The Battle of Belleau Wood was One of WWI's Most Important, Forgotten Battles

The US Marines’ greatest stand came in the final months of World War I.

Survivors of the Battle of Belleau Wood
  • Photo Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command

In June 1918, German forces were frantically trying to defeat the Allies of World War I before the full resources of the United States could be deployed. The Spring Offensive, launched in March, saw Germans marching across the Western front from France to Belgium in hopes of decisively breaking through Allied lines.

From March through the summer, German forces made further advancements than had been made in the total of the war to date, but as early as May, they had begun to falter. Stormtroopers on the front lines were moving more quickly than supplies could, leaving men with insufficient food and ammunition.

So, when two US Army divisions were sent to Belleau Woods, about 60 miles outside of Paris, German forces were in a precarious position. They were certain that any defeat meant the end of their cause; they would attempt to push through even a line filled with fresh, fierce troops.

On June 1, the American troops moved into place along the Paris-Metz road. The 9th Infantry Regiment and the 6th Marine Regiment were set on the frontlines, while 23rd Infantry and 5th Marine waited in reserve. By the evening, German forces had made their way through the elements of the French 6th Army that remained on the scene.

Skirmishes continued through June 2 and the morning of June 3. The French, completely overwhelmed, began forming a retreat, planning to dig trenches far beyond the current battle lines. 

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Meanwhile, the Americans' reserve forces began digging defensive lines along the Wood as French soldiers retreated. As they passed, the French forces told the 5th Marine Regiment that they too should be fleeing for safer ground. Captain Lloyd Williams famously responded, “Retreat! Hell, we just got here!”, setting the tone for the battle ahead.

Illustration of the Marines in the Battle of Belleau Wood
  • Illustration of the Marines at battle, by Georges Scott.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The next morning, Major General Omar Bundy took control of the American troops on the front line. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were able to hold off the Germans for two full days.

Defensive maneuvers turned into outright warfare on June 6, as the Allies attempted to drive German forces off Hill 142, the outpost that had once been the most northern camp for US forces.

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A French unit, 167th Division, attacked to the left of the American forces, as the 5th Marines branched off to attack Hill 142 and prevent any flanking fire on the French. A lack of coordination amongst the American forces, however, left the woods of Hill 142 unscouted.

At dawn, with only two companies in place, the 5th Marines began their attack—advancing across a wheat field, uncovered, in waves armed with bayonets. Each company was decimated, leaving only two officers alive. Captain George Hamilton of the 49th took control, reorganizing the companies and preparing them for the next engagement.

In the midst of this chaos, two men performed so bravely that they would go on to be awarded major military recognition. Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson singlehandedly fended off 12 German soldiers. After watching two of their compatriots be killed with Janson’s bayonet, the remaining soldiers fled rather than take him on. Janson received the Medal of Honor for his action.

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Meanwhile, Marine Gunner Henry Hulbert was on his feet, darting back and forth between his fellow Marines to deliver the supplies they needed, regardless of his personal safety. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Thanks to the valor of men like Janson and Hulbert, the Marines were able to capture Hill 142—although they lost nine officers and nearly the entirety of their 325-man battalion.

Belleau Wood, damaged by shells
  • Belleau Wood, torn to shreds by shells after the battle.

    Photo Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command

As the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines claimed Hill 142, the 3rd Battalions of both the 5th and 6th Marines pushed westward, into Belleau Wood itself. Much like their fallen brothers, these battalions had to cross through open wheat fields through unceasing German machine gun fire.

As the men pushed forward, 1st Sergeant Dan Daly shared some encouraging words: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”. With that, the Marines advanced, uniformly and in their highly-disciplined lines, even as many of them were slaughtered.

Despite the nearly absurd degree to which the Marines were out-armed, they managed to break through to German forces and begin hand-to-hand combat as dusk fell.

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Over 1,000 men died from the Marine Corps alone on the first day of battle, the largest single loss in Marine history to that date. Those lives were sacrificed so that the Marines could secure the vital advancement into Belleau Wood.

Over the next 20 days, the American and German forces found themselves in a deadlock. Despite the Germans’ superior gun power and their deeper familiarity with modern warfare, there was just something about the Americans—especially the Marines.

Supposedly, this battle was where the Marines got one of their longest lived nicknames: the Devil Dogs. A possibly apocryphal tale says that German officers referred to the Marines as Teufel Hunden, or Devil Dogs in their regular battle reports. No matter the origin, the nickname stuck.

Eventually, on June 26, the Marines put that reputation to good use on their sixth attempt to remove the Germans from Belleau Woods. It would be their final try, and the Germans were successfully fought out of the woods entirely.

Thanks to the Battle of Belleau Woods and other battles along the Western Front, the tide was turning against the Germans for good. Eight weeks after the Marines expelled Germans from Belleau Woods, the Hundred Day Offensive began—the beginning of the end of World War I.

General Pershing would later say of this battle, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.” In the first major American encounter in WWI, its troops had proven themselves a thousand times over.

Featured photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command

Published on 2 Jun 2020