Major General John A. Lejeune, U.S. Marine Corps, 13th Commandant of the Marine Corps (1920–1929)

The American Saint-Mihiel Offensive: 12–19 September 1918

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 presented the United States Marine Corps (USMC) with a peculiar challenge to its ethos, mission, and modes of operating. Accustomed to service with the fleet, Marines had largely deployed as security detachments ashore or onboard Navy ships, sometimes as landing forces, hastily assembled for crisis response and committed for limited durations. Yet, as the war in Europe unfolded, it was clear that the 20th century would bring a new kind of warfare, far larger in scope than the Marines were used to, involving millions of men and mountains of materiel, in land-based struggles far from the littorals and the seas.

Thus, when the United States entered the fray in Europe in April 1917, Marine commandant Major General George Barnett pressed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to include Marines in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Despite the misgivings of senior U.S. Army commanders, one of whom referred to the Marines as “a bunch of adventurers, illiterates, and drunkards,” two regiments of the Marine Corps, the 5th and 6th Marines, were formed as the 4th Marine Brigade for service with the U.S. Army in Europe. Barnett viewed this initiative as so important to the future of the Marine Corps that he detailed his most trusted officer, Brigadier General John Archer Lejeune, to oversee the formation and training of this expeditionary brigade.

Lejeune came from a well-established Southern family. He was born at the end of the U.S. Civil War on 10 January 1867 at the family plantation near Lacour, Louisiana after his father, Confederate States Army Captain Ovide Lejeune, returned from the American Civil War. An 1888 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Lejeune served as a Navy midshipman for two years until he obtained a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps on 25 July 1890, subsequently serving in a number of Marine Corps assignments, worldwide. He served with distinction in assignments ashore and at sea, which included Panama, the Philippines, Cuba, and Mexico. He graduated from the U.S. Army War College in 1910, where he established relationships with many U.S. Army officers, including Hunter Liggett and Fox Conner. While in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Lejeune helped found and became the first director of the Marine Corps Association. He was promoted to colonel on 25 February 1914 and served in the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, with notable fellow Marines Smedley D. Butler, Wendell C. Neville, and Littleton W. T. Waller. In December 1914 he returned to Washington, D.C. to become assistant commandant of the Marine Corps under Major General Barnett. Lejeune subsequently was promoted to brigadier general on 29 August 1916. There was no intent on Barnett’s part to place Lejeune in command of the Marine brigade. Rather, he was Barnett’s choice to succeed him as commandant.

The 4th Marine Brigade consisted of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. Each 250-man training company had two French and four Canadian officers assigned to it as advisers. Training was arduous and unrelenting. Newly enlisted Marines underwent basic training at Parris Island. Meanwhile, newly commissioned officers fresh from officer candidate school, and seasoned officers and non-commissioned officers all arrived incrementally at Quantico for advanced training. The 5th Marines were the first unit to deploy, beginning on 27 June 1917, where they were initially assigned to the U.S. Army’s 1st Division. The 6th Marines joined them on 5 October 1917, and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion arrived in France on 28 December 1917. All units were then assigned to the newly formed 2nd Division, where they would remain until 8 August 1919. Then as now, medical and morale support personnel were provided by the U.S. Navy for medical and dental officers, chaplains, and 500 medical corpsmen. Other units in the 2nd Division included the Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade, the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, the 2nd Engineer Regiment, and various service and support troops.

At first, General John J. Pershing assigned the 5th Marines to securing lines of communication and guarding supply depots. As the rest of the Marine brigade arrived in France, piecemeal, they were assigned similar duties. As units arrived and were incorporated into the 2nd Division, senior commanders found themselves shuffled between Army and Marine units as others arrived, a practice which would continue throughout the war. The brigade did not reach its full fighting strength, with 280 officers and 9,164 enlisted men, until 10 February 1918, under the command of Brigadier General Charles Doyen.

The 2nd Division was soon detailed to shore up the Allied defenses near Verdun. As British and French units redeployed in reaction to the German 1918 Spring Offensives, the 4th Marine Brigade expanded its sector to fill lines vacated by a French division. Despite the performance of the Marines in driving off German secondary attacks near Verdun, Brigadier General Doyen was relieved by General Pershing, ostensibly for failing health. He was replaced by Pershing’s chief of staff, Army Brigadier General James A. Harbord. While Harbord was an excellent officer and the Marines served under him loyally, the perception was that Pershing’s animosity toward Marines had gotten the best of him, and that the brigade would eventually be relegated to rear-echelon duties. When the German Operation BLÜCHER of 27 May–4 June appeared to threaten Paris, American 2nd and 3rd Divisions were committed to the Château-Thierry sector of the Marne River.

Harbord and his Marines were assigned to drive the Germans from a hunting preserve about 9 miles west of Château-Thierry, called Belleau Wood. In the early morning of 6 June 1918, advancing across a wheat field, the Marine brigade seized key terrain at Hill 142 and held it against repeated German counterattacks after stopping a German assault largely through well-aimed, well-timed rifle fire. As John W. Thomason recounted:

The Boche wanted Hill 142; he came, and the rifles broke him. All his batteries were in action, and always his machine-guns scoured the place, but he could not make head against the rifles. Guns he could understand; he knew all about the bombs and auto-rifles and machine-guns and trench mortars, but aimed, sustained rifle-fire, that comes from nowhere in particular and picks off men – it brought the war home to the individual and demoralized him. And trained Americans fight best with rifles.

But the thick woods remained a tangled inferno of mutually supporting German positions, skillfully organized by Major Josef Bischoff, a proficient woodsman with ample experience in expeditionary operations in German colonial Africa. The Marine brigade, joined by the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment and elements of 2nd Engineers, took two weeks of bloody, hand-to-hand fighting to secure the woods on 26 June 1918. The cost was high – 9,800 Marine and Army casualties. The astonished French renamed the woods from Bois de Belleau to Boise de la Brigade des Marines, and the impressed Germans gave the Marines their cherished nickname, “Teufelshunde” – Devil Dogs – which has long since been transformed into the grammatically incorrect “Teufelhunden.”

Lejeune, meanwhile, chafed under a sense of guilt. He repeatedly sought assignment to France, but was resisted by Barnett, who wanted him in Washington, D.C. Worse, he was not wanted in France by Pershing, who had advised Barnett that General Harbord had the 4th Marine Brigade well in hand, and any U.S. Marine general sent to France would not be assigned to any other frontline unit. Undeterred, Lejeune continued to agitate for transfer and suggested that he would take his chances in France. Barnett finally relented, and Lejeune quickly left for France on the USS Henderson, to arrive on 8 June 1918.

True to his word, Pershing refused to assign Lejeune to any forward command, and the Marine found himself relegated to observer duties with the U.S. 35th Division. The 35th Division was adjacent to the 32nd Division, commanded by Major General William G. Haan, and with Lejeune’s friend from the U.S. Army War College, Colonel W. D. Connor, as chief of staff. Lejeune was asked by V Corps commander Major General William M. Wright to accompany him on an inspection tour of the 32nd Division. Much to his surprise, Haan asked Lejeune during the visit if he would like to command the 64th Infantry Brigade, to which he readily assented. General Wright agreed with the appointment, as he no doubt felt he would be able to placate his former West Point roommate, General Pershing. Events now moved rapidly for Lejeune. General Harbord was promoted to command the 2nd Division, and Lejeune replaced Harbord on 25 July 1918. He finally achieved his dream of commanding the 4th Marine Brigade – but only for three days. Lejeune had no sooner issued an assumption of command letter when he was called to see Harbord at 2nd Division headquarters on 28 July. He was stunned to learn that Harbord had been reassigned by Pershing to command the AEF’s Services of Supply. Pershing approved that Lejeune, as the next senior officer, would temporarily assume command of the 2nd Division. As a brigadier general, the assumption was that Lejeune would only be a short-term placeholder for an Army major general. However, after a flurry of cables to the Navy Department, Lejeune was promoted to major general on 7 August 1918, to be followed in command of the 4th Brigade by his old friend, Wendell C. Neville, who also was promoted to brigadier general the same day.

After Belleau Wood and the 18–22 July Battle of Soissons during the Allied Second Battle of the Marne counteroffensive, the 2nd Division received a respite in the Marbache sector. On 2 September 1918, the division was ordered to the Saint-Mihiel salient sector, southeast of Verdun. That bulge in the lines had been an irritant to the Allies since the beginning of the war. Pershing recognized it as a proving ground for the AEF, and his planners, among them Colonel George C. Marshall, had been working on plans for reducing it since July 1918.

Lejeune’s 2nd Division was assigned to I Corps on the southern flank of the salient. It took up positions on the left of the line, adjacent to the 89th Division of IV Corps. With its Army and Marine infantry brigades, field artillery brigade, engineer regiment, and support units, the 2nd Division totaled 979 officers, 27,080 enlisted men, and 6,636 draft animals. Its equipment included 1,078 wagons, 676 motor vehicles, 74 cannon, 260 machine guns, and 48 mortar-type weapons. Lejeune trained his Marines and soldiers hard, and at the commencement of the campaign, he considered the division ready for battle.

The Franco–American plan was a simple one: on the early morning of 12 September 1918, to commence simultaneous attacks on the exposed flanks of the salient from the south and west, close on the heels of a powerful artillery preparatory barrage. The Germans already had plans for an orderly withdrawal from the salient to tighten their lines and occupy more favorable terrain. The only surprise the Germans experienced was the timing and speed of the American offensive. Nonetheless, the operation was a viable proof of concept for the AEF. Not only could the AEF react swiftly as a reinforcing or counterattack force, as the Americans had done at Château-Thierry, but it could also coordinate and conduct large-scale fire and maneuver against an entrenched enemy. On 17 September, Lejeune sent a congratulatory order to the division: “I desire to express to the officers and men my profound appreciation of their brilliant and successful attack in the recent engagement. Our Division maintained the prestige and honor of our country proudly and swept the enemy from the field.”

Subsequent to the success at Saint-Mihiel, Lejeune was surprised to find the 2nd Division detached from Liggett’s I Corps and assigned to IV Corps, to shore up the new Allied lines while I Corps redeployed to fight in the Meuse–Argonne sector. Lejeune’s disappointment, however, lasted only two days, when he received orders detailing the 2nd Division to a move to the Aisne Valley, to the west of the Argonne Forest, to report to General Henri Gouraud, commanding the French Fourth Army. As part of the general offensive along the entire Western Front, the French had been stalled by heavy fortifications atop Blanc Mont Ridge, and Foch had appealed to Pershing for assistance.

At first, Gouraud intended to split up the two American brigades and assign them as replacements for the weary French 61st and 21st Divisions. Lejeune insisted that, if left intact, the American division could take Blanc Mont. When Gouraud stressed the criticality of the key terrain there, Lejeune simply became more emphatic, a reaction that favorably impressed the old French campaigner. He forwarded Lejeune’s intention to Foch and Pétain, who approved the operational approach. On 2 October, Lejeune, Gouraud, and the French XXI Corps commander, General Stanislaus Naulin, developed a plan for the U.S. 2nd Division to attack the German fortified hill on a narrow front, behind a creeping barrage of American and French artillery.

French units would conduct supporting attacks on both flanks. By attacking in column, carefully linked to the creeping artillery barrages, and skillfully passing reinforcing troops through the forward lines, Lejeune was able to sustain a rapid advance, even when his flanks became exposed. After two days of fighting, the Americans seized the strongpoint that was the key link in the German defenses west of the Argonne Forest. By 10 October, the Americans had pushed the Germans off Blanc Mont Ridge and turned over the sector to the French 26th Division. The cost had been high – the casualty count included 209 officers and 4,771 enlisted men – but the resistance at Blanc Mont had been broken and the Germans were forced to withdraw north to the line of the Aisne River.

Despite heavy losses, Lejeune and the 2nd Division had little time to rest. The U.S. First Army chief of staff, Brigadier General Hugh Drum, had allowed the French to retain certain 2nd Division AEF units, intending to replace them eventually with other American units. Lejeune wanted his division to remain intact, and he appealed directly to the First Army commander, Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett, who was his old friend from the Army War College. Liggett supported Lejeune, and by 1 November 1918, the 2nd Division was reassembled, just in time for it to rejoin the AEF in the last great offensive in the Meuse–Argonne. The 2nd Division was now attached to the First Army’s V Corps, under the command of Major General Pelot Summerall.

In the early morning of 1 November 1918, the 2nd Division took up its assembly positions preparatory to conducting the V Corps main attack to seize its first objective, the village of Landres-et-Saint-George. Artillery preparation fires began at 0330 hours, and the division moved out two hours later, accompanied by 18 tanks. The Marines by this time had perfected small-unit envelopment tactics, using sustained rifle and machine-gun fire to cover the maneuver of small elements to the flanks of enemy positions. Some German positions were surprised to find themselves attacked from the rear. By the end of the first day, the 4th Marine Brigade had advanced to Bois de la Folie, where they halted for the night, unable to continue the advance. Army brigades from adjacent units were equally aggressive and soon caught up to the 2nd Division’s lead elements.

The Germans were not prepared for the suddenness of the 1 November assault. The German Fifth Army commander, General Max von Gallwitz, approved a withdrawal to the rearward Freia defensive position, just north of Buzancy. Unknown to him, the Americans had already breached that trench line, and the German situation was worsening rapidly. Lejeune pressed on during on 2 and 3 November, leading with his Army 3rd Infantry Brigade, consisting of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments. The German forces had begun to retreat across the Meuse River, but their covering forces put up stubborn, effective rear-guard actions, exploiting their knowledge of the terrain. Lejeune ordered the 3rd Infantry Brigade to advance 5 miles to clear Belval and Forêt de Dieulet and ultimately seize Beaumont. Colonel Robert Van Horn, commander of the 9th Infantry, had been in command for only one day, but he had a distinguished career in the Spanish–American War and in the Philippines. He proposed a daring night march using deception to capitalize on the inevitable confusion generated by the German withdrawal. The 3rd Brigade commander, Colonel James Rhea, readily approved the plan, and Lejeune attached the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines as the brigade reserve, and also a battery of 75mm guns to move with the lead battalion. With the 9th Infantry in the lead, Van Horn’s point element was heavily weighted with German-speaking Americans to confuse the German defenders. The steady rain and obscure light aided the deception measures, which resulted in large numbers of Germans captured and disarmed. By midnight, Van Horn had infiltrated 4 and a half miles behind the forward German positions. On the following day, the U.S. 89th Division advanced west of the 2nd Division. In the north, meanwhile, British and French forces had successfully driven the Germans out of their trenches and back toward Germany, just as Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch had planned. American artillery exploding around his headquarters and massive air attacks on his withdrawing forces convinced Gallwitz of the inevitability of defeat. On 4 November, the German high command ordered the Fifth and Third Armies to withdraw across the Meuse.

We can only speculate what this ‘small invasion’ or possibly as many as three invasions might have been.

The Germans called for an armistice to go into effect on 11 November 1918. The Allied senior leaders – Pershing included – seemed convinced that the Germans were capable of a counterattack, and resolved to continue attacking until the last moment. V Corps commander Summerall, smarting over a misdirected and vainglorious 7 November attack on Sedan by his 1st Division under Brigadier General Frank Parker (see Introduction, here), decided to drive the 2nd Division across the Meuse River before the armistice could take effect. The 89th Division was given similar orders. The lack of bridging and extremely congested supply lines, however, made any attempt at crossing problematic, and the effort was delayed several times before V Corps could make the attempt.

The Germans had prepared a stiff resistance, planning to use the Meuse as an obstacle to delay the advancing American forces and cover the retreat of the main German formations. The 2nd and 89th Divisions’ soldiers and Marines had been badly battered by the fighting in the Meuse–Argonne sector, but had no intimation that an armistice was pending, Thus, they fought on dutifully, attempting the crossing on 10 November. The main assault, just south of Mouzon on the east bank of the Meuse, failed. The withering heavy German machine-gun and artillery fire, and the swollen river with its exceptionally muddy banks, effectively made any unprotected attempt at bridging the river impossible. The crossings farther south, originally conceived as supporting attacks, then became the main effort of the 2nd Division. Even there, the crossing points were well covered by German fires, and the engineers and infantry had an extremely difficult time effecting the seizure of the far bank. By the morning of 11 November, the day the Armistice took effect, both the 2nd and 89th Divisions had a firm foothold on the east bank of the Meuse River.

Following the Armistice, the tired and battle-worn 2nd Division was assigned to occupation duties on the Rhine. It began a long, arduous, cold and wet march on 17 November, through Belgium and Luxembourg, crossing into Germany on 25 November and reaching the Rhine on 10 December 1918. Sometime during the long, weary march General Pershing had occasion to drive past the 2nd Division as its soldiers trudged along in the freezing rain. Pershing apparently stormed into III Corps in a rage, opining that Lejeune’s command was ragged, slovenly, and ill-led.

Lejeune’s old Army War College classmates were quick to apprise him of Pershing’s hostility. Lejeune was incensed, as his requests for a period of rest and refitting before being ordered to march into Germany had been rejected. He smarted under the affront in silence, until the 2nd Division reached its assigned sector east of Luxembourg. He then turned his attention to discipline and morale among his men, and he requested a general officer-level inspection of the division. Major General André Brewster, the AEF inspector general, arrived personally and visited every unit. Brewster reported back to Pershing that the 2nd Division was in superb shape. Lejeune finally received orders to move his division on 15 July 1919 to Brest by rail, preparatory to embarking for home.

John Archer Lejeune became the thirteenth commandant of the Marine Corps, serving from 30 June 1920 to 5 March 1929. His memoirs are silent on those eight-and-a-half years, for he apparently considered his service with the American Expeditionary Forces and the 2nd Division the highlight of his professional life. But, clearly, Lejeune’s tenure as commandant was greatly influenced by his World War I service.

Along with Major General Charles P. Summerall, who like Lejeune became a service chief, Lejeune is credited with being among the best of the division commanders in the AEF. However, the two men had very contrasting leadership styles. Summerall had a reputation for aggressive action in the extreme and is often described as a vainglorious driver rather than a leader. Lejeune, in contrast, was a humble leader with great respect for the Marines and soldiers he led. His leadership style was enlightened for his time, and he had genuine compassion for the men who might be killed or maimed as a result of his orders. His personally written paragraphs from the Marine Corps Manual (1921 edition) reflect his dissatisfaction with the demanding, belittling leadership style of Pershing and Summerall and remain quoted as fundamental Marine Corps leadership guidance today:

Comradeship and brotherhood. – The World War wrought a great change in the relations between officers and enlisted men in the military services. A spirit of comradeship and brotherhood in arms came into being in the training camps and on the battlefields. This spirit is too fine a thing to be allowed to die. It must be fostered and kept alive and made the moving force in all Marine Corps organizations.

Teacher and scholar. – The relation between officers and enlisted men should in no sense be that of superior and inferior nor that of master and servant, but rather that of teacher and scholar. In fact, it should partake of the nature of the relation between father and son, to the extent that officers, especially commanding officers, are responsible for the physical, mental, and moral welfare, as well as the discipline and military training of the young men under their command who are serving the nation in the Marine Corps.

Lejeune’s men responded to his authentic leadership style not only with loyalty and respect, but also with love. Lejeune’s leadership style has become enshrined as the standard for which all Marine Corps officers should aspire.

The Department of the Navy had insisted on sending a Marine brigade to serve with the AEF at a time when the future role of the Marine Corps was in doubt and widely debated. It was clear from the onset that General Pershing did not want the Marines. Lejeune came away from World War I convinced that service with U.S. Army units was not the best option for the Marine Corps. The animosities were too great, the approaches to command too different, to be synchronized easily. As commandant, Lejeune was tireless in his advocacy of a role for the Marine Corps closely tied to the U.S. Navy, centered on seizure and security of advanced naval bases. This role required the Marine Corps not only to expand in size, but also to retain mastery of military art and tactical skills.

Moreover, to reinforce its uniqueness from the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps needed to perfect a new form of warfare – amphibious operations launched in large formations from the sea. In reference to his operational approaches as 2nd Division commander, Lejeune was convinced that such operations needed to be combined arms in nature, and he pursued the incorporation of armor, artillery, aviation, communicators, and engineers along with Marine light infantry. These units would require specialized equipment, landing craft, and tactics. Lejeune became his own publicist for these pioneering innovations, lobbying Congress, the American public, disapproving U.S. Navy officers, and recalcitrant officers among his own service. His writings in the Marine Corps Gazette, the magazine of the Marine Corps Association, describe his vision of the amphibious and expeditionary nature of the future Marine Corps.

It is no accident that Pershing’s lone Marine division commander’s name adorns the largest amphibious training base on the east coast, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. And it is no small honor that, every 10 November on the anniversary of the founding of the Marine Corps, John A. Lejeune’s 1921 birthday address to his Marine Corps is read, word for word, at every Marine Corps birthday ceremony held by Marines, in units as small as an embassy security detachment or as large as the I Marine Expeditionary Force:

From the battle of Trenton to the Argonne, Marines have won foremost honors in war, and in the long eras of tranquility at home, generation after generation of Marines have grown gray in war in both hemispheres and in every corner of the seven seas that our country and its citizens might enjoy peace and security.

In every battle and skirmish since the birth of our Corps, Marines have acquitted themselves with the greatest distinction, winning new honors on every occasion until the term Marine has come to signify everything that is highest in military efficiency and soldierly virtue.

… So long as that spirit continues to flourish Marines will be found equal to every emergency in the future as they have been in the past, and the men of our nation will regard us as worthy successors to the long line of illustrious men who have served as “Soldiers of the Sea” since the founding of the Corps.