Great War Wednesday: Belleau Wood


M-Belleau-leadspread-1The British have the Somme; the French, Verdun. However, if the United States Marine Corps Hymn is ever rewritten or updated, right next to the Halls of Montezuma and the Shores of Tripoli will stand the Battle of Belleau Wood. It was the Battle of Belleau Wood where the newly arrived American doughboys received their real baptism of fire in the Great War, and they showed they had a lot to learn, but they were not a bunch to be trifled with.

The American Expeditionary Force began arriving in strength in the spring of 1918. One of the first battles Commanding General John “Black Jack” Pershing had to fight was against his French and British counterparts. After three years of brutal warfare, the Entente forces welcomed the Americans, but the French and British commanders had their own ideas about how the new forces would be used. To the weary Entente commanders, the new troops were warm bodies who could strengthen the depleted ranks of the French and British armies. General Pershing, however, made it clear his boys were here to fight Germans as Americans, not as fill ins. After considerable wrangling, he managed to keep his units together and the Americans moved into the battlelines to face the enemy.

As part of the Spring Offensive, the Germans were marching hard towards Paris and sweeping the Entente forces before them. On 1 June 1918, however, the Germans moved into Belleau Wood near the Marne River and found fresh American troops waiting for them. Now the French had wanted to retreat further away from the woods and construct a new trench line. The Americans were entirely too stubborn for such a move and instead their commander ordered them to, “Die where you stand!” The mixture of Army and Marines dug fighting holes with bayonets and bare hands and waited for the attack. They didn’t have to wait long.

On 3 June, the Germans conducted a massed bayonet charge designed to break the upstart Americans. The upstart Americans responded by keeping their rifles and machine guns silent until the German advance reached the 100 yard mark whereupon the troops received the shouted order to fire at will. The Germans learned Americans could shoot too as the Kaiser’s forces fell by the hundreds, mowed down by deadly accurate fire from shallowly dug in Americans.

Badly mauled, the Germans retreated to a trench line just the other side of Belleau Wood. The French were nominally impressed with the American show of fighting acumen but now strongly advised the American commanders to withdraw from the field to better prepared positions farther back. A Marine captain who overheard the talk of retreat blurted out one of the most famous retorts in all of American military history when he replied, quite loudly, “RETREAT?! HELL, MAN, WE JUST GOT HERE!” The Marines stayed where they were.

Not content with waiting on the Germans to advance again, the Americans launched their own attack in their sector by driving ahead through the woods themselves towards an objective known as Hill 142. The Marines led the way, but in this instance had let the Germans get the better of them. The Marines failed to reconnoiter the wood carefully before the attack and ran directly into two German divisions who didn’t know they weren’t supposed to be there.

The Americans pressed the attack home with bayonets fixed, but men fell like wheat before a scythe. Still, no order for retreat came down the line and so the attack went on. By nightfall, the Americans held Hill 142 with its commanding view of the battlefield below, but of the two companies who started the attack most were dead, including nine of the eleven officers in the charge.


First Sergeant Dan Daly

On 6 June, the Marines formed up and launched another assault, this time into the Belleau Wood proper. Before the attack, First Sergeant Dan Daly, twice recipient of the US Medal of Honor in other theaters, looked out over the open ground they would soon be marching across. He noted the enemy positions on the other side then turned to his men and encouragingly screamed at them to, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” His rallying cry is now part of USMC lore and Sergeant Daly one of the most revered Marines.

It would take more than bravado to win this day, however. The Americans stepped off in tight formation, line upon line and found out what the French and British had been trying to tell them all along — attacking shoulder to shoulder in the face of machine guns was a terrible idea. The Marines lost more men on that fateful day than they had ever lost before in a single battle and the total casualty count would not be eclipsed until the worst island invasions of the Pacific Theater in the Second World War. Still, enough troops made it to the German lines to break through and force the Germans into retreat. By nightfall, the Americans held the side of Belleau Wood nearest Paris.

What followed was nearly a solid month of brutal fighting in the wood itself. Natural barriers paired with manmade entrapments turned the scene into one of attack and counter attack often with intense hand to hand fighting. The woods were often so thick with smoke and mist men couldn’t see each other to tell friend from foe. In all, it would take a total of six major assaults by the Marines at a huge cost of 9,777 casualties, included 1,811 killed, to finally expel the Germans from the wood entirely, but this objective was accomplished near nightfall on 26 June 1918.

America had gotten her baptism of blood and fire on the European Continent.

According to legend, the US Marines earned a nickname from the Battle of Belleau Wood. As the story goes, a captured German officer was incredulous at the way the Marines had fought during the battle and he demanded to see these “teufelshunde”, which is German for “devil dogs.” Whether the exchange ever took place is doubtful, but the Marines have been known as Devil Dogs ever since.

Love y’all, and keep your feet clean.

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