The Taking of Belleau Wood

The costly assault by American Marines upon Belleau Wood during the critical summer period of 1918 forms a proud chapter in American military history.28 It joins the list of other bloody occasions where American soldiers have been called upon to fight their way into and through dense forests e.g. the Wilderness (1864), Argonne (1918), Hürtgen Forest (1944), Ardennes (1944-5).

Formed from various AEF units that disembarked during 1917, the 2nd. Infantry Division was organized and trained in France. One of the new Division’s drivers painted the head of a Red Indian, complete with war bonnet, on the side of his truck: this emblem, placed within a white, five-pointed star, was enthusiastically adopted as the divisional insignia. Unusually, the four-regiment division included a Brigade from the Marine Corps. ‘Square’ in structure, the core of the 2nd. Division comprised:

  • 3rd. Infantry Brigade ( 9th. and 23rd. Infantry Regiments, Regular Army)
  • 4th. Marine Brigade ( 5th. and 6th. Marine Regiments)
  • 2nd. Artillery Brigade.

The 4th. Marine Brigade nominally comprised 250 officers and 8,000 men. As might be expected, there was a strong rivalry between the two infantry brigades, ‘Old Army’ and ‘Leatherneck’, in addition to that with other AEF divisions. More than 26,000 strong, the 2nd. Division had been about to relieve the 1st. Division at Cantigny but was hurriedly diverted and rushed south in French camions through a tide of refugees and retreating French troops. It was during this period of confusion that a French officer advised an American Marine captain to retreat immediately and received the famous rejoinder ‘Retreat hell! We just got here!’. By June 1, the 2nd. Division had formed a 10-km long front to the west of Château-Thierry, allowing exhausted and badly-mauled French units to fall back and regroup. Its 4th. Marine Brigade held the line on either side of the village of Lucy-le-Bocage; the 23rd. and 9th. Infantry Regiments were on its right flank. In front of the Marines stood the dark mass of Belleau Wood (Fig. 12).

Fig. 12 – Marine attacks at Belleau Wood: June 6, 1918.

Belleau Wood was formerly a hunting preserve. Such woods, set in gently rolling fields, are still typical of this region. In those days the wood was a tangled expanse of tall young trees, typically not more than 13-15 cm diameter, and dense undergrowth; visibility within it was frequently only a matter of a few metres. By June 3 the Germans had occupied Belleau Wood without hindrance. Masters of defence, they took full advantage of its knolls, gullies and outcrops of boulders and set up large numbers of carefully sited and hidden machine gun nests.

German balloons rose from behind the wood and their observers studied American movements. By contrast, Allied reconnaissance was very limited; there were no maps and it was reported that only the north-eastern corner of the wood was occupied by the Germans. In truth, Belleau Wood was a natural fortress. The German High Command, well aware of the battle inexperience of the AEF, was determined to use this opportunity to shatter and demoralize the newcomers. Equally, the Americans were determined to show their mettle. These factors underlay the bitterness of the forthcoming battle.

The Germans launched a number of infantry attacks on the Marine line but suffered heavily and learned respect for the accurate long-range machine gun and rifle fire of their opponents. Now under rather erratic French direction, the 2nd. Division was ordered to counter-attack at Belleau Wood. This ill-considered order from the French commander, General Dégoutte, was a reflex action based on the questionable French doctrine of regarding attack as the best form of defence. The Marines were ordered to attack across open fields towards the western and southern edges of the wood (Fig. 13 and 14).

Fig. 13 – View from German cemetery, south-west of Belleau village.

Fig. 14 – Southern edge of Belleau Wood and the road to Bouresches, looking east from Lucy-le-Bocage.

In the late afternoon of June 6, 1918, with minimal support from their artillery, about 500 men of the 3rd. Battalion, 5th.Marine Regiment left their trenches and advanced slowly in 1914-style skirmish lines through waist-high wheat fields toward the western side of Belleau Wood (‘5 M’ in Fig. 12). Despite heavy casualties from shellfire and traversing crossfire of heavy machine guns, the Marines reached within 100 metres of the edge of the wood. However, with darkness, the surviving men were forced to return to their start line. Later that same afternoon, four companies of the other Marine Regiment, the 6th., attacked Belleau Wood obliquely (‘6 M’ in Fig. 12) and gained footholds at the southern edge of the wood. On their right flank, three companies of the 6th. Marines advanced across open fields, taking heavy losses, and captured the village of Bouresches. In one day, for small gains, the 4th. Marine Brigade had lost 1,087 officers and men, 222 of whom were killed. Next day the Germans counter-attacked and the Allied command at last realized that the wood presented serious problems.

With the aid of stronger artillery support, the disjointed fighting lines of Marines gradually moved into the dark depths of the wood. They were hampered by lack of mortars and grenades and suffered badly from mustard gas attacks. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place .

Incoming mortar and artillery shells were particularly deadly as they often exploded at treetop height, producing a shower of splinters and shrapnel; the same hazard would feature strongly in the Hürtgen Forest and Ardennes battles of late 1944. Slowly the German defenders were pushed back into the northern parts of the wood. Following prolonged bombardments and rolling barrages from supporting artillery, Belleau Wood was declared captured on June 26.

The casualty toll on the 4th. Marine Brigade for twenty days of incessant fighting was 665 killed in action and 3,633 wounded. It had suffered roughly 50% casualties. Although popular memory rightly emphasizes the central role of the Marine Brigade in the battle, Regular infantry also played an important part in the victory. For instance, the 23rd. Infantry Regiment (Fig. 5) fought on the right flank of the Marines and the 7th. Infantry Regiment, 3rd. Division temporarily relieved the Marines in the wood from June 16-21. Unusually for the time and by unfortunate accident, the Marines were specifically identified and lauded in American newspaper reports of the battle. This slanted publicity was long resented by Regular Army units within the AEF. German assessments of the Marines’ performance in combat noted their relative inexperience but acknowledged that they were certainly formidable fighters and rated them as ‘storm troops’ or ‘shock units’. This was high praise. Tradition has it that the Germans referred to US Marines as Teufelhunde, or Devil Dogs, a name quickly adopted by the Marine Corps. The true origin of this piece of Corps legend is difficult to fix but it quickly found its place on American recruiting posters back home.

  1. George B. Clark, Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War I (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, Inc., 1999; 2nd. Ed., 2000) 62-221, ISBN 0 89141 726 5. []