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  • James Houser

June 1, 1918 - The Battle of Belleau Wood

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 1, 1918. As the German juggernaut pushes ever closer to Paris, the French forces on the Marne River are at their breaking point. Just as the French came to the rescue in the Revolution, though, Americans have come to the rescue in the Great War. When the French say they are retreating, Captain Lloyd Williams replies “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” The United States Marines have arrived on the Western Front.

We have a different image of the Marine Corps today than Americans did in 1917. In many ways the modern U.S. Marine Corps is like a miniature of all three armed services – they have their own ships and planes (but just got rid of their tanks). The Corps is structured, and carries out many of the same missions, as the Army, to the point that in the last century some have called it redundant. That’s unfair, but not entirely without substance.

In the era before World War I, though, the Marines were a very small organization, even compared to the Army. Their entire purpose for existence was, essentially, as the Navy’s Army – the troops that a ship had on board for all sorts of missions. Most of their service was on Navy vessels or guarding dockyards and ports. It was as the Navy’s go-to strike force that the Marines achieved most of their early exploits, such as the war with Tripoli, punitive actions in Indonesia in the 1830s, and as an assault battalion in Mexico (the “Halls of Montezuma”). Throughout the 1800s, the Marines remained absolutely tiny, even during the Civil War where they played a decidedly minor part.

The Marines’ mission changed after 1898, when the United States suddenly gained an empire to defend and interests that spanned the globe. By playing a major role in the Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion, the Philippine War, and numerous small, dirty wars in the Caribbean, the Marines gained a wealth of experience in guerrilla and counterinsurgency warfare, as well as a deep cadre of combat-experienced officers and NCOs. As a result, when the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Marines were by far the most experienced branch of the military.

There was one major problem: the Marines were NOT experienced in conventional warfare. They had extensive knowledge of guerrilla warfare, raiding actions, population control and amphibious tactics, but none of this would really help them in the technical, mechanized and artillery-heavy trench warfare of the Western Front. Of course, the U.S. Army had no experience in this warfare either, so the Marines’ experience was the closest thing anyone had. When U.S. forces headed overseas in 1917, two Marine regiments went along with – the 5th and 6th Marines.

The American Expeditionary Force had a lot to learn. The last large-scale land war the United States had fought was the Civil War, and those tactics were NOT going to work on the Western Front in 1917. Throughout that year and into 1918, the main focus for the American forces arriving in France was to get ready for modern war. The British and French helped the Americans to train and offered them advice on combat in the trenches of France, but in many cases the Americans (being American) figured their ways were undoubtedly better. General John Pershing was committed to “open order” tactics that would use the superior, um, courage and instinct of American soldiers to gain decisive victory in the attack. The British and French tried to tell him that they had tried these tactics in 1914 and had a *very* bad time, but Pershing trained the AEF his way…and his way would have consequences.

The Allies had hoped the Americans could train up forces throughout 1918 for a big offensive later that year, but events ran ahead of plans. On March 22, 1918, the Germans launched a major series of attacks designed to destroy the British and French forces on the Western Front before enough American troops could arrive to turn the tide. I described the initial stages of this battle on April 3, here is the link if you need context:


If not, no matter, on we go.

The devastating German attacks of March and April did serious damage to the British forces but failed to knock them out entirely, and the Germans suffered heavy casualties in the process. Sensing that he was running out of time, General Erich Ludendorff decided to hit the French instead. He planned an enormous attack south from the Chemin des Dames – the site of the Nivelle Offensive and the French Great Mutiny – to get within striking distance of Paris. He hoped this would draw troops from the British front, so he could finally deliver a knockout blow against the dastardly English.

On May 27, 1918, Ludendorff opened a heavy attack with over 4,000 artillery pieces and burst through the Chemin des Dames ridge. The French were reluctant to surrender the ground they had lost at such high cost in 1917, and massed their troops in the forward line – which cost them staggering casualties under artillery fire and poison gas. The German stormtroopers, 17 infantry divisions, burst through the line and beelined for Paris. By May 30, the Germans had seized 800 guns, captured 50,000 prisoners and were 35 miles from Paris.

The French begged Pershing for help. Even though Pershing wanted to keep American troops together in a single army – a battle he had been waging in meetings and letters for the last year – he instantly dropped this to help his French ally. Pershing had released the 1st Infantry Division in May to help the British, and the first American troops had gone into action on the Western Front at Cantigny. Now he released the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions – the only other American divisions ready to fight.

The French sent the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division to break off the spearhead of the German advance, which they accomplished at Chateau-Thierry on May 31, earning the nickname “Rock of the Marne.” The German attack turned west and outflanked the 3rd Division, driving across the Marne and horning on a small patch of forest called Belleau Wood.

The French brought up the U.S. 2nd Division along the highway leading to Paris on June 1. The 2nd Infantry Division contained the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments – the Marines were not large enough to make up their own division. Even as the Americans were still arriving, though, the Germans punched a hole through the French lines. On the evening of June 1, the order went out to the 5th Marines – they had to seal the hole at the Belleau Wood. For the first time that night, the United States Marines took up their portion of the line on the Western Front.

The American force – a mixed group of Army infantry and the 5th Marines – made a 6-mile forced march to plug the gap, and by June 2 were arrayed in the grain fields and scattered woods of northern France. Brigadier General James Harbord, the Army general commanding the Marine Brigade, dug his men in outside of Belleau Wood and ignored French orders to retreat. The 2nd Division, full of unwise bravado, was determined to make a fight of it. Marines dug into the wooded slopes with their bayonets, building shallow rifle positions.

On June 3, the Germans made their first attack on the position from the Belleau Wood. They advanced clumsily through wheat fields with bayonets fixed, and the Marine riflemen waited until they were less than 100 yards away before cutting them down with accurate rifle fire. The Germans attacked several more times that day before withdrawing back into the forest, and the Marines felt quite satisfied: they had won the battle. Right?

The June 3 fight resulted in one of the most famous quotes in Marine Corps history, when Captain Lloyd W. Williams of 5th Marines replied to French orders to turn back: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” As fun of a phrase as it is, it denoted a certain cocksure attitude in the American forces in France – an attitude that was about to cause trouble.

Further attacks on June 4 and 5 failed to dislodge the Marines, and on June 6 the French commanders decided to launch their counterattack to retake Belleau Wood. The Marines were assigned to take Hill 142, but their recon failed to spot a major German position with machine guns and artillery. At dawn, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines made an open-order attack with bayonets fixed across an open wheat field and ran into a wall of metal. One company lost five of its six officers dead. This terrible bloody nose was a good slap in the face – “Hey, welcome to modern warfare!” – but was somewhat alleviated by the courage shown by Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson against a German counterattack, where he became the first Marine of World War I to earn the Medal of Honor. By the end of the day, the Marines captured Hill 142 – at the cost of most of the battalion.

This set a pattern. Later that day, the remainder of the 5th and the 6th Marines were assigned the critical task of capturing Belleau Wood. As they stepped off on June 6, another quote entered immortality as First Sergeant Dan Daly – already a two-time Medal of Honor recipient – bellowed “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” The first waves of Marines, advancing in straight, well-disciplined lines, were slaughtered, but subsequent waves bludgeoned their way into the forest. The casualties of June 6 at Belleau Wood and Hill 142 combined to 1,087 – the highest in Marine Corps history.

The battle dragged on for the next 21 days, with the Marines taking enormous casualties under the experienced fire of the German stormtroopers. Despite showing immense courage, the Marines continually suffered more than they needed to, due both to inexperience and to outdated American offensive tactics. Poor communications, especially with artillery units, and lack of respect for fire support severely hampered the Marine attack. Despite their obvious courage, the Marines paid dearly for every inch of ground. One German private noted, “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”

The Marines made slow but painful progress, often hand-to-hand with bayonets, fists or entrenching tools in the dense forest. They fought through multiple poison gas barrages and powered through ambushes, machine guns and grenade-throwing Germans. By June 26, the Marine Brigade had cleared the Belleau Wood – ending one of the costliest battles in Marine history.

You wouldn’t know it to hear the Marines tell it, but the Belleau Wood fight was one small portion of the enormous Third Battle of the Aisne, which involved dozens of divisions on both the Allied and German sides. Both the 2nd and 3rd Divisions proved to be recklessly brave and spirited, even in the face of severe casualties – their outdated tactics being responsible for most of these. The French and British units to either side suffered far less, even as they made slower progress. After four years of war, they could not afford the losses the Americans could.

Regardless of its small scale in the war, the Battle of Belleau Wood became a hallmark of Marine Corps history, and its publicity in the United States was enormous. The Allied and American press reported that the new German nickname for the Marines was “Teufelshunde” – literally, “Devil Dogs.” This was, um, a lie. That’s not even a saying in German, and there are no contemporary records of the Germans ever calling the Marines that – but the name stuck. From that point on, Marines would be known as “Devil Dogs,” regardless of who said it first.

Even if the Marines weren’t terribly efficient in the battle itself, they have always been experts at one other field: publicity. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were awarded the Croix de guerre – the French award for valor – as well as the right to wear the Fourragere, the honorary cord on the left shoulder. In addition, Belleau Wood was officially renamed after the war to “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” – Wood of the Marine Brigade. In 1923, it was designated an American battle monument, General Harbourd was made an honorary Marine, and a marble monolith was placed on the site in 1958. There’s a square in New York named after one of the battle’s heroes, several Naval vessels named “Belleau Wood”, and my alma mater Virginia Tech named a building after Lloyd Williams, one of its alumni.

In 2018, President Donald Trump was scheduled to visit the Belleau Wood for the centennial, but failed to attend because low cloud cover prevented him from flying. I’m sure it wasn’t that important.

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