German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs and the Marines

Did German soldiers nickname U.S. Marines 'Teufelshunde?'

Dog Devils Poster
U.S. Marine "Dog Devils" Poster - 1918.

Around 1918, artist Charles B. Falls created a recruiting poster that was emblazoned with the words "Teufel Hunden, German Nickname for U.S. Marines - Devil Dog Recruiting Station."

The poster is one of the earliest known references to this phrase in relation to the U.S. Marines. You may have heard stories about how German soldiers nicknamed the U.S. Marines "devil dogs," and even today, you can still find this World War I tale used online in Marine Corps recruitment.

 

But the poster commits the same error that almost all versions of the legend do: It gets the German wrong.

So is the story true? 

Follow the Grammar

The first thing any good student of German should notice about the poster is that the German word for devil dogs is misspelled. In German, the term would not be two words, but one. Also, the plural of Hund is Hunde, not Hunden. The poster and any Marine references to the German nickname should read "Teufelshunde" — one word with a connecting s. 

Many online references spell the German wrong in one way or another. The Marine Corps' own website spells it wrong, in references to so-called Devil Dog challenge in 2016. At one point, even the Marine Corps' own Parris Island Museum has it wrong. The sign on display there read "Teuelhunden," missing the f and s. Other accounts omit proper capitalization. 

Details like these make some historians wonder if the story itself is true.

One thing we can state with certainty is that few historical accounts of the devil dogs legend get the German right. 

Pronunciation Key

der Teufel (dare TOY-fel): devil

der Hund (dare HOONT): dog

die Teufelshunde (dee TOY-fels-HOON-duh): the devil dogs

The Legend

Although the spelling is inconsistent, the devil dogs legend is specific in some ways.

It is related to a particular battle, a particular regiment and a particular place.

As one version explains, in World War I during the 1918 Château-Thierry campaign near the French village of Bouresches, Marines assaulted a line of German machine-gun nests on an old hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. The Marines who were not killed captured the nests in a tough fight. The Germans nicknamed those marines devil dogs. 

Heritage Press International (usmcpress.com) says the shocked Germans coined it as a "term of respect" for the U.S. Marines, a reference to the ferocious mountain dogs of Bavarian folklore. 

"... the Marines attacked and swept the Germans back out of Belleau Wood. Paris had been saved. The tide of war had turned. Five months later Germany would be forced to accept an armistice," Heritage Press's website states. 

NEXT > Is there a Bavarian "Teufelshunde" legend?

Did the devil dogs legend actually come about because German soldiers compared the Marines to "wild mountain dogs of Bavarian folklore?"

H.L. Mencken's Take

The American writer, H.L. Mencken, didn't think so. In "The American Language" (1921), Mencken comments on the Teufelshunde term in a footnote: "This is army slang, but promises to survive. The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes.

The French were usually simply die Franzosen, the English were die Engländer, and so on, even when most violently abused. Even der Yankee was rare. Teufelhunde (devil-dogs), for the American marines, was invented by an American correspondent; the Germans never used it. Cf. Wie der Feldgraue spricht, by Karl Borgmann [sic, actually Bergmann]; Giessen, 1916, p. 23."

A Look at Gibbons

The correspondent that Mencken refers to was journalist Floyd Phillips Gibbons (1887-1939), of the Chicago Tribune. Gibbons, a war correspondent imbedded with the Marines, had his eye shot out while covering the battle at Belleau Wood. He also wrote several books about World War I, including "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight" (1918) and a biography of the flying Red Baron.

So did Gibbons embellish his reporting with a made-up devil dogs legend, or was he reporting actual facts?

Not all the American stories of the word's origin agree with each other.

One account claims that the term came from a statement attributed to the German High Command, who supposedly asked, "Wer sind diese Teufelshunde?" That means, "Who are these devil dogs?" Another version claims that it was a German pilot who cursed the Marines with the word. 

Historians cannot agree on a single root of the phrase, and it's also unclear how Gibbons learned about the phrase —or whether he made it up himself.

A previous search in the archives of the Chicago Tribune couldn't even pull up the actual news article in which Gibbons is alleged to have first mentioned the "Teufelshunde" tale.

Which brings up Gibbons himself. He was reputed to be a flamboyant character. His biography of Baron von Richthofen, the so-called Red Baron, was not entirely accurate, making him appear to be a totally reprehensible, blood-thirsty aviator, rather than the more complex person portrayed in more recent biographies. Of course, that's not proof that this means he made up the Teufelshunde tale, but it does make some historians wonder. 

Another Factor

There's yet another factor that could cast doubt on the devil dogs legend. The Marines were not the only troops involved in combat in France's Belleau Wood in 1918. In fact, there was an intense rivalry between the regular U.S. Army troops and the Marines stationed in France.

Some reports say that Belleau itself wasn't captured by the Marines, but by the Army's 26th Division three weeks later. This makes some historians question why the Germans would have called the Marines devil dogs, rather than the Army troops who fought in the same area.

NEXT > Black Jack Pershing

General John ("Black Jack") Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, was known to be upset about the Marines getting all the publicity — mostly from Gibbons' dispatches — during the battle of Belleau Wood. (Pershing's counterpart was the German General Erich Ludendorff.) Pershing had a strict policy that no specific units were to be mentioned in reporting on the war.

But Gibbons' dispatches glorifying the Marines had been released without any of the usual Army censorship.

This may have happened because of sympathy for the reporter who was thought to be fatally wounded at the time his reports were to be sent off. Gibbons "had handed his earlier dispatches to a friend prior to his jumping off in the attack." (This comes from "Floyd Gibbons in the Belleau Woods" by Dick Culver.)

Another account at FirstWorldWar.com adds this: "Fiercely defended by the Germans, the wood was first taken by the Marines (and Third Infantry Brigade), then ceded back to the Germans — and again taken by the U.S. forces a total of six times before the Germans were finally expelled."

Reports like this note the Marines certainly did play a vital role in this battle — part of the offensive known as the Kaiserschlacht or "Kaiser's Battle" in German — but not the only one.

German Records

To prove that the term came from Germans and not a U.S. journalist or some other source, it would be useful to find some record of the German term actually being used in Europe, either in a German newspaper (unlikely for home front for morale reasons) or in official documents.

Even pages in a German soldier's diary. 

The hunt continues. 

Until this, this 100-plus-year-old legend will continue to fall into the category of tales that people keep repeating, but cannot prove.  

PREV > German Myth 12

MORE > German Misnomers, Myths, and Mistakes

Format
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Flippo, Hyde. "German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs and the Marines." ThoughtCo, Aug. 14, 2017, thoughtco.com/german-myth-teufelshunde-devil-dogs-1444315. Flippo, Hyde. (2017, August 14). German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs and the Marines. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/german-myth-teufelshunde-devil-dogs-1444315 Flippo, Hyde. "German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs and the Marines." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/german-myth-teufelshunde-devil-dogs-1444315 (accessed November 18, 2017).