World War I: Battle of Belleau Wood

Fighting in Belleau Wood
Battle of Belleau Wood. Public Domain

Part of the 1918 German Spring Offensives, the Battle of Belleau Wood took place between June 1-26 during World War I (1914-1918). Fought predominantly by US Marines, victory was achieved after twenty-six days of combat. The main German attack was repulsed on June 4 and US forces began offensive operations on June 6. The battle halted the German Aisne offensive and launched a counterattack in the area.

Fighting in the forest was particularly fierce, with the Marines attacking the wood six times before it was finally secured.

German Spring Offensives

In early 1918, the German government, freed from fighting a two-front war by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, chose to launch a massive offensive on the Western Front. This decision was largely motivated by a desire to end the war before the full strength of the United States could be brought into the conflict. Beginning on March 21, the Germans attacked the British Third and Fifth Armies with the goal of splitting the British and French and driving the former into the sea (Map).

After driving the British back after making some initial gains, the advance stalled and was ultimately halted at Villers-Bretonneux. As a result of the crisis caused by the German attack, Marshal Ferdinand Foch was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Armies and tasked with coordinating all operations in France.

An assault to the north around Lys, dubbed Operation Georgette, met a similar fate in April. To aid these offensives a third attack, Operation Blücher–Yorck, was planned for late May in Aisne between Soissons and Rheims (Map).

Aisne Offensive

Beginning on May 27, German storm troopers broke through the French lines in Aisne.

Striking in an area that lacked substantial defenses and reserves, the Germans forced the French Sixth Army into a full retreat. During the first three days of the offensive, the Germans captured 50,000 Allied soldiers and 800 guns. Moving quickly, the Germans advanced to the Marne River and were intent on pressing on to Paris. At the Marne, they were blocked by American troops at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. The Germans attempted to take Chateau-Thierry but were stopped by US Army forces centered around the 3rd Division on June 2.

2nd Division Arrives

On June 1, the Major General Omar Bundy's 2nd Division took up positions south of Belleau Wood near Lucy-le-Bocage with its line extending south opposite Vaux. A composite division, the 2nd consisted of Brigadier General Edward M. Lewis' 3rd Infantry Brigade (9th & 23rd Infantry Regiments) and Brigadier General James Harbord's 4th Marine Brigade (5th & 6th Marine Regiments). In addition to their infantry regiments each brigade possessed a machine gun battalion. While Harbord's Marines assumed a position near Belleau Wood, Lewis' men held a line to the south below the Paris-Metz Road.

As the Marines dug in, a French officer suggested that they withdrawal.

To this Captain Lloyd Williams of the 5th Marines famously replied, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here." Two days later elements of the German 347th Division from Army Group Crown Prince occupied the forest. With their attack at Chateau-Thierry stalling, the Germans launched a major assault on June 4. Supported by machine guns and artillery, the Marines were able to hold, effectively ending the German offensive in Aisne.

Marines Move Forward

The following day, the commander of the French XXI Corps ordered Harbord's 4th Marine Brigade to retake Belleau Wood. On the morning of June 6, the Marines advanced, capturing Hill 142 to the west of the wood with support from the French 167th Division (Map). Twelve hours later, they frontally assaulted the forest itself. To do so, the Marines had to cross a wheat field under heavy German machine gun fire.

With his men pinned down, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly called "Come on ya sons-of-bitches, ya want to live forever?" and got them on the move again. When night fell, only a small section of forest had been captured.

In addition to Hill 142 and the assault on the woods, the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines attacked into Bouresches to the east. After taking most of the village, the Marines were forced to dig in against German counterattacks. All reinforcements trying to reach Bouresches had to cross a large open area and were subjected to heavy German fire. When night fell, the Marines had suffered 1,087 casualties making it the bloodiest day in the Corps' history to date.

Clearing the Forest

On June 11, following a heavy artillery bombardment, the Marines pressed hard into Belleau Wood, capturing the southern two-thirds. Two days later, the Germans assaulted Bouresches after a massive gas attack and almost retook the village. With the Marines stretched thin, the 23rd Infantry extended its line and took over the defense of Bouresches. On the 16th, citing exhaustion, Harbord requested that some of the Marines be relieved. His request was granted and three battalions of the 7th Infantry (3rd Division) moved into the forest. After five days of fruitless fighting, the Marines retook their position in the line.

On June 23, the Marines launched a major attack into the forest, but were unable to gain ground. Suffering staggering losses, they required over two hundred ambulances to carry the wounded.

Two days later, Belleau Wood was subjected to a fourteen-hour bombardment by French artillery. Attacking in the wake of the artillery, US forces were finally able to completely clear the forest (Map). On June 26, after defeating some early morning German counterattacks, Major Maurice Shearer was finally able to send the signal, "Woods now entirely -US Marine Corps."

Aftermath

In the fighting around Belleau Wood, American forces suffered 1,811 killed and 7,966 wounded and missing. German casualties are unknown though 1,600 were captured. The Battle of Belleau Wood and the Battle of Chateau-Thierry showed the United States' allies that it was fully committed fighting the war and was willing to do whatever was required to achieve victory. The commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John J. Pershing, commented after the battle that "The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle." In recognition of their tenacious fighting and victory, the French awarded citations to those units that participated in the battle and renamed Belleau Wood "Bois de la Brigade Marine." 

Belleau Wood also showed the Marine Corps flare for publicity. While the fighting was still going on, the Marines routinely circumvented the American Expeditionary Forces' publicity offices to have their story told, while those of Army units engaged were ignored. Following the Battle of Belleau Wood, Marines began being referred to as "Devil Dogs." While many believed that this term was coined by the Germans, its actual origins are unclear.

It is known that the Germans highly respected the Marines fighting ability and classified them as elite "storm troopers."

 

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Belleau Wood." ThoughtCo, Oct. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/battle-of-belleau-wood-2361393. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, October 11). World War I: Battle of Belleau Wood. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-belleau-wood-2361393 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I: Battle of Belleau Wood." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/battle-of-belleau-wood-2361393 (accessed December 14, 2017).