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The Story of the American Expeditionary Forces

Third Division




Third Division Monument at Château-Thierry

Presented by the Great War Society

By David Homsher

In 1918, because of a lapse in censorship, the 8,000 United States Marines in the AEF and fighting in France were given credit for the accomplishments of 250,000 American infantry and a million French infantry who fought around Château-Thierry, holding the Marne River line in May and June and later counterattacking after the last German offensive in July in the action known as the Second Battle of the Marne. The word "Marines" was used in the early dispatches and so much was made of it at home as to give the impression that the United States Marine Corps was fighting this entire series of battles alone.

The Marines who formed a part of the U. S. 2nd Division, did fight a very gallant, local action in nearby Belleau Wood, but it seems in the news reports of the day that they were given credit for what was most of what was accomplished during those 72 days around Château-Thierry and in the Second Battle of the Marne. The big mistake occurred when the Yanks first joined the battle.

Censors carefully deleted the designation of any unit that fought in this sector at the time. Early in the fighting, though, the censors permitted the word "Marine" to be used in connection with the engagement in Belleau Wood. It was quite natural that the United States Marine Corps would subsequently use this engagement for recruiting and publicity, but the general impression was created that the Marines were rushed to fill a gap in the line at Château-Thierry and alone saved Paris. But the Marine Brigade did not fight in Château-Thierry. On June 6th they attacked the Germans who were entrenched in Belleau Wood west of the town. This was a brigade-level affair in which the Marines fought gallantly, clearing the wood of Germans in 20 days of continuous fighting. But it was neither the key fight at Château-Thierry nor the first.

Wilbur Forrest, an accredited correspondent with the AEF in 1918, wrote a book in 1924 entitled, Behind the Front Page. In his book, Forrest presents an explanation of how the Marines garnered the larger share of the credit for having fought at or in Château-Thierry:

7th MG Battalion Position at Château-Thierry

Paul Scott Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News and I were newspaper observers [at the Marne]. Our minds were not on Americans at all. . .Late in the afternoon of May 31st, [we] two correspondents were sitting in a camouflaged position with French artillery men on the south bank of the Marne near Dormans watching the Germans maneuver down this historic stream towards Château-Thierry. Advance German elements had already filtered through the town from the north and held the houses on that side of the stream. Two bridges over the Marne linked Château-Thierry, north and south, and it was imperative to prevent the Germans from crossing.

When Mowrer and I had gathered sufficient material for a color story, we started back to headquarters itching to get our fingers on the typewriter. Our Renault had carried us only a short distance when we met the wholly unexpected. It was a dusty flivver containing four men who had either much reason or none at all to be in that locality. They wore the brimmed felt hat of the United States Army. . .They were the vanguard of the Seventh Machine Gun Battalion of the Third Division-General Dickman's force, which had arrived in France a few weeks before.

Eventually we picked up the Seventh Battalion, a motorized unit which had been on the road more than eighteen hours, dusty and tired but fired with the desire to "mix it" with the enemy. Mowrer and I chaperoned this battalion into Château-Thierry on that evening of May 31, 1918. Shortly after we left the battalion that night, it had planted its guns in the houses along the south bank of the river to command the two big bridges. Here it fought with great bravery for many days.

Naturally, my companion and I lost little time in returning to French headquarters. We had a story that would thrill America. It had a kick in it for every American heart, that tale of these superbly green youngsters and their baptism of fire on that famous river, the Marne. It was a picture story as well, the trickling of Feldgrauen towards Château-Thierry on one side, the olive green of America and the coal black giants [from France's colonies] on the other. How would it all end? It was a brand-new kind of war, the campaign of maneuver.

We arrived at French headquarters and went beyond to the château in which the Anglo-American correspondents lived. This story was under our hats. There had not been another American or even British correspondent within twenty miles of the Marne. The story was ours exclusively. We settled down to our typewriters and wrote throughout the night.

Early the next morning we appeared at headquarters, with carefully worded copy. It was necessary to get the O.K. of the field censor before the copy could proceed by wire to the Paris Bourse, and then from Paris to the cable head at Brest. But our prize story only got to headquarters. Here it was killed by the censor. An American major assisted in the execution. He was attached to French headquarters as press liaison officer. I have forgotten his name, but I hope he reads this and repents before it is too late.

Three days after the Seventh Machine Gun Battalion entered Château-Thierry, the United States Marines took up their positions in Belleau Wood, barring the road to Paris. Most of the American correspondents were concentrating on this event. When censorial authorities sought to delete all mention of the Marines, there was a concerted protest which raised the roof and shook the morale of the censor.

Demands were made by the American correspondents in the name of the American people to set aside a rule of censorship which forbade identity of troops which the enemy had every reason to know were opposite him. The Germans had no illusions about the Marines. Those doughty fighters had begun to do what their Regular Army brothers of the Third Division had been doing in Château-Thierry for three days, unknown to everybody but the Germans, the censor (especially the censor at French headquarters), Mowrer and me.

Suddenly under heavy persuasion the American censor department, after consultation with our own and the other staffs, agreed that the magic word "Marines" might be used. Consequently the exploits of this brave brigade swept across the cables in such force that within twenty-four hours all America was thrilled to the marrow.

Belleau Wood is near Château-Thierry. In the confusion which resulted from that fact, the latter became a magic name associated with the Marine Brigade, yet not a single Marine fought in the battle of Château-Thierry. It was our Seventh Machine Gun Battalion that was at the moment fighting the desperate battle of Château-Thierry.

Because of censorship rules the whole story of the Seventh Machine Gun Battalion at Château-Thierry was smothered, or rather, overshadowed by the equally thrilling story of the Marine Brigade. Thus was the news of the arrival of the first Americans on the Marne and their success virtually killed, one of the greatest single exploits of the untrained, untried soldiers of the nation.

Surviving Members of 7th MG Battalion
In Germany After the Armistice

The US Army never forgot this slight, even though it was somewhat self-administered. The legacy of this momentary lapse in the rules of censorship adopted by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) resounded throughout the 20th Century whenever the Marine Corps was deployed together with the Army. It underlay the [Marine] General Smith vs. [Army] General Smith controversy at Saipan and the Douglas MacArthur - Marine snipping that carried over both the Second World War and Korea. In today's American military, however, the emphasis is on joint operations and inter-service rivalry is frowned upon. The mistakes of those censors in 1918 seem to be at last forgotten.

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