Americans rightly remember the Americans who stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, to liberate Europe, but we also should commemorate the Americans who, 100 years ago, fought in another fierce battle in France that began on June 6—the Battle of Belleau Wood.
It was one of the most brutal battles the Marines ever fought as they confronted the vicious technology of modern warfare. But when it was over, they had won a battle that would turn the tide of World War I in favor of the Allies and lead to eventual victory over Germany.
When the Americans entered the war in April 1917, the Allies were in desperate straits. The Russian Revolution caused the withdrawal of Russia from the war, and the collapse of the Italian army left the French and the British holding up their weak partner, Italy.
The Germans were able to reinforce the Western front with 50 divisions, where millions of young men in the Allied forces had been slaughtered in the trenches and killing fields of northern France. Most historians say the Americans arrived just in time.
In the spring of 1918, the Germans launched their largest offensive since 1914, pushing back the British while the French virtually collapsed. German forces drove through the French army to within 45 miles of Paris, causing the French government to make plans to evacuate the city.
When the Allies were able to launch a counterattack, they ordered the U.S. Marines to attack at Belleau Wood, an area of open fields and 200 acres of deep woods where four German divisions were well dug in and equipped with modern artillery, trench mortars, heavy machine guns, and poison gas. But capturing Belleau Wood was key to turning back the German advance.
The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were given the job. As they moved into position, the leathernecks passed fleeing French troops who yelled at them to retreat from the advancing German forces. Marine Capt. Lloyd Williams, in the best tradition of the Corps, yelled back, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
The fight for Belleau Wood was violent, bloody, and ferocious from the very beginning, when the Marines had to cross a wheat field against relentless German machine gun fire with almost no artillery support.
One of the noncommissioned officers who led the Marines was one of the most famous in the history of the Corps—Sgt. Major Daniel Joseph “Dan” Daly.
The words Daly yelled at his men as they started the battle are carved in stone at the Marine Corps museum outside Quantico, Virginia: “Come on you sons of b—–s, do you want to live forever?”
Daly already had won two Congressional Medals of Honor—one for helping defend the American consulate in what is now known as Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, and another in Haiti in 1915.
He would be awarded the Navy Cross for his actions at Belleau Wood, where more than 1,000 Marines were killed the first day as they charged into a hailstorm of bullets and steel to try to get across that wheat field.
When the Marines finally got to the woods, they found them honey-combed with German machine gun nests. The Marines engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with their rifles, pistols, hand grenades, and bayonets. They fought day and night without being relieved, often without water and rations, to the point of exhaustion, while the Germans remained well supplied, with new troops constantly being brought up from the rear to reinforce the German positions.
The Marines fought in those woods for three weeks to defeat the Germans and lost another 1,000 dead and 8,000 injured. It was the bloodiest battle in their history, quite different from the types of fights they previously had engaged in against forces such as the Barbary pirates or guerillas in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and the Americas.
More Marines were killed and wounded in that one engagement than in all the prior battles combined since their founding—a 55 percent casualty rate. It was a foretaste of the kinds of battles the Marines would fight in the next war—the Pacific campaign of World War II on islands such as Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal.
Among the Congressional Medals of Honor awarded at Belleau Woods, one was to Gunnery Sgt. F. Stockham, who gave his gas mask to a wounded Marine during a German gas attack. Stockham died a few days later from the effects of the gas.
The ferocity of the Marines at Belleau Woods caused the Germans to name them “Teufel Hunden,” the Hounds from Hell or the Devil Dogs, a moniker that the Marines adopted.
According to H.W. Crocker III, in his history of the American military, “Don’t Tread on Me,” German military intelligence was so impressed with the “bravery and dash” of the Marines that they likened them to a “storm troop,” which to the German military, was the highest possible praise. The “qualities of the men individually may be described as remarkable” said the Germans, with the words of one prisoner that was captured as “characteristic—‘WE KILL OR WE GET KILLED.’”
At Belleau Wood, the Marines had gone up against the most professional fighting force in the world and the best divisions of the German army—and won. Gen. Black Jack Pershing, the leader of the American Expeditionary Force, was so impressed by the tenacity of the Marines at Belleau Wood that he was quoted as saying, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.”
The defeat of the Germans at Belleau Wood helped end the German offensive and led directly to the end of the “War to End All Wars.” The French actually renamed Belleau Wood the “Bois de la Brigade de Marine”—“The Wood of the Marine Brigade.”
The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments received the Croix de Guerre, the French medal for bravery. In fact, they won that award two more times, the only units in the American Expeditionary Force to do so.
So, as we remember the sacrifices of the many men who fought on D-Day on June 6, 1944, let’s not forget the Devil Dogs who 100 years ago on June 6 gave the Germans a lesson in Marine Corps bravery, fearlessness, and sheer determination that helped end one of the bloodiest wars in human history.