Unit: 5th Marine Regiment; 81st Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion
Branch of Service: Marine Corps
"I am resolved to do the best I can no matter where they put me.” (Letter to wife Mary, December 22, 1917)
Allen Sumner was born on October 1, 1882 in Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated from Harvard University in 1904. He was commissioned as a Marine officer in 1907, but left the Marine Corps to return to civilian life in January 1914. He returned to the Marine Corps as a Reserve officer on March 17, 1917, a few weeks before the U.S. entered into World War I.
Sumner was activated and assigned to be the commander of 20th Company, 5th Marine Regiment, which was in the process of forming in Philadelphia. The 5th Marines, as members of the 4th Marine Brigade, deployed to France in the summer of 1917 as part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). He was later reassigned to be executive officer of the 81st Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion. His original company commander with the 81st Company was his wife's cousin, Major Littleton W.T. Waller, Jr., who paved the way for Sumner to take over command when Waller left the unit in April 1918.
Sumner and his colleagues underwent several months of training after arriving in France, while also guarding rear areas. They were inserted into the front lines on the Western Front in March 1918. Sumner and his unit participated in the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, an Allied victory that was to become an important chapter of Marine Corps history. Sumner also participated in the Battle of Soissons in July 1918, an Allied counterattack that was part of the Second Battle of the Marne, during the last major German offensive of the war. He was awarded the Silver Star on three occasions, as well as the Croix de Guerre twice by the French government.
As a Marine officer with the AEF, Sumner rubbed shoulders with some fellow officers who would go on to become prominent figures in Marine Corps history, including Robert L. Denig External, Clifton B. Cates External, and Littleton Waller, Jr. External These officers are mentioned in his letters, as is Army surgeon Jefferson Randolph Kean External, his wife's uncle who served as Chief of the Department of Military Relief, American Red Cross during World War I.
What comes through most powerfully from his letters, however, are the relationships he had with his wife Mary, his daughter Margaret, and the men who served under his command. The majority of the correspondence in his collection are letters he sent to Mary, and from them one can see evidence of a deeply devoted couple that endured trying circumstances. The love that Allen and Mary had for their daughter is also obvious, as they discuss her often, and Allen also corresponded with Margaret while he was in France.
Allen's dedication to his Marines is also revealed in his letters to Mary, as he clearly worried about them and wanted to make sure they were prepared for combat. It is also evident from a letter one of his subordinates wrote after the war, wherein he stated that he had "never served under a kinder or more humane commanding officer, or one who was more beloved by his men."
After being activated as a Reserve officer in March 1917, Sumner's first stop was the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where the 5th Marine Regiment was being formed. The 5th Marines would join with the 6th Marine Regiment and 6th Machine Gun Battalion—which were being formed in Quantico, Virginia at the same time—to form the 4th Brigade of Marines that deployed to France attached to the Army's 2nd Division.
Sumner's letters to his wife and mother from this time discuss practical issues such as finding housing in Philadelphia, but also convey the excitement he felt at being part of such a momentous undertaking.
In his letter of April 25th, 1917, Sumner wrote to his wife Mary, whom he always addressed as "My Dearest." He expressed frustration that he had lost his on-base quarters to a higher-ranking major and would have to find housing in town, but also excitement that she was coming to visit him in a few days from their home in Washington, D.C. He also hinted at the rapid build-up program that the Marine Corps had embarked on in order to assemble a brigade for deployment to France:
"Recruits are coming in fast. Over 1,000 a day for the whole Marine Corps."
On May 5, 1917, Sumner wrote to his mother Ellen and told her a little of his day-to-day life in Philadelphia, again emphasizing how busy they were with the large numbers of Marines pouring into the Navy Yard. But he also discussed the horticultural interests of the two German prisoners of war that his unit was responsible for overseeing:
"Our two German prisoners seem very contented...We have to censor their letters and one wrote that he had fine food, was well treated and very comfortable and was learning to be a real farmer! We have them working in the Post garden under guard to give them exercise."
Sumner sailed for France in August 1917, and got his first taste of the action on the voyage over when his convoy was attacked by a German U-boat. He went over as the company commander for 20th Company, 5th Marine Regiment, but lost his company in October—as a captain in the Reserve he found himself being leapfrogged in seniority by all active-duty officers as soon as they were promoted to captain, much to his frustration. He was assigned to Headquarters, Line of Communication—the command in charge of rear-area operations for the American Expeditionary Force in France&mdashfor two months as the assistant to the Chief of Staff. In December he returned to the 5th Marines, and served as a headquarters company commander, as well as adjunct for the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines' commander for another period of two months. In February 1918 he was reassigned to be executive officer (second-in-command) of the 81st Machine Gun Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion—a company commanded by his wife's cousin, Major Littleton Waller, Jr.
In his letter of September 12, 1917 to his wife Mary, Sumner also expressed his deep devotion to her in a manner typical of their correspondence, juxtaposing their sadness at being separated with their determination that the war be won:
"I love you so much and do wish I would see you soon, but we have to put this thing through and once it's over we will be so happy together again."
From March to May, the 81st Company, along with the rest of the 4th Marine Brigade, was moved into a quiet sector of the Western Front near Verdun for an introduction to the realities of trench warfare.
Allen's first letter from the front was dated March 21, 1918, and in his first few letters from the trenches he tried to reassure his wife Mary that he was comfortable and posted to a calm area. In his letter dated April 2, he somewhat contradicted his earlier reassurances, however, by recounting one of their first combat experiences, and complaining about the rats and the mud in the trenches:
"Rain for three days and the mud is knee deep in some of the trenches I have to go through in making the rounds to the guns. Also not being able to take off your clothes day or not for ten days at a time is not exactly comfortable but "c'est la guerre" as the French say, and like everything else one grows used to it." (Letter to Mary Sumner, April 2, 1918)
In the spring of 1918, the Germans launched a series of massive offensives along the Western Front, determined to force a decisive victory before the full weight of American military strength could be brought to bear. These offensives meant that American units such as the 4th Marine Brigade were sent into combat ahead of schedule, and for the Marines their first major test would come in June at Belleau Wood, a few miles west of the town of Chateau-Thierry. The Marines and soldiers who fought at Belleau Wood displayed courage and tenacity, eventually gaining control of the battlefield, and earning the respect of their allies and opponents alike.
Allen Sumner found himself right in the middle of the action at Belleau Wood, and his letters to Mary from this time provide an on-the-ground perspective of this historic battle.
In late June and early July 1918, Sumner and his comrades had a short period of rest in between the Battle of Belleau Wood and the Battle of Soissons, an Allied counterattack that began July 18, with the objective of severing German supply lines between Soissons and Chateau-Thierry. This was part of the larger Aisne-Marne Offensive, often regarded as a key turning point, as the Germans would afterwards be on the defensive for the remainder of the war.
Allen Sumner wrote three letters to his wife Mary during this lull in the action before Soissons. In them, he reflected on what he had been through at Belleau Wood, and the friends he had lost there. He expressed a determination to train his company's replacements well, and hoped that their daughter Margaret was doing well in school, while he also found the time to marvel at the beauty of the French countryside around him. While leading his company in an attack, he was killed in action by shrapnel from a German artillery round on the morning of July 19, 1918, four days after writing his last letter to Mary.
Sumner's death on July 19, 1918 was keenly felt by his friends and family, even though they displayed a stern determination to continue on.