2-068 Speech to the Army Ordnance Association, October 11, 1939

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: October 11, 1939

Speech to the Army Ordnance Association1

October 11, 1939 Washington, D.C.

General Crowell, Admiral Stark, General Wesson, Gentlemen:

I am a little embarrassed tonight. First, in following the distinguished gentlemen who have already talked to you, but more particularly because of the recent decision of the War Department to discourage officers from engaging in public discussions of military matters, which to be interesting would immediately involve questions that still must be regarded as somewhat confidential. I will, however, do my best to talk frankly as to what our thought is today in regard to the Army generally; in regard to what is taking place in a military war and, especially, in relation to industrial preparedness.

As a beginning, I think it might be well to submit a few comments regarding the present discussions as to the great changes that have taken place in the manner of making war, judging, for example, from what has happened recently in Poland. I will preface that thought with a personal experience, if I may be permitted, which was to me a lesson in the matter of getting down to fundamentals, believing, as I do, that they are usually unchanging.

As the Toastmaster remarked, I sailed for France with the First Division in June, 1917. Filled with recruits and newly organized, the division went into the line that fall, and as a complete division, entered the sector north of Toul on the St. Mihiel front in January, 1918. We occupied a locality in which there had been no active fighting for almost three years. It had been maintained on the same basis until, in some respects, it was almost like a hotel—with divisions coming and going as the guests of the permanent sector organization. The troops were largely disposed in the forward zone of the sector, and I recall that the principal dugouts were under the parapets of the front trench.

We had been there but two or three weeks when there was received from the Intelligence Bureau of the French Army a description of an expected assault to be made by German forces, which had been heavily reinforced with divisions drawn from the collapsed Russian front. The reported nature of this new attack, termed a “maneuver of rupture,” was such that it caused the French High Command to direct a complete reorganization of the defenses—from that of a shallow nature to one of considerable depth. This meant the complete change of a system which had existed for nearly three years. It meant, in brief, that a regiment which had occupied a deployed depth of about five or six hundred yards, would be disposed over a depth of a mile or more, and that the regiments, the companies, the individuals, could be much more widely dispersed; that a great many machine gun emplacements which had previously been located along the lines of trenches, would have to be re-located in staggered formation of great depth.

To the First Division it meant a tremendous planning problem, and for the troops hard manual labor and much exposure to the weather of that bitter winter of 1917-18. Snow was deep on the ground. Every move we made could be readily traced by the tracks of vehicles and of men on foot, as well as by the signs of extensive excavations. Construction was started and the men worked very, very hard. They suffered extreme hardships because of the inadequacy of the arrangements we could make for their shelter in the newly deployed positions in depth, but they did their work uncomplainingly. Then, when we were about half through with this program, the great German offensive of March 21, 1918, broke against the right of the British Army.

The First Division was hurriedly withdrawn from that sector and sent to Picardy. As its trains were arriving northwest of Paris, I personally reported to the headquarters of the group of French armies in which we were to serve. There I was informed that the system of organization in depth which we had just been carrying out on the St. Mihiel front, had since been greatly modified as a result of the experience of the recent heavy fighting. I was given the new method for taking up dispositions in depth which we were to follow as we went into the new sector, on ground but recently occupied and without trenches. We started work on the defenses under this new arrangement. Again the men worked in the cold and mud of early spring in Northern France, but just as they had gotten well into it, another German offensive broke, this time down the Valley of the Lys. Two weeks later new instructions were received for a further modifying of the method of deployment in depth. Once more we were forced to abandon the results of work that had been laboriously accomplished.

The troops were very tired. They had had no relief since early January. They had endured the cold, the mud, and the snow or rain of that bitter winter. It is true that they had not been engaged in an active operation, but they had been under such heavy fire that about three or four thousand men were casualties. Nevertheless, every man set about this newest task of reorganization in a fine, soldierly spirit. And then we entered into the Cantigny operation, where we suffered heavy losses due to a series of desperate German counter-attacks and violent artillery reactions. Simultaneously with that fight came the German attack on the Chemin des Dames, which thundered down to Chateau Thierry—to make of it historic ground for our Army. And then once more, two weeks later, we received a new set of instructions completely modifying the organization in depth that we were then in the process of completing.

I recall that in our reply to these new instructions we notified the French Headquarters that we could do one of two things; we could fight or we could dig, but it was no longer possible for us to do both.

We now come to the point of this series of events. That last modification (which was a modification of previous modifications—the first being a change in a system that had stood for almost three years), though written in French, was expressed literally in the language of the Field Service Regulations of the United States Army in 1914. In other words, there had been no change in fundamentals, but during three years of trench warfare those fundamentals had been lost sight of, and now in that critical summer of 1918, we were back again to first essentials of warfare.

To me that was an impressive lesson, and since then whenever changes are proposed, modern theories advanced, or surprising developments are brought to my attention, I automatically search for the fundamental principle involved in the particular matter at hand.

Many of the discussions at the present time, in relation to what we have learnt of the occurrences in Poland, seemingly propose new fundamentals as a basis for warfare. I might comment here on the fact that the American public is remarkably well informed on events in Europe as indicated by our confidential reports. But our knowledge at the present time, official and public, is superficial. However, it does appear that much of the procedure in Poland was merely a modification or a speeding up of the time-honored methods of making war, especially adapted to the terrain, the season of the year, the character of the people and the geographical set-up.

You have undoubtedly read in the papers of the concentrations we are inaugurating for the mobile troops of the Regular Army. Some four infantry divisions and one cavalry division, together with the necessary corps troops, a few of which now exist and others which are being organized, are being collected for special training. As soon as those divisional concentrations have permitted officers and men to gain familiarity with the new organizations, corps formations of three or four divisions, with the special troops concerned, will be carried out in large maneuvers to give the higher command experience with operations of large formations under modern conditions. This will be the most extensive maneuver ever attempted by our Army in time of peace. It will be, in effect, a great college of leadership for the higher officers, not only of the Regular Army, but of the National Guard and the Reserve Corps. It will provide a wonderful practical schooling for the young products of the ROTC in the Reserve Corps, and I hope it will lead to a policy for an annual concentration of a force of this general character of regular troops, so that we may keep abreast of the technique necessary for the handling of large bodies of troops, and keep before the public the evident necessity for maintaining a balanced force sufficiently complete for immediate employment.

In this connection I would like to make some comments which I think are rather pertinent. It has seemed to me, from a study of the hearings before Congress, that the Army has suffered continuously from lack of understanding by the public, and to a certain extent, by the Congress. The responsibility for this, in my opinion, rests largely with the Army because of the manner of our presentations and our use of military-technical terminology. At present, an army involves so many complex and varied activities and technical requirements that it is difficult even for a professional soldier to keep in close touch with the entire problem. I must confess that, in going into these matters in the War Department, I frequently have difficulty in understanding just what a particular staff officer is discussing, so far as all the related factors are concerned. If that is so in my case, it is probably much more the case with members of Congress, and must involve still more of misunderstanding by the general public.

We suffer from another disadvantage. The Army, I might say, is not photogenic. The more efficient, the better its organization, technique, and deployment, the more nearly it is invisible, except for the Air Force and the Mechanized Force. For that reason, these last two forces have less difficulty in convincing Congress of the necessity for appropriations; and for exactly the same reason, if we could offer for the mobile army something approximating the beautiful photographs of columns of battleships or destroyers bucking a heavy sea, I think we would have less trouble in developing our military program for the National Defense.

We recently had an excellent example of the force of such publicity. Several years ago publications were filled with photographs of the horrors of bombing women and children in China and in Spain. Promptly public pressure developed and Congress responded, and we finally received long overdue appropriations for antiaircraft materiel and airplanes. But until the war photographs had reached the public, there had been indifference or great reluctance to respond to our urgings for such equipment.

There is another factor—a most important factor, which pertains to our geographic location. The American people are naturally loath to see large appropriations made for war purposes, believing extensive defensive measures to be unnecessary due to our geographical location between two great oceans. The Atlantic and Pacific oceans are of tremendous value to our defensive situation, but they are not impassable.

In reviewing various hearings before committees of Congress, and the published articles stressing this, that, and the other military development, I have come to the conclusion that if we can find simpler terms for expressing our problem, if, for example, we can settle on a single unit, the Army Corps, for example, of two or three or four divisions, with the necessary corps troops—heavy artillery and antiaircraft, observation, engineers, squadrons, truck-trains, medical troops, signal corps battalions, and all the supporting elements that are essential in battle—if we can focus on an Army Corps as our unit of measurement, as our basis of calculation, then I believe we will have much less difficulty in making our problem understandable.2 Such a policy, so far as concerns the materiel consideration that is foremost in the minds of you gentlemen, should offer a simple basis of calculation, and the fundamental consideration of your great problem is the basis for calculating actual requirements. So, if we take the Army Corps, insofar as the ground army is concerned, together with the proper percentages for other related forces, as a medium of measure—a yardstick, as it were—we will have a simple problem of arithmetic for the determination of the requirements in personnel, in materiel, and of reserves for any multiple of that force.

Incidental to the concentration we are now bringing about in the south, we have made a step forward in the reorganization of our infantry divisions. At present we will only reorganize divisions of the regular establishment, leaving the question of reorganizing the National Guard divisions to a later date. When it comes to corps troops, however, we will have to create a number of new units. This can be done only if we are permitted to expand to the authorized peace strength of both the Regular Army and the National Guard. When and if we reach such strength, we can provide four more divisions in the Regular Army, another group of corps troops, and some important special troops for the General Headquarters Reserve, as well as reinforcements for foreign garrisons; and in addition, create the necessary corps troops that logically should exist in the National Guard.

I believe that our military personnel problem in this country is often misunderstood by reason of the fact that we have such a large portion of the regular Army on foreign service. We might characterize these last posts of duty as naval garrisons, since they guard vital naval installations, such as the Panama Canal, or Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and naval defenses we are developing in Puerto Rico as a rear-guard of the Panama Canal. There is thus left within the continental United States only a small combatant force of the Regular Army, for which we have found it difficult to arrange adequate training—training for our own education in the regular establishment, as well as for the education of the senior officers of the National Guard and of the Reserve Corps, who constitute the major portion of our war army. As a matter of fact, the National Guard must be considered as the first line of the Army, since it will form about 75% of our first army.

I have been talking about rather small forces, compared to the tremendous program with which you gentlemen are concerned in industrial preparedness. But the problem today is one of immediacy with regard to the existing troops that must be brought to a full state of efficiency as quickly as possible. I might remark, that we are most fortunate in the character and degree of military planning which has been accomplished. We are also exceedingly fortunate, and it is gratifying and reassuring to report, that we have at the present time a War Department staff composed of a highly educated group of officers who cooperate as a team in a remarkably efficient manner. This is one of the most reassuring and helpful features of the present situation. And along with that comment, it is appropriate for me, I think, to mention, in relation to questions of materiel or munitions, the large proportion of which are critical items of ordnance, that we have in the Ordnance Corps one of the most efficient, one of the finest group of officers in the Army. That is the common opinion of the Army, of everyone who has come in contact with the Ordnance Corps, and I am certain that it is the opinion of you gentlemen assembled here tonight.

I will not attempt to discuss the problem of industrial preparedness. General Wesson has already commented in some detail on the various factors involved. You have had your meetings since you came here, and you have known, most of you, for years what the great problem has been. You are familiar with the time factor, so it is unnecessary for me to go into that phase of the problem, except to say that you know, I know, all of us know that the time factor is the vital consideration—and vital in the correct meaning of the term—of our national defense program; that we must never be caught in the same situation we found ourselves in 1917.

General Harbord went to France as Chief of Staff of the American Expeditionary Force—a force devoid of materiel. I sailed with the First Division, on the first boat of the first convoy, and I cannot recall a better picture of the vast and terrible problem that General Pershing and his staff had to undertake, than a description of the conditions under which that expedition embarked for France. We embarked with a part of an entirely new division, of which I had never even seen a photostat of the organization until we were aboard ship. I then discovered—and I was a member of the General Staff of that Division—that we had units in the division of which I had never heard. They were on other boats, and because the use of the wireless was forbidden, we could not communicate with them to find out what they were and what they knew about themselves. We studied all the available charts. We sought to familiarize ourselves with the new organization, but there was very little literature on the war as it was then being conducted. We had one small English pamphlet, a single copy, which we studied conscientiously. But our thoughts would always go back to these new units and how they should be employed.

Landing at St. Nazaire, I was immediately sent on a circuit of the Division as the troops came ashore, to find out what they had, what manner of men they were, and what they knew about this new organization. I discovered that of 200 men to a company, approximately 180 were recruits. I found that some of these new units—Howitzer companies, the people with the Stokes mortars and with the 37 millimeter cannon—not only did not have the weapons, but the men themselves had never even heard of them. And we were landing on a foreign shore 3,000 miles from home, to enter the greatest war in history!

I recall the first time the American troops were put into line. They went in by battalions, and it fell to me to make the arrangements. We literally borrowed everything that was loose in France. Some items we didn’t even borrow. We had no rolling kitchens; we didn’t have this, and we didn’t have that. I remember that some of the staff from the great GHQ, to which we looked in reverence rather as the rising sun and all the powers inherent in it, came down to inspect our departure, and were horrified because some of the soldiers had cut the brims off their campaign hats and were wearing the remaining crowns; others wore headgear made from bath towels, for with the steel helmet they had to have something that could be folded. Some of them had the Belgian kepi, probably because it had a gold tassel dangling in front. But we went into line in that shape for our first experience—everything begged, borrowed, or stolen—certainly not manufactured in America. That was a trying experience, a complicated affair to manage. Later I became involved in movements of troops up into the hundreds of thousands, but the problem didn’t approximate the difficulties of managing that small first group of the First Division, of which nothing was normal except the fact that the men were Americans and they were willing to fight.

It has been an inspiration tonight to see a group of gentlemen of your quality of intellect and leadership assembled voluntarily to interest them selves in the very serious, the difficult, and really stupendous problem of the industrial program for the support of whatever military and naval effort we may have to make. I feel that it is a reassuring indication of the temper of the business men of America. Speaking for the Army I wish to express our appreciation of your patriotism, especially of the continued service you have rendered through the past twenty years.

I must apologize for this disconnected talk, and thank you for your generous reception and courteous attention.

Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Speeches, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.

Document Format: Typed draft.

1. Marshall delivered this address to a crowd of 770 at the twentieth anniversary dinner of the Army Ordnance Association at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. This speech was published, in a slightly revised form, in “Changeless War: Modern Methods Have Not Altered the Fundamentals,” Army Ordnance 20 (January-February 1940): 213-15.


Army Ordnance published the addresses of other speakers at the dinner meeting (Army Ordnance 20 [November-December 1939]): “America’s Munitions Now,” by Brigadier General Benedict Crowell, president of the Army Ordnance Association (p. 152); “Our Ordnance Heritage,” by Major General Charles M. Wesson, chief of Ordnance (pp. 153-54); “Prepare and Stay Prepared,” by Admiral Harold R. Stark (U.S.N.A., 1903), chief of naval operations (p. 156).

2. In describing the army’s manpower and training needs to President Roosevelt on October 4, Marshall had emphasized the corps as the basic fighting unit, inviting the nautical minded chief executive to consider the similarities between two organizational charts, one depicting a battleship and one an army corps. The chief of staff then described the impossibility of training in the use of the battleship by using only the captain’s gig. The president agreed on the corps as the unit in future conversations. (Orlando Ward Report of meeting in the Chief of Staff’s office, October 5, 1939, NA/RG 407 [334.8, General Council Reports (8-21-41) Bulky].)

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 81-87.

Digital Downloads




Holding Rights: Public Information
Holding ID: 2-068

Rights: Public Information