The Rock of the Marne

On this Veteran's Day, I find myself especially grateful to our military and those who have sacrificed in the protection of our freedoms. Especially, I say, because this weekend we will head south to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to welcome home our son Charlie and his fellow soldiers of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division from their latest deployment on the fighting fields of Afghanistan.

A great wood splitter a long ways from home.

The stories Charlie has shared with us on his occasional calls home were sometimes comforting, and sometimes not. His mother and I were amazed to hear of the many 'overseas contingency operations' his unit has been engaged in in the past nine months, with no mention at all of the battles in our American media. It's hard to believe we've reached the point in our society where we can conduct wars all over the world, and hardly even take notice back here at home.

While we've prayed for all the soldiers in his outfit during this deployment, I think there is one in particular I will especially seek out for a handshake. As a young medic, we knew Charlie's safety was essentially in the hands of his fellow soldiers, but in his calls he frequently mentioned a certain sergeant Brinkley as one that seemed to bolster Charlie's confidence in battle and ensure his safe return.

The politicians send our children off to war...and the sergeants bring them back. Sergeant Brinkley, here's a big Go Wood salute to you on this Veteran's Day.

Charlie's unit, the 3rd ID, is called "The Rock of the Marne", but very, very few Americans today know the story behind the label. As a tribute to them on this Veterans Day, I share with you today that breath-taking story, straight from the Congressional Record of May 1, 1920.
"Mr. Chairman, "Marne" is a name indelibly inscribed on the pages of history. It was at the Marne, in September, 1914, that the French under Joffre turned back the German hordes in their mad dash toward Paris; and it was at the Marne in July, 1918, on the selfsame ground that a single regiment of American Infantrymen, with some aid from the Artillery, once more stemmed the German tide and rolled it back in defeat, earnly thereby for itself and its gallant colonel the proud title, "The Rock of the Marne". [Applause.]
World military annals report few feats that equal, and none that surpass, the deeds of the Thirty-Eighth regiment of Infantry under the command of Col. Ulysses Grant McAlexander in the Second Battle of the Marne. "On this occasion," says Commander-in-Chief John J. Pershing in his final report, "a single regiment of the third division wrote one of the most brilliant pages in our military annals. It prevented the crossing to certain points on its front, while on either flank the Germans who had gained a footing pressed forward. Our men, firing in three directions, met the German attacks with counterattacks at critical points and succeeded in throwing two German divisions into complete confusion, capturing 600 prisoners."
In the summer of 1918 the German forces were again in motion toward Paris. their hopes for success ran high. The Kaiser had set July 17 as the date for his triumphal entry into the French capital. The race was between the Kaiser and the Americans. Barrier after barrier the Germans hurdled or smashed through until they arrived at the Marne.
"Between Chateau-Thierry and Dormans -
wrote Maj. Gen. J.T. Dickman -
"the Marne is a navigable stream, which flows in a deep valley. The crest of the banks is about 400 feet above the level of the river. The strategical feature of the stretch of 20 kilometers between Chateau-Thierry and Dormans is the valley of Surmelin Creek. This valley furnished the only good opening toward the south. The railroad and two good wagon roads in this valley running towards Conde en Brie and Montmirail are indispensable for the line of supply of an army crossing the Marne."

The Surmelin Valley was, indeed, the gateway to Paris. The sector along the Marne where it is joined by the Surmelin was held by the Thirty-Eighth.  On its left lay another American regiment, on its right a French division. The Germans knew the great strategic value of the Surmelin Valley and were prepared to enter it at all costs. On the other hand, Col. McAlexander was aware of the necessity of holding it against the enemy. Defeat or retreat spelled disaster to the Allies. [Applause.]
The great outstanding fact in the battle of the Thirty-Eighth against the German hosts at the Marne is that of regimental unity. Every unit, from battalion to corporal's squad, acted in complete harmony of command...The evening of July 14 found the regiment ready for any emergency. It was arranged on principles of "formation in depth." Near the river and along the Metx-Paris railroad, which paralleled the river, lay the Second battalion under Maj. Rowe; back of it was the First battalion under Maj. Keely; and last, the Third battalion under Maj. Lough. Col. McAlexander had gone over the ground carefully, and to the surprise of his officers, had ordered trenches dug on the right flank between himself and the French. He was going to take no chances of an unprotected flank in case the French division on his right retreated. This evidence of military foresight, as was proved later, saved the regiment from annihilation and turned certain defeat into victory,
As midnight of July 14 approached an ominous stillness filled the air. Instinctively the men of the Thirty-Eighth felt that something unusual was about to transpire. Their suspense was of short duration. Exactly at 12 o'clock the German artillery opened fire. the sector was swept for hours, until it would seem that no living thing could have escaped. But the Americans, huddled in their tiny dugouts or open-slit trenches, awaited the attack which was sure to follow. How they longed to come to blows with this deadly thing which threatened to stifle the freedom of the world, to see it face to face, to meet steel with steel!
At about 4 o'clock the bombardment was lifted and a rolling barrage took its place. Back of the barrage came masses of gray-clad Germans, two divisions strong, with a third in support. At the river boats were loaded and pontoon bridges were built. But here again McAlexander's military genius evidenced itself. Instead of withdrawing all his men from the river bank, he left a strong detachment there. I believe it was the French general, Degoutte, who phrased it  "McAlexander fought with one foot in the water." It was not exactly orthodox, and to the Germans it was another example of American ignorance of military science, but like many another American innovation in the World War it proved its worth. The American riflemen on the bank of the Marne destroyed boatload after boatload of Germans. It was the proud boast of the Thirty-Eighth that no Germans were able to cross the river in the sector held by it. [Applause.]
Farther to the left and right, however, the Germans did effect crossings, and advanced against the Metz-Paris railway line a short distance from the river. Here, too, they met a resistance which they could not overcome. Charge after charge failed to carry them across the railroad track. No German graves are located behind this line, but there are about 600 between it and the river. The Thirty-Eighth paid heavily for its resistance, but the line held.
In referring at a later date to this phase of the fight, Col. McAlexander said:
"There was only one thing that saved us, and that was the spirit of kill or be killed. And I want to say that I was willing to sacrifice the regiment and myself with them rather than yield one foot ground to those Germans. I gave orders to my men to hold their sector until they had orders to retire, and they were just as anxious to hold their ground as the colonel was to have them hold it. The books say that when your casualties have reached one-third you are out of action. But I want to tell you of one company that when 70 percent of its men were casualties, organized the remaining 30 percent in a countercharge and captured 410 prisoners."
Need our schoolboys turn to Leonidas at Thermopylae or Miltiades at Marathon for tales of heroism after such a recital as this? Surely the story of McAlexander and the Thirty-Eighth at the Marne will find its place in our histories alongside of Jackson at New Orleans and Thomas, "The Rock of Chickamauga." [Applause.]
On the flanks another chapter was being written. The American regiment on the left had given ground and the Germans were filtering through against the Thirty-Eighth. On the right the French division had retired. The Thirty-Eighth thus had to defend itself on the front and both flanks. It was here that Col. McAlexander's plan of defense bore fruit. The Germans had begun an encircling pincers movement to cut off the regiment, and but for the precaution that had been taken to protect the right flank in case of retirement of the French, they would have been successful.
Messages sent back from the front lines to the commanding officer tell tales of grave danger, but ring with fighting determination to hold at all hazards. For example, in reply to a message of encouragement from Col. McAlexander directing him to hold on, Maj. Rowe wrote:
"We have no intention of withdrawing unless we are completely outflanked. At present Roche machine guns are troublesome on right flank. If French counterattack in time, we shall be O.K. We must thicken the lines to-night and have ammunition and food and carrying parties from rear. There are many German rowboats on river which should be destroyed before night. We are weary but proud."
"Invincible and unconquerable." How Americans must thrill with pride on reading such a message.
For three days the fight on the flanks went on, the Germans striving desperately to open a gateway through the Surmelin. An order came to Col. McAlexander: "Fall back if you think best." "Is it up to my decision?" he asked. "Yes." "Then I hold my lines." [Applause.]
What was there back of this heroic determination to hold the lines at all costs? Aside from the strategic position occupied by the Thirty-Eighth, there was the question of morale.
"It was our part -"
Said Col. McAlexander -
"to so impress the Germans with our fighting ability and our wish to fight them that their morale would be destroyed to the extent of seeing great forces brought against us with no prospect of their success."
Did this fight affect the morale of the Germans? Let the Germans themselves answer:
"Our retreat across the river (Marne) was awful; those Americans certainly did clean us up....they fight like tigers....if those in front of us are fair specimens of the average American troops, and there are as many as they say there are, then goodbye to us."
This from the notebook of a member of the defeated Sixth Grenadier regiment, a crack fighting unit.
Yet this was not all. On the night of July 21, when the wornout heroes were preparing for the first real sleep in a week, orders came to be ready to advance in the morning. The great smash was on. The German offensive had broken at the Marne and the tide had turned, never again to ebb until the Hindenburg line was pierced and the Germans, face to face with the greatest military disaster in history, signed the terms of the armistice.
Honors came - medals for bravery - promotion - in Europe. But at home, how many knew of the deeds of McAlexander and the Thirty-Eighth? It is a matter of record, reported by no less an authority than Maj. Gen. David C. Shanks, that when the regiment returned home no welcoming committee was on hand to greet it. Let us not attribute the lack of appreciation to the proverbial ingratitude of republics but rather to ignorance of the facts. The American people simply did not know.
Well, looks like things haven't changed that much...we're still a war-weary country and the press still doesn't report the horrors and heroes of war. The story of the Rock of the Marne isn't pretty to read, and I'm sure the trials of the modern Third Infantry are equally difficult to hear and bear. But if we, the parents and relatives of the next generation, pay attention to such things, maybe we'll be more prudent in committing our soldiers to questionable causes in forsaken places. We can only hope.

Tip Amount


Morgan Mellette said…
Great story. Thanks for sharing it and God Bless your son and his brave comrades.
Dave said…
Great piece of History. I agree with you whole heartedly.

Dave Froggatt LTC(Retired)_
woodisgood said…
Thank you Chuck, we need to read every word and thank God for the bravery of so few...that many more will learn to stand for the humble righteousness that we know is only God's to give. We don't know nor understand the politics of this war but your points about the disconnect between war realities and our society need bridged...Thanks for writing this. Bless your son, I honor him and his service. Dave
Mike Messina said…

Great story. We're proud of your son's service!
jayo said…
Chuck, This Vietnam veteran thanks you for this terrific story, and your son for his service.
Chuck Ray said…
And we thank you, Jay, for serving back when returning vets weren't welcomed home so warmly.
Robert Hurley said…
My Grandfather was a Major in the artillery during this engagement. His stories were incredible.
Gerald said…
War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.
Great Story about our brave troops. My son is stationed at Hunter Airfield with the Coast Guard but goes to Ft Stewart for medical treatment. I did not understand the Rock of the Marne that the guards say every time you enter but read the signs everywhere. this story explains it to a t. thanks for the insight.
Howard Rupert said…
This We'll Defend

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