Belleau Wood Today

The rural landscape around Belleau Wood is attractive and, apart from the fact that there are now more trees, does not appear to have altered greatly since the early summer of 1918. For instance, the wood is still surrounded by cornfields. Close to the entrance to Belleau Wood is a three-foot diameter concrete boulder bearing the Indian head emblem of the 2nd. Division. This distinctive and durable type of marker can be seen elsewhere at locations where the 2nd. Division once fought. In a clearing within the wood, by a mast carrying the Stars and Stripes flag, is a fine bronze plaque honouring the 4th. Marine Brigade with a relief image of an advancing Marine, stripped to the waist, and the Marine Corps insignia (Fig. 20). A dedication states that the surrounding Bois de Belleau has been renamed, by order of the French Army as a sign of honour, Bois de la Brigade de Marine. Forming a circle around the clearing are several captured German field guns and mortars, all in reasonable condition. Looking closely at the ground nearby under the trees, one can discern winding traces of the old trenches. Parts of these trenches are marked at ground level with bronze tablets which detail, in relief, stages of the battle. They were installed in 1998 by staff of the US Marine Corps’ Basic School, Quantico, Virginia. The overhead canopy formed by the many trees makes the atmosphere of the wood rather oppressive and, in general, visitors do not seem to linger. At times part of the wood is liable to be fenced off because of danger from falling trees.

Fig. 20 – Memorial to 4th. Infantry (Marine) Brigade, Belleau Wood.

Many of the men who fell in the battle are buried in the Aisne-Marne cemetery which curves around the northern edge of Belleau Wood (Fig. 21). Each of the 2,289 graves is marked with a headstone of white Carrara marble. At the head of the central drive is a Romanesque chapel with a tall bell tower from which one can look over the old battlefields. Within the chapel, covering its walls, are the inscribed names of 1,060 men with no known grave. In the street of Belleau village itself, Pennsylvanian soldiers who died in the battle are commemorated by a drinking trough, now serving as a flower bed, which was a gift to the commune from the Belleau Wood Memorial Association. A German military cemetery with 8,625 graves is located to the north-west of Belleau Wood on route D9 (Fig. 13): it overlooks broad cornfields across which the 5th. Marine Regiment launched the first ill-fated attacks.

Fig. 21 – Aisne-Marne cemetery, drive and Romanesque chapel, viewed from northern edge of Belleau Wood

The original battle museums at Belleau Wood and Château-Thierry were dismantled by the Germans in 1940. Commendably, M. Gilles Lagin , an Honorary US Marine (2007), has assembled an AEF museum at Marigny-en-Orxois, a few kilometres west of Belleau Wood (Fig. 22). He is an enthusiastic historian, collector and tour guide and has earned high regard from the numerous American visitors for his extensive knowledge of AEF battlefields and associations in this region. His collection of original AEF uniforms benefits from a spasmodic stream of ninety-year-old equipment, ranging from bully beef cans to AEF musette bags and rusted weapons, that emerges at local flea-markets and from forgotten corners of old French barns.

Fig. 22 – AEF Museum at Marigny-en-Orxois.