BATTLE OF BELLEAU WOOD
“Retreat, hell we just got here!”
Every U.S. marine knows the famous quotes from their comrades fighting in 1918 in the Battle of Belleau Wood: “Retreat, hell we just got here!” by Capt. Lloyd Williams, and “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?” by Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daley. Every marine proudly claims the “Devil dogs” moniker because of their ferocity in combat. Alongside the Battles of Fallujah, Khe Sanh, Chosin, and Iwo Jima, Belleau Wood occupies a hallowed place in U.S. Marine Corps lore and history. These battles are ingrained in the Marines’ collective consciousness from the first days of boot camp, during ceremonies at birthday balls, on walls in museums, and on pages of publications.
The Battle of Belleau Wood occurred 100 years ago in June 1918 during World War I. The battlefield lays about five miles west of the town of Château-Thierry, barely fifty miles northeast of Paris, France. Looking at the strategic context in early 1918, Belleau Wood was only one small piece of a major campaign that saw the American forces help the French and British armies stem the tide of the Deutsches Heer’s spring offensive. In March, the Germans launched this massive attack along the Western Front in France because a peace treaty with the new Bolshevik government in Russia had freed up German units deployed on the Eastern Front. The German leadership hoped the influx of 50 divisions could overwhelm the Allied forces in France, bringing the war to an end before millions of Americans could cross the Atlantic and reinforce France and Britain. The German offensive made significant gains for the first few weeks but began to falter by May during the Aisne Offensive. This was when American units like the 2nd Division and its 4th Marines Brigade joined the fray to help stop the Germans at the Battle of Belleau Wood. The marines remained in contact with the enemy for almost all of June.
The fighting around Belleau Wood pitted units from five German divisions against the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, which was subdivided into the Army’s 3rd Infantry Brigade and the 9,500 man-strong 4th Marine Brigade. This unit included the 5th Regiment led by Col. Wendell Neville and the 6th Regiment led by Col. Albert Catlin. Three rifle battalions, of 800 men each, and a machine gun company comprised each regiment. The 2nd Division also contained the 2nd Field Artillery Brigade and other organic units like the 2nd Regiment of Engineers.
The area of operation included a forested area (Belleau Wood proper) on high ground running approximately
approximately one mile north to south and between one-quarter and one-half mile east to west. To the west of the wood lay Hill 142 under German control. A wheat field lay to the southeast of the wood. The 60 buildings in the village of Bouresches sat to the north across 800 yards of wheat. By 4 June, more than 2,000 German soldiers with at least 30 machine guns had ensconced themselves in Belleau Wood, and another 100 Germans with at least six machine guns held Bouresches. German machine gun fire from the wood could sweep much of the wheat field. Looking to the north and east from their lines of departure, the marines faced two difficult obstacles: either advance from tree to tree in close quarter fighting or make a perilous march across the open field of green wheat that rose barely above knee-level
In the first few days of June, the 4th Marine Brigade dug into a defensive line just to the southwest of the wheat field and Belleau Wood. The battalions in the 5th Marine Regiment established themselves on the left, and those in the 6th Marine Regiment on the right. Retreating French soldiers warned them of coming German attacks, urging the marines to withdraw. It was here that Capt. Williams retorted: “Retreat, hell we just got here!” The Americans stood their ground and forced the Germans to halt their advance and withdraw to Belleau Wood and Bouresches. The marines then prepared their own plans to assault those German positions.
To overcome the disadvantages of open ground and concealed Germans, the Americans expected to advance across the open area without concentrated artillery support and to achieve small-arms “fire superiority” as they neared Belleau Wood and Bouresches. The marines embraced the goal of fire superiority because they placed so much emphasis on rifle marksmanship. The tactics coincided the doctrine of “open warfare” espoused by Gen. John J. Pershing who commanded the AEF. He expected fast-moving American infantry units to make aggressive attacks against German positions over open ground, overwhelm them, and drive into the interior behind enemy lines. The American tactics ran counter to French doctrine as well as hard experiences in the trenches, which called for a rolling artillery barrage to soften enemy positions and clear the path for infantry units to follow. Gen. Pershing naively assumed that the AEF could succeed in battle using uniquely American tactics, despite nearly four years of bloody fighting that pointed to the decisive
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