By: Patrick K. O’Donnell, July 26, 2018
“The Doughboys at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France exemplified American valor and established the brilliant reputation of the U.S. Marine Corps.”
This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, which changed the course of World War I and gained the U.S. Marines their honored reputation. With a few exceptions, major media outlets have neglected this centennial.
By contrast, the 74th anniversary of D-Day, falling during the same time period, was covered by broadcast, print, and online outlets across the country. It’s more than appropriate that we give the D-Day troops their due, but it’s a shame that the Doughboys who fought in the Great War have not been similarly remembered. They were part of one of the most heroic, innovative, and self-sacrificing generations of Americans. Their struggles and triumphs reshaped the world as we know it. To this day the consequences of World War I are still costing Americans their lives, and the efforts of the Doughboys at the Battle of Belleau Wood are emblematic of the war as a whole.
In the spring of 1918, the United States was still sending troops to Europe and organizing them into the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Germany, then led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, saw a narrow window of opportunity to annihilate the Allies before the U.S. could fully deploy. Following the revolution, Russia ceded the Eastern Front, leaving the Germans free to concentrate nearly all their military might on the Western Front.
They launched a series of blistering offensives in France, rolling through one town after another as they drew ever closer to their ultimate goal: Paris. By June 1, they had advanced all the way to Belleau Wood, a kidney-shaped hunting preserve that occupied about a square mile of land 40 miles east of Paris.
Demoralized, the French army was melting away, as officers ordered withdrawals and individual soldiers abandoned their posts. The French began dusting off plans for abandoning Paris, and even the British were contemplating evacuation.
But both the Germans and the Allies had underestimated the Americans. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the AEF, ordered the 3rd Division and the 2nd Division, which included the 4th Marine Brigade, to stop the Germans in what would become known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, of which Belleau Wood was a part. Clambering into trucks, the 28,000 men of the 2nd raced toward the front lines. Along the way, they passed hordes of fleeing civilians and numerous French soldiers who, trying to wave them off, shouted, “Fini la guerre!” (the war is finished).
By contrast, the American military leadership knew the quality of their men. When a French general openly doubted the Doughboys’ ability to make a stand at Belleau Wood, Colonel Preston Brown, the 2nd Division chief of staff, replied, “General, these are American regulars. In 150 years, they have never been beaten. They will hold.”
He was right. Ordered to “hold the line at all hazards,” the Marines and their Army counterparts dug in at forward positions. They withstood a harrowing artillery attack even as the few remaining French units on the front lines pulled back. A retreating French officer advised U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams to do the same, but he coolly responded, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!”
Remaining in their shallow, hastily dug fighting holes, the Marines waited as the German ground forces waded through a field of wheat in front of Belleau Wood. When the enemy troops had closed within 300 yards, the Americans opened up. Many of the Marines had qualified as expert riflemen, sharpshooters, or marksmen, and they made every bullet count, cutting down line after line of enemy soldiers. Those who didn’t fall fled.
Through it all, the Marines refused to give up, prompting the Germans to dub them Teufel Hunden, or ‘Devil Dogs,’ a moniker they proudly claim to this day.
A few days later, the two forces swapped roles, and it was the Marines’ turn to march through the wheat, past the corpses of the fallen Germans. Enemy machine guns tore through their ranks, and Marines toppled like dominoes. However, unlike the Germans, the Marines continued advancing. Improvising tactics on the fly, they swarmed machine-gun positions en masse, eliminated the resistance, and then disabled the guns or turned them on the enemy.
It was bloody work. One Marine, Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson, who later served as a body bearer for the Unknown Soldier, earned a Medal of Honor for singlehandedly destroying a German patrol of twelve soldiers, including two he eviscerated with his bayonet.
Thousands of Americans died. In fact, it was the deadliest battle in U.S. Marine Corps history up that point. Yet through it all, the Marines refused to give up, prompting the Germans to dub them Teufel Hunden, or “Devil Dogs,” a moniker they proudly claim to this day. “The Americans are savages,” one officer wrote. “They kill everything that moves.”
The Marines spent the next three weeks in brutal combat trying to take Belleau Wood. Leaders such as First Sergeant Dan Daly, who yelled, “Come on, you sons-o’-bitches! Do you want to live forever!?” inspired them to continue fighting long past the point that most men would have given up. One officer later noted, “The only thing that drove those Marines through those woods in the face of such resistance as they met was their individual, elemental guts, plus the hardening of the training through which they had gone.”
Finally, at 7:00 a.m. on June 26, the Americans on the ground sent a succinct message back to headquarters: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps’ entirely.”
That epic battle, like the Great War itself, had consequences that have reverberated through the subsequent hundred years. Belleau Wood and American defenses along the Marne halted the German advance on Paris, blunted their forward momentum, and altered the course of the war. It set events on a path that would lead to the armistice just five months later.
The Great War reshaped the world map. New borders, particularly those drawn in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, set the stage for future conflict, including fights that rage to this day. In forgetting what happened in World War I, we disregard the root causes of confrontations that profoundly influence U.S. policy and continue to claim the lives of American servicemen and women.
The war, particularly in battles such as Belleau Wood, proved the military might of the Americans. It created the modern Marine Corps and led to their reputation for being an elite fighting force. We saved our allies, and not for the last time.
Efforts are underway to redevelop Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., into a national World War I monument. It’s a fitting way to memorialize the valor of a generation whose actions changed the course of history. Their sacrificial devotion to their country and their duty shaped the world we live in, and it is only right that we remember — and honor — their legacy.
About the Author” Patrick K. O’Donnell is a military historian and the author of eleven books, most recently The Unknowns: The Untold Story of America’s Unknown Soldier and WWI’s Most Decorated Heroes Who Brought Him Home.