Rock of the Marne: The American Soldiers Who Turned the Tide Against the Kaiser in World War I – Book Review
Rock of the Marne: The American Soldiers Who Turned the Tide Against the Kaiser in World War I. by Stephen L. Harris (Berkely Caliber, 2015), 348 pages.
One year into the centennial of World War I (1914-1918), publishers have turned from presenting a flood of books on the war’s root causes and how it erupted in the summer of 1914 to subjects covering how it was fought on the war’s battlefields. Stephen Harris’s Rock of the Marne moves the action ahead to the Western Front’s penultimate battle in 1918 – the Second Battle of the Marne. Fought from July 15 to August 6, the battle pitted 52 German divisions against 44 French, 8 American, 4 British and 2 Italian divisions along the Marne River about 50 miles northeast of Paris. During the opening phase of the battle, the initial German assault crossing of the Marne, the stubborn defense against overwhelming odds mounted by a regiment of the 3d U.S. Infantry Division earned that outfit its everlasting “Rock of the Marne” nickname. Harris’s book is an outstanding and detailed account of that desperate combat and the pivotal role the 3d Division played in ultimately defeating the German attack.
Desperate in Spring 1918 to win the war on the Western Front before the American Expeditionary Forces would make Allied victory inevitable by reaching full strength (by Armistice Day, 2 million U.S. soldiers were in France), General Erich Ludendorff – in charge of Germany’s war effort and by that time virtually the country’s military ruler — launched a series of powerful offensives. The Second Battle of the Marne was precipitated by Ludendorff’s fourth and final offensive, hitting a 50-mile section of the front line along the Marne River. Following on the heels of a devastating three-hour artillery barrage, German assault troops swarmed across the river and advanced 4 miles into Allied lines – except for the sector held by 3d Division’s 38th Infantry Regiment. The regiment held vital wooded high ground on the Marne’s south bank for 21 hours, blunting the German attack in that key sector and significantly contributing to the overall failure of Ludendorff’s final offensive. On July 18, the Allies counterattacked, pushed German troops back north of the Marne and set the stage for the final, war-winning Allied offensive (August 8-November 11, 1918).
Harris’s book abounds with genuine heroes of the “Rock of the Marne’s” epic stand. These include First Lieutenant George P. Hays, 10th Field Artillery, who braved the German barrage multiple times — seven horses were shot from under him and he was severely wounded — and whose actions brought him the Medal of Honor (during World War II Hays commanded 10th Mountain Division and he retired in 1953 as a Lieutenant General). But Harris is clearly most impressed with the 38th Infantry Regiment’s commander who became the heart and soul of his regiment’s defensive stand. With the magnificently martial name of Ulysses Grant McAlexander, the 54-year old colonel was an 1887 West Point graduate who saw his first combat fighting Indians on the Western Frontier and had fought in the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurgency. During the July 15-17 fighting, McAlexander seemed to be everywhere, exposing himself to German artillery and machine gun fire to reposition his battalions and companies, and through personal example encouraging his officers and soldiers to persevere in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. McAlexander’s inspirational leadership throughout the battle was the vital element in the “Rock of the Marne’s” victory (McAlexander was promoted to Brigadier General in August 1918, commanded a brigade in the 90th Infantry Division in the war’s final offensive, and retired in 1924 as a Major General).
As a historian of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, this reviewer was particularly interested in the portion of Harris’s book recounting the actions during the battle of several companies of the 109th and 110th Infantry Regiments of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division which were assigned individually to French divisions deployed on the 3d Infantry Division’s right flank. In an eerie “preview” of the fate that would befall these regiments just over 26 years later in World War II, several companies of the Pennsylvanians were overrun and destroyed while fighting to protect 3d Infantry Division’s flank – a sacrifice the regiments would repeat in December 1944 during the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge when the 109th and 110th Infantry Regiments were nearly destroyed slowing the German advance on Bastogne long enough for the 101st Airborne Division to arrive to defend the vital crossroads town.
Stephen Harris’s Rock of the Marne is an excellent account of the 3d Infantry Division’s combat during the battle, and the author’s skilled, well-written narrative covers all aspects – from the “big picture” operational/strategic level down to the actions and experiences of numerous individual soldiers. This book is highly recommended for those interested in a detailed account of an important World War I battle, the experiences of the American Expeditionary Forces, or anyone who just wants to read a stirring account of brave men in desperate combat.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, HISTORYNET Editor at Large. His latest book is “Generals of the Bulge: Leadership in the U.S. Army’s Greatest Battle” (Stackpole, 2015).