The Blooding: Defense of Les Mares Farm, June 1918*
by Dick Camp
Copyright © 2004 by Richard D. Camp, Jr.
* This chapter appeared in the November 2004 edition of Leatherneck Magazine.
The last days of May 1918 brought welcome relief for the men of the Marine Brigade. Warm weather had finally arrived, giving them an opportunity to shed their long winter underwear and dry out after an onerous tour of duty in the trenches. They also got a welcome surprise, a day off to celebrate Decoration (Memorial) Day, May 30. For most, it was time of rest and relaxation—a relief from the constant training regimen. It was a time to write letters, catch up on sleep, or, for a lucky few, a date with a local jeune fille.
First Lieutenant Lemuel C. “Lem” Shepherd, a platoon commander of the 55th Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and a future Commandant of the Marine Corps, was one of the fortunate ones. He had met “an attractive French girl” and been invited to dinner at her home—along with a host of relatives who wanted to look him over. In preparation for the big event, he was squaring away his best uniform for the preview.
Lieutenant Colonel Frederic M. “Fritz” Wise, Shepherd’s acerbic battalion commander, was in Paris with his wife, a volunteer nurse. Floyd Gibbons, a well-known correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, also was in the city trying to confirm a rumor that a huge German offensive was bearing down on the “City of Light.”
As Gibbons roamed the city, Wise was enjoying the hospitality of a family friend—until his relaxation was interrupted abruptly by a telephone call. “My adjutant, Lieutenant James Hennen Legendre, told me, ‘We’ve been ordered up to the front at once. The Germans have broken through and are headed for Paris.’ ‘I’ll be there,’ I told him.”
Shepherd got the word just as he was climbing on a bicycle to go to dinner. “I was told to turn out my platoon and stand by for boarding camions. I knew this meant action. Otherwise, we would have moved by foot. All I could do was send my orderly with a note of apology to my Marianne.”
First to Fight
On 27 May 1918, a massive German offensive had smashed through the French lines. The attack seemed unstoppable. There were not enough British and French reserves to plug the hole. A hurried call went out to the inexperienced U.S. 2nd Division: “March to the sound of the guns.” The French worried that Les americains couldn’t hold and said as much to Colonel Preston Brown, the division chief of staff, who replied, “General, these are American Regulars. In a hundred and fifty years they have never been beaten. They will hold!”
The 2nd Division (Regulars) consisted of two infantry brigades, one Army (9th and 23rd Infantry regiments) and the 4th Marine Brigade, consisting of the 5th and 6th Marine regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion—280 officers and 9,164 enlisted men. That the Marines were in France at all was through the unremitting effort of the Major General Commandant, George Barnett. He had had to fight tooth and nail against the Army, which did everything in its power to keep the Marines at home.
Major General Barnett prevailed by enlisting the aid of President Woodrow Wilson, who ordered the Secretary of War to issue “the necessary order detaching for service with the Army a force of Marines to be known as the Fifth Regiment of Marines.” With a “nose under the tent,” General Barnett dispatched an entire brigade.
Call to Arms
Wise got back just in time. “The bugle sounded ‘Assembly,’ and the battalion fell in on the road alongside the camions. Platoon leaders’ whistles blew, and the men climbed aboard,” Wise later said. Camions were French Army trucks that held twenty to twenty-five men. The drivers were often French colonial soldiers, who drove with reckless abandon, scaring hell out of their passengers. One officer noted, “Lucky if we don’t get killed before reaching the front.” The battalion joined a massive 14-mile convoy carrying the entire 2nd Division as it haltingly made its way toward the town of Meux in central France.
Wise noted: “The minute we got outside Meux, I knew that hell had broken loose. It was the first time I had seen civilian refugees in France. They streamed down the road; old and young; in oxcarts, in horse-drawn wagons, on foot. Some of them trudged along, pushing baby carriages in which their household belongings were piled and tied with cord. Old men and old women tottered along. Children walked in groups, too terrified to even talk much. Hundreds carried things in their arms or in bundles on their backs. All looked terror-stricken.”
The battalion reached its destination, disembarked, and stood by to await orders. They were not long in coming. The regimental commander, Colonel Wendell C. “Buck” Neville, roared up in a staff car. He jumped out with a map in his hand. Wise peered over Neville’s shoulder while he traced a line with his finger, pointing to where he wanted the 2nd Battalion to form a defensive line.
“You’ve got to get out here right away,” Neville said. “We don’t expect [the French] to stick. If you don’t hurry up, the Germans will get there before you do.” With that, he jumped back in his car and spun away as the battalion’s buglers sounded Assembly.
Les Mares Farm: 3-4 June
Wise ordered the battalion to move out—quick time—and in less than an hour it reached a narrow dirt road, its defensive position. He quickly briefed the company commanders, who then moved their men into position. The line stretched over four kilometers, about two and a half miles. The extended frontage forced Wise to place all four companies on line—18th Company on the extreme left, in the northeast corner of the Bois de Veuilly; 43rd Company next in line; 55th Company in and around Les Mares Farm; and 51st Company on the right flank, south of Hill 142. The ground was open on the left front, while a checkerboard pattern of woods and fields swung away from them on both flanks.
The Marines immediately dug in, encouraged by sporadic German 77mm “whizbangs” and 88mm “quick dicks” artillery fire. “Gas!” someone shouted. The cry was taken up by others and echoed up and down the Marine lines as a choking cloud of yellowish gas billowed from the exploding shells. The shells were filled with a liquid that slowly evaporated, permeating the air with the smell of mustard. It quickly covered exposed skin, leaving blisters under the arms, between the ,legs and around the eyes—particularly if the skin was wet with perspiration. The lungs were particularly susceptible, leaving hundreds of men suffering from torturous fits of coughing.
The soft farmland quickly gave way to an assault by entrenching tools, bayonets, mess kits, spoons—anything to get below ground. One private wrote: “It’s amazing how quickly we dug in. . . . All around me I saw my buddies sinking slowly into the ground, while parapets of soft earth grew steadily up beside them.” They dug individual foxholes, six or seven feet apart.
Lem Shepherd, now executive officer, directed the company to dig in around Les Mares Farm, using the red-roofed house and barn as part of the defensive position. The farm stood on “rising ground, dotted with clumps of woods, with grain fields, here and there, and tall hedges.” He placed all four platoons on line and told them to dig foxholes, which he described as “little scooped-out hollows similar to a grave but about a foot deep, with earth piled up in front for a parapet.”
Shepherd said, “[I selected] a little knoll a couple hundred yards in front of our lines as an outpost because it was a little too far from where we’d been ordered to establish our main line of resistance.” He sent two squads, under the command of a sergeant, with specific orders to pull out if the Germans got too close.
Dispirited French troops passed through their lines, in full retreat—”La guerre est finie [The war’s over],” they cried. A French officer dashed up to Captain Lloyd “Josh” Williams and, in halting English, ordered him to retreat. Williams looked the man in the eye and quipped, “Retreat, hell, we’ve just got here!”
Wise was told to tie in with the U.S. 23d Infantry Regiment on the left and the 6th Marines on the right, but there was no one there. His nine hundred Marines faced the German onslaught alone. The brigade commander sent a “stand and hold” message: “General Harbord directs that the necessary steps be taken to hold our present positions at all costs.”
Wise was watching from his PC (Post of Command). He said: “A long way off over the grain fields I could see thin lines of infantry advancing. It wasn’t the mass formation I had expected to see after what I had heard of German attack. Those lines were well extended. At least six or seven paces of open space were between the men. There seemed to be four or five lines, about twenty-five yards apart. They wore the ‘coal-scuttle’ helmet. Their rifles, bayonets fixed, were at the ready.”
Shepherd saw them “working around to the left of Les Mares Farm” and called in an artillery barrage. He said: ‘We’d been impressed with how many hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost to put down and artillery barrage, so everybody was loath about calling on for one. But I said to myself, ‘This is the time we really need artillery fire.’ And in a few minutes our artillery shells were falling on the advancing infantry.”
Shepherd grew concerned about the men in the outpost, fearing they would be isolated. As the attack started, he requested to go out and check on them. “I must say, it was a foolish request,” Shepherd remembered, “because they had orders to withdraw, but I just wanted to go out there to insure they did.”
German artillery fire increased—a rolling barrage that blanketed the Marine positions with deadly shrapnel. Shepherd and his runner started out when “a shell landed about ten feet in front of me. I’ll always recall to my dying day, the dirt flew up and I just stood there waiting for the shell to go off. Thank God, it was a dud!” The two made it to the outpost and saw the Germans advancing toward them—only a few hundred yards away.
The outpost Marines opened fire with their Springfield rifles. Shepherd took cover behind the brow of the knoll. “There were several trees on top of the knoll, and I leaned against one of them where I could look over the top and direct the men’s fire,” he said. “All of a sudden something hit me in the neck and spun me completely around. My first thought was, ‘My God, a bullets’ gone through my gullet!’ I was gulping air; funny what you do. I spit in my hand to see if I was spitting blood, but I wasn’t, so I felt relieved. A bullet cut a groove through my neck and just missed my jugular vein.”
If that wasn’t enough, Shepherd had another near-death experience. Just as the Germans started their attack, he tried to locate a French platoon, colonials in khaki uniforms who were covering a gap in the Marine company’s left flank. “I went over to a few trees that were standing on the other side of the farm and looked around, but I couldn’t find them. The Germans opened fire, so I jumped behind a tree, just as the damned missing French platoon started firing. There I was, jumping from one side of the tree to the other, trying to keep from getting hit. It was a real hotspot!”
He placed snipers on top of a haystack to pick off German infiltrators. One of them spotted several gray-coated figures creeping through the waist-high wheat. Shepherd sent out half a dozen men under Gunnery Sergeant David L. Buford. Shepherd said: “Our patrol surprised the Germans and killed about a dozen of them. Sergeant Buford, who was a wonderful pistol shot, killed seven with his automatic. That stopped the infiltration in this area.”
The German advance was as an arrow aimed directly at Les Mares Farm. Shepherd said, “It was a key position, with only a thin line of Marine riflemen between the Germans and Paris, thirty miles away.”
Twelve hundred infantrymen of the 461st Imperial German Infantry advanced—500, 400, 300 yards—until they closed to within 100 yards of the hastily dug foxholes where highly trained leathernecks waited for the order to fire. They sighted in, carefully aligning the front sight blade of their 1903 Springfield rifles on the target’s center of mass—a German chest.
“When glimpsed through the small aperture of a peep sight they were nearly identical in outline, the chest-high figures of men, their heads and shoulders rising above the flood of waving grain through which they came,” Shepherd said. Hours and hours of practice on the rifle range had made them marksmen, but the range targets had been paper. Now the silhouettes were flesh and blood. “Target, the half-drawn breath, a finger pressure, recoil. The German staggered and seemed to sag suddenly, wearily, so close that one could see the shock of dumb surprise on his face.”
Wise watched the attack. “Suddenly, when the German front line was about a hundred yards from us, we opened up,” he said. “Up and down the line, I could see my men working their rifle bolts. I looked for the front line of Germans. There wasn’t any!” The deadly accurate rifle fire had stopped the attackers in their tracks. Shepherd recalled, “The Boches fell by the scores there among the wheat and the poppies.”
The extraordinarily stiff resistance was entirely unexpected by the Germans, who were flushed with victory after having thoroughly trounced the French. They expected to capture Paris in a cakewalk. The unexpected setback caused them to stop, consolidate their positions and bring up reserves. The riflemen of the Marine Brigade, in their baptism of fire, had stopped the German offensive.
Major Frank E. Adams, the 6th Marines adjutant, in a letter to Major General Commandant George Barnett on 20 June 1918 wrote: “The French, who were in support of the Fifth Marines and at one time thrown into the line, could not, and cannot today, grasp the rifle fire of the men [Marines]. That men should fire deliberately and use their sights, and adjust their range, was beyond their experience.
The Marine Brigade went on the offensive, capturing the Bois de Belleau (Belleau Wood) in a bitter fight that has become synonymous with soldierly virtue. In recognition of the Leathernecks’ sacrifice, the woods was renamed “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”