histories, published and unpublished memoirs, and many personal letters to follow individuals and small units through their daily action. The book contains numerous detailed maps, though they do not always show important natural and man-made features that are mentioned in the text. Aside from that minor flaw, Devil Dogs may be the most extensive study yet undertaken on U.S. Marine participation in World War I and is highly recommended to anyone interested in that conflict.