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"Bois de la Brigade de Marine"
The Battle of Belleau Wood, 1 June to 26 June 1918
In June 1918, a small piece of land, barely a mile square, became the scene of one of the most savage and deadly battles the United States was involved in during the First World War. It was the battle which stopped the German advance that spring and ultimately lead to victory in the War for the Allies. More importantly, it also became a pivotal chapter in US Marine Corps history.
After the United States entry into the First World War in 1917, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was sent to help defeat the Germans in Europe. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were assigned as part of the AEF. Upon arrival in France the Marines trained for nine months before moving toward the front in March 1918.
The Marines composed the 4th (Marine) Brigade along with 2nd Engineers made up the 2nd Army Division, which was part of the XXI Corps of the Sixth French Army. The 3rd Division was composed of elements of 7th Infantry Regiment. This is the only time in history the Marines were not under separate command.
It was in March of 1918 that the Germans, reinforced by 50 Divisions from the Eastern Front, launched their Spring offensive on the Western Front. Through a series of attacks they hoped to defeat the Allies before Americans could be fully deployed.
The Battle of Belleau Wood was part of the Allied counterattack that came at the end of the Third Battle of the Aisne, 27 May-3 June 1918. By the end of that battle, the leading elements of the German army had reached Vaux, on the Paris to Metz road, and were dangerously close to the road to Rheims. Four German divisions were located in Belleau Wood, a small wood one square mile in area.
Blunting the Tip - 27 May to 4 June 1918
The German advance reached the north bank of the Marne river at ChÃ¢teau-Thierry, 40 miles from Paris, on 27 May. The 2nd and 3rd U.S. Army divisions, were moved into the Allied effort to stop the Germans. On 31 May, the 3rd Division held the German advance at ChÃ¢teau-Thierry. The Germans having been stopped at ChÃ¢teau-Thierry turned west moving toward Vaux and Belleau Wood.
On 1 June, U.S. 2nd Division troops began to dig in along a defensive line just north of the village of Lucy-le-Bocage.
The initial disposition of troops was haphazard due the emergency. The front settled eventually with the 5th Marines to the west and the 6th Marines to the east. Most of the units deployed without machine guns in support. At Les Mares Farm, members of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines (2/5) began to show the Germans the effects of long distance marksmanship. Accurate fire at more than 400 meters was a new experience for the Germans.
On 2 June, the German vanguard reached Belleau Wood. On 3 June, units of German 237th Division occupied Belleau Wood. In the afternoon of 3 June, German infantry attacked the 5th Marines' positions through the grain fields with bayonets fixed. The Marines waited until the Germans were within 100 yards before opening deadly rifle fire which cut down waves of German infantry and forced the survivors to retreat into the wood. This was the last forward action of the German offensive.
It was during this engagement a retreating French captain ordered a company of the 5th Marines, at the extreme left flank, to fall back from the German attack. Captain Lloyd W. Williams is credited with having responded with a most famous Marine remark, "Retreat Hell. We just got here."
On 4 June, another determined German assault against American defenses was turned back. Due to significant failure in coordination between 2/5 around Les Mares Farm and 1/5, on their right, a gap opened between the units near Champillon. The German attack failed to take advantage of this gap and attacked directly against 2/5 at Les Mares Farm.
By this time, the divisional artillery brigade and machine gun battalions had arrived. The failure of the attack on 4 June at the Les Mares Farm is generally considered the high water mark of the German offensive. It is the closest the Germans got to Paris.
Many Marines, however, by this time were feeling hungry because their kitchens were still stuck on the road trying to catchup with them.
Take back Belleau Wood
5 June, French XXI Corps commander ordered the U.S. 2nd Division to recapture Belleau Wood. His belief was the enemy only held a corner of the Wood. The main assault fell to the 4th [Marine] Brigade of the 2nd Division.
In reality, the German Army had taken the entire wood and turned it into a bastion. No reconnaissance was made to confirm positions of the German troops.
6 June 1918
To that date, 6 June 1918, was the most catastrophic day in Marine Corps history. At 03:45 the Allies launched an attack on the German forces, who it so happened were preparing their own strike.
At 0500, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines attacked west of Belleau Wood straightening the front and capturing strategic Hill 142. Hill 142 was critical to support an assault on the wooded area. The attack was successful despite the lack of preparation and poor timing. It went off with 2 companies and only the timely arrival of the other two companies saved the action.
The 5th and 6th Marines believed they were now in position to counter-attack. The attack jumped off at 1700, after a short artillery preparation, against what was though to be a lightly defended Belleau Wood. They had failed to probe, failed to find good maps, did not know what waited them as they began moving through the flowing wheat toward the dark wood. What was waiting for them was the German 461st Regiment, 237th Division, 1141 men and 28 officers, dug in with heavy machine gun nests and ranged mortars, in addition to the division artillery in support.
The attack against the woods proper goes grimly. Crossing the wheat field the Marines are exposed to machine gun and rifle fire. Gunnery Sgt Dan Daly calls out to his men, "Come on ya sons-of-bitches, ya want to live forever?' The poorly coordinated attack on the woods left 3/5 decimated and 3/6 struggling to get into the southern edge of the woods. The Army 2nd Engineer Regiment was called on to provide reinforcements.
This day's casualties in Marines was appalling, with 1,087 killed wounded or missing, including 31 officers. It was the worst day in the history of the Marine Corps.
C'mon you sons-of -bitches
7 - 10 June 1918
After the bloody fighting on the previous day, 7 June stayed relatively a quiet day as US forces prepare to renew the offensive and the Germans were bringing in relief units. At midnight on 7-8 June, a German attack was stopped and an American counter-attack on the morning of 8 June was similarly turned back.
On 9 June orders were given and units were redeployed for an attack the following morning.
At 0430 the morning of 10 June a concentrated artillery barrage decimated Belleau Wood leaving it a wasteland of dead-fallen, broken tree stumps and upturned earth. In response the Germans shelled Lucy-le-Bocage and Bouresches while repositioning their defenses. Following the artillery barrage 1st Battlion, 6th Marines attacked but, ran into intense resistance and were stopped.
11 June - The Beginning of the End
Following an early morning heavy artillery bombardment on 11 June, an understrength and tired 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, supported by the 23rd and 77th Companies of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, attacked the middle of the wood from the west through a thick morning mist. Heavy machine gun fire killed many of the Marines but, they were able to fight into the wood. Once in the wood the fighting became intense close combat including hand-to-hand. They were able to captured 30 enemy machine guns and took almost 400 prisoners.
The Battalion fought clear through the wood coming out on the southeastern side. It was believe at the time they had taken the northern portion of the wood. Instead they had crushed the southern defensive lines of the Germans. Although the southern defenses were destroyed, the Germans reinforced the north end of the wood.
Clearing the Wood
After a three hour artillery barrage on 12 June, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines resumed their attack, supported by 1st Battalion, 6th Marines from the south. Moving through rocky ravines which hid German machine gun nests, the Marines were again engaged in heavy hand-to-hand close combat. With the support of a continuous artillery bombardment, 2/5 and 1/6 were able to steadily push the Germans north and east.
On 13 June the Germans mounted an early morning counter-attack with 3 divisions supported by artillery against Bouresches. 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines are able to repel the attack. Mean while, a planned relief of 2/5 fails as 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines is caught in the open by an artillery barrage with gas.
1st Battalion, 5th Marines begin to move into the wood on the west only to find the Germans had infiltrated behind the attacking Marines. In the ensuing fight 1/5 is able to clear and secure the west side of the wood.
The intense fighting continues over the next two days with the Marines finally securing the southern two thirds of the wood.
On 16 June, 2/5 was finally relieved by three battalions of the 7th Infantry are deployed under the command of 5th Marines commander Colonel Wendell Neville. Through a series of attacks over a five day period the 7th Infantry was unable to finish clearing the wood. The Army officers complained about tactics ordered of them. On 22 June the 7th Infantry was relieved and the Marines were ordered back to finish the job.
It is interesting to note that during this time frame a young Marine Officer, 1stLt. Clifton B. Cates of 2/6, a future Commandant of the Marine Corps, was caught in an almost untenable situation. He relaid this message to higher command, "I have only two men out of my company and 20 out of some other company. We need support, but it is almost suicide to try to get it here as we are swept by machine gun fire and a constant barrage is on us. I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold."
1stLt Cates' Message
Woods now entirely -- US Marine Corps
On 24 June the French finally bring sufficient artillery to bear on Belleau Wood. Once in place on the 25th, a fourteen hour artillery barrage is conducted.
With 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines on the left, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines in the center and 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines on the right the final push to clear Belleau Wood began. The attack totally overwhelms the remaining German positions and they fall back pulling out to the north.
The Marines reached the northern edge of the wood on the morning of 26 June. After defeating some early morning counterattacks, Major Maurice Shearer sends signal, "Woods now entirely -- US Marine Corps."
Woods Now Entirely --
The victory at Belleau Wood had saved Paris. The French were so overcome with joy the Parliament declared 4 July a national holiday to honor the Americans in France. During the parade in Paris the Marine Corp Flag was hailed with cheers of "Vive les Marines!" The French government renamed Belleau Wood, "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" - Wood of the Marine Brigade. The 4th Marine Brigade was awarded the Croix de Guerre recognition of their achievement.
The Germans were also impressed with the Marines. An official German report described the Marines as "vigorous, self-confident and remarkable marksmen..." To clear the woods entirety, the Marines had frequently resorted to hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, knives and even bare fists. Such was the ferocity of this that the Germans gave the Marines the nickname "Teufelhunden", which roughly translates as "Devil Dogs"
Prior to Belleau Wood, enlisted Marines wore no Marine emblem on their uniform. Secretary of the Navy Franklin D Roosevelt, inspecting the Marines after the battle, decreed enlisted Marines would from now on also wear the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on their uniform collar.
General John J Pershing, Commander of all US Forces in Europe, is quoted "The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle!"
The success of the US Marines in clearing such a strategically important place came at a cost. Out of the 9,777 US casualties, 1,811 were fatalities. No one is quite sure about German casualties because the end of the battle at Belleau Wood corresponded with a general German withdrawal along the whole front. Over 1,600 German prisoners were taken, so it is assumed that German casualties were high.
It should be noted, today members of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, in remembrance and to honor those who fought in France, wear the French Fourragere on their left shoulder.
President Reagan about Marines
More information about Belleau Wood and World War 1 at Amazon
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