The Battle Of Belleau Wood was an arduous and bloody conflict that took place in France, primarily between the 2nd and 3rd divisions of the US Army and elements of five different German divisions, from June 1-26, 1918.
It is of particular renown due to its role in mythologizing the US Marine Corps and is the origin of several famous marine phrases and deeds of valor.
The almost month-long battle was a particularly brutal and prolonged one and typified World War I in its tendency towards vicious, protracted engagements that resulted in little tactical gain on either side.
“Woods Now U.S. Marine Corps Entirely.”– the line reported back to HQ after the Battle of Belleau Wood.
However, the Battle of Belleau Wood has become a legendary one in martial circles since WWI, particularly within the ranks of the Marines themselves, who draw a great deal of their own lore from it.
Let’s take a look, then, at what makes the Battle of Belleau Wood so legendary.
American Hubris Initially Cost Them Dearly
“The deadliest weapon in the world,” commented US commander General “Black Jack” Pershing, “is a United States Marine and his rifle”.
That was not quite true, as the battle proved there was at least one thing deadlier – entrenched machine-gun nests. The US forces initially discounted this, and it cost them over 1,800 lives by June 26.
Despite the evidence accumulated and the hard-won experience of the French that fortified and entrenched positions could not be overrun by heedless infantry charges, Pershing was a stalwart believer in the superiority of US small-arms fire.
And while it was true that US Marines were brave soldiers and exceptionally accurate with their rifles, that mattered little in the face of a dug-in enemy and multiple machine-gun nests.
The tide of battle would, of course, shift in favor of the American forces towards the end of June, and their tenacity and doggedness played a huge part in that. The fact remains, however, that Pershing’s bullheadedness cost a lot of Marines their lives.
The Battle Of Belleau Wood Turned The Marines Into ‘Devil Dogs’
One of the US Marines’ most famous nicknames is that of ‘Devil Dogs’, which supposedly originated with their German foes on the other side of the wood.
And while it’s true that the Germans came to respect their American enemy a great deal, the provenance of the nickname is likely apocryphal.
This is due to the fact that the German equivalent of ‘Devil Dog’ – Teufelshund – was not an expression in common use at the time. The closest word in use was Höllenhund, which literally means ‘hellhound’.
However the name came about, it stuck – it rapidly became a key facet of US Marine lore and is still proudly used today.
Several Famous Marine Quotes Originated At Belleau Wood
Some military quotes become so famous that they transcend their roots, becoming mainstays of film and television and forever speaking to the doggedness and valor of certain soldiers. Of those quotes, at least two were born in Belleau Wood.
The first one – “Retreat? Hell, we just got here” – was uttered by Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams and immediately exemplified the derring-do and stoicism of the US Marine.
So impactful and famous did the words become that his battalion commander would later try to take credit for them.
The second quote – and arguably the more famous of the two – was uttered by First Sergeant Dan Daly. Sgt. Daly, when exhorting his troops into battle, bellow the now-legendary line: “Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you wanna live forever?”
The line has since taken on a life of its own; a variation of it appeared in the satirical 1997 sci-fi movie Starship Troopers, where it became the catchphrase of not one but two commanders when leading their troops into battle.
It Showcased The Exceptional Bravery Of Several Marines
The tactics of their commander may have been bullheaded, but several individual Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood demonstrated unwavering tenacity and valor in the face of almost insurmountable odds.
The first such Marine – who was also the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor during WWI – was Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson, who singlehandedly charged 12 German soldiers and routed them, killing two with his bayonet.
The second, a British-born Marine Gunner, was also decorated for his bravery in advancing forward through enemy fire.
It Took 5 Days To Gain A Foothold in Belleau Wood…
Though the Marines arrived on June 1, it took another 5 days before they’d even establish a forward position in the once-picturesque hunting reserve.
They advanced in disciplined lines in the late afternoon of June 6, only to be initially cut down by sustained German machine-gun fire.
With fierce tenacity, the Americans kept on attacking; by late evening, they were engaged in a vicious mêlée with the German soldiers, with fists and bayonets being used in lieu of firearms.
June 6, 1918, was, to date, the bloodiest day in the history of the US Marines. They took more than 1,000 casualties, with some 250 men killed in action.
…And A Further 20 To Outright Take It
The Marines’ struggle wasn’t over with the brutal offensive of June 6. A deadlock sprang up between the two lines (a deadlock typical of WWI), and neither could force the other back.
The Germans deployed mustard gas in large amounts, but the Americans’ nerve held against even this terrible weapon.
The Americans’ doggedness would be the deciding factor; in fact, they attacked the German position a further six times, each time weakening them a little more.
One German soldier remarked in a letter that the Americans opposite him were “terribly reckless fellows”.
In the end, the Americans fought off parts of five German divisions – at times using nothing more than bayonets or fists.
They finally pushed the Germans out on June 26, 1918, cementing their reputation for stubbornness, bravery, and exceptional martial prowess.
The Marines’ Legacy Lives On
The sacrifice of the brave men who died in Belleau Wood has not been forgotten. The French renamed the wood Bois de la Brigade de Marine (‘Wood of the Marine Brigade’) and awarded the member of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments and the 6th Machine Gun Battalion the Croix de Guerre (War Cross).
Vigorous, Self-Confident, and Remarkable Marksmen
It was the largest engagement US forces had ever undertaken with a foreign enemy and cemented the bravery and tenacity of US soldiers in the minds of many – including their enemy.
The official German report on the battle fully recognized how formidable the men who had opposed them had been. It commented that the US Marines were “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen”.
For their newfound reputation, however, the US Marine Corps paid a heavy price. There were 9,777 American casualties at Belleau Wood; of those casualties, 1,811 were killed in action. And though some 1600 German soldiers were taken prisoner, their casualties were never revealed.
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