In 1927 George C. Marshall took over the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning. The old system there was soon headed for the junk heap.
LONG BEFORE HE BECAME ASSISTANT COMMANDANT OF THE U.S. ARMY INFANTRY SCHOOL at Fort Benning, George C. Marshall had recognized the need to reform how the school trained officers for future conflicts. After serving as a key planner of American operations in World War I, including the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, he had become an aide to General John J. Pershing, who established boards to evaluate the lessons the various branches of the American Expeditionary Forces learned while fighting in Europe. Once stateside, Marshall went to work, sifting through the boards’ reports and the AEF’s records. As he reviewed the documents, the tragic wastefulness of the American war effort—green recruits thrown into combat with insufficient training—came into focus. Summarizing what he had found for the January 1921 issue of Infantry Journal, Marshall warned, “It is possible that officers who participated only in the last phase of the war may draw somewhat erroneous conclusions from their battle experiences.” Marshall went on to point out that quick thinking and timely action were more important than proper order formats. “Many orders, models in their form, failed to reach the troops in time to affect their actions,” he wrote, “and many apparently crude and fragmentary instructions did reach front-line commanders in time to enable the purpose of the higher command to be carried out on the battlefield.”
Marshall’s conviction was reinforced by his experiences in Tientsin, China, where he served from 1924 to 1927 as the executive officer of the 15th Infantry Regiment. During one training exercise Marshall observed a young officer who was supposed to envelop an enemy’s flank become paralyzed because he couldn’t draft a written order for his 70 men based on a sketch of the terrain given to him. Marshall was astonished to learn that the officer had graduated first in his class from the infantry school at Fort Benning. “The man was no fool, but he had been taught an absurd system,” Marshall would recall some years later. “I then and there formed an intense desire to get my hands on Benning.”
After completing his tour at Tientsin in 1927, Marshall became an instructor at the U.S. Army War College in Washington, D.C., an assignment he had previously turned down five times. Soon after he started teaching there, however, his wife, Lily, died unexpectedly following a thyroid operation. Marshall was overcome with grief. “Twenty-six years of most intimate companionship, something I have known since I was a mere boy,” he said in a letter to Pershing, “leaves me lost in my best efforts to adjust myself to future prospects in life.” In the void left by Lily’s death he suddenly found his situation unbearable. “At a War College desk,” he confided to a friend, “I thought I would explode.”
Fortunately, the army rallied to its own. Chief of Staff Charles F. Summerall, under whom Marshall had served in the closing days of World War I, offered him some options: He could remain where he was; he could transfer to Governor’s Island, New York, to serve as chief of staff for a corps area; or he could become the assistant commandant of the infantry school at Fort Benning. Marshall chose Benning and by early November was on his way to Georgia.
WHEN MARSHALL BECAME ITS ASSISTANT COMMANDANT ON NOVEMBER 10, 1927, the infantry school at Fort Benning was only nine years old. An amalgamation of the small arms, machine-gun, and old Fort Sill infantry schools, it had been created to address deficiencies in U.S. infantry tactics that the war had exposed.
Brigadier General Campbell King, the school’s commandant, was responsible for the entire post, and he gave Marshall considerable latitude in overhauling the infantry school’s academic course. Marshall wanted to disseminate the ideas Pershing had developed during the war, particularly the concept of combat built on firepower and maneuverability. “Picture the opening campaign of a war,” Marshall said in one of his lectures:
It is a cloud of uncertainties, haste, rapid movements, congestion on the roads, strange terrain, lack of ammunition and supplies at the right place at the right moment, failures of communications, terrific tests of endurance, and misunderstandings in direct proportion to the inexperience of the officers and the aggressive action of the enemy. Add to this a minimum of preliminary information on the enemy and of his dispositions, poor maps, and a speed of movement or an alteration of the situation, resulting from fast flying planes, fast moving tanks, armored cars, and motor transportation in general. There you have warfare of movement such as swept over Belgium or Northern France in 1914, but at far greater speed. That, gentlemen, is what you are supposed to be preparing for.
Under the previous system at Benning, officers were trained to address hypothetical situations with much more information about the enemy and terrain than would be available on a real battlefield. But as Marshall saw it, an officer “must be prepared to take prompt and decisive action in spite of the scarcity or total absence of reliable information. He must learn that in war, the abnormal is normal and that uncertainty is certain.”
Marshall plunged enthusiastically into his new assignment. He constantly tossed the unexpected at the student officers. One morning he required each of them to sketch a map of the route they had followed to the classroom, identifying both natural and manmade features of the terrain. Another time, after a 17-mile horseback ride, Marshall ordered the student officers to dismount and draw a map of the terrain they’d covered. In both cases he was trying to drive home the point that a troop leader should be constantly attuned to the relevant military details of any situation in which he might suddenly be required to make a command decision. General Matthew Ridgway, who studied at Benning under Marshall and went on to fight with distinction in World War II and later serve as the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, recalled that such exercises created a “mental conditioning more important to a combat officer than any number of learned techniques.”
Marshall further believed that nearly everything at Benning was too complicated. “We must develop a technique and methods so simple and so brief,” he argued, “that the citizen officer of good common sense can readily grasp the idea.” He deemphasized paperwork and detailed orders so that battalions or smaller units could seize opportunities as they arose, and he insisted that orders and intelligence assessments not exceed one page. Moreover, he stressed that a workable decision arrived at quickly was better than a perfect one arrived at too late. Indeed, he said, “the real problem is usually when to make a decision and not what the decision should be.”
First, however, Marshall had to get the 80 instructors under him on board for what he called “an almost complete revamping of the instruction.” Striving to simplify, he demanded that his instructors “expunge the bunk.” Before Marshall’s arrival, instructors merely read canned lectures that had been approved in advance by a committee to guarantee conformity with approved doctrine. Marshall forbade not only the reading of lectures but, in time, even the use of notes. “I found it was many times more effective when a man talked off the cuff,” he said.
ALMOST IMMEDIATELY MARSHALL ALSO DID AWAY WITH THE COMMAND AND GENERAL STAFF SCHOOL’S EMPHASIS on rigid adherence to the predetermined “school solution” to tactical problems. “Any student’s solution to a problem that ran radically counter to the approved school solution, and yet showed independent creative thinking,” he said, “would be published to the class.” Marshall’s against-the-grain approach trickled down to other instructors. When Joseph Stilwell—who’d previously taught at West Point and would go on to achieve fame as a general in World War II—took over the infantry school’s tactical section, he declared himself open to any “screwball idea.” General J. Lawton Collins, an instructor in weapons and tactics at the school from 1927 to 1931, noted that Marshall’s edict, not to mention his example, helped to create “the spirit at Benning, which was a marvelous thing, because if anybody had any new ideas he was willing to try them.”
In keeping with his philosophy that “junior officers don’t fight at their desks,” Marshall saw to it that 80 percent of the instruction was carried out in the field. He ended rehearsed tactical demonstrations and replaced them with unscripted field maneuvers. He was present at most of them. To simulate the confusion of a real battlefield, Stilwell and other instructors often provided poor maps or no maps for problems and maneuvers, constantly emphasizing thoughtful and original responses to the unexpected. As Ridgway recalled in his memoirs: “Many a time…a map would be thrust before me. ‘You are here,’ I was told. ‘The enemy is here. The tactical situation is thus and so (it was always bad). Your battalion commander has been killed. You are now in command. What do you do?”
While some instructors eagerly embraced Marshall’s ideas, many were reluctant to change. He quickly replaced those who would not—or could not—adapt. Yet if Marshall earned a reputation for ruthlessness with regard to personnel, he also made a significant effort to identify talented young officers and groom them for the highest levels of command. According to Omar Bradley, the legendary army officer who would become the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, these men shared Marshall’s “keen analytic intelligence, outspokenness, [and] ingenuity. In sum, they were, like Marshall, highly creative.”
This was especially true of Stilwell, who had served with Marshall in Tientsin. Marshall wanted Stilwell to be the head of the school’s tactical section so badly that he held the position open for a year until Stilwell was available. Marshall said he possessed “a genius for instruction” and called him “one of the exceptionally brilliant and cultured men of the army.” When Stilwell encountered stupidity or incompetence, he was unforgiving. After he delivered a particularly caustic critique of a field exercise, a student officer drew a caricature of Stilwell, featuring his scowling face on a bottle of vinegar, that was pinned on a bulletin board at the infantry school. Stilwell asked if he could keep the original drawing and sent copies of it to all his friends, who soon took to calling him “Vinegar Joe.”
Marshall continued his search for talented subordinates even in his final year at the infantry school. In December 1931, Captain Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, a veteran of combat in France, delivered a briefing in the advanced course on his experiences in the Aisne-Marne Campaign, which he said typified “the partially trained American army of 1918…and the troops which American officers may expect to command in the early stages of any future war.” In the 20 minutes allotted he provided a cogent and gripping narrative of events, from which he drew two clear lessons: The unexpected is the rule in war, and success depended entirely on small-unit initiative. Marshall happened to slip into the classroom as Smith began his talk, and the captain’s presentation and conclusions perfectly echoed his views. Marshall returned to his office and told another officer, “There is a man who would make a wonderful instructor,” not knowing that Bradley’s official request for Smith to join his weapons section was already on his desk.
Marshall’s recruitment efforts, however, were not always so successful. In 1930 he traveled to Washington at Pershing’s request to review the manuscript for the general’s World War I memoirs, which were published the following year. Marshall was impressed by a young major on the staff of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission who had helped Pershing revise the manuscript. On returning to Benning, Marshall sent the officer an offer to join the infantry school’s faculty. Yet because he already had orders for a coveted assignment with the General Staff, Dwight D. Eisenhower politely declined Marshall’s invitation.
Marshall expertly mentored the officers under him at Benning. Bradley, Stilwell, Collins, Charles Bolte, and Bradford Chynoweth were among the instructors Marshall would summon to his quarters for discussions on the art of leading men in battle. Marshall or Major Gilbert R. Cook would assign a book or study—frequently on a nonmilitary subject such as psychology, sociology, or economics—and one or two of the group would deliver a report on the work’s relevance to contemporary military problems. Indeed, in his memoirs, Bradley stated that “no man had a greater influence on me personally or professionally.”
King appreciated Marshall’s reforms and his leadership. Because army regulations required that officers below the general officer rank serve in troop-leading positions at least one in every five years, King issued a special order on April 25, 1931, designating Marshall the 24th Infantry’s executive officer “for duty with troops, in addition to his other duties.” But the assignment was on paper only—a bureaucratic evasion intended to retain Marshall’s services at the infantry school beyond June 30, 1931.
AT THE END OF THE SCHOOL YEAR IN JUNE 1932, MARSHALL WAS REASSIGNED TO FORT SCREVEN, GEORGIA. It was, he told Pershing in a letter, “an unimportant station in the Army’s scheme of things.” But he had made his mark at Benning, where his reforms manifested themselves in at least two tangible ways.
First, his thinking was embodied in the manual of small-unit lessons that Benning’s tactical section produced. Marshall had directed the officers in the advanced course to undertake a study of the AEF’s operations in France to develop new tactics for infantry combat. The lessons were eventually published in 1934 as Infantry in Battle. The book was a critical success. British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart called it “the most valuable instructional military textbook…published in many years.” The infantry school’s classic reference was translated into German, Spanish, and Russian and remains in print today.
More significant than any of the manuals, supply techniques, or tactics that emerged from the infantry school during these years, however, were the extended consequences of the education of the officers who would occupy senior command and staff positions in World War II. Some 150 future generals attended the infantry school during Marshall’s tenure, and another 50 served on the faculty. And so was born the legend of the “Marshall Men.” Equally important, as Bradley put it, “was the imaginative training Marshall imparted to the countless hundreds of junior officers who passed through the school during his time and who would lead—often brilliantly—the regiments and battalions under the command of those generals.”
Although Marshall refused to take credit for the “Benning Revolution,” as the period of change he ushered in at the infantry school came to be known, his contemporaries had no such reluctance. “He would tell you what he wanted and then you would do it,” Major General Edwin F. Harding, who edited Infantry in Battle, recalled many years later. “There was something about him that made you do it, and of course you wanted to do it the way he wanted—which is the trait of a commanding officer.” Bradley simply said that Marshall “was the most impressive man I ever knew.”
Less than a decade after leaving the infantry school and Benning, Marshall would be asked to recruit, train, and deploy an army more than twice as large as any force in American military history against enemies that had already conquered most of Europe and Asia. President Harry S. Truman would say of Marshall’s role as U.S. Army chief of staff during World War II: “Millions of Americans gave their country outstanding service….George C. Marshall gave it victory.” Although Truman’s statement is true, the reality is that by bringing about the Benning Revolution, Marshall began shaping the American war effort and contributing to the Allied victory more than a decade before the first shots were fired in Europe. MHQ
Benjamin Runkle is the author of Generals in the Making: How Marshall, Eisenhower, Patton, and Their Peers Became the Commanders Who Won World War II, 1919–1941 (Stackpole Books, 2019).
This article appears in the Autumn 2019 issue (Vol. 32, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Behind the Lines | The Gospel According to Marshall
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