Marine Corps Artillery — Part 1

The Early Years

Mission

— Furnish close and continuous fire support by neutralizing, destroying, or suppressing targets that threaten the success of supported units.  To accomplish this mission, Marine Corps artillery (a) provides timely, close, accurate, and continuous fire support.  (b) Provides depth to combat by attacking hostile reserves, restricting movement, providing long-range support for reconnaissance forces, and disrupting enemy command and control systems and logistics installations.[1]  (c) Delivers counter-fire within the range of the weapon systems to ensure freedom of action by the ground forces.

Historical Note

For half of its 245-years, the U.S. Marine Corps has operated as a task-organized, mission-centered expeditionary force capable of quickly responding to any national emergency when so directed by the national military command authority.  The term “task organized” simply means that the size of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) depends entirely on the mission assigned to it.  A Marine Corps combat team could range from a rifle company to a reinforced brigade.

Before the Spanish-American War, when the mission of the Marine Corps was limited to providing sea-going detachments of qualified riflemen, the size of the Corps depended on the number of ships that required Marine Detachments.[2]  The mission of the Marine Corps has changed considerably since the Spanish-American War.  The U.S. Navy’s evolving role is one factor in the changing Marine Corps mission, but so too is advancing technological development and a greater demand for the Corps’ unique mission capabilities.  One thing hasn’t changed: The Marine Corps has always been —and remains today— essentially a task-organized service.  Today, we refer to all forward-deployed Marine Corps combat forces as Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTFs).

The Basics

Artillery lends dignity to what would otherwise be an ugly brawl.

—Frederick the Great

Artillery is a weapons platform used for launching munitions beyond the range of infantry weapons.  Modern artillery evolved from much-simpler weapons in ancient times — used to breach fortifications and by defensive forces to withstand an enemy assault.  Although not referred to as artillery, siege engines such as the catapult have been around since around 400 BC.  Until the development of gunpowder, the effectiveness of artillery depended on mechanical energy.  If one wanted to increase the effectiveness of such weapons, then one would have to construct larger engines.  Gunpowder changed all that.  For instance, first-century Roman catapults launching a 14-pound stone could achieve kinetic energy of 16,000 joules.[3]  A 12-pound gun in the mid-19th century reached kinetic energy of 240,000 joules.

In the Middle Ages, artillerists adapted their weapons to support land armies.  They accomplished this by constructing horse-drawn wagons to provide mobility to heavy weapons.  Before the 20th century, when artillerists (gun crews) marched along beside the horse-drawn wagons, field artillery was commonly referred to as “foot artillery.”  There was also a distinction between field artillery and horse artillery; the latter was used to support cavalry units, employing lighter guns and, eventually, horse-mounted gun crews.  During World War I, technology changed horse-drawn artillery to wheeled or tracked vehicles.

Marine Corps Artillery: The Early Years

In addition to serving as shipboard riflemen, early Marines also manned naval guns.  This may be the Corps’ earliest connection to the use of artillery.  There are differences between the employment of naval vs. land artillery, but the fundamentals are similar.  Nevertheless, the evolution of Marine artillery is linked to the growth of the Corps, and the modern development of the Corps began at the outset of the Spanish-American War.  Marines have performed amphibious raids and assaults from its very beginning, but only as small detachments, often augmented by members of the ship’s crew (ship’s company).  The Marine Corps formed its first (task-organized) amphibious battalion in the Spanish-American War.  In that episode, the Corps distinguished itself as a naval assault force and proved its usefulness in projecting naval power ashore.  See also: The First Marine Battalion.

As the U.S. Navy grew into a global force, the Marine Corps grew with it.[4]  Within a few decades, the Marine Corps evolved from shipboard detachments and providing security for naval yards and stations to a force capable of seizing and defending advanced bases and forming and employing expeditionary assault forces.  Artillery played a vital role in this evolution. From that time on, innovative thinkers helped make the Marine Corps relevant to the ever-evolving nature of war and its usefulness to our national defense.

The Marine Corps developed tables of organization and equipment (TO/E) to standardize requirements for combat and combat support personnel and their equipment.  For example, all infantry, artillery, and combat support battalions are uniformly organized.  Artillery regiments (generally) have the same number of battalions, battalions have the same number of batteries, and all headquarters/firing batteries are likewise similar in composition.[5]  Organizational standardization remains a key element used by headquarters staff in determining whether or the extent to which Marine Corps units are combat-ready.

Infantry is the mission of the Marine Corps — projecting naval power ashore.  The mission for anyone who is not an infantryman is to support the infantryman.  The mission of Marine Corps artillery reflects this reality.

Following the Spanish-American War (1898), the Marine Corps developed the Advanced Base Force.  This was essentially a coastal and naval base defense battalion designed to establish mobile and fixed bases in the event of major landing operations outside the territorial limits of the United States.  The Advanced Base Force was a significant shift away from the Marine Corps’ mission up to that time.  It marked the beginning of Marine expeditionary forces.

The Advanced Base Force was useful because it enabled the Navy to meet the demands of maritime operations independent of the nation’s land force, the U.S. Army.  This decision was far more than an example of service rivalry; it was practical.  In many cases, troops, and supplies (as the Army might have provided) were simply unavailable at the time and place the Navy needed them.  The General Board of the Navy determined, at least initially, that no more than two regiments of Advance Base Forces would be required from the Marine Corps.[6]  In those days, Advanced Base Battalions had one artillery battery (to provide direct fire support to the battalion) and naval shore batteries to defend against hostile naval forces.

In July 1900, a typical Marine artillery unit was equipped with 3-inch guns and colt automatic weapons.  The Marine Corps organized its first artillery battalion in April 1914 at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This battalion would become the foundation of the 10th Marine Regiment, which distinguished itself in combat in the Dominican Republic in 1916.

First World War

Global war didn’t just suddenly appear at America’s doorstep in 1917; it had as its beginnings the Congress of Vienna in 1814.  By the time the United States entered World War I,  the war to end all wars was already into its third year of bloody mayhem.  During those three years, the American press continually reported on such incidents as German submarine attacks on U.S. commercial shipping and a German proposal to Mexico for an invasion of states in the U.S. Southwest.  There is no evidence that Mexico ever gave serious consideration to Germany’s proposal.

To prepare for America’s “possible” involvement, Congress authorized an expansion of the Marine Corps to include two infantry brigades, two air squadrons, and three regiments of artillery.  The three artillery regiments and their initial date of activation were: the 11th Marines (3 January 1918), the 10th Marines (15 January 1918), and the 14th Marines (26 November 1918).

Major General Commandant George Barnett wanted to form a Marine infantry division for duty in France; General John J. Pershing, U.S. Army, commanding the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) not only opposed the formation of a Marine infantry division, but he also wasn’t fond of the idea of Marine Corps artillery regiments.[7], [8]

When the Commanding Officer of the 11th Marines became aware of Pershing’s objection to Marine artillery, he petitioned the Commandant to re-train his regiment as an infantry organization.  Thus, in September 1918, the 11th Marines deployed to France as an infantry regiment of the 5th Marine Brigade.  However, once the 5th Brigade arrived in France, General Pershing exercised his prerogative as overall American commander to break up the brigade and use these men as he saw fit.  Pershing assigned most of these Marines to non-combat or combat support duties.  Upon returning to the United States in August 1919, Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) deactivated the 11th Marines.

The Commanding Officer of the 10th Marines also pushed for service in France.  The regiment was equipped with 3-inch guns.  Since there were no 3-inch guns in France, the War Department (Army) barred the 10th Marines from European service.  When the Navy offered to convert 14-inch naval rifles for use as rail guns (mounted on train cars), the War Department conditionally approved the suggestion (along with a 7-inch weapon) — but only so long as the Navy used sailors to man the guns, not Marines.[9]  Eventually, the Navy negotiated a compromise with the Army: sailors would handle the 14-inch guns, and the 10th Marines would service the 7-inch guns.  The 10th Marines began training with the 7-inch guns in early October 1918.  The war ended on 11 November 1918.  On 1 April 1920, the 10th Marine regiment was re-designated as the 1st Separate Field Artillery Battalion, which had, by then, incorporated French 75-mm and 155-mm howitzers.

The 14th Marines, having been trained as both infantry and artillery, never deployed to Europe.  The result of political/in-service rivalry was that no Marine Corps artillery units participated in World War I.

(Continued next week)

Sources:

  1. Brown, R. J.  A Brief History of the 14th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1990
  2. Buckner, D. N.  A Brief History of the 10th Marines.  Washington: US Marine Corps History Division, 1981
  3. Butler, M. D.  Evolution of Marine Artillery: A History of Versatility and Relevance.  Quantico: Command and Staff College, 2012.
  4. Emmet, R.  A Brief History of the 11th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1968
  5. Kummer, D. W.  U. S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001-2009.  Quantico: U.S. Marine Corps History Division, 2014.
  6. Russ, M.  Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950.  Penguin Books, 1999.
  7. Shulimson, J., and C. M. Johnson.  U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Landing and the Buildup, 1965.  Washington: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1978.
  8. Smith, C. R.  A Brief History of the 12th Marines.  Washington: Headquarters, US Marine Corps, 1972.
  9. Strobridge, T. R.  History of the 9th Marines.  Quantico: Gray Research Center, 1961, 1967.

Endnotes:

[1] Also, shaping the battle space.

[2] The size of the detachment depended on the size of the ship.

[3] A measure of energy equal to the work done by a force of one newton when its point of application moves one meter in the direction of action of the force, equivalent to one 3600th of a watt hour.  A newton is equal to the force that would give a mass of one kilogram an acceleration of one meter per second – per second.

[4] If there is a “father of the modern navy,” then it must be Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), whom historian John Keegan believes is the most important strategist of the 19th Century and, perhaps, the most influential American author of his time (1890).  Mahan’s writing so influenced Theodore Roosevelt that it led him to pursue modernization of the US Navy as the key to achieving America’s full potential as an actor on the world stage.

[5] Currently, infantry battalions consist of “lettered” rifle companies.  Artillery battalions consist of “lettered” firing batteries.  In the past, when the primary mission of a combat organization was infantry, subordinate units were generally referred to as companies, even when one of those subordinate units was an artillery unit.

[6] Established in 1900, the General Board of the Navy was tasked to anticipate and plan for future tasks,  missions, and strategic challenges and make recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy on matters of naval policy, including the task organization of naval expeditionary forces.

[7] Senior army officers had legitimate concerns with regard to the incorporation of Marines into field armies during World War I.  Beyond the fact that army officers did not see a need for a Corps of Marines, and regarded them as a “waste of manpower” that could be better utilized in the army, the naval forces operated under a different system of laws and regulations.  Perhaps the question in the minds of some senior army officers was whether the Marines would obey the orders of their army commanders.

[8] Prior to World War I, it was common practice for shipboard Marine Detachments to form provisional (temporary) organizations for specific purposes.  In most instances, such organizations involved provisional battalions, but occasionally the Marines also formed provisional regiments and brigades.  When the mission assigned to these provisional organizations was completed, brigades, regiments, and battalions would deactivate, and the Marines assigned to such organizations would return to their regular assignments.  Marine regiments did not have formally structured battalions until after World War I.  Instead, regiments were composed of numbered companies (e.g., 24th Company).  One of the army’s concerns was that the use of Marine formations within Army units would only confuse ground commanders and further complicate the battlefront.  It was during World War I that the Marine Corps adopted the Army’s regimental system.  Rifle companies were formed under battalions, and battalion commanders answered to their respective regimental commanders.

[9] Before 1947, the Secretary of War (Army) and Secretary of the Navy operated as co-equal cabinet posts.  After the creation of the Department of Defense, all military secretaries, service chiefs, and combat forces operated under the auspices of the Secretary of Defense (except the Coast Guard, which at first operated under the Treasury Department and now operates under the Department of Homeland Security).


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

2 thoughts on “Marine Corps Artillery — Part 1”

  1. Excellent post. I note you close comments rather soon; having read this, I then read your three part “War Against the Corp”, reprehensible attitudes which persist to this day. Far sighted individuals such as Billy Mitchell come to mind. Perhaps Einstein’s statement is the best rebuttal: “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds”

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