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Posted on Jul 23, 2015 in Books and Movies

The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I – Book Review

The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I – Book Review

By Peter L. Belmonte

fourth-marine-brigade-in-wwIThe Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I: Battalion Histories Based on Official Documents. George B. Clark. McFarland, 2015. 288 pages, photographs, maps. Paperback. $39.95.

The Fourth Brigade, part of the 2nd Division, was one of the more famous combat units in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) of the Great War. Consisting of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion (Marine), the Fourth Brigade went through five main battles: Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, Blanc Mont, and the closing days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Clark, a former Marine and an author with many historical Marine Corps books to his credit, based this history largely upon official records. The book is not footnoted until Chapter 3, and then it is only sparsely footnoted. Thus, in most cases, we cannot know precisely where a given quote or information comes from. While we may assume that an operations report or field message is the origin of some data, there is nothing to tell us where we may find that information. Quotes, including entire block quotations, are left un-footnoted with no indication as to the origin of the material. Probably most of the information comes from the ten-volume Records of the Second Division, listed in the bibliography, which is grist for the Marine Corps enthusiast’s mill.

The book is divided into eight chapters; the first chapter gives an overview of the Fourth Brigade’s history as a whole. Each of the rest of the chapters covers one of the battalions of the brigade, plus the brigade’s machine gun battalion. Each chapter is in turn arranged chronologically in a style reminiscent of a diary or log, with narrative falling under a given day or range of days. This arrangement makes for a disjointed overall history of the brigade; it is difficult to get the feel of how the battalions fit into the division’s role during a battle. The narrative falls into recording what seem like disjointed events without the benefit of broader context. Furthermore, the battalion/chapter arrangement ensures an amount of repetition because the same background must be repeated for each battalion, and each battle is “fought” seven times. There are many fine photographs included, and the maps are adequate, although I would prefer more maps with greater detail. Surprisingly, neither the photographs nor the maps are credited.

With all that being said, it should be recognized that the author, an expert on this subject, has made an important effort to document the history of this brigade. The original sources, field messages in particular, capture the confusion and flavor of combat as experienced by the junior officers in the brigade. Historians interested in the Fourth Brigade are fortunate to have available an abundance of its field messages (or at least copies thereof). Readers who are not familiar with these messages will find those quoted in the book to be an enlightening window on the world of AEF combat.

Likewise, there are some interesting tidbits to be gleaned from the extensive array of operations reports included. One example, which illustrated how the AEF learned “on the fly,” is a report written by Lt. Col. Frederick M. Wise, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, after fighting at Belleau Wood. Wise’s enumeration of twenty-three lessons learned is quoted in full and provides some interesting reading.  What also comes through in these messages and reports is that, especially in the early battles, command and control issues plagued even the vaunted Marines. Platoons and companies became lost and diverged from their intended path as battalion commanders anxiously sought information via runners. It’s also interesting to see the degree of involvement at Belleau Wood by the brigade commander, Brigadier General James G. Harbord (US Army). Harbord wasn’t shy about sending messages directly to battalion and even company commanders, bypassing regimental commanders.

Despite the issues and troubles, which were common to all units fighting in World War I, the 2nd Division succeeded in making an enviable record (although, it must be said, at a great cost in casualties). Most historians agree that it was one of the two best divisions in the AEF (the other being the First Division), and the Fourth Brigade did its part to earn that reputation. The success of the brigade can in part be attributed to the personal heroism of its officers and men. The author, probably using award citations or recommendations, has carefully recorded the heroic feats of individual Marines, soldiers, and Navy corpsmen; this is a valuable contribution to the history of the brigade and a fine tribute to brave men.

This book will appeal to readers who are interested in the Marine Corps. For those who are not familiar with the 2nd Division, it might be helpful to first read a history of that division (for example, The Battery Press’s 1989 reprint of The Second Division, American Expeditionary Force in France, 1917-1919). That history, although a bit dry in places, will help put the action described in Clark’s book in context.

Peter L. Belmonte is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and freelance historian. A veteran of Operation Desert Storm, he has written extensively on immigration and military history, and his current studies focus on the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. His most recent book, Days of Perfect Hell: The 26th U.S. Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November, 1918, will be released by Schiffer Books in October.