Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Fix Bayonets!

On the evening of June 1st, 1918, Marines from the 5th Marine Regiment serving under the command of the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force conducted a forced march along the road to Chateau-Thierry, and plugged into the line against the Boche. One of my very favorite books is Fix Bayonets!, written by Captain John W. Thomason of First Battalion, 5th Marines. The cadence and imagery of his prose and his battlefield sketches do credit to the esprit-de-corps of the Marines in a way that few other authors have, before or since:

There is no sight in all the pageant of war like young, trained men going up to battle. The columns look solid and businesslike. Each battalion is an entity, 1,200 men of one purpose. They go on like a river that flows very deep and strong. Uniforms are drab these days, but there are points of light on the helmets and the bayonets, and light in the quick, steady eyes and the brown young faces, greatly daring. There is no singing—veterans know, and they do not sing much—and there is no excitement at all; they are schooled craftsmen, going up to impose their will, with the tools of their trade, on another lot of fellows; and there is nothing to make a fuss about. Battles are not salubrious places, and every file knows that a great many more are going in than will come out again—but that is along with the job. And they have no illusions about the job.

There is nothing particularly glorious about sweaty fellows, laden with killing tools, going along to fight. And yet—such a column represents a great deal more than 28,000 individuals mustered into a division. All that is behind those men is in that column, too: the old battles, long forgotten, that secured our nation—Brandywine and Trenton and Yorktown, San Jacinto and Chapultepec, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Antietam, El Caney; scores of skirmishes, far off, such as the Marines have nearly every year—in which a man can be killed as dead as ever a chap was in the Argonne; traditions of things endured and things accomplished, such as regiments hand down forever; and the faith of men and the love of women; and that abstract thing called patriotism, which I never heard combat soldiers mention—all this passes into the forward zone, to the point of contact, where war is girt with horrors. And common men endure these horrors and overcome them, along with the insistent yearnings of the belly and the reasonable promptings of fear; and in this, I think, is glory.

Semper Fidelis, Marines.

Bonus Update: On tonight's edition of Jeopardy!, the $1200 question in the category "Woodrow Wilson's War" featured the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments at Belleau Wood.

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