Melancthon Sumner, USMC
81st Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion
Allen Melancthon Sumner was born in Boston, Massachusetts on October 1, 1882, the son of Allen Melancthon Sumner and Ellen Frances (Prescott) Sumner, prepped for college at the Pomfret School, Pomfret, Connecticut. Although he secured an appointment to Annapolis, Sumner chose instead to attend his father's alma mater, Harvard University. After graduating in 1904, he spent a period of time traveling. On March 17, 1907, Sumner was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Until 1909 he was stationed in turn at the Marine Barracks of the Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, and Norfolk Navy Yard. He was then ordered to Cuba with the 1st Provisional Regiment of Marines in the Army of Cuban Pacification. In December, 1909, he served on temporary duty on the USS Prairie. He retired on January 1, 1914, after seven years service. Sumner was recalled as soon as war was declared in April, 1917, and began serving on active duty at Marine Barracks, Quantico, on July 5th, 1917. When the 1st Machine Gun Battalion was formed in August, Sumner was assigned to 81st Company. Sumner's war record is as follows: Sailed from New York on December 14, 1917 on the USS DeKalb, arriving in St Nazaire on December 31. Trained in the Vosges and was in the front lines in March at Mont-sur-la-Cote on the Verdun Front. On April 29, relieved Major Waller in Command of 81st Company when Major Waller was transferred to the 3rd Division to command the 8th MG Battalion. Participated in the action at Belleau Wood and when Major Cole was wounded on June 10, and Captain Major became battalion commander in his stead (himself to fall five days later), Sumner took his place in command of the right front. Captain Sumner's death occurred no more than a month later on July 19, at Vierzy, near Soissons, where the 6th MGB was to take part in the attack on Tigny, the Aisne-Marne Offensive. He was hit by a fragment of a High Explosive shell and killed instantly. Later it was debated whether he had instead fallen during an air raid. Captain Sumner received the Croix de Guerre with Gilt Star, one for the fighting at Chateau Thierry and the second for actions at Tigny, as well as 3 Silver Star Citations. He is buried in Plot A, Row 13, Grave 25 in the American Cemetery at Belleau.
This information was taken from Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany by M.A. Dewolfe Howe (Harvard University, 1920, 1924) and Harvard's Military Record in the World War (Harvard Alumni Association, 1921). Thanks to Therry Schwartz for material on this page. Many thanks to BJ Omanson for permission to use this material. To learn more about the Marines in World War I and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion please see their site at www.scuttlebuttsmallchow.com.
The following is an excerpt from a Harvard University Class Book, circa 1910
ALLEN MELANCTHON SUMNER
Ranching in New Mexico, 1904-'05. Traveled in Costa Rica,
Central America, and United States of Colombia, South America, during same year.
Private Secretary to William D. Orcutt, Vice-President, University Press,
Cambridge, Mass., 1906. Commissioned Second Lieutenant, United Sates Marine
Corps, March 17, 1907. Stationed at Marine Barracks, Naval Academy, Annapolis,
Md., until December 3, 1907. Stationed at Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Norfolk,
Va., until January 15, 1908. Ordered to Cuba on that date. Served with 1st
Provisional Regiment Marines in the Army of Cuban Pacification until January 8,
1909. Commissioned First Lieutenant, December 1908. Stationed at Marine
Barracks, Navy Yard, Norfolk, Va., until December 13, 1909. Ordered on temporary
expeditionary duty on that date sailing on board U. S. S. "Prairie"
for Central America, December 16, 1909. At present stationed at Marine Barracks,
Navy Yard, Washington, D. C.
Married Mary Jefferson Randolph Morris, daughter of John Speed Morris and Pattie Randolph (Kean) Morris, May 12, 1909, at Washington, D. C. Present residence: Marine Barracks, Washington, D. C.
Note that Mrs. Allen M. Sumner is the great-great-granddaughter of our Third President - Thomas Jefferson.
Thanks to Keith Morris for taking the time to forward this piece of Sumner's history.
The United States Government singled out of all the letters received from the front, one written by Major Robert L. Denig, of Philadelphia, to his wife. The letter is now part of the archives of the War Department, and occupies the highest place of literary honor in the records of the Marines. It describes the operation against the Germans on the Marne on July 18th, 1918. This was the counter-attack led by the Marines which broke the back of the German invasion. Major Denig wrote:
The day before we left for the big push
we had a most interesting fight between a fleet of German planes and a French
observation balloon, right over our heads. We saw five planes circle over our
town, then put on, what we thought afterwards, a sham fight. One of them, after
many fancy stunts, headed right for the balloon. They were all painted with our
colors except one. This one went near the balloon. One kept right on. The other
four shot the balloon up with incendiary bullets. The observers jumped into
their parachutes just as the outfit went up in a mass of flame.
The next day we took our positions at various places to wait for camions that were to take us somewhere in France, when or for what purpose we did not know. Wass passed me at the head of his company -- we made a date for a party on our next leave. He was looking fine and was as happy as could be. Then Hunt, Keyser and a heap of others went by. I have the battalion and Holcomb the regiment. Our turn to en-buss did not come until near midnight.
We at last got under way after a few big "sea bags" had hit nearby. Wilmer and I lead in a touring car. We went at a good clip and nearly got ditched in a couple of new shell holes. Shells were falling fast by now, and as the tenth truck went under the bridge a big one landed near with a crash, and wounded the two drivers, killed two Marines and wounded five more. We did not know it at the time, and did not notice anything wrong till we came to a crossroad when we found we had only eleven cars all told. We found the rest of the convoy after a hunt, but even then were not told of the loss, and did not find it out until the next day.
We were finally, after twelve hours' ride, dumped in a big field and after a few hours' rest started our march. It was hot as Hades and we had had nothing to eat since the day before. We at last entered a forest; troops seemed to converge on it from all points. We marched some six miles in the forest, a finer one I have never seen -- deer would scamper ahead and we could have eaten one raw. At 10 that night without food, we lay down in a pouring rain to sleep. Troops of all kinds passed us in the night -- a shadowy stream, over a half-million men. Some French officers told us that they had never seen such a concentration since Verdun, if then.
The next day, the 18th of July, we marched ahead through a jam of troops, trucks, etc., and came at last to a ration dump where we fell to and ate our heads off for the first time in nearly two days. When we left there, the men had bread stuck on their bayonets. I lugged a ham. All were loaded down.
Here I passed one of Wass' lieutenants with his hand wounded. He was pleased as Punch and told us the drive was on, the first we knew of it. I then passed a few men of Hunt's company, bringing prisoners to the rear. They had a Colonel and his staff. They were well dressed, cleaned and polished, but mighty glum looking.
We finally stopped at the far end of the forest near a dressing station, where Holcomb again took command. This station had been a big fine stone farm but was now a complete ruin -- wounded and dead lay all about. Joe Murray came by with his head all done up -- his helmet had saved him. The lines had gone on ahead so we were quite safe. Had a fine aero battle right over us. The stunts that those planes did cannot be described by me.
Late in the afternoon we advanced again. Our route lay over an open field covered with dead.
We lay down on a hillside for the night near some captured German guns, and until dark I watched the cavalry -- some four thousand, come up and take positions.
At 3.30 the next morning Sitz woke me up and said we were to attack. The regiment was soon under way and we picked our way under cover of a gas infested valley to a town where we got our final instructions and left our packs. I wished SUMNER good luck and parted.
We formed up in a sunken road on two sides of a valley that was perpendicular to the enemy's front; Hughes right, Holcomb left, Sibley support. We now began to get a few wounded; one man with ashen face came charging to the rear with shell shock. He shook all over, foamed at the mouth, could not speak. I put him under a tent, and he acted as if he had a fit.
I heard Overton call to one of his friends to send a certain pin to his mother if he should get hit.
At 8.30 we jumped off with a line of tanks in the lead. For two "kilos" the four lines of Marines were as straight as a die, and their advance over the open plain in the bright sunlight was a picture I shall never forget. The fire got hotter and hotter, men fell, bullets sung, shells whizzed-banged and the dust of battle got thick. Overton was hit by a big piece of shell and fell. Afterwards I heard he was hit in the heart, so his death was without pain. He was buried that night and the pin found.
A man near me was cut in two. Others when hit would stand, it seemed, an hour, then fall in a heap. I yelled to Wilmer that each gun in the barrage worked from right to left, then a rabbit ran ahead and I watched him wondering if he would get hit. Good rabbit -- it took my mind off the carnage. Looked for Hughes way over to the right; told Wilmer that I had a hundred dollars and be sure to get it. You think all kinds of things.
About sixty Germans jumped out of a trench and tried to surrender, but their machine gun opened up, we fired back, they ran and our left company after them. That made a gap that had to be filled, so Sibley advanced one of his to do the job, then a shell lit in a machine-gun crew of ours and cleaned it out completely.
At 10.30 we dug in -- the attack just died out. I found a hole or old trench and when I was flat on my back I got some protection. Holcomb was next to me; Wilmer some way off. We then tried to get reports. Two companies we never could get in touch with. Lloyd came in and reported he was holding some trenches near a mill with six men. Cates, with his trousers blown off, said he had sixteen men of various companies; another officer on the right reported he had and could see forty men, all told. That, with the headquarters, was all we could find out about the battalion of nearly 800. Of the twenty company officers who went in, three came out, and one, Cates, was slightly wounded.
From then on to about 8 P. M. life was a chance and mighty uncomfortable. It was hot as a furnace, no water, and they had our range to a "T." Three men laying in a shallow trench near me were blown to bits.
I went to the left of the line and found eight wounded men in a shell hole. I went back to Cates' hole and three shells landed near them. We thought they were killed, but they were not hit. You could hear men calling for help in the wheat fields. their cries would get weaker and weaker and die out. The German planes were thick in the air; they were in groups of from three to twenty. They would look us over and then we would get a pounding. One of our planes got shot down; he fell about a thousand feet, like an arrow, and hit in the field back of us. The tank exploded and nothing was left.
We had a machine gun officer with us and at six a runner came up and reported that SUMNER was killed. He commanded the machine-gun company with us. He was hit early in the fight by a bullet, I hear; I can get no details. At the start he remarked: "This looks easy -- they do not seem to have much art." Hughes' headquarters were all shot up. Turner lost a leg.
Well, we just lay there all through the afternoon.
It was great -- a shell would land near by and you would bounce in your hole.
As twilight came, we sent out water parties for the relief of the wounded. Then we wondered if we would get relieved. At 9 o'clock we got a message congratulating us and saying the Algerians would take over at midnight. We then began to collect our wounded. Some had been evacuated during the day, but at that, we soon had about twenty on the field near us. A man who had been blinded wanted me to hold his hand. Another, wounded in the back, wanted his head patted, and so it went; one man got up on his hands and knees. I asked him what he wanted. He said, "Look at the full moon," then fell dead. I had him buried, and all the rest I could find. All the time bullets sung and we prayed that shelling would not start until we had our wounded on top.
The Algerians came up at midnight and we pushed out. They went over at daybreak and got all shot up. We made the relief under German flares and the light from a burning town.
We went out as we came, through the gulley and town, the latter by now all in ruins. The place was full of gas, so we had to wear our masks. We pushed on to the forest and fell down in our tracks and slept all day. That afternoon a German plane got a balloon and the observer jumped and landed in a high tree. It was some job getting him down. The wind came up and we had to dodge falling trees and branches. As it was, we -- two killed and one wounded from that cause.
That night the Germans shelled us and got three killed and seventeen wounded. We moved a bit further back to the crossroad and after burying a few Germans, some of whom showed signs of having been wounded before, we settled down for a short stay.
It looked like rain, and so Wilmer and I went to an old dressing station to salvage some cover. We collected a lot of bloody shelter halves and ponchos that had been tied to poles to make stretchers, and were about to go, when we stopped to look at a new grave. A rude cross made of two slats from a box had written on it:
"Lester S. Wass, Captain U. S. Marines, July 18, 1918"
The old crowd at St. Nazaire and Bordeaux, Wass and SUMNER killed, Baston and Hunt wounded, the latter on the 18th, a clean wound, I hear, through the left shoulder. We then moved further to the rear and camped for the night. Dunlap came to look us over. His car was driven by a sailor who got out to talk to a few of the Marines, when one of the latter yelled out, "Hey, fellows! Anyone want to see a real live gob, right this way." The gob held a regular reception. A carrier pigeon perched on a tree with a message. We decided to shoot him. It was then quite dark, so the shot missed. I then heard the following as I tried to sleep: "Hell; he only turned around;" "Send up a flare;" "Call for a barrage," etc. The next day further to the rear still, a Ford was towed by with its front wheels on a truck.
We are now back in a town for some rest and to lick our wounds.
As I rode down the battalion, where once companies 250 strong used to march, now you see fifty men, with a kid second lieutenant in command; one company commander is not yet twenty-one.
After the last attack I cashed in the gold you gave me and sent it home along with my back pay. I have no idea of being "bumped off" with money on my person, as if you fall into the enemy's hands you are first robbed, then buried perhaps, but the first is sure.
Baston, the lieutenant that went to Quantico with father and myself, and of whom father took some pictures, was wounded in both legs in the Bois de Belleau. He nearly lost his legs, I am told, but is coming out O. K. Hunt was wounded in the last attack, got his wounds fixed up and went back again till he had to be sent out. Coffenburg was hit in the hand, -- all near him were killed. Talbot was hit twice, but is about again. That accounts for all the officers in the company that I brought over. In the first fight 103 men in that outfit were killed or wounded. The second fight must have about cleaned out the old crowd.
The tanks, as they crushed their way through the wet, gray forest looked to me like beasts of the pre-stone age.
In the afternoon as I lay on my back in a hole that I dug deeper, the dark gray German planes with their sinister black crosses, looked like Death hovering above. They were for many. SUMNER, for one. He was always saying, "Denig, let's go ashore!" Then here was Wass, whom I usually took dinner with -- dead, too. SUMNER, Wass, Baston and Hunt -- the old crowd that stuck together; two dead, one may never be any good any more; Hunt, I hope, will be as good as ever.
Many thanks to David Bryant (USS Blue '68) who provided us with this extract from the book "History of the World War: An Authentic Narrative of The World's Greatest War" by Francis A. March published in 1919. Note that Major Denig went on to also serve in World War II and was a Brigadier General as was his son, Robert L. Denig Jr.