At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchpad: Memoir of a United States Marine in World War I
Louis C. Linn; Laura Jane Linn Wright, and B. J. Omanson, Eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2012. 189 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index.
Reviewed by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
Private Louis C. Linn was a 23-year-old rifleman in the 4th Marine Brigade, 2d U.S. Infantry Division during the fighting in northern France in the final months of World War I. Before the war, he had learned how to sketch during art lessons at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. When Congress declared war on Germany in 1917, Linn quit his job with the U.S. Geodetic Survey and enlisted in the Marine Corps, and in December he sailed to France with the Marine Brigade’s machine-gun battalion.
In June 1918, the Marine Brigade helped reverse the last German offensive against Paris during the touchstone battle for Belleau Wood. During the ensuing Allied counteroffensive, the Marines fought at Soissons, Blanc Mont, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne. The performance of the Marine Brigade in sustained, front-line combat represented a major turning point for a Corps historically deployed as seagoing light infantry. The accolades were dearly earned: The brigade sustained more casualties the first day of Belleau Wood than the combined total of the preceding 143 years of Corps history.
Private Linn’s immersion in this vortex of high explosives, poison gas, and unerring machine-gun fire lasted barely seven weeks. He emerged unscathed from the hell of Belleau Wood, but was severely wounded at Soissons and again at St. Mihiel. He returned home in 1919 with two awards of the Croix de Guerre, persistent nightmares, and a year’s worth of pencil sketches of the people he met and the fighting he experienced.
After ten years of wrestling with his battlefield demons, Linn sought emotional release by writing a series of personal vignettes of his service—more a collection of impressions than a chronological journal. He illustrated the text with his original on-the-scene sketches, enhanced in many cases by more detailed woodcuts, created in his postwar evolution as a professional artist. The private memoir remained in the family for decades after Linn’s death in 1947, until his daughter, Laura Jane Linn Wright, published the Soissons chapter in a 2003 edition of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History Encouraged by readers’ responses, she invited military historian B. J. Omanson to research her father’s combat service with the 77th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion and interpolate the essential geographic and operational settings. The result is this illuminating yet haunting chronicle.
Authentic combat accounts published by enlisted Marines who fought in World War I are scarce. Among the first to appear was Sergeant Martin Gulberg’s 50-page memoir, A War Diary, published in 1927. Private Carl A. Brannen, like Gulberg a veteran of the 6th Marines, wrote the fragments of his war recollections in the 1930s, later annotated by historians Rolfe L. Hillman Jr. and Peter F. Owen and published in 1996 as Over There: A Marine in the Great War. Private Elton E. Mackin, a veteran of the 5th Marines, wrote a sparkling postwar account, later annotated by historian George B. Clark and published in 1993 as Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die. Louis Linn’s bluntly honest and unsparing narrative is a worthy addition to this anthology.
Linn’s stories are as episodic and impressionistic as his art, devoid of the strategic or political tides of the war. To his credit, he restricts his focus to what he saw, heard, smelled, or thought within the proverbial “50-foot circle,” whether on the march, in the assault, or standing watch. He speaks not of glory, heroism, or sacrifice, but takes pleasure in simple joys—sharing purloined honey or cognac with fellow infantrymen, sketching a lovely French nurse, a pair of dry socks, a day without dying.
Linn’s narrative increasingly reflects the cumulative casualties in the ranks and the eerie randomness of death. He was resolute enough in attacking the Germans across the open terrain at Soissons, but once he was wounded and evacuated rearward to await a field ambulance, he was acutely afraid that the German shells would find him as he lay helpless on a stretcher. “My nerve was now gone, and I was in mortal terror of the guns,” he wrote.
As thoroughly as Linn describes his experiences at Soissons, he is taciturn about the three-week battle for Belleau Wood, providing only a single vignette about a night watch early in the battle. Exhausted and insensible following a charge across yet another wheat-field against German Maxim machine guns to seize a new salient of the hunting preserve, Linn describes the midnight silence of the battlefield, broken by delirious cries of dying Marines somewhere in the trampled wheat, all the while gazing into the sightless eyes of a dead German lying in front of his position. His spare reflection speaks volumes.
Linn’s illustrated memoirs, professionally annotated and finally published 94 years after Belleau Wood and Soissons, provide fresh reminders of the horrors of total war and the imperishability of the human spirit. This book serves that purpose well.
In Passage Perilous: Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942
Vincent P. O’Hara. Bloomington, IL: Indiana University Press, 2013. 265 pp. Maps. Illus. Tables. Appendix. Notes. Biblio. Index. $35.00.
Reviewed by Commander James C. Rentfrow, U.S. Navy
Like, I suspect, many who teach naval history, I tend to dwell on the Pacific theater when considering the year 1942. After having thoroughly exhausted discussion of Coral Sea, Midway, and Guadalcanal, I devote a couple of minutes to mentioning the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. In closing, I might mumble a word or two about the importance of the sea lines of communication in the Mediterranean. With his new book, In Passage Perilous: Malta and the Convoy Battles of June 1942, Vincent O’Hara brings an important corrective to short-sighted Americanists like me.
In Passage Perilous reminds us, first and foremost, that Great Britain’s war was not simply one with an antagonist across the English Channel, but was an imperial war in which the worldwide lines of communication with her colonies were of the utmost importance. The island of Malta figured prominently in this calculus. A British stronghold in the Mediterranean since 1800, Malta sat athwart Britain’s access to the strategically vital Suez Canal and the Axis supply lines to the North African front. Cut off from the British base at Gibraltar and threatened by both Italian and German forces, by 1942 the tiny garrison at Malta was in danger of either being starved out or overrun by the enemy. The decision was made to send a series of armed convoys to resupply Malta, both through the Suez Canal as well as eastward from Gibraltar. In Passage Perilous is the story of those attempts.
O’Hara opens with chapters that provide important context and background to the reader. He argues that Great Britain’s decision to fight in the Mediterranean and North Africa in 1942, while facing the threat of a cross-channel invasion and sustaining devastating losses throughout the empire, was predicated on Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s political sense that “there must be action, even if not always useful.” Therein lies the historical debate: Was the ultimately successful effort expended to defend Malta at all costs a good strategic decision? On this question, O’Hara maintains his professional detachment; nonetheless, he demonstrates convincingly in the ensuing chapters the enormous cost to the British Empire of sustaining Malta’s garrison.
The narrative centers on the two massive convoys attempted in June 1942: Operation Vigorous from the east and Operation Harpoon from the west. On 12–13 June, a total of 11 merchant vessels sailed west from the Levant for Malta. They were supported by 43 warships and 17 submarines under Mediterranean Fleet Commander-in-Chief Admiral Harry Harwood. Vigorous was an abysmal failure. Forced to turn back, the convoy limped into Alexandria, Egypt, having lost a cruiser, three destroyers, and two of the merchant ships, with others heavily damaged. The attempt from the west faired little better. Operation Harpoon consisted of 6 merchantmen supported by some 30 warships of various sizes commanded by the Home Fleet second-in-command, Vice Admiral Alban T. B. Curteis. After three days of harrowing battle, two merchant vessels arrived at Malta, one of which promptly struck a British mine, damaging some of the precious cargo. To borrow a phrase from Churchill, this was not the Royal Navy’s “finest hour.”
One of the strong points of this book is the foregrounding of the Italian navy’s contribution to the Axis war effort in the Mediterranean. Rather than dwell on the shortcomings of the British commanders, which is the standard English-language treatment, O’Hara properly gives the Italian navy the credit it is due. He especially notes the success of Italian Admirals Angelo Iachino and Alberto Da Zara. O’Hara’s extensive work in Italian-language primary sources is evident and fills a lacuna in the literature. Perhaps more important, though, this book gives the reader a real sense of the sheer complexity and chaotic nature of war at sea. O’Hara’s narrative exposes how the detailed coordination of land and carrier-based aircraft, surface forces, submarines, and merchant vessels is wrecked by contact with the enemy.
It is a story, on both sides, of making decisions under pressure, overcoming insufficient intelligence and battle losses, and executing the mission to the fullest extent possible. To this end, the reader would have benefited from a few more maps, as even the most deliberate attempts to keep track of the various forces eventually broke down to a confused mental jumble of units arriving on scene from all over the Mediterranean and engaging in desperate combat. I found that keeping Google Earth open on my tablet helped. In all, In Passage Perilous is an important and highly recommended addition to the literature on World War II in the Mediterranean.
Ready Seapower: A History of the U.S. Seventh Fleet
Edward J. Marolda. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012. 211 pp. Photos. Maps. Biblio. Index. $37.00
Reviewed by Captain Craig C. Felker, U.S. Navy
During his tenure as director of Naval History, Rear Admiral Jay DeLoach sought to reorient the Naval Historical Center’s mission to more actively support the Navy. Re-designating the organization as the “Naval History and Heritage Command” (NHHC) reflected a direct relationship between the historians and the Fleet. In effect, DeLoach meant to “operationalize” U.S. naval history and make it of practical value to the service. While DeLoach has since left the NHHC, it’s book Ready Seapower embodies his vision of providing officers and sailors an understanding of the historical context behind contemporary maritime issues and operations.
DeLoach could not have selected a more qualified historian than Edward Marolda for the task. A former senior historian of the Navy and prolific author, Marolda’s 40-plus years of scholarship and experience with the service is evident in this work. The book successfully fulfills the NHHC’s emphasis on providing Navy commands with an interesting and colorful explanation of the origins and contributions of the 7th Fleet.
While American naval presence in the Pacific dates back to the age of sail, the establishment of a numbered fleet was a consequence of the unique operating environment there in World War II. Mahanian inclinations had to be modified when it became clear that the Pacific would be divided between Army- and Navy-led campaigns. The obvious necessity of providing General Douglas MacArthur naval support became the principal raison d’être for the 7th Fleet. But its establishment also permitted the Navy’s valuable fast carriers to fight unhindered by the Army and the dangers of operating in South Pacific littorals.
Marolda observes that victory over Japan might have settled one war, but issues from decades of tension in the western Pacific warranted sustained Navy presence. While a clear thesis was unnecessary for the book’s purpose, implied is that following the war, the 7th Fleet offered American presidents a ready means of maintaining stability and responding to crises in the region. Supplemented by illustrations and colorful vignettes, Marolda’s narrative is one of continuous challenges for 7th Fleet commanders and sailors in peace, war, and operations other than war. The fleet was the principal means of lift and support for UN forces fighting in Korea. It provided the only conventional military power against Mao Tse-tung’s attempts to coerce Nationalist Taiwan into the communist fold, and played a significant role against Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in Vietnam. And, as the Soviet navy ascended in the 1970s, its threat to Pacific stability was an important drivers for the development of a maritime strategy emphasizing that Europe should not overshadow the strategic importance of the Pacific.
Ready Seapower concludes by noting that the end of the Cold War was a transition point for new challenges in the western Pacific. The violent manifestation of Islamist extremism extended the 7th Fleet’s operating area into the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Maritime piracy required commanders to use the fleet as a means to rally support from regional states to combat threats relevant to all. Exercises with South Korea and deployment of ballistic-missile-defense platforms provide a means of preventing North Korean bluster from becoming outright aggression. And the rise of China has once again pointed out the importance of U.S. naval presence, as uninhabited islands become catalysts for reviving age-old rivalries and tensions between western Pacific players.
Marolda’s work clearly succeeds as a means of connecting the Navy’s past to its present. Its only shortcoming, a consequence of design rather than intent, is its limited analytical depth. Readers, particularly those in uniform, would be wise to look within the narrative to find the larger questions of U.S. Navy policy and strategy in the region that Marolda leaves unaddressed. The 7th Fleet’s reputation as America’s ready force in the Pacific also reveals the historical limitations of naval power that ought to inform contemporary decision makers. The fleet was but one part of a larger Pacific campaign against the Japanese. U.S. Navy presence in the region failed to prevent Chiang Kai-shek’s expulsion from China, could not resolve war on the Korean Peninsula beyond status quo ante, or deter reunification of Vietnam under communist rule.
The past can indeed be a useful means of understanding the present. As the war in Afghanistan winds down, and the United States implements its “strategic pivot” back to the western Pacific, Ready Seapower is a reminder to service leaders that the Navy’s relevance in an increasingly volatile region will depend not just on platforms, weaponry, or even good intentions, but also on clear national policy and coherent strategy.
Churchill and Seapower
Christopher M. Bell. Oxford University Press, 2012. 432 pp. Illus. Maps. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Timothy E. Cloke
A study into the relationship between Winston Churchill and the Royal Navy is not a new concept; his role as a naval strategist has been plagued with controversy since his part in the Dardanelles campaign of 1915. Churchill and Seapower therefore enters a very crowded field of scholarly research, and it would be fair to ask whether there is anything new to add.
Christopher M. Bell does provide us with a seemingly fresh perspective on Churchill, examining some of the most significant episodes in his career and giving a more balanced assessment of his conduct and of the complex and at times strained relationships with his advisers and colleagues. It attempts to dispel some of the entrenched myths about Churchill’s relationship with the Royal Navy and shows that many of the more common criticisms have been exaggerated or misplaced. Drawing on key archival material and numerous secondary sources, readers are given both an even-handed and thorough insight into his decision-making process.
Churchill’s relationship with the Royal Navy has been the victim of much criticism; by many he is still regarded as an overbearing and meddling strategist who was far too prone to overriding his professional advisers and pursuing grand, yet ultimately impractical schemes of his own choosing. These revisionist sentiments are exemplified by the disastrous attempt to force the Dardanelles in 1915, a campaign Churchill was the primary force behind. Bell does not attempt to defend Churchill’s part in this, indicating that he clearly made mistakes; rather, he puts Churchill’s actions into perspective, noting, “he was one voice among many on the War Council, and he did not always have the final say.”
Similar arguments are leveled against Churchill’s actions in World War II, the failed amphibious operations in Norway and the ill-fated dispatch of Force Z to Singapore being two notable examples. Likewise, in these cases Bell convincingly demonstrates that Churchill’s culpability has again been exaggerated and his role distorted. In contrast, he maintains that Churchill’s greatest error was in fact the decision to divert air resources to Strategic Bombing at the expense of Coastal Command, which undoubtedly prolonged the Battle of the Atlantic. What makes this tome so engaging is the author’s ability to expose the criticisms that have been exaggerated, yet highlight those that have perhaps been overlooked, a task Bell does to great effect.
Churchill’s faith in the navy as an offensive weapon was severely weakened by its limited achievements in World War I. As chancellor of the Exchequer in the interwar years, Churchill has often been criticized as being inconsistent, a result of the excessive cuts in naval spending he put in place during his time at the Treasury, but Bell demonstrates that this argument is too simplistic. Naval expenditure was only cut after careful assessment of the international situation and, most important, Britain’s strategic requirements. In this case Churchill believed it was in Britain’s best interest to limit naval expenditure, specifically in the Far East, and instead rely on the United States if any conflict were to occur in that theater.
Bell shows how the “special relationship” with America was chiefly of Churchill’s design, acknowledging the vital role America would play in any future war and cementing British naval strategy on that cooperation. Churchill came to see the Royal Navy’s role as mostly defensive in northern Europe and the Mediterranean with the start of the Second World War, insisting it should be maintained at the lowest ship level only necessary to perform a defensive role while resources were best directed to air power. Churchill, who had a deep regard for the Royal Navy, was practical and unsentimental when it came to its strategic role.
Churchill’s evolution as a maritime strategist has often been overlooked by his critics, however Bell provides us with an exceptionally readable and detailed narrative charting Churchill’s career. Those in the pro- or anti-Churchill camps will not struggle to find common ground in Bell’s interpretation of events. Regardless of which corner one falls into, Churchill and Seapower is a worthy addition to the collection of anyone interested in the naval history of the 20th century.