Abstract: The Battle of Blanc Mont on 4 October 1918 had the worst single day’s casualties for the Marine Corps in World War I with the 5th Regiment suffering 1,097 casualties. However, the details of the attacks by the 5th Regiment are very commonly left out or glossed over in official accounts, memoirs, and discussions after the war. Why is this important and why is an analysis of the actions on this horrific day absent from so many primary sources? The answer is multifaceted: command’s failure to properly coordinate the attack, senior leaders lacking awareness due to posts of command initially remote from the front lines, overzealous Marines, a chaotic retreat, and a lack of acknowledgment of 4 October after the war. The untold story of 4 October, the good and the bad, deserves to be recognized in order to remember those Marines who gave their lives that day and to acknowledge the lessons from the failures, blunders, and defeat, as they are also a part of the larger history of actions of the Marine Corps in World War I.
Keywords: Battle of Blanc Mont, Blanc Mont, Meuse-Argonne, Marine Corps, 2d Division, the Box, 5th Regiment
Historian Allan R. Millett noted that 4 October 1918, during the Battle of Blanc Mont, saw “the worst single day’s casualties for the Marines” in World War I.1 Lieutenant Colonel Peter F. Owen and Lieutenant Colonel John Swift confirmed this in A Hideous Price: The 4th Brigade at Blanc Mont, 2–10 October 1918, stating that the 5th Regiment suffered 1,097 casualties on 4 October.2 Neither the terrific fighting of Belleau Wood nor the slaughter in the beet fields at Soissons created such a high casualty count in a single day. However, the details of the attacks on 4 October by the 4th Brigade and its two infantry regiments, the 5th and 6th Regiments, are very commonly left out or glossed over in official accounts, memoirs, and discussions after the war. Not until recent decades, approaching the World War I centennial, have the events of that day garnered a more detailed discussion in Marine Corps histories. Why is an analysis of this horrific day absent from so many primary sources? The answer lies with the failure of command to properly coordinate and understand the attack, overzealous Marines, a chaotic retreat, and a lack of acknowledgment of 4 October shortly after the war.
These blunders bled the American Expeditionary Forces’ (AEF) 2d Infantry Division and its Marine brigade. Yet, officials have ignored the calamity of errors that befell the 4th Brigade. The Marine Corps will be perceived by those who study the details of the October 1918 battle as not acknowledging their tactical failures. The battle for Belleau Wood in June 1918 is the touchstone World War I historical focus. Marines learn of that battle from the beginnings of their commitment to the Corps, however, there is much to be learned from other major battles of the Great War, including the missteps and failures of leadership at Blanc Mont. Even the terminology used in discussing the events of 4 October show a reluctance to admit that some Marines did chaotically run toward the rear to escape what was perceived to be certain death as their command structure fell apart. It was a short moment, but oral histories and a command investigation serve to document the retreat, as detailed later. Those writers who have chronicled the events of 4 October for the Marine Corps have shied from terms like panic and retreat, characterizing the action as a “withdrawal” and describing Marines as “falling back.”3 However, participant accounts demonstrate that some Marines did panic and retreat, leading to widespread chaos.
The rigorous study of history demands we investigate failures as well as herald victories. Otherwise, credibility suffers as myth overcomes reality and leads to a stronger sense of infallibility. Admitting failures of the past—embracing them—reveals the true valor and sacrifice of the Marines and the lessons bought for a terrible price.
The Battle of Blanc Mont took place in the Champagne region of France. The chalky soil of the region made fortification easy for the Germans, who successfully turned the unimposing ridges into fortified defensive positions with extended fields of fire. Intricate trench networks spread across the region. The 2d Division, with its 3d Infantry Brigade and 4th Brigade, faced a series of German rear guard positions that had been improved in the preceding year. The division’s zone of attack focused on three ridges, with the middle ridge, Blanc Mont Ridge, being the key to the German positions.4
The Germans had constructed redoubts and laid razor wire to channel attacking forces into designated kill zones. Nature also provided protection and assistance to the German forces. Overgrown farmlands afforded wide-open fields of fire. Newly sprouted scrub pine grew in forested pockets on Blanc Mont Ridge and other knolls around it, obscuring the ridge and its reverse slope. The Sommepy-Saint-Étienne road also aided the Germans by dividing the 2d Division’s zone, making it an obvious avenue of approach for the attacking force. Thus, Blanc Mont Ridge seemed almost impregnable by the time 2d Division arrived.5
The German XII Corps defended Blanc Mont Ridge under the command of General of Cavalry Krug von Nidda. He realized that his numbers would be insufficient to hold the line. Therefore, his objective was not to repel an attack but to inflict as many casualties as possible while performing a fighting withdrawal. Even if the 2d Division captured the ridge after taking heavy casualties, it would still be a tactical victory for the Germans.6
Before the arrival of the 2d Division, the French 4th Army had taken the German first line of defense. This left the second main line of resistance just north of Sommepy, the third main line of resistance along Blanc Mont Ridge, and the fourth main line of resistance in the vicinity of Saint-Étienne.7 Each line consisted of several trench lines, underground bunkers, and hardened strongpoints. The German defensive plan relied on forward outpost zones with light defenses of machine guns and forward observers concentrating fire on the attackers from fortified bunkers. These zones allowed the majority of the German infantry to avoid early combat. This meant that by the time the Americans would reach the main line of resistance, weakened by casualties and slowed by obstacles, the German infantry could successfully counterattack.8
This is the situation the 2d Division found itself up against on 1 October 1918. That night, the 2d Division’s 3d and 4th Brigades relieved the French 61st Division near Sommepy. The division was ordered to attack on 2 October, but Major General John A. Lejeune, Marine commanding general of the division, did not believe that there was enough time to organize a proper reconnaissance to successfully engage the enemy nor could the 2d Field Artillery Brigade have time to occupy its firing positions before the attack. The French agreed to postpone the attack until 3 October. The Allied plan revolved on an idea of simultaneous attacks by all three divisions: the French 21st Infantry Division on the left, American 2d Division in the middle, and the French 170th Division on the right. This large push would “limit the German defenders’ ability to maneuver within their elastic defensive positions and prevent them from concentrating fires and counterattacks against a single attacking division.”9
The attack on 3 October was somewhat successful for the 2d Division. The 4th Brigade’s 6th Regiment had taken part of Blanc Mont Ridge, but many fortified positions along the summit remained. Deep bunkers and a network of communication trenches were anticipated to take several more days to capture. The 6th Regiment had “destroyed at least two battalions of infantry, captured hundreds of prisoners, and seized the Blanc Mont-Medeah Farm road” but despite these victories, the Marines were still victims of direct fire from German artillery as they continued to hold the ridge.10 The 5th Regiment had cleaned out a section of the trench network called the Essen Hook that morning and captured more than 100 prisoners. Unfortunately, this key fortified position was turned over to the French forces, who lost portions of it that afternoon.11