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Battle of Belleau Wood

The Battle of Belleau Wood (June 1-June 26, 1918) occurred during the German 1918 Spring Offensive in World War I, near the Marne River in France. The battle was fought between the U.S. Second (under the command of Major General Omar Bundy) and Third Divisions and an assortment of German units including elements from the 237th, 10th, 197th, 87th, and 28th Divisions.

Background

In March 1918, with nearly 50 additional divisions freed by the Russian surrender on the Eastern Front, the German Army launched a series of attacks on the Western Front, hoping to defeat the Allies before United States forces could be fully deployed.

In the north, the British 5th Army was virtually destroyed by two major offensive operations, Michael and Georgette around the Somme. A third offensive launched in May against the French between Soissons and Reims, known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, saw the Germans reach the north bank of the Marne river at Chateau-Thierry, from Paris, on May 27. Two U.S. Army divisions, the 2nd and the 3rd, were thrown into the Allied effort to stop the Germans. On May 31, the 3rd Division held the German advance at Chateau-Thierry and the German advance turned right towards Vaux and Belleau Wood.

On June 1, Chateau-Thierry and Vaux fell, and German troops moved into Belleau Wood. The U.S. 2nd Division, which included a brigade of U.S. Marines, was brought up along the Paris-Metz highway. The 9th Infantry Regiment was placed between the highway and the Marne, while the 6th Marine Regiment was deployed to their left. The 5th Marines and 23rd Infantry regiments were placed in reserve

Battle

On the evening of June 1, German forces punched a hole in the French lines to the left of the Marines' position. In response, the U.S. reserve, consisting of the 23rd Infantry regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and an element of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, conducted a forced march over 10 kilometers to plug the gap, which they achieved by dawn. By the night of June 2, the U.S. forces held a 12-mile front line north of the Paris-Metz Highway running through grain fields and scattered woods, from Triangle Farm west to Lucy and then north to Hill 142. The German line opposite ran from Vaux to Bouresches to Belleau.

German advance halted at Belleau Wood

German commanders ordered an advance on Marigny and Lucy through Belleau Wood as part of a major offensive, in which other German troops would cross the Marne River. The commander of the Marine Brigade, Army Gen. James Harbord, countermanding a French order to dig trenches further to the rear, ordered the Marines to "hold where they stand". With bayonets, the Marines dug shallow foxholes from which they could fight from the prone position. In the afternoon of June 3, German infantry attacked the Marine positions through the grain fields with bayonets fixed. The Marines waited until the Germans were within 100 yards before opening fire with deadly rifle fire which mowed down waves of German infantry and forced the survivors to retreat into the wood.

Having suffered heavy casualties, the Germans dug in along a defensive line from Hill 204, just east of Vaux, to Le Thiolet on the Paris-Metz Highway and northward through Belleau Wood to Torcy. After Marines were repeatedly urged to turn back by retreating French forces, Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered the now-famous retort "Retreat? Hell, we just got here." William's battalion commander, Maj. Frederic Wise, later claimed he said the famous words.

On June 4, Maj. Gen. Bundy, commanding the 2nd Division, took command of the American sector of the front. Over the next two days, Marines repelled the continuous German assaults. The 167th French Division arrived, giving Bundy a chance to consolidate his of front. Bundy's 3rd brigade held the southern sector of the line, while the Marine Brigade held the north of the line from Triangle Farm.

Attack on Hill 142

At 3.45 on the early morning of June 6, the Allies planned an attack on the Germans who were preparing their own strike. The French 167th Division attacked to the left of the American line, while the Marines tried to capture Hill 142 to prevent flanking fire against the French. As part of the second phase, the 2nd Division would capture the ridge overlooking Torcy and Belleau Wood, as well as occupying Belleau Wood. However, the Marines failed to scout the woods, having been told by French forces on June 4 that the woods were clear of Germans. As a consequence, they missed a regiment of German infantry dug in, with a network of machine gun nests and artillery.

At dawn, only two companies of the Marine 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, commanded by Major Julius Turrill, who was supposed to attack Hill 142 were in position. Advancing in waves with bayonets fixed across an open field of wheat that was continuously swept with German machine gun and artillery fire, the Marines were cut down. Captain Crowther commanding the 67th Company killed almost immediately, while Captain Hamilton commanding the 49th Company fought from woods to woods, fighting entrenched Germans and overrunning their objective by 600 yards. At this point, Hamilton had lost all five junior officers, while the 67th had only one officer alive. Hamilton reorganised the two companies, establishing strong points and a defensive line.

In the German counter-attack, Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson, who was serving under the name Charles Hoffman, became the first Marine to win the Medal of Honor in World War I when he repelled an advance of 12 Germans, killing two with his bayonet before the others fled. Gunner Henry Hulbert was also cited for advancing through enemy fire.

The rest of the battalion arrived and went into action. Turill's flanks lay unprotected and the Marines were exhausting their ammunition rapidly. However by the afternoon the Marines had captured Hill 142, at a cost of nine officers and most of the 325 men of the battalion.

Marines attack Belleau Wood

At 5pm on June 6, the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines (3/5), commanded by Maj. Berry, and the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines (3/6), commanded by Maj. Sibley, on their right, advanced from the west into Belleau Wood as part of the second phase of the Allied offensive. Again, the Marines had to advance through a waist-high wheat field into murderous machine gun fire. One of the most famous quotations in Marine Corps lore came during the initial step-off for the battle when First Sergeant Dan Daly, winner of two Medals of Honor and who had previously served in the Philippines, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Peking and Vera Cruz, prompted his men of the 73rd Machine Gun company forward with the words: "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?

The first waves of Marines, advancing in well-disciplined lines, were slaughtered. Berry was wounded in the forearm during the advance. On his right, the Marines of Sibley's 3/6 Battalion swept into the southern end of Belleau Wood and into a hell of machine gun fire, sharpshooters and barbed wire. Soon, Marines and Germans were engaged in heavy hand-to-hand fighting

The casualties sustained on this day were the highest in Marine Corps history at that point. 31 officers and 1,056 men of the Marine brigade were casualties. However, the Marines now had a foothold in Belleau Wood.

Fighting in Belleau Wood

The battle was now deadlocked. At midnight on June 7-8, a German attack was stopped cold and an American counter-attack in the morning of June 8 was similarly defeated. Sibley's battalion, having sustained nearly 400 casualties, was relieved by the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. Maj. Shearer took over the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines for the wounded Berry

On June 9, an enormous American and French barrage devastated Belleau Wood, turning the formerly attractive hunting preserve into a jungle of shattered trees. The Germans counter-fired into Lucy and Bouresches and reorganised their defences inside Belleau Wood.

In the morning of June 10, Maj. Hughes' 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, together with elements of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion attacked north into the wood. Although this attack initially seemed to be succeeding, it was also stopped by machine gun fire. The commander of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, Maj. Cole, was mortally wounded. Next, Wise's 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines was ordered to attack the woods from the west, while Hughes continued his advance from the south.

Before dawn on June 11, Wise's men advanced through a thick morning mist towards Belleau Wood and were cut to pieces by heavy fire. Platoons were isolated and destroyed by interlocked machine gun fire. It was discovered that the battalion had advanced in the wrong direction. Rather than moving north-east, they had moved directly across the woods narrow waist. However, they smashed the German southern defensive lines. A German private, whose company had 30 men left out of 120, wrote "We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows

Overall, the woods were attacked by the Marines a total of six times before they could successfully expel the Germans. They fought off more than four divisions of Germans, often reduced to using only their bayonets or fists in hand-to-hand combat.

On 26 June, a report was sent out simply stating, "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely," ending one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles U.S. forces would fight in the war.

After the battle

In the end, U.S. Forces suffered a total of 9,777 injuries, 1,811 of them fatal. Many are buried in the nearby Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. There is no clear information on the total number of Germans killed, although 1,600 troops were taken prisoner.

After the battle, the French renamed the wood "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" ("Wood of the Marine Brigade") in honor of the Marines' tenacity. The French government also later awarded the 4th Brigade the Croix de Guerre. Belleau Wood is also where the Marines got their nickname "Teufel Hunden" allegedly meaning "Devil Dogs" in poor German, for the ferocity with which they attacked the German lines. An official German report classified the Marines as "vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen..." General Pershing even said, "The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle!"

General Pershing, Commander of the AEF said, "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".

Legacy

In 1923, an American battle monument was built in Belleau Wood. Army General James. G. Harbord, the commander of the Marines during the battle, was made an honorary Marine. In his address, he summed up the future of the site:

"Now and then, a veteran ... will come here to live again the brave days of that distant June. Here will be raised the altars of patriotism; here will be renewed the vows of sacrifice and consecration to country. Hither will come our countrymen in hours of depression, and even of failure, and take new courage from this shrine of great deeds."

White crosses and Stars of David mark 2,289 graves, 250 for unknown service members, and the names of 1,060 missing men adorn the wall of a memorial chapel. Visitors also stop at the nearby German cemetery where 8,625 men are buried; 4,321 of them—3,847 unknown—rest in a common grave. The German cemetery was established in March 1922, consolidating a number of temporary sites, and includes men killed between the Aisne and the Marne in 1918, along with 70 men who died in 1914 in the First Battle of the Marne.

In New York City, a triangle at the intersection of 108 Street and 51st Avenue in Queens is dedicated to Marine Pvt. William F. Moore, 47th Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

Two U.S. Navy vessels have been named the USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24 and LHA-3) after the battle.

Notes

References

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