With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.
Belleau Wood: An Ideal Hunting Ground
Belleau Wood, half the size of America’s Central Park, had long been a hunting ground for the French aristocracy. With its dense growth and rocky terrain, it made an ideal place to hunt. In the Spring of 1918, during World War I, it became the hunting ground for a different animal. During Germany’s Spring Offensive, the German army set up machine gun nests and barbed wire throughout the thick covering of Belleau Wood.
The natural terrain offered ideal camouflage. The woods were only accessible through the open fields of wheat that surrounded the area. Any troop attempting to breach the woods would be in plain sight, and at the mercy of German artillery fire.
Having endured four years of brutal trench warfare, the French lacked manpower and suffered from low morale. Conversely, the German army had recently been bolstered by troops and supplies arriving from the Eastern Front.
Calling Upon American Forces
The depleted French army called upon the Americans for reinforcement. In response, the German army became determined to defeat the allies before the arrival of American forces. As such, Germany made a push to take Paris. General Ludendorff hoped that this maneuver would draw the Allies into a climactic battle, that would decide the war in favor of Germany.
With the rapid arrival of American reinforcements, the German troops took up positions in Belleau Wood just sixty miles outside Paris. As the US 2nd Infantry Division arrived at Belleau Wood, the French army, battle weary and outnumbered, were retreating. They advised the Americans to do the same, to which Major Lloyd Williams replied, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!” As the first major battle of the war that Americans had witnessed, it was this attitude of bravado that lead them to victory.
Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Prior to the German Spring Offensive, Russia had officially left the war in March of 1918, with the signing of The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It was a treaty signed between Russia and the Central Powers. While peace was the desire of Russia, it came at great cost. They had to surrender large areas of land to Germany. German troops already occupied Poland and Lithuania, in which later pushed into the Southern tip of the Ukraine.
Under the terms of the Treaty, Russia surrendered 1.3 million square miles of territory, one-third of its population, and three-quarters of its iron and coal reserves to Germany. Germany treated Russia as a defeated nation, and they behaved as though they deserved the spoils of war. It was a political act that put the Ukrainian National Republic at the mercy of Germany.
This treaty provided Germany with agricultural land and raw supplies to furnish their army and continue the war. It also provided additional troops as many German troops were freed to return to the Western Front. Further, Germany had negotiated with the Ukrainian military to split any food they captured from either side, and Germany took control over the railroad network. With renewed supplies, Germany made the push to capture Paris during its Spring Offensive, or otherwise known as Kaiserschlacht.
In late March 1918, Germany launched Operation Michael, in which over one million shells fell on General Byng’s and General Gough’s armies in just five hours. With greater numbers and renewed supply lines, they held a dangerous advantage on the battlefield which allowed them to break through Allied lines and advance at great speed. It looked as though German victory was near, leading General Foch to appeal to General Pershing for 120,000 American troop reinforcements.
“Who said I was dead? Send me the mortars and a thousand hand grenades.” — George Hamilton at Hill 142
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General Pershing noted in his personal journal on the day of May 2, 1918, that General Foch had requested 120,000 American troops, and machine gun units in May and June to be sent to the aid of the French. He further went on to state that the French depots would be empty by August. As such, the challenges of the French army would mean a German victory if the Americans did not come to their aid.
General Pershing stated that he agreed with General Foch as to the seriousness of the situation yet argued that an American soldier would perform best under his own flag rather than the French flag. Under the Abbeville Agreement of May 1918, it was agreed by the Supreme War Council that an independent American army would aid France and would be sent to the front immediately.
Chateau-Thierry was the tip of the German advance toward Paris, and American lines were flooded by retreating French soldiers. An official French Military Bulletin dated June 11, 1918 sums up the French army’s opinion of the American forces in holding back German forces from entering Neuilly Wood. “American troops checked German advanced forces which were seeking to penetrate Neuilly Wood, and by a magnificent counter-attack hurled back the Germans north of this wood.”
By June 5, 1918, the French ordered the Marines to recapture Belleau Wood. This responsibility was left to two regiments that were stationed south of the wood. According to French intelligence, the Germans only held a small corner of it.
Hill 142, standing in front of Belleau Wood, rose approximately sixty feet above the wheat fields that surrounded it and the wood behind. It was just tall enough to make it a formidable obstacle to the woods behind. Further, the Germans had fortified the hill with fields of machine guns ready to fire on anyone either in the fields or attempting to take the hill. In the early morning of June 6,1918, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines surrounded Hill 142. They were immediately met with machine gun fire. One-third of the 67th Co. was cut down before even reaching the hill.
Gunnery Sergeant Ernest Janson, in the midst of battle, spotted a light machine gun squad making their way up a shallow ravine toward the 49th Co. He immediately rushed a hostile defense alone despite being wounded and killed two of the squad and sent the rest running. His quick action prevented a machine gun attack on US troops, that allowed his company to set up a defense on the northern slope of Hill 142. They fought off three German counter-attacks throughout the day, and by evening, had cleared the hill of German forces.
The Battle Rages
"The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle." — General John Pershing
Hours after retaking Hill 142, the battalions of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments launched a full-frontal attack on Belleau Wood. Although the hill had been cleared of the enemy, it did not mean that the way was clear. Danger still lurked from the shadows of Belleau Wood for the men unshielded in the fields.
On June 6, 1918, as the Marines, under the leadership of General James Harbord, advanced through the wheat fields, German machine gun fire assaulted them cutting down large numbers of men. Surrounded by hostile fire, one gunnery sergeant, Daniel Daly, called out to his comrades, "Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?" By the end of the first day, over 1,000 casualties had been suffered, with only a small corner of the wood captured by the Marines.
The battle raged for three weeks with control of the woods bouncing between the Germans and the Americans. Belleau Wood was covered in dense growth, making forward movement even on a good day, incredibly difficult. Additionally, the intense fighting made obtaining reinforcements, medical care, or food impossible. This left the men to use whatever was at hand as medical supplies and were forced to forage and steal from the dead what food and drink they could find.
A Private McArdle was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in Belleau Wood. He dressed the wounds of another soldier when he was shot through both thighs. He finished caring for his comrade before tending his own wounds.
Retaking Belleau Wood
The French army fought the enemy by flanking. The Marines fought in an American manner of rush, halt, and rush again in wave formation. The back waves would take over for those who fell before them and rush forward into battle as the attack continued.
In the wood, fighting could only be carried out by bayonet as every rock formation contained a German machine gun nest which was impossible to reach by machine gun fire or grenade. “And by this method were they wiped out, for United States marines, bare-chested, shouting their battle cry of "E-e-e-e-e y-a-a-hh-h yip!" charged straight into the murderous fire from those guns, and won!”
Two Weeks in June
June 11, 1918, a bombardment assault results in capturing two thirds of the wood from German hands. Meanwhile, a report determines that the German hold on the Northern section of wood is tenuous, and an attack later that evening puts control into the hands of the Allies. German counterattacks over the next several days heavily bombard Marine forces. Heavy gas casualties are reported.
On June 16-17, reinforcements arrive at Belleau Wood. A last battalion-scale attack by Army units on the 21st leaves the woods open. The French bring in sufficient artillery on June 24, 1918, in preparation for a renewed assault. Beginning at three in the morning of June 25, a fourteen-hour bombardment swamps the remaining German machine gun outposts. The following morning there were a few minor counter-attacks that were quickly fended off. Major Maurice Sheaer sends the signal, "Woods now entirely -- US Marine Corps."
During these operations [of early June], thanks to the brilliant courage, vigour, dash, and tenacity of its men, who refused to be disheartened by fatigue or losses; thanks to the activity and energy of the officers, and thanks to the personal action of Brig. Gen. Harbord, the efforts of the brigade were crowned with success, realizing after twelve days of incessant struggle an important advance over the most difficult of terrain and the capture of two support points of the highest importance, Bouresches village and the fortified wood of Belleau.
The Battle of Belleau Wood was relatively short-lived, being only three weeks long. However, American forces were completely cut off from receiving any reinforcements or supplies. They survived and conquered through steadfast leadership, sheer determination, and the ability to adapt and overcome. Control of Belleau Wood changed hands numerous times until American forces drove out the Germans and secured not only Belleau Wood but also Paris.
A Soldier's Character
The wood and the towns of Torcy and Boureshes surrounding the wood were the main objectives that summer in 1918. There were tremendous sacrifices suffered by the Marines Corps to repel the German soldiers. According to an officer writing from the field, “Men fell like flies.” Despite this, the fighting did not falter, and the Marine line held in the face of counter-attacks. In the heavy growth of Belleau Wood, fighting was from tree to tree and stronghold to stronghold. Often with only one man reaching their goal. With only a bayonet, he would either kill or capture the enemy and turn the German machine gun around in attack of the foe.
This was the character of the men fighting at Belleau Wood. None other in Marine Corps history can compare. Men fought around the clock without sleep, relief, water, or rations. They met and defeated the best armies that Germany sent out. Exhausted, but fighting despite every obstacle in their path, the Marines faced the German Army in Belleau Wood, and cleared every inch of Belleau Wood of the enemy. As Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels wrote, “The heroism and doggedness of that battle are unparalleled.” In honor of their bravery, the French Division General Degouette declared that Belleau Wood be renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marines.
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Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 04, 2020:
This is an interesting article. I love history and this battle in France is not something I had remembered, but I enjoyed reading your account of this historical battle.