The Meaning in Belleau Wood

To really understand Marines, you need to know something about Belleau Wood. On June 6, 1918, the 4th Marine Brigade began its offensive into Belleau Wood in France, marking arguably the most significant day in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps. More Marines died that day than in the 143 years of Marine Corps history that had preceded it — combined. But it is not the magnitude of that sacrifice, or even the military objectives that were accomplished, that define the significance of that day; rather, it was the cultural impact that event had on the Marine Corps.

Less than a week earlier, a German attack, part of a series of offensives planned for 1918, had reached the town of Chateau-Thierry, just 55 miles northeast of Paris on the Marne River. Making it that far was a significant accomplishment for the Germans, who had finally broken free of the trenches, destabilizing a front that had been deadlocked for more than three years. The resources France and her allies had to contain the attack were strained, and the decision was made to bring in the 2nd Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), which had been in France training and preparing for a year, but had seen little combat. As the Americans took their positions to establish a new defensive line through which the retreating French 43rd Division would pass, far on the left, in rolling fields spotted with woods and small towns, was an aberration — the 4th Marine Brigade.

The Marines did not belong in an organization made up almost entirely of U.S. Army troops, but their commandant, Major General George Barnett, and the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, had worked hard to find a way to get them there, often by going around the War Department. Ultimately, two regiments’ worth of well-trained professional troops was not something the Army could afford to pass up, for it was struggling to quickly mobilize and deploy a massive force for war. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments had been assembled from a blend of experienced Marine veterans and new recruits, and were ready to go. Arriving in France, they were assigned to the 2d Division, alongside the Army’s 3rd Brigade, and designated the 4th Brigade. They insisted on referring to themselves as the 4th Brigade (Marine).

“Retreat, Hell! We just got here!”

As the Marines advanced to occupy their lines, legend holds that streams of French soldiers were passing in the opposite direction, and one poilu urged them to join the retreat. The response from Captain Lloyd Williams, U.S. Marine Corps — “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!” — is oft-repeated in histories of the Marine Brigade and the remembrances of Marines, but his attitude was probably typical of the entire AEF. After a year in France, American soldiers and Marines had been chafing under the instruction and restrictions imposed by the European command. They were anxious to prove what they could do, and consummate their deployment to France.

The Marine Corps had placed a premium on marksmanship skills in recruit and pre-deployment training…

The Marines were well-suited to the position they were assigned to defend on June 2nd, in the rolling wheat fields northwest of Chateau Thierry. The Marine Corps had placed a premium on marksmanship skills in recruit and pre-deployment training in Quantico, Virginia, and now they had clear fields of fire. The Germans, who had been advancing in the vacuum left by the French retreat, ordered a halt when their leading elements began taking casualties from something they had not experienced in years of trench warfare: a growing volume of accurate long-range rifle fire. Approaching the limits of their logistical support, they began to dig in. The Germans anchored their defenses in a densely wooded hunting preserve, less than 300 acres in total size, that was directly across the fields from the 4th Marine Brigade — Belleau Wood.

After several days of small fights in the area, the Marine Brigade was ordered to counterattack into the woods on the 6th of June. The attack was hastily planned, and conducted without adequate reconnaissance or preparatory bombardment. Nonetheless, when the jump-off time arrived that evening, the Marines began advancing across the open wheat fields that separated their defensive positions from the dark woods ahead. Moving in four carefully-aligned rows of successive skirmish lines, the Marines were excellent targets for the German machine gun teams that had been emplaced in the woods. As the Marines were cut down in large numbers it became clear that they would pay a high price for inadequate planning by the small American staffs, and for the naïve tactics they had adopted. Despite these critical mistakes, they prevailed.

   Sergeant Major Dan Daly after the Great War

Sergeant Major Dan Daly after the Great War

Initially, the impetus to advance was reinforced by prominent leaders, such Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, whose heroism in earlier campaigns had already been recognized with a Medal of Honor — twice. The inspiration of a figure like Daly, according to legend bellowing, “Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” was undoubtedly significant, but as the Marines advanced their companies were decimated, and their cohesion destroyed. The attack was reduced to small groups of Marines led by sergeants, corporals, and privates, and occasionally an odd surviving staff NCO or officer, but they still managed to reach the edge of the woods. There they began to secure a foothold, slowly destroying the German machine gun teams in a confusing melee amid the rocky terrain and dense vegetation.

 

It ultimately took three weeks to eject the Germans from Belleau Wood. Though the Marines were relieved by the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry for part of that time, in the end it was the Marine Brigade which finally cleared the woods, a fact proudly reported to 2nd Division Headquarters as “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” In recognition of the feat, the French Sixth Army issued an order changing the name of the woods from the Bois de Belleau to the Bois de la Brigade de Marine.

It was a costly victory. The fourth Marine Brigade suffered about 4,000 casualties, approximately 55% of its total strength. Visitors to the American cemetery today at the north end of Belleau Wood, where the battle ended, will see the date “June 6, 1918” on a conspicuously large number of grave markers. There is also a beautiful chapel set into the hillside on the edge of the wood, and inside are the names of hundreds more men whose bodies were never found. For some Marines, the unit listed is “3rd Replacement Battalion,” in itself a testament to the chaos and savagery of that first day, when fresh men were rushed forward to the units fighting in the woods, and after that moment were lost even to history.

Belleau Wood, and the attack on the 6th of June in particular, was a defining moment for the Marine Corps. The significance of the event is not in the grossly exaggerated claim that the 4th Marine Brigade saved Paris, and by extension the rest of France, at its greatest moment of danger in World War I. The significance isn’t even in the number of Marines who gave the last full measure of devotion to the cause there, for the blood that was spilled in Belleau Wood wasn’t even a drop in the bucket. Sadly, it was more like a drop in the lake of blood that was the horror of the First World War.

 

The real significance of the 6th of June was that it established that Marines would prevail, regardless of cost, even when called to serve in places far outside of their traditional roles, and despite having every reason to stop and reconsider the wisdom of what they had been tasked to do. Belleau Wood provided a convincing narrative to reinforce not only Marines’ self-conception as elite warriors, but also a public image that further enhanced the Corps’ ability to find quality recruits and train them to high standards. Unfortunately, this elite image also came by means of implicit, if not explicit, comparison with the U.S. Army, contributing to a long pattern of interservice hostility.

The story of Belleau Wood reinforces everything Marines want to be reminded about themselves…

Culture is a powerful force within the U.S. Marine Corps, and the Corps’ remembered history is a vital part of its identity. The story of Belleau Wood reinforces everything Marines want to be reminded about themselves: that they have a tradition of superior commitment, that they are skilled marksmen, and that they can always count on small unit leaders and individual Marines to prevail, regardless of what may happen prior to the last hundred yards. In a more spiritual sense, Marines look to uphold the legacy of their forbearers, those who fought and died in Belleau Wood, as they would in later generations who fought in places like Tarawa, Iwo Jima, the Chosen Reservoir, Khe Sanh, and Hue. Less consciously, the Marines who uphold that legacy in places like An Nasiriya, Fallujah, and Now Zad, aren’t just preserving the legacy, but building upon it.

World War I helped to transform the Marine Corps organizationally from a more ad hoc, dispersed service to a modern, corporate, and deliberate body, but it was the crucible of Belleau Wood that proved what a Marine could be, and defined an ideal that Marines would identify with and strive towards ever since.

Image: U.S. Doughboys Handling an M1916 37mm Gun During the Battle of Belleau Wood, France, 1918 (via PhotosOfWar.net)


Shawn Callahan retired from the U.S Marine Corps in 2014 and is the author of Close Air Support and the Battle for Khe Sanh. He taught in the History Department of the U.S. Naval Academy and currently works in professional military education and is pursuing a PhD in History. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any other agency, government or otherwise.


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