The following article on the Battle of Belleau Wood is an excerpt from H.W Crocker III’s The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
In the early stages of World War I, Germany was obsessed with knocking France out of the war in weeks. With this goal accomplished, it could focus its entire military might on the Eastern front and take out its enemy Russia. While newly-Bolshevik Russia eventually ceded massive amounts of its territory to Germany in order to purge itself of non-Bolsheviks, Germany had not succeeded in defeating France after years of efforts and the lives of hundreds of thousands. By 1918 German General Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff chose to redouble the threat to Paris. If he could seize their capital, surely the French would sue for peace, and imperial Germany, greatly enlarged by its annexations in the east, would be victorious. By 3 June 1918, Ludendorff’s lunge had left Paris only thirty-five miles from his grasp. The French armies were reeling, and General Pétain needed help. He called on US. General John J. Pershing, and Pershing in turn called his 2nd and 3rd Divisions to Château-Thierry, straddling the Marne River. He would launch an offensive against the German military that saw a particularly memorable episode in the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The 3rd Division had been in France only since April, but advance elements of it were first on the scene. They discovered that the Germans had occupied the northern half of Château-Thierry, and the best the Yanks could do at the outset was set up machine guns to help extract French troops, Senegalese colonials, caught on the north side of the river. All along the road to Château-Thierry, the Americans had been warned of the German juggernaut by refugees and streams of retreating French troops. But the Americans were unfazed—this was what they had come to do: fight the Germans. Though they were new to combat, the men of the 7th Machine Gun Battalion, an Army unit under the temporary command of a Marine Corps major, did their job beautifully.
“THE BEST BRIGADE IN FRANCE”: PRELUDE TO THE BATTLE OF BELLEAU WOOD
The 2nd Division raced to the scene. For the Marines attached to the 2nd Division—the 4th Marine Brigade, composed of two regiments, and a machine gun battalion—this was the most dangerous aspect of the war so far. The Marines were commanded by James Harbord, an Army brigadier general who had been Pershing’s chief of staff. Pershing had originally not wanted Marines in his army. But he told Harbord, “Young man, I’m giving you the best brigade in France—if anything goes wrong, I’ll know whom to blame.” As Harbord noted later, “They never failed me.”
Harbord, recognizing the esprit de corps of the Marines, donned Marine Corps insignia (the globe and anchor), and for extra dash wore a close-fitting French helmet rather than the British-inspired broad-brimmed American one, which bore a passing resemblance to an overturned gold prospector’s sifting pan. He was proud of his Marines—as well he might be. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were the best-trained units in the American Expeditionary Force, aggressive with the bayonet and famously proud marksmen. At the newly built Marine base at Quantico, they had been drilled in muddy trenches to get ready for the Western Front. But even Quantico’s famous mud couldn’t match the miserable, lice-ridden, dank, dark, waterlogged trenches of France, infested with monstrous rats that feasted on the dead and that Marines bayoneted or shot, treating them like mini-Boche.
Pershing’s lack of enthusiasm of the Marines joining is ironic consider the place that the Battle of Belleau Wood has in Marine lore. In honor of their tenacity in battle, the French renamed the wood “Wood of the Marine” Bridgade to honor their sacrifice in the Battle of Belleau Wood
“A PRICE TO PAY FOR THE LEARNING”
The 2nd Division was ordered to Montreuil-aux-Lions, about nine miles west of Château-Thierry. Cutting through roads clogged with refugees—bedraggled civilians and defeated poilus convinced that the war was over and the Germans had won—the division marched to the sound of the guns. One of Pétain’s staff officers, Jean de Pierrefeu, noted that “swarms of Americans began to appear on the roads . . . they passed in interminable columns, closely packed in lorries, with their feet in the air in extraordinary attitudes . . . almost all bare headed and bare chested, singing American airs at the top of their voices. . . . The spectacle of these magnificent youths from overseas . . . produced a great effect. . . . Life was coming in floods to reanimate the dying body of France.” It wasn’t just the French who thought so. Vera Brittain, an English nurse, remembered that the Americans “looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed.”
The Marines and the French soldiers with whom they had trained—especially the 115th French Chasseurs Alpins, the “Blue Devils”—generally got along well, their friendship lubricated by a shared taste for vin and brandy. But the leathernecks were appalled at the demoralized, hollow-eyed, sauve qui peut attitude of the French soldiers streaming past them, which led to one of the great exchanges in Marine Corps history. When a French officer told Marine Captain Lloyd “Josh” Williams that the situation was hopeless and he must retreat, Williams replied, “Retreat, hell. We just got here!” They were ready to make their mark in history at the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The American 9th Infantry was first into the defensive line backing up the French. French general Jean Degoutte had planned to shuttle American units into the ranks of battered poilus, but the Americans insisted on holding a position of their own. When Degoutte asked whether the Americans could really hold against the fearsome Boche who had shredded so many Frenchmen, Colonel Preston Brown responded, “General, these are American regulars. In a hundred and fifty years they have never been beaten. They will hold.”
The Marines were assigned to the sector of Belleau Wood, and they and the rest of the 2nd Division marched to their assigned places through German shellfire. As men fell to the blasts, Captain Lester S. Wass urged his Marines on, barking, “What do you think this is, a kid’s game?” The Americans covered a French retreat, their deadly Marine marksmanship surprising the Germans, and when the French had cleared out—and new French units arrived alongside the Americans—Degoutte and General Omar Bundy, commander of the 2nd Division, decided to go in and take Belleau Wood and the town of Bouresches that lay behind it. The wood, a former hunting preserve, jutted out from the Allied line like an enormous green croissant, its total area perhaps half a square mile. The initial attack of the Battle of Belleau Wood would be on Hill 142, fronting the northwestern side of the forest.
At 3:45 a.m. on 6 June 1918, the Marines plowed through a wheat field against the stinging lead of German machine guns and shrapnel. When someone yelled to First Sergeant Daniel Amos “Pop” Hunter, “Hey Pop, there’s a man hit over here!” the thirty-year veteran, directing his troops with a cane, replied, “C’mon, goddamnit! He ain’t the last man who’s gonna to be hit today.” Among those hit was Sergeant Hunter himself: “Hit twice and up twice, hit the third time, he went down for good.” Through sheer diligence the Marines kept moving against the confusion and havoc wreaked by expertly fired machine guns, seized Hill 142, and held it against counterattacks. As Marine Captain John Thomason recounted, “The Boche wanted Hill 142; he came, and the rifles broke him, and he came again. All his batteries were in action, and always his machine guns scoured the place, but he could not make head against the rifles. Guns he could understand; he knew all about bombs and auto-rifles and machine-guns and trench-mortars, but aimed, sustained rifle-fire . . . demoralized him.” Thomason took the Marine Corps attitude: “the rifle and bayonet goes anywhere a man can go, and the rifle and the bayonet win battles.” Its wisdom was proved at Hill 142.
The price was high, more than a thousand men. For that, the Americans had gained Hill 142, the periphery of Belleau Wood, and the ruins of Bouresches, which had been shelled by both sides and taken, methodically, by Marines using grenade, rifle, and bayonet to root out rubble-guarded machine gun nest after rubble-guarded machine gun nest—the mopping up was not completed until 13 June, when Harbord could report, “There is nothing but U.S. Marines in the town of Bouresches.”
PREPARING FOR THE BATTLE OF BELLEAU WOOD
Belleau Wood, meanwhile, remained a devil’s den. The German commander, Major Josef Bischoff, a veteran of fighting in West Africa, was as much at home in the forest as in the jungle, and made the tangled woods a nightmarish shooting gallery; his defense of the woods was so gallantly conducted that he was decorated for his efforts, even if they were ultimately unsuccessful. Marine Lieutenant Victor Bleasdale, a former sergeant who had enlisted in 1915, fought in the Caribbean before the Great War, and eventually made colonel, paid the Germans this compliment: they “had some splendid snipers. Those sons-of-bitches seldom missed. They killed a guy I was talking to. I was leaning over, talking to him when the sniper shot him right in the face.” But if the Germans were as skilled and tenacious as ever, they found the Marines more ferocious than the accommodating French. One German soldier wrote, “The Americans are savages. They kill everything that moves.” From the American perspective, that was the point; they intended to give as good as they got; and the Germans had a reputation for feigning surrender, firing on the wounded, and using Red Cross armbands under false pretenses. The Marines refused to follow Fritz in deceit, but they met him full bore in the brutal business of killing.
The heroism of the Marines made good press—in part because they were accompanied by Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune. To readers at home, early reports from the Battle of Belleau Wood vindicated their faith in American pluck. German commanders were dismissive, but also insistent on proving that the Americans were no match for the German war machine. So the battle at Belleau Wood became a bloody proving ground.
On 9 June, the Marines, now knowing full well the wood was no rural idyll, pounded it with artillery, and the next day they started probing the forest. Parts of it had, indeed, in General Harbord’s words, been blown “all to hell.” But that did not mean the forest was cleared of the tenacious enemy. In fact, he was still there in force, machine guns rattling in deadly staccato, forcing the Marines to engage in an arboreal version of house-to-house—make it copse-to-copse—combat, a hell of poison gas, explosions, red-hot lead, and bloodied bayonets, where it was all too easy to get lost amid artillery-shorn trees that left no landmarks, and where German machine gun nests were inevitably covered by other machine gun nests, so that it seemed as if the firing would never cease. This went on for two weeks, the Marines joined by the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment, until the Germans were pounded into submission by a second massive artillery barrage on 24 June.
After that, it was a matter of mopping up, which makes the fight against the remaining German machine gun nests and trench mortars and infantrymen launching grenades sound easy. It was not, for those involved, though one newly captured Marine bluffed his way into accepting the surrender of eighty-two Germans by warning a German officer that an entire Marine regiment was on its way. The Battle of Belleau Wood cost the Marine Corps more casualties than any battle it had ever fought or would fight until the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.
The “Devil Dogs”—a Marine nickname picked up at the Battle of Belleau Wood—suffered casualties of nearly 5,200 men; American casualties as a whole were just under 9,800. But on 26 June 1918, the Marine commander of the 3rd Battalion, Major Maurice E. Shearer, was able to report, “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”
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