The Dashing Young Québécois Corporal—a Lesson in the One Third/Two Thirds Rule
The grandmother in her animated Québécois way was happily telling her eight year old grandson, one of a growing extended family that would include 34 grandchildren, the ancient stories of her Québécois ancestors. She loved to tell the stories and in her Québécois accented English, the stories were always entertaining to her grandchildren and she was very good at telling them.
The boy’s father, an Army captain, had recently been re-stationed from assignment to the 9th Infantry Division’s 39th Infantry Regiment in Germany to duty with the 3rd Armored Division at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. It was winter and the shortage of family housing in a post WWII/Korean War army that was some 500% larger than its pre-WWII strength was significant and having an impact.
The Army was dealing with a severe family quarters shortage situation on its installations in the Continental United States. The family had been placed in temporary substandard quarters until new construction of permanent quarters completed. The local housing economy had been studied by the captain as an alternative but rentals were also at a premium and property for sale was also in short supply.
The boy’s mother had experienced a difficult pregnancy in the latter part of the tour in Germany and he had an increasingly active toddler sister. An active younger brother filled out the sibling compliment. Adding to the situation, the captain, an infantry officer, was constantly in the field with his fifth company command, Service Battery, 67th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Mémère, as she was addressed by family in old French, had traveled the distance from Hartford, Connecticut to help the little service family until it moved into its permanent quarters and the captain’s duty schedule settled down.
It was a Saturday morning and a cold rainy day. The boys, who would normally be running around outside, were house bound. Mémère, an expert at keeping up with active children, was a master card player. She first engaged the boys with card games, teaching them the games then playing several hands. After awhile, the rain persisting in the later morning, she shifted to story telling.
The first stories were typical Mémère and light-hearted, usually with a lesson delivered in a humorous way that younger children could understand. But the mood of the day, and perhaps the location, and a question from the older boy caused Mémère to become melancholy. She became quiet in thought.
The question from the older boy was about a photo Mémère had in her parlor at home of her younger brother Alphonse in WWII Army uniform kneeling by a white cross in a cemetery with many such crosses. She started a tale that took awhile to tell. It was a story of one of her seven brothers. As she described him, he was a happy alive young man, popular with his friends and beloved by his family, a joy to all. She spoke of her brother Aimé.
As she spoke of the young man of her memory, it was clear even to two young boys the special feeling for this brother and the regard he was held in by his family and friends. The boys, even at their young age and despite having relocated seven times as they had with their father, when at their mother’s family’s gatherings in between their Dad’s reassignments had picked up on reverent references by great uncles and aunts and their older aunts to this young man. The young man was like a ghostly presence—somehow among the gathered. They had more than once seen the photo of younger brother Alphonse, earlier referred to, who when deployed to France during WWII visited his brother’s grave in a U. S. cemetery. In ways, the great uncle had been a constant presence to the boys.
Alphonse “Al” Gagné at his older brother’s grave in France during WWII
Mémère’s story moved to the events of the Great War. As the story developed, brother Aimé, then living and working in Lewiston, Maine, a heavily Québécois community where French of the Québécois dialect was the language for most residents, shortly after the war began determined to enlist in the U.S. Army. He did so with a number of Québécois friends.
As the story went, he trained in the United States then sailed for France in a troop ship bidding family members adieu by letter. He was for a time in France at different locations where training continued but when not on duty his fluency in French allowed him to engage well with the local people where the unit was stationed.
Eventually, the unit went into combat. As Mémère related the story Aimé fought in a great battle at Belleau Wood and was killed. She said at first the family knew few details other than the War Department’s brief communication of his death. After the war one of his friends who had returned and been in action that day told his version of the attack that Aimé had died participating in. She related the story of the friend as she recalled it—of the terrible machinegun fire that ripped through the tall grass on the open meadow the soldiers were attacking over like a scythe cutting the young soldiers down like wheat. She paused, the sadness was palpable to the boys.
Mémère of course did not tell her story in other than common language bereft of any technical reference. She was not a professional soldier. She didn’t even mention the unit. But her tale and the jarring sense of mortality in the cutting short of a young man’s life in his prime, a beloved family member, was a haunting story that never left the boys’ consciousness.
Twenty-seven years later, the older boy was a student at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College (both boys would serve careers as Regular Army officers). One of the reading selections on the required reading list for students was the classic, “Infantry in Battle,” a work developed when General Marshall was commandant of the U. S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia in the late 1930s. The book was published initially in 1939 and again in later editions. It was a compendium of deliberately short vignettes of actual combat situations that succinctly described the buildup and circumstances to the situation, the actions of the leader element in the event, the results and the lessons that might be taken from what happened.
The student officer had done some research on the tale his Mémère had told him those many years before. He had learned that his great uncle was a corporal and squad leader in Company K, 23rd Infantry Regiment, a Regular Army unit, one of two Army regiments brigaded in an Army brigade of the 2nd Division. Unique as a division in France in 1918, the division’s other brigade was a Marine brigade of two Marine regiments.
The officer had appealed to Army Retired Records while stationed with the 197th Separate Mechanized Brigade at Ft. Benning in the mid 1970s for the decorations authorized for his great uncle. These decorations were provided by the Army—the Purple Heart Medal, the World War I Victory Medal with Clasp and a bronze service pin. But any official details of the action his great uncle was killed in had as yet eluded him.
One of the several works to the level of the requirement the student officer selected from the reading list was “Infantry in Battle.” With the student course load during the week, his reading list effort tended to occur on weekends arranged around family time. One Saturday while on an errand with his wife he was sitting in the car in the parking lot of a store reading “Infantry in Battle.” He began reading the “example vignette” on page 90. As he read, an odd feeling crept over him. When he finished reading the vignette on page 93 he realized he had just read a summary of the details of how his uncle died. The vignette was about his uncle’s battalion receiving an attack order with next to no time to prepare to make an attack on a prepared and well organized Imperial German Army position. The battalion would suffer, as he learned from other later reading, 75 men killed in action in a short space of time.
The attack was essentially an effort by the division’s Army brigade’s 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments to take some pressure off the division’s Marine brigade that had been experiencing relentless aggressive attacks by German units.
This was the “spear point” of the Imperial German Army’s final attempt to affect the outcome of the war. With the divisions released from the East with the collapse of Russia, the attempt was being made to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion for Germany before the U.S. build up tipped the balance beyond recovery.
The 2nd Division was feeling the fury of a desperate German drive on Paris. In response, the Marines were proving almost superhuman in their resistance and the Army regiments proved as aggressive as they came into the fight to relieve pressure on their Marine comrades. The level of U.S. unit aggressiveness, tenacity and competence was a sad discovery for the German General Staff. It was rapidly becoming clear from the U.S. unit’s fighting qualities that the offensive would grind to a halt and the German situation would deteriorate—the fight at Belleau Wood on 6 June 1918 that took the life of Corporal Aimé Gagné would nevertheless contribute to bringing an end to a most sanguine event in human affairs.
But from a leadership standpoint, the battle on 6 June has a few lessons. The 23rd Regiment received the attack order at 4:00 PM (the Army was not using continuous clock in WWI). The 1st and 3rd Battalions designated to make the attack, received the order at 5:00 PM, an hour later. The 3rd Battalion began its attack at 5:50 PM, the battalion commander literally passing orders and instructions to company commanders on the run. The hastiness of this situation did not allow for adequate planning of any supporting or suppressive fires and infantrymen were launched into a flat open field with too much distance to traverse with no more protection than their uniform blouses.
This hopeless brave assault was into well sited and concentrated machinegun fire. The results were as one would expect, 75 killed in action in just one battalion. The attack was not successful.
The student officer since early career had had the “One Third/Two Thirds rule” hammered home again and again. He had learned from the giving and receiving end in practice since his first assignment how important the rule’s application was. In a nutshell, the rule states that the issuing command should not use more than one third of the available planning and preparation time to mission execution. Subordinate leaders must be allowed at least two thirds of that time for their planning and preparation. As well, issue the warning order as soon as possible to alert subordinate units and allow preparation to begin as early as possible.
The tragedy of the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry brought home the dire effects of not applying the rule as much as possible—75 brave young men in the prime of life within minutes after 5:50 PM 6 June 1918 were dead. Sadly as well, this scenario had too much precedent over the preceding four years on the allied side in Australian, Belgian British, Canadian, French, and Indian units—no army proved immune from the abuse of available planning time. It is understood of course that situations will force immediate action responses—but best use of precious planning time means life and death, never mind mission failure, if misused. The experience of the 3rd Battalion in a short space of time after the attack makes clear the cost.
Mémère’s story was in fact a sad love story of a sibling and she had suffered other tragedy during WWI when she lost her baby daughter at six months to influenza. And there too is a lesson. All 75 soldiers came from families likely similar. The sadness of the family loss reached far into the future of a family with three generations knowing and feeling the story.
As leaders who understand this far reaching impact of our conduct, we leave no stone unturned to accomplish the mission without our soldiers paying the dear price of their lives—we get the job done and bring as many of our soldiers home as possible. Again, we know the impact and it is great.
And as Mémère’s story remembered, a brave U.S. Infantry squad leader, Corporal Aimé Gagné, Company K, 23rd Infantry Regiment, led his squad into battle late on the afternoon of 6 June 1918 and met his appointment with eternity.
23rd U. S. Infantry Regiment
A postscript—a younger brother of Corporal Gagné also served in the Army during WWI but did not reach France before the Armistice. In addition to his youngest brother Al, two other younger brothers would serve in the Army during WWII, two of the three achieving non-commissioned status. His sister of this story, Marie had all four of her sons on active duty in the Army during WWII. Younger sister Aurora had a son in the Navy. Many cousins served in the U.S. and Canadian Armed Forces during WWII as well. One, a West Point graduate, served in Europe as an infantry colonel and commander of a regiment.
But poignantly, one grand nephew would serve as a platoon leader and an aide-de-camp in the 2nd Infantry Division 55 years later on Freedom’s Frontier in South Korea. His brother would serve as the adjutant to the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry of the division the following year.
1st Lieutenants T. Rozman and R. Rozman, grand nephews of Corporal Aimé Gagné
The legacy of service to liberty of the dashing young Québécois Corporal on permanent duty in France has been extended by his kinsmen long after his and his comrade’s brave advance on 6 June 1918 into the jaws of death. But have the following generations of leaders mastered the One Third/Two Thirds Rule enough to prevent its fatal consequences when violated? And, it is ironic that on the 6th of June 26 years later, thousands of infantrymen from Canada and the United States would again meet a soldier’s death in France to again restore and protect liberty.