1-553 Speech to the National Rifle Association, February 3, 1939

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: February 3, 1939

Speech to the National Rifle Association1

February 3, 1939 [Washington, D.C.]

General Reckord has asked me to talk to you on any subject that I might select, but he mentioned his interest, and the purpose of this organization, in keeping alive a realization of the importance of the rifleman in the settlement of any war—especially in these days of myriads of planes, of mechanized cavalry, and of submarines and mysterious gases.

And I am glad to take that as the text for some informal remarks this evening, though I admit to embarrassment in holding forth on any military subject in the presence of the Assistant Secretary of War and the Chief of Staff of the Army. When my invitation for this evening was delivered, no mention was made of the fact that I would be called upon to talk under these circumstances, so, while complimented and honored by the invitation, it seems inappropriate, as it certainly is embarrassing, for me to be advising on military matters in the presence of these two high officials of the Army.

The world is air-minded today, all thoughts turn to attack from the air. A glance through military history shows a monotonous repetition of such special interests. Chariots were once heralded as the dominators of the battlefield, then elephants; the mechanized force of the Macedonian Phalanx played a brief determining part, but the short-sword of the Roman infantryman brought back to the battlefield its basic factor. Hordes of horsemen, comparable to the threatened hordes of airplanes, carried Genghis Khan across Asia to the gates of Vienna; and through a series of changes we reach the period of the armored knight. Then came the crossbowman to dominate the field; and artillery appeared, to reach a peak in employment under Napoleon. This special arm again reached dominating importance in the World War, when the infantry casualties became prohibitive in prolonged attacks. For the same reason the tank put in an appearance and played a leading part in the last phase of the World War. But meanwhile, the airplane, starting with shotgun and revolver armament, rapidly developed into a carrier of synchronized machine guns and a dropper of bombs, though remaining of value largely as a reconnaissance weapon. The air fights in France were almost entirely concerned with the gathering of information.

But in all these struggles, as the smoke cleared away, it was the man with the sword, or the crossbow, or the rifle, who settled the final issue on the field. Probably the most impressive exception could be made to this statement in connection with the completely horsed armies of Genghis Khan,—this was one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

To return to the airplane. Since the World War its development has gone ahead by leaps and bounds, due to its suitability for commercial usage, and its adaptability to offset sea power, on a quick production basis. Anti-aircraft measures have lagged for the opposite reason, being entirely of a noncommercial character and dependent upon military appropriations.

We now come to a most unusual development in world armaments. A nation which had been disarmed, and deprived of practically all of its military materiel, a nation which had been barred from the development of aviation and of tanks, suddenly throws off the yoke and launches a huge program of military preparation.

People generally do not comprehend the far-reaching effect of this unusual base of departure for the rearmament of Germany. Had that country possessed an accumulation of World War weapons, it would probably have suffered the necessity of compromising the desire to procure more modern equipment, with the more economical possibility of modernizing some of the existing materiel, and of utilizing the remainder unaltered—a procedure in which the other nations of the world were and are engaged, and which never produces even an approximation of a complete modernization of munitions.

But Germany had nothing with which to start, except the little force of 100,000 men permitted to her by treaty; her cannon decorate the public parks of the Allies, her wartime machine guns had largely been destroyed, she was prohibited planes and tanks. But, she was spared the expensive procedure of the development and outmoding of airplanes or tanks or mechanized cavalry. When the yoke of the Versailles Treaty was discarded, Germany started from scratch, as it were, without necessity for compromise, and initiated the development of a complete armament program, closely integrated with civil industry. She had the full benefit of the experimentation of the world in planes and tanks; in artillery, mechanized vehicles, and in the production of ammunition. Evidently, during her period of restricted military activities following the World War, she had concentrated on experimental research along military lines. Her sudden departure on a program of rearmament was not so revolutionary as might appear, because it is apparent that she had carefully laid a sound basis for the initiation of the program. It was no hastily improvised affair.

Had the great nations grown old together, in the gradual elimination of outmoded weapons, planes and equipment, no single country could have gained such a long lead in the matter as attained by Germany. Contradictory as it may seem, she actually profited by the forcible wiping out of her World War armament. She also profited by the forced reduction of her army, because in the rapid swelling of numbers to her present standing army, she was free of the normal resistance to changes in organization, and has therefore approached her ideal of military power.

There are a world of controversial phases of this matter that might be discussed, but which time and restraint cause me to avoid, but I will say that it is most important in judging these matters to gain a proper perspective, and not permit the trees to obscure the woods.

For example, there is nothing dramatic about industrial preparedness, except in its appeal to the manufacturer; but it is evident that unless we set up a practical program in this respect we will be impotent, even if we have a collection of Galahads in the ranks. The same thought applies to the equally undramatic business of reserve stocks of critical materials.

In all this present welter of conflicting information as to what is happening in Europe, the dramatic features have been widely publicized while other equally important measures have been ignored. I might illustrate this phase of the matter by a single example. We have all heard how many planes Germany has and what vast numbers she can produce, but I doubt if very many have learned that for more than two years she has turned out a million rounds of artillery ammunition a week! Now you, of the National Rifle Association, would be primarily interested in what she has done in terms of the rifle and the man. Whatever that is, will be of no public interest, lacking all dramatic quality, until we find an Horatius at the bridge.

Those of you who fought in France will remember that the daily communiques of all the Allies—and of the Central Powers—usually cited by name some gallant knight of the air who had driven down an opponent in flames or to a crash. Practically never did you read a similar public reference to the poor devil with the infantry platoon, who labored in the cold and mud, under shell and machine gun fire, was bombed and gassed, and who carried the battle to the enemy, and actually conquered the disputed ground. Yet it was this soldier who forced the issue to the Armistice. I only recall one exception to these comments, and that was in the case of an infantry lieutenant of the German Army who was cited by name in the radio communique in April, 1918, for having forced a river crossing ahead of schedule and permitted the German advance down the Valley of the Lys to proceed so rapidly that it resulted in a near catastrophe for a portion of the British Army.

I have at last arrived in this talk at the point of discussing the activities of the National Rifle Association in the promotion of National Defense.

Without giving much thought to the matter, we all know that the old days of the squirrel hunter and the pioneer have departed, and with their departure has been lost that intimate knowledge of the rifle common to early American history. Your association undertakes to keep alive this knowledge, and to develop better technique, better weapons, and better powders for the rifle.

Almost thirty years ago I got myself ordered to Camp Perry for duty as an official of the National Rifle Matches, in order that I might see for myself just what was accomplished there. At the time I was an instructor at Leavenworth, and so supercharged with theoretical conceptions of making war that I thought it would be an excellent thing to get a more practical slant on certain aspects of the battlefield. I was much impressed by that experience. While not a high-powered rifleman, I had on at least one occasion been high gun of the Post, but my duties had carried me away from the target range, and I never found opportunity to develop myself into anything of a rifle shot; that is, according to the standards necessary for an Army officer who enters the lists at Camp Perry. Before I found the time and opportunity, my eyes had settled the question with finality.

Every hour of my experience in France impressed me more and more with the importance and potential power of the infantryman on the battlefield, if and provided the man was hardened and disciplined, and if he was trained to use his weapon with efficiency under the conditions of combat. It was clear to all present in France that the burden of the war fell on the shoulders of the members of the infantry platoon. No other group competed with them in hardships and casualties. But they received little public recognition for their work and sacrifices.

There is another aspect to this matter which, I think, is not fully understood, and possibly I can illustrate my particular view of this phase by a comparison with the present development of the National Guard. I must ask you to treat the following statement as somewhat confidential, because it is purely my personal opinion, gained from intimate contact with those troops.

Under the conditions controlling the development of the National Guard as to limited time, restricted training facilities, etc., it has seemed to me that the units most readily developed to a high point of efficiency have been, strange to say, the observation squadrons of the Guard air force; next, the Engineer regiments; and then the Field Artillery. I won’t go further down the list, but will merely mention my opinion that the most difficult unit to develop satisfactorily in the National Guard is the infantry regiment. And there is a very simple reason for this situation.

The infantryman on the battlefield is distinctly on his own, without a horse or a motor to turn to, and lacking the anchor of a field gun or tank, or other heavy equipment. Once the field of action has been reached and the deployment completed, the infantry soldier becomes an isolated individualist, with all the frailties of the individual magnified a thousandfold. Only a corporal remains nearby to back him up, upon whom he can depend for reassurance. He lacks a physical rallying point—no ship, no heavy gun, no fortification, nothing but a few scattered buddies. He is a young fellow, depressed by a heavy physical burden on his back, exhausted by long marches of concentration and deployment, and lack of food, and he is virtually alone under the terrific pounding of hostile fires of every character. Of himself, by himself, he can apparently do very little, though collectively he can win the war.

He must be supported by artillery, which means in turn that his platoon commander must have a skilled knowledge of topography and able to report exactly where his line is established—on ground never seen before and of which he probably has no map. This information, coupled with accurate observations of the enemy’s opposing installations—which usually are at a distance and on a decided angle from the front of the platoon—must be communicated through an elaborate but hastily established communications system, by runner, telephone, radio, through company, battalion, and regimental headquarters, to some distant battery of artillery, probably a mile to the rear, and which the platoon commander has never seen and possibly never will see. It may be necessary to coordinate his isolated activities with an infantry cannon or Stokes mortar, and certainly with distant machine guns. He may even have to initiate procedure to secure the support of tanks still miles to the rear. All of this he does, lying on his stomach, under a hostile fusillade—with a diet of gas thrown in for good measure. And what he proposes must be coordinated with the scattered units along a regimental, a brigade, a divisional front, and through its depth of supports and reserves. Altogether, it is the most complicated problem of troop leadership, and requires a higher degree of training and discipline, I believe, than for any other military preparation—except for the actual flying of the airplane. There are no convenient electrical buttons as on a battleship to launch a broadside; no hot meals, no rest, seemingly no end to a long drawn out battle of endurance.

Yet with all this, we seldom hear this phase of the matter referred to. As a matter of fact, I think the common belief is that the most quickly created instrument of war is the infantry regiment. Yet, I would say that we have lost more lives and been delayed more in battle by the acceptance of this doctrine than for any other purely military reason.

There is another aspect of this same matter. In ordinary training little that the infantryman does closely simulates what actually happens on the battlefield and, what is most important, the most serious errors or lacks of the peace-time training can seldom be made apparent in that training, or even in maneuvers; because until the leader or individual has once been submerged with hostile fire—bullet, shell, and bomb—and left apparently unsupported in an exposed position, and has found himself utterly unable to secure any artillery fire or machine gun fire, or other supporting action, he will never appreciate the special importance to infantry—above all other arms or services—of discipline and leadership, and of communications; and their absolute determining effect on the battlefield.

Today, when people think of bombs dropping like hail, certainly not like the gentle dew from heaven, they probably dispose of the infantryman’s problem with the thought that, “Certainly he has no defense against such war-making methods.“ Well, one wounded infantry sergeant in the old 69th Regiment in New York, infuriated by the return a second time of a German low-flying strafing plane which had disabled him on its first passage—that man, lying on his back, fired at the plane, killed the pilot and crashed the ship, which fell on another German plane flying under it, a single rifle shot bringing down two planes. He was not mentioned, like the successful aviator, in the day’s communique, but he did receive the Distinguished Service Cross.

I am not implying that we expect to shoot down many planes with rifle bullets. But recently the infantry has forced the rather low-flying tactics of the air people into higher altitudes because of the recorded effectiveness of fire from trained infantry riflemen.

I do mean, by implication, that the foundation on which a successful war is carried to conclusion, aside from the character and resolution of the people, eventually rests with the infantry soldier, no matter what the scientific developments and clever gadgets developed for making war. Of course, without air support he is doomed, just as he cannot live on the battlefield without the fire of his own artillery; and frequently could never advance without the support of tanks; and usually would be completely in the dark without the reconnaissance of plane or car, or cavalry, or humble foot patrollers. He will never be the subject of wide acclaim, but he will continue to be the solid rock on which wars are finally settled; and everything we can do to give him prestige, to develop his weapons, to afford a general knowledge of the use of those weapons, are just so many steps exactly in the right direction. Therefore, the justification for the National Rifle Association.

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

Document Format: Typed draft.

1. This speech was delivered to the convention of the National Rifle Association in Washington, D.C., at the request of Major General Milton A. Reckord, commanding general of the Maryland National Guard and president of the National Rifle Association.

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 1, “The Soldierly Spirit,” December 1880-June 1939 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 689-694.

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