The Battle of Belleau Wood
The Marine Corps, more so than any other branch of America's military, values and embraces its history. Beginning in boot camp, every Marine is educated on the Corps' proud and storied past as they learn what it means to be part of such a prestigious organization. In the spirit of the value the Marine Corps places on its history, we wanted to give you, Marine families and supporters, an opportunity to embrace and learn about this part of Marine Corps legacy as well.
June 26 marks the anniversary of the end of one of the most important and legendary battles in Marine Corps history--The Battle of Bois de Belleau, or Belleau Wood. This was a battle that exemplified the Marine Corps' core values of honor, courage, and commitment. It was a battle that catapulted the Marine Corps to worldwide prominence. And it was a battle that helped turn the tide of "The Great War" (as WWI was then known) in favor of the Allies.
In June of 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria set in motion a series of events that would lead to the outbreak of World War I in August of that year. On one side were Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (commonly referred to as the Central Powers). On the other were Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan (commonly referred to as the Allied Powers). After three years of neutrality, the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies in April of 1917.
Roughly a year after entering the war, the first major battle involving American troops took place in June of 1918 at Belleau Wood-- a 200-acre forest near the commune of Chateau-Thierry, France, approximately 53 miles northeast of Paris.
The Battle of Belleau Wood began on June 6, 1918, and would prove to be one of the most ferocious battles fought by American troops during the war. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, under the command of the U.S. Army's 2nd Division, were tasked with capturing Belleau Wood and clearing it of German soldiers.
To launch their assault on the forest, the Marines first had to cross a wheat field into oncoming German machine gun fire. Trying to cross the field proved to be an incredibly dangerous undertaking and over 1,000 Marines died on the first day of battle, more than the Corps had lost in it's entire 143 year history up to that point.
After three weeks of brutal tree-to-tree fighting, including multiple charges on German machine gun nests with fixed bayonets and hand-to-hand combat, and after trading possession of the forest with the Germans six times, the Marines cleared Belleau Wood of the German Army entirely on June 26, at the cost of almost 2,000 Marines dead and almost 8,000 injured. The battle proved to be the end to the last major German offensive of the war, and less than six months later the war came to an end.
The Battle of Belleau Wood was a landmark event in Marine Corps history. Prior to the battle, the United States Marine Corps was a little known, unproven commodity. After three weeks of displaying the courage, determination, and win-at-all-costs attitude that has become synonymous with the Marine Corps in the years since, that all changed, and the Marines have since been known as--arguably--the most formidable fighting force in the world.
It was also here that the Marine Corps' "Devil Dog" nickname was supposedly born. As the story goes, German officers, in their battle reports, referred to the Marines as "Teufel Hunden" (German for "Devil Dogs") as a result of the ferocity with which the Marines fought, and the name stuck.
After the battle, the French Army renamed Belleau Wood in honor of the Marines, changing the name to "Bois de la Brigade de Marine"--"The Wood of the Marine Brigade." Furthermore, the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments received the Croix de Guerre, an award for distinction and heroism in combat with the enemy, three times during the First World War--the only regiments in the American Expeditionary Force to do so. As a result, The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments are authorized to wear the French fourragere,a military award that distinguishes military units as a whole and that is shaped like a braided cord, on their dress uniforms.
Belleau Wood was also the setting for two of the most famous quotes in Marine Corps history. On June 2, 1918, as the Marines were arriving at Belleau Wood to support the French Army, they found the French retreating. A French officer ordered the Marines to do the same. Captain Lloyd Williams, of the 5th Marine Regiment, refused to do so, replying, "Retreat, Hell! We just got here." Four days later, on June 6, First Sergeant Dan Daly is said to have rallied his men by yelling, "Come on you sons of b******! Do you want to live forever!" as they charged into battle.
While it would be another quarter century before Admiral Chester Nimitz would famously say "Uncommon valor was a common virtue," about the sacrifices made by Marines on Iwo Jima in WWII, it could just as easily have been said about the Marines at Belleau Wood. Exhausted, outnumbered, and outgunned, the Marines refused to yield. Against all odds and expectations, they absorbed everything the Germans could throw at them and, in true Marine fashion, persevered. Perhaps the character and courage displayed by the Marines at Belleau Wood is best reflected in the battle account of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniel's, who wrote:
"In all the history of the Marine Corps there is no such battle as that one in Belleau Wood. Fighting day and night without relief, without sleep, often without water, and for days without hot rations, the Marines met and defeated the best divisions that Germany could throw into the line.
The heroism and doggedness of that battle are unparalleled. Time after time officers seeing their lines cut to pieces, seeing their men so dog tired that they even fell asleep under shellfire, hearing their wounded calling for the water they were unable to supply, seeing men fight on after they had been wounded and until they dropped unconscious; time after time officers seeing these things, believing that the very limit of human endurance had been reached, would send back messages to their post command that their men were exhausted.
But in answer to this would come the word that the line must hold, and, if possible, those lines must attack. And the lines obeyed. Without water, without food, without rest, they went forward - and forward every time to victory."
June 26, 2013
Written by: Collin Hoeferlin
U.S. Marines and French soldiers stand in formation during a private Memorial Day ceremony in Belleau Wood in 2011.
—Marine Corps photo by Master Sgt. Grady T. Fontana
"La Brigade Marine Americain Au Bois de Belleau" or "The American Marines in Belleau Wood" by French war correspondent Georges Scott.
The moss-covered "Devil Dog" fountain, located in Belleau, France, symbolizes the spirit of the Marines who fought there in World War I.
—Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Lisa R. Strickland
Rows of crosses and Stars of David mark the 2,289 graves that at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, commemorating the U.S. and French service members who lost their lives during the Battle of Belleau Wood. Each Memorial Day, thousands of U.S. and French service members, their families, tourists, and locals, gather to honor the memories of the war-dead buried there.
—Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Lydia M. Davey