The Battle of Belleau Wood

During the May conference of Allied leaders, Gen. Pershing made his feelings on the integration of the American troops into British and French formations exceptionally clear when he told Gen Foch, the Supreme commander of the Allied armies, that he was willing risk the Allies “being driven back to the Loire” instead of any amalgamation. Pershing was sympathetic to the threat of the German Spring offensive, but he and his staff felt that the Allied sense of imminent doom was overblown. Pershing had already sent three regiments of the 93rd US (African-American) Infantry Division to the French (since his Southern troops wouldn’t train with them) where they acquitted themselves well. In May of 1918, the Americans had only five divisions sufficiently trained and properly equipped to fight in the trenches: the 1st which was committed to conduct the first American offensive of the war at Cantigny, the 2nd and 3rd whom were regular formations, with the 2nd “Indianhead” Division a composite of regular US Army and Marine Corps brigades, the 26th “Yankee” Division of New England National Guard units which was still recovering after being mauled by the Germans at Seicheprey in April, and finally the 42nd “Rainbow” Division known so for consisting of National Guard units from across the country.
Just as the 1st Division was consolidating its position at Cantigny on the night of 29/30 May, the Germans launched Operation Blücher-Yorck, known to history as the Third Battle of Aisne. The German assault was the next phase of their Spring Offensive and was intended to prevent any Allied reserves from affecting their main effort to isolate the British further north. In two days the Germans drove the French over the Aisne and Vesle Rivers, and were driving hard for the Marne, which was as close to Paris as they were in 1914, four years earlier. In spite of his previous reluctance, Pershing offered the two divisions training closest to the Marne, the 2nd and 3rd, to the French. Pershing wanted them to operate as an American corps, but he had neither the time to train a corps’ staff nor a general to command it (The 1st ID’s commander, MG Robert Bullard, was the only real choice at the time and he was needed at Cantigny). So the 2nd and 3rd U.S. Infantry Divisions went into the line under French command, along the Paris-Metz highway about forty miles northeast of the French capital.
Like their cavalry predecessors on the old American Frontier, they arrived just in the nick of time.
On 31 May, a machine gun battalion from 3rd Infantry Division transported by trucks arrived at Chateau-Thierry just in time to prevent the Germans from seizing the main bridge over the Marne River there. This stand forced the German momentum west where the 2nd Infantry Division replaced the defeated French units. The 2nd was a composite unit that consisted of one US Army brigade of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments, and a US Marine brigade of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments. On 2 June, the Germans broke through on the Marine’s left and the division reserve of the 23rd and one battalion of Marines quickly marched the intervening ten km and went directly into a counterattack. The tenuous line was restored by dawn. The Americans moved into a 20 km line , the first ten of which from Chateau-Thierry to Vaux, was held by the 3rd, with the 2nd to their west. The Marine Brigade’s sector included a small forest, Belleau Wood.
The next day the Germans attacked through Belleau Wood to cut the Metz-Paris highway and seize the Marne River crossings further south and west. The French in Belleau Wood collapsed. Just beyond the woods were some grain fields where the Marine Brigade, under artillery fire, dug-in using their bayonets and hands (This is the original reason American infantrymen are issued entrenching tools). The French ordered the Marines to dig in further to the rear, but the commander of the Marine Brigade, Army BG James Harbord countermanded the order and told the Marines to “hold where they stand”. Nonetheless, the retreating French urged the Marines to fall back. One defiant Marine company commander, Cpt Lloyd W. Williams, retorted “Retreat? Hell, we just got here”. From their shallow foxholes, the soldiers and Marines fought off continuous German attacks for the next two days, particularly through the grain fields in front of the Marines.
The German-held Belleau Wood stuck into the Allied lines and provided an excellent staging area for attacks to the south and west, and moreover was one free from Allied observation. A deliberately prepared German attack from the Wood would inevitably be successful, and thus it needed to be retaken. The French 167th Division was tasked to cut the roads leading into the woods from the north, while the 2nd US Division, specifically the Marine Brigade, cleared Belleau Wood.
On the morning of 6 June 1918, the Marine assault on Belleau Wood began with American and French artillery shattering the formerly picturesque hunting preserve while a Marine battalion assaulted Hill 142 to prevent enfilading fire into the French assault that began simultaneously to the north. Unfortunately, only two companies were prepared to assault on time and they paid dearly for the third’s tardiness. Furthermore, Belleau Wood was an obvious target for an Allied counterattack. And the poor American reconnaissance, which consisted solely of the 6th Marine Regiment’s intelligence officer sneaking into the German lines, a courageous act of limited usefulness borne of desperation to know something, anything, of German strength in the Wood, failed to identify a newly arrived and well dug-in veteran infantry regiment.
The two Marine companies assaulted directly into the teeth of the German defenses. Only the Marines’ tenacity prevented the attack from failing just after it began. The stunned Germans inflicted setbacks and casualties on the Americans that would have sent equivalent French or British assaults back to their trenches in abject defeat. In one’s and two’s junior officers and NCOs rallied the broken elements of the two companies and continued the assault or held fast against the relentless German counterattacks, until the rest of the battalion arrived. Nevertheless, Hill 142 changed hands several times that day, and was only secured late that afternoon after nearly 14 hours of continuous fighting, much of it hand to hand.
The rest of the Marine Brigade began the main assault on Belleau Wood at 1700. Unfortunately the grain fields were as deadly to American as they were to the Germans previously. Advancing in well-ordered lines, the Marines were initially massacred. But again they persisted into devastation that hitherto would have sent Allied soldiers scurrying back in retreat. Of note was Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, already a twice honored Medal of Honor recipient for actions during the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Haitian Insurgency, yelled “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” to the pinned down men of his machine gun company. Any American penetration, no matter how small, was subject to an immediate German counterattack. Hand to hand fighting raged all along the edge of Belleau Wood into the night. When the sun rose the next day, the Marine’s had a toehold but at a horrible cost, over 1000 casualties – the most the Marines had sustained in a single day in their history up to that point.
The Germans weren’t going to give up Belleau Wood without a fight. It was essential to successful continuous advances toward Paris. Throughout June 1918, parts of five different German divisions fought the Marines of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments in a desperate bid to recapture Belleau Wood or at least prevent the capture of it in its entirety from the slow and costly, but unrelenting, Marine advance. Throughout the next three weeks the Marines assaulted the German defenses in Belleau Wood five more times and the Germans counterattacked just as many, with one actually colliding with a simultaneous Marine assault. The Germans flooded the area with mustard gas on several occasions. One German private wrote home to his mother, “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”
The terribly reckless fellows of the 4th (Marine) Brigade of the 2nd U.S Infantry Division finally cleared Belleau Wood on 26 June 1918, despite everything an entire German corps could throw at them. That afternoon, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, whose men finally emerged from the east end of Belleau Wood, sent a succinct message to the brigade commander,
“Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely”
The Germans would be back, but not anytime soon. Later, the French officially renamed Belleau Wood to “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” or “Wood of the Marine Brigade”. The Germans reportedly referred to the Marines at Belleau Wood as “Teufelhunde” or “Devil Dogs”. Though this is still unconfirmed by any official historical documentation, it didn’t stop the United States Marine Corps from adopting the moniker wholesale and unconditionally. After the battle, Pershing stated “the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.” He also said of the battle,

“The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”

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