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The Secret Of The Soldiers Who Didn’t Shoot
Slam Marshall, who is regarded as one of our great military historians, looked into the heart of combat and discovered a mystery there that raised doubts about the fighting quality of U.S. troops. But one GI thought he was a liar…
March 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 2
“A youthful paratrooper was walking past, covered only by the bank of a very thick hedge. As we came up he neither halted us nor saluted. …"
“I asked him: ‘Soldier, where is the German front line?’"
“He waved his arm toward the Longvilly road, which ran along a hill about half a mile away."
”‘Somewhere out there, I think.’"
“I tried again."
”‘Look son, you see that head moving along behind that stone wall and something bobbing behind it that looks like a stick? (The wall was about a hundred yards away.) Don’t you realize that is a German walking sentry the same as you?’”
“Bizarre,” Leinbaugh says. “Nobody ever ‘walked post’ in the front line with a slung rifle—and nobody ever saw a German doing it either.” Leinbaugh talked to the colonel—then a general—who Marshall says was with him. The man recalled no such incident.
With this in mind, Leinbaugh looked carefully at Marshall’s account of his service in the First World War. Along with a few disclaimers about the accuracy of memory, Marshall made a series of references to his military experience, several times implying that he had served as an officer in combat: he at one point remarked, “What I was taught as a child was confirmed by my teenage experience of leading troops in combat.” Some inner FBI alarm went off. Leinbaugh was convinced that Marshall was lying.
He eventually unearthed the surviving official documents. Marshall had not been commissioned until April 1919, long after the armistice, when very junior officers were required to take troops home, at which time he had been assigned to a port battalion. Even if this is what had been meant in the autobiography, it would have been impossible to state that he had ever been the youngest American officer in the AEF; records that would indicate such a thing did not exist, and the Pentagon seemed to think that they never had. There was no evidence other than Marshall’s bare assertions that the man had ever commanded troops in combat.
As far as Leinbaugh could make out, Marshall had not spent 11:11 A.M. on Armistice Day in a foxhole somewhere near Stenay, the last town taken by American troops in the war—he had been behind the lines attending an NCO school. Marshall had previously served with the 315th Engineer Regiment, at that time part of the 90th Infantry Division. “World War One records,” says Leinbaugh, “show that Marshall’s regiment was involved in road work and building delousing stations. The sole entry on the November 10, 1918, morning report for his company, incidentally, reads, ‘1 Mule Killed by Kick from Mule. Drop from Rolls,’ and on Armistice Day the morning report says, ‘No Change.’”
One old K Company sergeant said of Marshall’s theory, “Did the SOB think we clubbed the Germans to death?”
Marshall had at different times claimed to have fought with three infantry regiments in two different divisions and in three separate countries. The record contained no independent evidence that he had ever been in combat.
After pursuing the matter on his own for months, Leinbaugh got in touch with a military historian named Roger Spiller, with whom he had struck up an acquaintance after Spiller had written a warm review of The Men of Company K. Born in Texas, Spiller had served what he describes as a “profoundly undistinguished” hitch in the Air Force before going on to become a professional historian. He did his doctoral work under a famous political historian, T. Harry Williams, but the military history bug bit him and didn’t let go. He is a founder and the deputy head of the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he has taught since 1978, taking time out for three years to serve as special assistant to the commander in chief of the U.S. Readiness Command. The CSI is essentially the history department for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Spiller was well aware of Marshall and his impact on modern military history, and he had been developing suspicions of his own.
Leinbaugh’s intervention prompted Spiller to put his thoughts in order; some of the fruits of his investigation, “S. L. A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire,” appeared in England in the December 1988 issue of the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute.
Like Leinbaugh, Spiller went after the ratio-of-fire numbers systematically, combing through the available records in an attempt to locate their specific source. The nominal source was, of course, Marshall’s group interviews after combat. How many had been conducted? The number fluctuated sharply. In Men Against Fire Marshall wrote of having interviewed “approximately” 400 infantry rifle companies. But in lectures he gave at Leavenworth, the number expanded to 603. By 1957 it had declined to “something over 500.”