Belleau Wood, Soissons, and St. Mihiel. The 2nd’s composition—half U.S. Army, half U.S. Marine Corps—set the unit apart from other divisions. Its 3rd Brigade consisted of the 9th and 23rd Infantry regiments and the 5th Machine Gun Battalion—all Army units—while its 4th Marine Brigade included the 5th and 6th Marines and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. Further differentiating the division was that its commander, Major General John A. Lejeune, was a Marine.
The 2nd Division had fought under French control at Belleau Wood and Soissons before serving under American Expeditionary Forces commander General John A. Pershing for the assault on the St. Mihiel salient. But on 23 September, while the division was resting near Toul, Lejeune received word that it again would serve under the French. It had been ordered to reinforce the French Fourth Army for its advance alongside Pershing’s U.S. First Army during the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Lejeune soon learned that the French command was considering breaking up his division and using the pieces to reinforce its own formations, which were ravaged and worn out by continuous fighting and heavy casualties. To preclude this from happening, the general proposed that the 2nd Division lead the assault against the most formidable obstacle in the Fourth Army’s sector: Blanc Mont (White Mountain). “If the 2nd Division is kept together as a unit and is allowed to attack on a narrow front, I am confident that it can take Blanc Mont Ridge in a single assault,” Lejeune argued. The French concurred and issued movement orders.
“We entrained,” noted Private James Hatcher of the 84th Company, 3d Battalion, 6th Marines (3/6), “crowding into the 40 and 8 [railroad cars carrying 40 men or 8 horses] and after many hours of crowding and quarreling over mashed toes and bruised ears, we detrained and made another of those long marches, for which the American troops became famous.” On the night of 1–2 October, the 4th Marine Brigade relieved the French 61st Division and one battalion of the 21st Division along the front line near the village of Sommepy, 25 miles west of Rheims. The 2nd Division’s 3rd Brigade was several miles back in reserve. “It was dark as pitch and the ditches were full of dead Boche and Frenchmen,” noted First Lieutenant Clifton Cates, commanding officer of the 96th Company, 2/6.
When dawn broke, the Marines could see what they had inherited: “The debris of battle was still lying about,” Lejeune would recall, “broken cannon and machine guns, rifles, bayonets, helmets, parts of uniforms, articles of military equipment, and partly buried horses, [and] most gruesome of all, fragments of human bodies . . . arms and legs thrust out of the torn soil.” To the Marines’ front were the German positions on the slope of Blanc Mont, which was littered with the corpses of French soldiers, grim reminders of several unsuccessful attacks.
Plan of Attack
Rising 250 feet above the surrounding terrain, Blanc Mont Ridge, a sloping chalk-limestone height covered with splintered scrub pines and heavy underbrush, was the highest and most heavily fortified position in the Champagne region. The ridge dominated the entire area. The Germans had held this scarred and shell-pocked high ground for four years and used that time to turn it into a veritable fortress with fortified machine-gun nests, an intricate maze of deep trenches, concrete fortifications, and interlaced, tangled masses of rusty barbed wire. According to Marine historian Robert Debs Heinl Jr., “The ground before Blanc Mont was a festering charnel house churned by four years’ shelling and putrid with the flotsam of lost divisions: ‘A place,’ commented one Marine, ‘just built for calamities.’”
The 2nd Division’s initial objective was a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of road that ran along Blanc Mont Ridge and to the Médéah Farm, on the right. The task of directly assaulting Blanc Mont fell to the Marines. Several hundred German troops from the 51st Reserve Division and 200th Division were dug in on the ridge, while two battalions of the 235th Reserve Infantry Regiment occupied an outpost line about two miles in front of the ridge. The 18th Jäger Infantry Battalion and other German troops occupied enfilading positions on the left of the Marine advance. The French considered Blanc Mont impregnable.
The brigade’s plan was to attack in a column of regiments: the 6th Marines followed in support by the 5th Marines, which would pass through the 6th and continue the attack if necessary. The 5th Marines also was to protect the left flank of the 6th Marines. Each of the regiments’ three battalions would be in column formation; the 6th Marines’ 2d Battalion would lead the advance, followed by the 1st and then the 3d battalions. A French tank battalion was assigned to support each regiment with one company (12 tanks). The assault was to be preceded by a short, violent five-minute artillery barrage by 200 guns, primarily 75-mms, followed by a rolling barrage, moving 100 meters every four minutes to keep pace with the troops. Heavier 155-mm howitzers would continue to pound Blanc Mont, while longer-barreled guns fired on German positions well in the rear.
To the 4th Marine Brigade’s right, separated by a mile-wide interval, the 2nd Division’s 3rd Brigade would advance and converge with the Marines along the Blanc Mont–Médéah Farm road. The French 167th Division would cover the 3rd Brigade’s right flank, while the French 21st Division was to advance on the Leathernecks’ left.
Over the Top
Marine noncommissioned officers prowled the lines shaking the men awake, although very few were asleep on the gray and chilly morning of 3 October. “Two or three hours before daylight, the word was passed along to get ready for the attack,” Private Carl Brannen, 80th Company, 2/6, recalled. “Everyone checked his bayonet to see that it was fastened on good . . . ammunition was inspected, and the flaps of the [cartridge] belt unhooked so that a fresh clip could be gotten into the rifle quickly.” A light mist hung in the air over no man’s land partly concealing the shell-blasted landscape.
A company commander nervously studied his watch. The second hand crept relentlessly toward zero hour. Suddenly, French and U.S. artillery opened with a world-shaking crash. A hurricane of shell fire swept the German positions on Blanc Mont. Captain John Thomason, 1/5, wrote in Fix Bayonets: “Red and green flames broke in orderly rows where the 75s [75-mm guns] showered down on the Boche lines; great black clouds leaped up where the larger shells fell roaring. The hillside and the wood were all veiled in low-hanging smoke, and the flashes came redly through the cloud.”
Private Brannen, whose 80th Company was to spearhead the Marines’ attack along with the 79th Company, recalled that the men were told, “When the barrage lifts, go in and take them.” Whistles blew, the signal to start the assault. “We came out of our trench and began the ascent in combat formation,” he added.
Wave after wave of the 6th Marines went forward in perfect formation. But they immediately came under heavy flanking fire from the Essen Hook, an elaborate maze of German trenches to their left that the French 21st Division had failed to capture. Captain Thomason wrote:
All at once there was a snapping and crackling in the air—a corporal spun round and collapsed limply, while his blouse turned red under his gasmask—the man beside him stumbled and went down, swearing through grayish lips at a shattered knee . . . all faces turned toward the flank. “Machine guns on the left!”
Captain Leroy P. Hunt’s 17th Company, 5th Marines, was ordered to eliminate the threat. Together with a platoon from the 8th Machine Gun Company led by Second Lieutenant Alfred Wilkinson and a 37-mm gun, Hunt’s men launched an attack. Several French tanks supported them by smashing through the German defensive wire and knocking out weapons. Within minutes Wilkinson’s men had silenced four enemy machine guns. Meanwhile, Hunt led his company through a covered trench to within 350 yards of the enemy trenches.
Under covering fire from Wilkinson’s machine guns, Lieutenant Edward C. Lindgren’s 4th Platoon hit the Germans from the flank, while the Lieutenant Gillis Johnson’s 1st Platoon and Lieutenant Jacob Lienhard’s 2d Platoon made a frontal assault. Both Lindgren and Lienhard were wounded severely but continued to lead their men. As the attack reached the German positions, “the Boche surrendered, more than 100 taken prisoner,” Lindgren reported. The prisoners were handed over to the French, who then assumed responsibility for the Essen Hook, and the 17th Company rejoined the assault on Blanc Mont. That afternoon, the Germans would counterattack and regain the trenches; their gunfire would again harass the Marines’ flank until the 5th Marines settled the argument.
Into the Fire
The Marine formations rapidly were advancing up the slope of Blanc Mont—2 regiments, 6 battalions, 24 companies, a total of more than 5,000 Marines—following the rolling barrage as it swept over German positions. Machine-gun fire from many enemy dugouts scattered on Blanc Mont’s southern slope was murderously heavy. Private First Class John J. Kelly, a runner in the 78th Company, 2/6, spotted one of the German machine-gun positions and charged toward it through the friendly artillery barrage. He put the machine gunner out of action with a hand grenade, shot another member of the gun crew with his pistol, and forced eight others to surrender. Corporal John H. Pruitt, also of the 78th, captured two Maxim machine guns, killing their crews and taking 40 prisoners. Both men would receive the Medal of Honor. Pruitt was killed later that day.
German shell fire rained down all along the line of advance. Shrapnel felled dozens of Marines, and then another terror burst “like giant firecrackers and spread what looked like red hot iron from a blast furnace,” Private Albert J. Campbell of the 80th Company wrote. The explosions turned out to be white phosphorous shells, which caused horrible burns on exposed skin. Captain Thomason reported seeing poisonous gas shells explode in puffs of yellow smoke. Still, the assault plunged ahead, leaving a trail of crumpled figures in its wake. A German battalion diary noted, “The enemy, unmindful of the heavy losses, approached within a very short distance of our lines.”
The Marines’ decimated skirmish line reached what they thought was the crest of Blanc Mont and fired Very pistol flares, signaling that the ridge had been taken. Unfortunately, they were wrong. With the 21st Division’s assault stalled, German machine gunners continued to man the western edge of the ridge. As more men arrived on the ridge, they began digging the defenders out of their dugouts. Lieutenant James Sellers, the 78th Company’s commander, recalled, “If they [Germans] came up, we took them prisoner, and if not, we threw a grenade down and continued on, leaving the dugout for the outfits coming behind to clean up.”
The Marines dug in and waited for the inevitable counterattack. Because the French had not kept pace, the entire left flank of the brigade was wide open, necessitating that some units deploy facing west. On the other flank, however, the 3rd Brigade’s Doughboys had reached the Blanc Mont–Médéah Farm road and were likewise digging in. Just before noon, the German 149th Infantry Battalion launched a counterattack against the left flank of the 2d Battalion, 6th Marines, held by Lieutenant Cates’ 96th Company.
“We slaughtered them and they did not gain an inch,” Cates said. “It was a grand day for the old 96th Company.”
Late in the afternoon, General Lejeune ordered the division to continue its advance. On the right, the 3rd Brigade’s 23rd Infantry Regiment advanced about a mile under heavy artillery fire with both flanks exposed before digging in for the night. On the left, the 5th Marines were to pass through the 6th’s lines and lead the advance. But with many of its units facing west to defend that vulnerable flank and some of its battalion commanders unable to locate their companies, the 5th was in a state of confusion, and its attack was postponed until the next morning.
Carnage in ‘the Box’
Early on 4 October, the 5th Marines stepped off, attacking toward the town of St. Etienne. Amid heavy machine-gun and shell fire, the regiment was able to come abreast of the 3rd Brigade. That afternoon, the 5th’s 1st Battalion, which had deployed on the regiment’s hard-pressed left flank, pushed forward and seized a hill on the southeastern outskirts of St. Etienne where the Germans had deployed artillery and 21-cm mortars. The Marines immediately found themselves exposed to enemy fire from three directions. Private Elton E. Mackin of the battalion’s 66th Company wrote: “It was a deadly place. With good reason did the hundred-odd survivors who came out of there name it in their memory ‘The Box.’”
The regimental history noted:
October 4th was the bitterest single day of fighting that the Fifth Regiment experienced during the whole war. The advance that day was over difficult terrain in the face of the densest barrage of shell and machine gun fire that the Marines ever had to face. The left flank was continually exposed and the advancing waves were exposed to a merciless enfilading fire.
That night, 1/5 fell back to the position it had held at midday, alongside the rest of its regiment and the 3rd Brigade. The 1st Battalion numbered just 156 men, including the walking wounded, out of the 1,000 who started out that morning. The other two battalions were not much better off. So many dead Marines littered the battlefield that 50 men recently released from the hospital were pressed into service as grave diggers. “We buried men from eleven PM until three AM,” Sergeant Gus Gulberg, 75th Company, 1/6, recorded in his diary. Captain Thomason wrote plaintively, “We were shot to pieces in the Champagne—I never enjoyed the war afterward.” The decimated 5th Marines were placed in reserve for the remainder of the battle.
More Fighting and Relief
The 6th Marines, supported by heavy artillery fire, resumed the advance at 0615 on 5 October. Fighting for the next two days was severe and casualties were heavy. The regiment’s lead battalion was down to only 300 men at the end of the second day. The division by this time was about fought out.
On the night of 6–7 October, the Army’s 142nd Infantry, 36th “Cowboy” Division, took control of the 4th Marine Brigade’s front lines. The 5th Marines withdrew to the rear, while the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, stayed with the relieving units to give them the benefit of their combat experience. First Lieutenant Sellers noted, “As soon as the doughboys moved in, the battle-weary Marines scared them to death with the gory tales of our experiences.”
For all intents and purposes, the 4th Marine Brigade’s fight for Blanc Mont was over. In five days of combat, it had suffered 494 killed and 1,864 wounded in action. What Private Mackin wrote about the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, equally applied to the brigade’s other units: “The battalion had come back from Blanc Mont Ridge. No,” he corrected himself, “the battalion was still up there.”
George B. Clark, Devil Dogs, Fighting Marines of World War I (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 2001).
George B. Clark, Devil Dogs Chronicle, Voices of the 4th Marine Brigade in World War I (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2013).
Elton E. Mackin, Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die, Memoirs of a World War I Marine (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993).
Maj Edwin N. McClellan, USMC, The United States Marine Corps in the World War, updated rev. 3d ed. (Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014).
William W. Sellers and George B. Clark, eds., World War I Memoirs of Lieutenant Colonel James McBrayer Sellers, USMC (Pike, NH: The Brass Hat, 1997).
BGEN Edwin Howard Simmons, USMC (Ret.), and COL Joseph H. Alexander, USMC (Ret.), Through the Wheat; The U.S. Marines in World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008)