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July 1, 2013

A Ridge in Pennsylvania
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:12 AM * 38 comments

To begin with, you must understand that Cemetery Ridge, just south and east of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is beautiful defensive ground.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, at about five in the morning, two brigades of Harry Heth’s division in A. P. Hill’s corp of the Army of Northern Virginia stepped out toward Gettysburg to make a reconnaissance in force.

July first, 1863, was a Wednesday. The sky had been getting light for a while; by 05:12 the last stars disappeared, although the sun would not rise until 05:44.

The rebels had already taken Gettysburg. On June the 26th Jubal Early’s troops had occupied the town after driving off some local militia in a series of minor skirmishes, and laid the town under tribute. They did not take any significant supplies, however, when they pulled out the next morning.

On the 29th, Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Potomac. He ordered his army to concentrate at Cashtown, Pennsylvania, and in the meantime to avoid any general engagement with Federal forces. The next day, eight miles to the east of Cashtown, Heth sent a brigade back to Gettysburg to gather supplies — primarily shoes. As they approached the town, though, they spied a column of Federal cavalry, and declined to make contact.

That cavalry was a division under the command of John Buford. Cavalry was used, at the time, for scouting and security, and for fighting other cavalry. Buford was aware that the rebel army was somewhere up ahead, and as he scouted the ground on the 30th of June he noted the defensive properties of the ridges around Gettysburg.

Buford set up lines on McPherson Ridge, Herr Ridge, and Seminary Ridge to the north and west of town, intending to fall back slowly, to give the rest of the army time to come up and take position on Cemetery Ridge to the south of Gettysburg. They fought as dismounted cavalry — armed with breech-loading carbines — of every four men three in line spaced thirty feet apart and the fourth in the rear holding their horses.

Ahead of the lines, mounted vedettes — what we would call listening posts — waited for contact. At around 07:30 on July first, that contact came. Lt. Marcellus Jones, Company E. 8th Illinois, stationed out on the Chambersburg Pike, fired the first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg, intended as a signal that there was activity to his front, not actually firing at anyone.

The Confederates believed, at first, that they were facing more local militia, and came on in three ranks of skirmishers. Buford’s dismounted troopers, however, did not break, and instead poured on such effective fire (Sharps carbines; .52 caliber, rate of fire 8-10 shots/minute, effective range 500 yards) supported by one battery of artillery, that Heth, an experienced infantry officer, considered that he was facing infantry. He ordered his men into battle lines and brought up artillery, the maneuver taking about two hours to complete. Sometime between 08:00 and 09:00 the Confederate advance resumed.

The overwhelming numbers of the rebels pushed Buford’s men back off Herr Ridge. They took their next defensive line two hundred yards to the east, on Belmont School House Ridge. Another forty-five minutes and they were pushed back yet again, across a stream called Willoughby Run and up to McPherson’s Ridge.

The purpose of the delaying action was to give time for the Federal infantry to arrive, to fight on a more equal basis of infantry against infantry. General Reynolds of I Corp was moving up rapidly.

As his men rallied on McPherson’s Ridge, Buford sent a dispatch to General Meade, commanding officer of the Army of the Potomac, fourteen miles away in Taneytown, Maryland:

The enemy’s forces are advancing on me at this point, and are driving my pickets and skirmishers very rapidly. There is also a large force at Heidlersburg that is driving my pickets at that point from that direction. General Reynolds is advancing; and is within three miles of this point with his leading division. I am positive that the whole of A. P. Hill’s force is advancing.

This was Meade’s first notice that a battle was happening. Meade had only taken command of the Army of the Potomac on the 28th of June when Fighting Joe Hooker resigned. He dispatched [his aide] [Correction:) trusted corp commander, Winfield Scott Hancock, to assess the situation, while he got the Army of the Potomac moving in the direction of Gettysburg.

Meanwhile, back at Gettysburg, about ten in the morning, an entire Rebel brigade under James Archer was pressing up the hill toward McPherson’s Ridge.

On the Union side, General Reynolds had ridden ahead of his troops, and met General Buford with the words, “What’s the matter, John?” Buford pointed out at Heth’s troops and replied, “There’s the devil to pay.”

What Reynolds had coming up behind him at the double-quick was the Iron Brigade, the “black-hatted bastards,” one of the toughest units in the Union army. Reynolds sent a message back to Meade:

The enemy is advancing in strong force, and I fear that he will go to the heights beyond the town before I can. I will fight him inch by inch, and if driven into the town, I will barricade the streets, and hold him back for as long as I can.

The message got to Meade about 11:20, and Meade remarked “Good! That is just like Reynolds, he will hold out to the bitter end.” What Meade couldn’t have known was that Reynolds was already lying dead on the field, shot in the head at about 10:45.

Reynolds had been personally leading his troops into position: the 24th Michigan into McPherson’s Woods, the 2nd Wisconsin to their right, moving up so rapidly that they didn’t have time to load their rifles before they were in a fight.

The fresh reinforcements reversed the Confederate advance for a time, and re-crossed Willoughby Run. General Archer, Heth’s brigade commander, was captured along with about two hundred of his men. But that was not to last. The numbers that Heth was now bringing up were too heavy. The Iron Brigade set up a defensive line inside the woods. When they could no longer hold, they fell back to a second prepared line, then to a third.

Heth knew that he was in a bigger fight than he’d anticipated, and that the morning hadn’t gone well. He brought up the 26th North Carolina, the largest brigade of either army at Gettysburg, to make a frontal assault on the Iron Brigade. About 14:30 they stepped off, supported by the rest of Pettigrew’s Brigade.

The Union forces could not hold. They were pushed back, step by step, until they reached the prepared barricades on Seminary Ridge. They held off the first Rebel charge, and a second, but it soon became clear that they would have to abandon this position too.

Buford wrote another dispatch:

A tremendous battle has been raging since 9:30 a.m., with varying success. At the present moment, the battle is raging on the road to Cashtown, and within short cannon range of this town. The enemy’s line is a semicircle on the height, from north to west. General Reynolds was killed early this morning. In my opinion, there is no directing person.

P.S.-We need help now.

On the right side of the Union line, the troops came under cannon fire from their own batteries up on Cemetery Ridge to the south and east of Gettysburg. Believing that the Rebels were behind them, rather than that this was a friendly-fire incident, they fell back through the town. With the flanks crumbling, the Union troops made a fighting retreat through Gettysburg, and up the sides of Cemetery Ridge.

Hancock, who had indeed assessed the situation, decided that Cemetery Ridge was “the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” He directed the positions and defenses, while awaiting the remainder of the Army of the Potomac.

For the Confederate side, Lee ordered Ewell, Heth’s superior, to take Cemetery Ridge “if practicable.” Ewell decided that it wasn’t — his men were exhausted, low on ammunition, and Lee had refused to send reinforcements — and by the next day, sufficient fresh Union troops had arrived that taking Cemetery Ridge was impossible.

Sunset on the first of July was at 20:41. The moon was full that night.

The 24th Michigan had taken 73% casualties in the fight; it was never the same again. The 26th North Carolina had taken 81% casualties, including their commanding officer and second in command. Those two units suffered the highest regimental casualties of their respective sides in the entire three-day battle

Comments on A Ridge in Pennsylvania:
#1 ::: Doug Hudson ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:24 AM:

The failure to take Cemetery Ridge was probably the most dramatic consequence of Stonewall Jackson's death. Had he survived, he, not Ewell, would have been in command on the first day, and being more skilled and more aggressive than Ewell, he almost certainly would have taken the Ridge, with devastating results for the Union.

Doesn't explain Lee's terrible decisions on the second and third days, though.

#2 ::: rea ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:33 AM:

Something that surprised me when I actually saw the ground is how little relief is actually involved in Cemetary Ridge--just a gentle slope. Accounts of the battle sometimes make it sound like the Confederates had to climb a steep hill

#3 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 10:52 AM:

The Iron Brigade (the Black Hats) consisted of:
2nd Wisconsin
6th Wisconsin
7th Wisconsin
19th Indiana
24th Michigan

The hats in question were Hardee Hats: black, wide-brimmed, tall cylindrical, often worn with one side cocked up; the dress uniform hats of the Federal army. The Hardee Hat was sometimes called the Jeff Davis hat, because it had been adopted for the army by Jeff Davis when he was Secretary of War.

The Iron Brigade, after the first day, was sent to Culp's Hill. Buford's troops, who had fought for eight-plus hours, were sent to recuperate in a quiet place at the Round Tops on the other end of the line.

The 26th North Carolina, for their part, what was left of them, took part in Pickett's Charge.

#4 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 11:50 AM:

Some interesting maps using GIS data to show what was actually visible from various commander's viewpoints during the battle.
Lee had much less visibility, and possibly deceptively less, which may have contributed to his choice to attack Little Roundtop.

(the viewshed links are particularly interesting, highlighting the visible terrain)

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/A-Cutting-Edge-Second-Look-at-the-Battle-of-Gettysburg.html

#5 ::: Steve Buchheit ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 01:04 PM:

Also, having visited Gettysburg, I stood at the Angle looking out from the Union position and thought, "That seems like an easy, although open, approach." Then I stepped over the wall and looked at it from the other side and thought, "Dear God, Lee ordered men to take THAT?" The fields of battle there look very different depending on which side of the field you're standing on.

#6 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 01:44 PM:

rea, it isn't the gentleness of the slope, it's the advantage of height and firepower of those holding it that makes it "a steep hill" for the opposing force.

#7 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 02:26 PM:

It's amazing what veteran troops with a few moments to prepare can do in a defensive position.

And the 26th North Carolina--81% casualties in an attack, and they go do it again 3 days later; that's somewhere between breathtakingly brave and insane.

#8 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:20 PM:

Over at Charles Pierce's Esquire blog, there's a series of Gettysburg posts, done by Lt. Col. Robert Batemean. Today's covers the Confederates' encounter with the Iron Brigade and shines a light on the decisions and choices of Rufus Dawes, colonel of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment.

He also gives a good bit on the background of the campaign. It's all good, and all worth a look, and I'll give Lt. Col. Bateman this--he doesn't forget what was happening at Vicksburg, which was at least as important as what happened at Gettysburg, and which was (I think, anyway) a demonstration of how the rest of the war was going to be fought, as well as of how much modern warfare is handled, especially in the use of combined arms.

#9 ::: fidelio visits with the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:21 PM:

I've eaten all the food that was in my office, but if you guys would like to play with my wind-up sushi rolls, you're more than welcome.

#10 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 03:45 PM:

Did 'Baldy' Ewell Lose Gettysburg?

The answer the author comes to is 'no.'

(As George Pickett reportedly remarked, when asked after the war who was responsible for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, "I have always been of the opinion that the Yankees had something to do with it.")

#11 ::: Steve Downey ::: (view all by) ::: July 01, 2013, 06:02 PM:

As part of the series of Gettysburg Posts that fidelio mentions @8, a story of the Iron Brigade showing off for a pretty girl just a few days before the battle. Includes a picture of them in their Hardee Hats.

#13 ::: torrilin ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 08:46 AM:

Rea, you wouldn't happen to be Pennsylvanian would you?

(I'm a native. I think of the battlefield as a lovely gentle walk. When my in-laws visited, they complained bitterly about how difficult the walking was and how hilly it was. No such complaints about various Alaska and Rockies trips... I suspect it was because it looks flat and gentle on a map and they didn't realize that they needed a map with 5' elevation changes, not 200'.)

#14 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 01:14 PM:

It occurred to me today that Gettysburg was roughly half-way between Waterloo and The Somme. (The actual half-way point was after the war ended.)

By the end of the Somme, tanks had come onto the battlefield, but all three were about infantry exposed to the defender's firepower, and about Generals struggling to maintain command and control.

And all three battles had units suffering extreme casualty rates, though neither the 27th Foot at Waterloo nor the Iron Brigade at Gettysburg suffered the losses of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel.

#15 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 01:22 PM:

Dave Bell: Your observation certainly gives me food for thought.

I'm pretty grounded in the Napoleonic era, so when I read the rate of rifle fire mentioned above, I immediately went "whoa, no wonder it was such a meat grinder, irrespective of terrain" -- it's just that much more.

And then when you bring it to the Somme, and the firepower there... well. I spend less time studying WWI because it makes me weep, but I've read enough to shudder at the thought of Gettysburg fought with that era's equipment.

#16 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 01:56 PM:

Rikibeth, it's what didn't change over that century which is sometimes startling. There's enough moving pictures showing the artillery of August 1914 and the guns are being moved and fought in ways which Napoleon would have recognised. A lot of the military development of that century was focused on finding answers to the increasing infantry firepower, and the Russo-Japanese War was an example for those who believed the problem was solved.

In technology, Gettysburg was much nearer to Napoleon. The Sharps carbine was one of the first increases in rate of fire. The Minie system let rifles match smoothbores for rate of fire, and they had a longer effective range, but powder smoke was still the same problem. Fire a volley, and you can't see any targets for a while. Those skrmishing cavalry didn't have so much of a problem.

#17 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 02:19 PM:

John Buford was a forward-looking military man. Already by the 1860s there was discussion in the journals that in the future armies would consist, not of infantry, but of nothing but scouts and skirmishers. The defense of Gettysburg in the early hours of the first day was his putting the idea to test.

Later on, near the end of WWI, the Germans reinvented the idea; that the way to take trenches wasn't by marching in upright lines shoulder-to-shoulder across an open field. But by then it was too late to change the outcome of the war, or how it was fought.

Tying this back to another thread, it was one of Queen Isabel's men, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, "El Gran Capitán," who devised the tactics that Napoleon would later perfect.

Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards was an unofficial observer at Gettysburg, staying in the Confederate camp. He failed to draw the correct conclusions as to what happens when lines of infantry cross open ground in the face of aimed rifle fire. At the Somme, the Coldstream Guards found out for themselves what it was like.

#18 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 02:45 PM:

Today, Bateman talks about Civil War memories, memoirs, records, and Winfield Scott Hancock (who was a corps commander, not one of Meade's staff officers) asking the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment to do and die. (No 'or' there.)

Dave Bell @16--It's been noted by a good many people writing about the American Civil War that any generals had difficulty internalizing the effect of the Minié ball and rifled musketry--they'd been trained with smoothbores, and that was how they understood the musket fire. Braxton Bragg seems to have been one of these; the length of time he spent out of service before putting on a Confederate uniform couldn't have helped.

I'm sure the powder smoke hid a lot of this from eyesight, so that unless you were down there in the middle of it you didn't realize what your troops were going through, and just why they weren't taking that objective.

#19 ::: fidelio hangs with the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: July 02, 2013, 02:46 PM:

Roasted zucchini and summer squash? Lemonade? I was just starting lunch, guys; dig in.

#20 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 12:34 AM:

Steve Downey, thanks for the link to Anne Kelly Knowles' work. I'd read an article about her methods many months back and couldn't remember more than something to do a quick search on—you saved me the time.

#21 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 08:43 AM:

One of the op-ed pieces in today's paper invoked Sullivan Ballou and the letter he wrote before First Manassas...

Now I have "Ashokan Farewell" playing on Radio Central Nervous System. Ah well, at least it's an earworm I like.

#22 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 12:04 PM:

Lori - now it's in my head too. Fortunately, like you, I like it.

#23 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 03:49 PM:

The advantage of the high ground at Gettysburg sounds much like the advantage at Waterloo. In neither case was the high ground very high; in both cases, it was just enough.

#24 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: July 03, 2013, 03:58 PM:

I also compare Gettysburg and Waterloo in other ways. According to Wikipedia, 165,000 fought at the former, with 46,000 killed, wounded and missing; 190,000 fought at the latter, with 75,000 killed, wounded and missing. One big difference, of course, is that Gettysburg was fought over three days, while Waterloo was over in a single day (although if you add Ligny and Quatre-Bras, it took three days, with around 220,000 men involved and 137,000 casualties.

#25 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2013, 01:48 PM:

Anne Sheller @52, and now we can both blame Ken Burns...

#26 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2013, 01:56 PM:

And the "oh-no" minute strikes as I realize I meant 22...sigh.

#27 ::: Susie ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2013, 02:39 PM:

Lori Coulson @21 and Anne Sheller @22: Me three. Thank you, Jay Ungar, for this unforgettable "Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx."

Too few folk musicians can make a living at their craft; blessings on Ken Burns for bringing some of them to a wider audience.

#28 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2013, 02:41 PM:

It's not too late for Anne to also make post #52 in this thread....

#29 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 04, 2013, 04:34 PM:

Jim @17

That's the popular image of The Great War, but it's not good history. The basic small-unit tactics were already figured out in 1915 (Battle of Loos), but several important pieces of the tactical pie were ignored in the opening of the Somme battles. One big mistake on the First Day of the Somme was that there was no creeping barrage.

And the Germans had their Stormtrooper tactics at about the same time.

As for the Grenadier Guards, they'd been in the war from the beginning, and didn't take part in the Somme battles until Flers-Courcelette, in mid September, which was also when tanks were first used.

If you want to know then they learned any ACW lessons the hard way, it was the Second Boer War, not the Great War. For instance, the Battle of Modder River. The collective experience of the British Army against modern rifles in that war set out the route to Mons. For a few critical weeks, the British Army in Flanders was the only 20th Century Army in Europe.

Not that the French and Germans were so dreadful. The Germans wore a drab uniform and were trained to drop flat when they came under fire.

It's worth remembering that the long term casualty rates for British infantry units in combat in NW Europe were similar. There was no magic wand to wave. But there were fewer infantry and more machines. The British and American armies were far more inclined to use machines rather than men, but the British Army was running out of manpower in 1945.

And some aspects of British Army tactics were fixed in those years. The Royal Artillery doctrine emphasises a fast response to fire requests, and that goes back to those battles in France, almost a century ago.

It is the artillery that is the killer. And, at Al Nasiriyah, a UK 105-mm battery under control of a US marine's FDC was reporting 'battery ready' on average 1.75 minutes after the call for fire, the US 155-mm batteries were averaging 8 minutes.

Every Army makes mistakes, but the biggest onmes are made by politicians.

#30 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2013, 01:01 AM:

Video; eye-level view of Pickett's Charge by reenactors at the Gettysburg 150th anniversary. 31 minutes.

#31 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2013, 02:00 AM:

Dave @29, the British infantry casualty rates in post-Normandy WWII were indeed very high. I thought the same applied to the rates for the US and the other allies as well, though - is that not so?

#32 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2013, 03:39 AM:

Andrew @31

The figures I've seen, in many places over the years, compared British Army figures for the two wars. And the specific comparisons were usually focused on NW Europe: D-Day to the end of the war.

I don't have the data for the US Army and Marine Corps, and their experience in WW1 was potentially misleading. Family story has it that my grandfather was briefly attached to the US Army, teaching them how not to be stupid in the trenches. Any army, replacements without combat experience make mistakes, and the US Army in 1918 was effectively all replacements.

There was some of that for the British Army too, in the 1944 invasion and liberation of France. Some units had combat experience, many didn't.

When you dig into the details, the First Day of the Somme varied. But I think you can say that, as at Gettysburg, the failures had a streak of wrong-war thinking attached to them. The answers were known, some of them even applied, but the reactions to the unexpected were built on the habits of the past.

So maybe Lee had a plan, sending Stuart to hit the Union rear areas before his big frontal attack, and because of Custer, that plan failed. But he still executed the frontal attack (OK, so how could he know?). The basic tactical system was little different from that of Napoleon, but the weapons, artillery and infantry both, were more effective.

There are accounts from the Peninsula War of how the British Army dealt with those unstoppable French columns: using the reverse slope kept the defending infantry safe from both the artillery and the display of the unstoppable attack. And the counter was the shock of a volley from an apparently new enemy, followed by a bayonet charge out of the smoke. That's awfully like what the 8th Ohio did.

Incidentally, it's easy to get the wrong idea of what those French columns were. It's not the column of infantry that marches down a road. Those attack columns were formed on a company or division front (a division, in this context, is two companies) and each company would be in its army's usual line formation. A French company at full strength was about 150 men formed into three ranks, so a frontage of about 50 yards. And there would be a pace or two extra distance between each rank while they marched. It's all very like the way the Guards march past in the Trooping the Colour ceremony in London. And, because of the short range of musketry, you could see them coming for a long time before you could do anything.

Anyway, when I read accounts of Gettysburg, I'm biased by my other reading of military history, and that context suggests patterns. Gettysburg, with those skirmishing cavalry with their Sharps carbines, is one of those times when the patterns shift and tear.

#33 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2013, 11:21 AM:

32
My mother's father was one of those US soldiers in 1918. His regiment was trained (more or less) for trench warfare ... and sent to the Meuse-Argonne. (No trench war.) They were basically National Guard, and their colonel, who was also, was replaced by a Regular Army officer literally just before they were sent to the front.

#34 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 06, 2013, 12:01 PM:

In one of those little coincidences, there's some slight discussion of the Great War happening in Charlie Stross's blog. One of his Laundry novels has "Boney" Fuller as a character.

And somebody posted a link to a lecture by Richard Holmes on WW1 military history. It's an interesting outline of how the accepted story of the war changed, and how it influenced the recollections of veterans. But there is a huge stack of contemporary documentation, and you can compare the stories a witness told, a half-century after the war, with such things as muster rolls and casualty records.

It makes you wonder a bit about such WW2 history as Band of Brothers. There was an account of the American air drop on D-Day by S.L.A. Marshall (Night Drop), and some of Marshall's claims based on his near-contemporary interviews are now questioned, so how sure can we be?

How reliable are witnesses? What do we get wrong about our own lives?

#35 ::: Andrew Wells ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2013, 03:39 AM:

Dave @32 and @34, thank you for both of these. I need to add you link to my list of reading - which, alas, is already horribly long.

#36 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2013, 04:49 PM:

In the ongoing ground-level coverage of the war as seen from the 41st Illinois, they're in Lauman's brigade at Jackson. They're ordered to charge the rebel position. (Lauman always maintained the order was Ord's. Ord denied it.)

#37 ::: Jim Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2013, 05:02 PM:

In the film The Big Parade, directed by King Vidor, his camera operator was a veteran of Belleau Wood and served as a consultant for the Belleau Wood sequence.

Which show American soldiers marching shoulder-to-shoulder in dressed lines into machine-gun fire.

(The Big Parade is also one of the earliest, if not the first, American film to show American soldiers being afraid--paralyzed with fear--in combat.)

#38 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2013, 06:58 PM:

I have just read through a couple of accounts of Belleau Wood, and it's consistent with that film. Some of the attacks by the Americans were badly executed. Though the clip I have found doesn't match your description. The Marines are advancing in extended order, not shoulder-to-shoulder in dressed lines. The later shots of the main characters do show them unrealistically close, but that's a convention of cinema.

One aspect I noticed was the rifles all produced clouds of smoke when they fired, while the machineguns didn't. In reality, they would use the same ammunition: I suspect black-powder blanks in the rifles. Another shot shows soldiers throwing hand grenades after pulling the pins with their teeth. The machineguns also seem to fire continously, once they start. Even with a water-cooled Maxim, short bursts is the rule, and they would be sited to fire in enfilade.

There's the usual questionmark on the types of trees visible, California rather than France, but the wood, about a square mile, was not heavily shelled until after the initial attacks. It would also have expected the Germans to have done a lot more digging.

On the whole, the clip feels plausible, but it wouldn't be surprising if it was the root of a lot of common movie mistakes.

Compare the 1916 film the Battle of the Somme, which was also a ground-breaker.


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