Belleau Wood: A Defining Moment for 20th-Century Marines

“And, waking or sleeping, I can still see before me the dark threat of Belleau Wood…Our brains told us to fear it, but our wills heard but one command, to clean it out…” -Colonel Albertus W. Catlin, United States Marine Corps, 6th Marine Regiment

The Bois de Bellau, or Belleau Wood was a serene hunting preserve flanked by wheat fields and situated about 50 miles from Paris. It was once deemed a “quiet sector” by American military commanders, but in early June 1918 it would be transformed into a hellish landscape littered with scores of dead and wounded. Along this mile-long stretch of hardwood forest located near an unassuming village in France, the World War I (WWI) Marine Corps would encounter what many consider to be a seminal battle in its history, and would be transformed from the amphibious infantry of its formative years to an organization more closely resembling the expeditionary force it is known as today. Beyond its influence of the evolution of the Marine Corps, the Battle of Belleau Wood is also regarded as the first true crucible WWI placed on what was, at the time, a previously untested American military.

From the Trenches Toward the Marne: The Germans

By June 1918, the Germans were en route to Paris. This happened in 1918 as opposed to 1914 due to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan to take France at the onset of the war. When Schlieffen’s grand wheel maneuver did not produce its desired strategic effect, the Germans dug in, forcing the British and French to assault their defensive positions. The British and French were doing all they could to drive the German Army out of its entrenched positions across the Western Front, but the stalemate would not break. In the process, both sides wore down, and the Germans under the command of Erich Ludendorff finally sensed the strategy of exhaustion was coming to fruition.

After the Germans and Russians signed the 1917 Treaty of Brest-Litovik, Germany was no longer engaged in a two-front war; this provided it ample opportunity to shift to the offensive in the Western front. With the attrition of British and French soldiers occurring more rapidly than their own, Germany’s Ludendorff decided it was time to press across France. As the Germans advanced toward Paris, they leveraged opportunities to enhance their defensive line while at the same time maintaining an offensive mindset. After a rout of the British and French divisions along their front stretching from Soissons to Rheims, the Germans were gaining momentum and confidence, and had to maintain it. To do so, their focus was to gain control of the town of Chateau-Thierry. Located near the operationally important Paris-Metz road intersection, Chateau-Thierry was important to the overall plan, and the woods nearby provided a suitable natural position to aid in the defense. This location was the strongpoint of a salient in the German lines that now stretched across the Marne. When the Germans moved into Chateau-Thierry, their lines formed a veritable spearhead aimed directly at the French capital, and the Germans were truly out of the trenches to fight.

“Retreat, hell! We just got here!” — The Americans at Belleau Wood

When America entered WWI, it fought under the watchful and skeptical eye of its European partners in the war. According to Alan Axelrod’s “Miracle at Belleau Wood,” the Marines had volunteered “to be First to Fight. Toughened by training at Paris Island and Quantico” they were instead given guard duty and menial labor tasks to perform. Chomping at the bit to enter the war, the Marines continued to train in France as they prepared to join the fight against the German hordes and make a difference in this great war. By late May, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division fought and won a harshly contested victory at Cantigny, and the month closed with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 7th Machine Gun battalion joining the French and repelling a German offensive near the Marne River at Chateau-Thierry. The German advance was slowed, but only temporarily.

Seeing Paris in the sights of the German offensive, French General Henri-Philippe Petain knew the situation was dire, and beyond the capabilities of the British and French alone. He called on General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces for reinforcements. Inevitably, Pershing would send the Marines to reinforce the French at Belleau Wood, though the relationship between Pershing and his Marine generals was no doubt a contentious one. Many of the Marine commanders believed Pershing was overtly trying to avoid using the Marines except where he absolutely had to, particularly after Pershing relieved 4th Brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Charles Doyen. Doyen had formed and trained this brigade, and knew its potential better than anyone. Pershing placed his chief of staff, Army officer Brigadier General James Harbord in command, and Harbord would lead the Marines into the fire at Belleau Wood.

The wheat fields surrounding Belleau Wood were aglow on the morning of June 3rd, 1918. For two days, the 6th Marine Regiment led by Colonel Albertus W. Catlin marched to the vicinity of the vital Paris-Metz road intersection, subsisting as their Civil War predecessors had on little more than hardtack and bacon. Often they had worse rations; French canned beef the Marines affectionately termed “monkey meat.” The Marines were exhausted, but ready to fight.

Catlin was an imposing figure, a former Annapolis football star who activated and trained the 6th Regiment back in the States. He placed his men in position less than a kilometer from the German front on a rise of land called Hill 142, and directed his battalion commanders to hold the lines at all cost. Germany’s IV Reserve Corps advanced with a three-division attack on the French, whose 43rd and 164th divisions were screening ahead of the American. With unrelenting artillery barrages, the Germans pushed toward the Marines’ defensive position, and there was little to no counter-fire from the American side. The German shelling continued well into the afternoon of June 3, when they would make their attack. When the French command gave the order to retreat to 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment, the company commander replied, “Retreat, hell! We just got here.” This statement would long capture the spirit of the Marines at Belleau Wood.

“Come On, You Sons of Bitches! Do You Want to Live Forever?” — The Battle

Finally, more than a year after the American declaration of war, U.S. Soldiers and Marines were truly entering the fight. Under the warm afternoon sun, the Germans hit the wavering French lines, charging across the wheat fields and driving the French defenders back. With both the pace of the French retreat and the German shelling increasing, there was little doubt that the Germans intended to roll toward Paris. As the incessant artillery barrages rained down on the American lines, the Germans continued their advance, at this point closer to the French capital than any German force had been since the onset of the war. During this initial assault, the Germans had little doubt the Marine line would serve as little more than a speedbump on their road to Paris. What they found instead, was a wall of accurate and disciplined rifle and machine gun fire from the defending Marines. According to Catlin’s memoirs, “The German lines did not break; they were broken. The Boches fell by the scores there among the wheat and the poppies.” The Marines had driven the Germans back, for now.

June 6, 1918 would mark the date of the Marine’s assault on the German lines. Early in the evening of the 6th, after a short half-hour artillery preparation, Brigadier General Harbord’s 4th Brigade advanced in a manner akin to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. Crossing the 350 meters of open wheat field toward the German defense in the woods, the Marines of Major Maurice Berry’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment faced an onslaught of machine gun fire as they advanced in a straight line formation across the field. Marines began to fall, and in many places the lines began to falter. Through the hail of machine gun fire, First Sergeant (and two-time Medal of Honor recipient) Dan Daly yelled, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” Berry’s Marines pushed to the woods, with Berry leading a daring assault for which the Major would later earn the Distinguished Service Cross. On his flank, Major Bertron Sibley’s 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines found a little more success, moving deftly toward the southern edge of Belleau Wood and assaulting the machine gun nests. Overall, on the first day of the battle the Marines lost nearly 1,100 men. German casualties numbered over 400.

Over the next few days, the Marines and the Germans would trade artillery barrages and assaults, each side continuing to slog toward exhaustion. By the 13th of June, the German IV Reserve Corps was at less than half its original strength. Likewise, the Marine brigade was no less depleted, much of its strength falling to the relentless German gassing of their lines. Nevertheless the Marines pushed on, and after finally being reinforced by the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment, on June 26th they could finally report “Belleau Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely [sic].” That date would not mark the complete end of the fighting, but there was little more German resistance in Belleau Wood as July approached.

On June 30, 1918 the French Sixth Army officially proclaimed that the Bois de Belleau would henceforth be referred to as Bois de la Brigade de Marine, an homage to the new-found respect the Marines earned from their French counterparts. Likewise, a bridge of respect was built between the Marines and their Army Commander, Brigadier General Harbord. Presented by with a set of Eagle, Globe, and Anchor insignia from the men he led into battle, Harbord wore them on his uniform for years. Of his Marines, Harbord said, “I cannot write of their splendid gallantry without tears coming to my eyes! There has never been anything better in the world.”

“The Gettysburg of the War has been fought!” — The Result

Most do not say that the Marines won the war for the Allies at Belleau Wood. There is no doubt, however, that they prevented an Allied defeat at the hands of the German steamroller near Chateau-Thierry. Of the success, General Pershing proclaimed, “The Gettysburg of the war has been fought!” Just as the battle in the Pennsylvania wheat fields turned the tide of the Civil War at the same time fifty-five years prior, so did the fighting in the fields half a world away in 1918. To that end, nearly 10,000 Marines were either killed or wounded to take that stretch of wood, and while German casualty numbers are uncertain, over 1,600 were taken prisoner. Beyond the halt of the last major German offensive of the war, the battle also turned the tide of the war to the allies, raised the fledgling morale of the French, marked the Marines place in history as the formidable fighting force they are known as today.

BELLEAU, France — French Army and U.S. Marine Corps ceremonial elements, along with approximately 2,000 tourists and local nationals, gather at the parade deck of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery during the 91st annual Memorial Day ceremony there. Each year, thousands of U.S. and French service members, their families, tourists and locals, gather to honor the memories of the 2,289 war-dead buried at the cemetery. (via EUCOM.mil, Department of Defense photo by Marine Cpl. Lydia Davey)

BELLEAU, France — French Army and U.S. Marine Corps ceremonial elements, along with approximately 2,000 tourists and local nationals, gather at the parade deck of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery during the 91st annual Memorial Day ceremony there. Each year, thousands of U.S. and French service members, their families, tourists and locals, gather to honor the memories of the 2,289 war-dead buried at the cemetery. (via EUCOM.mil, Department of Defense photo by Marine Cpl. Lydia Davey)

Image: World War I: The fight of the U.S. Marines in Belleau Wood. From the painting by the French artist Georges Scott.


Major Steven Foster is an Army Strategist currently attending the Command and General Staff Officer Course. Foster holds a Master of Public Policy degree with an emphasis in National Security Policy from George Mason University. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the United States Army, the Department of Defense or the US Government.


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