war on the rocks

The Importance of the Battle of Belleau Wood

June 4, 2018

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 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 June 4, 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 advantages that machine guns and fortified positions afforded defenders against attackers. The marines embraced open warfare, expecting that their highly accurate rifle fire would give them the advantage.

Before dawn on June 6, the marines of the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (denoted as 1/6) drove the Germans from Hill 142. This anchored the American line to the Allied units farther to the west. It also allowed the marines to pour fire into Belleau Wood to the east. Next began an uncoordinated American attack that started on the evening of June 6. The 3/5 and the 3/6 hit the center and southern sides of Belleau Wood respectively. However, while marching across the open ground, heavy German machine and artillery fire cut the 3/5 to shreds. Meanwhile, the 3/6 fought their way in the southern edge of the woods before their advance ground to a halt in the face of enemy fire. In all the confusion, the two-time Medal of Honor recipient Gunnery Sgt. Daly questioned his men: “C’mon you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?” Despite their best efforts, the marines’ marksmanship failed to silence the German guns. By nightfall, both Marine battalions suffered debilitating casualties.

To the east in the evening of June 6, two smart-looking companies of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment began an orderly advance across the eight hundred yards of wheat toward the enemy positions in Bouresches. This assault was doomed from its start because the Americans did not obtain supporting artillery to provide a rolling barrage. Instead the 2/6 faced withering German gunfire from the village to the northeast and from Belleau Wood to the northwest. The two Marine companies quickly began taking casualties as they were pinned down without communications with each other or the battalion’s commanding officer Maj. Thomas Holcomb. Even so, the surviving marines pushed their way into the village of Bouresches where they fought house to house and expelled the German defenders.

That first day of June 6 proved to be costly for the 4th Marine Brigade: Six officers and 222 enlisted men and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) killed in action, and another 25 and 834 wounded in action respectively. This amounted to more casualties than in the entire history of the Marine Corps to date. On June 8, two days into the battle, Holcomb scribbled a letter his wife back on the American homefront. He described his men’s performance in the wheat field:

The regiment has carried itself with undying glory, but the price was heavy. My battalion did wonderfully. . . There was never anything finer than their advance across a place literally swept with machine gun fire. . . There never was such self-sacrifice, courage, and spirit shown.

Holcomb next gave his wife an inkling, albeit sanitized, of the conditions in Bouresches on June 9. “I am safe and well. I have not even had my shoes off for 10 days, except once for ten minutes. Several days I’ve been without food and my only sleep has been snatched at odd moments during the retorted,” wrote Holcomb. “The whole brigade put up a most wonderful fight. We have been cited twice by the French authorities.”

After being reinforced by more than 100 soldiers of the Company A of the 2nd Regiment of Engineers, the remaining 200 marines in 2/6 dug in and withstood several German infantry assaults on Bouresches before relief arrived a week later. Meanwhile, together with soldiers in the 2nd Regiment of Engineers, the marines of the 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, 1/6, 3/6, and 6th Machine Gun Battalion secured most of Belleau Wood by June 11. They encountered concentrated German small arms, machine gun, and artillery fire, often at point-blank range. Exploding shells from enemy and Allied guns splintered the trees, showering the ground with deadly wood splinters and metal shrapnel. The Germans also used mustard gas shells to try to halt the advance. The adversaries clashed in bitter hand-to-hand combat with knives, rifle butts, bayonets, and trench shovels. As Marine officers and NCOs fell dead or wounded, junior officers and enlisted men took their places. The most determined counterattack on June 13 came when elements of three Germans divisions attempted to reclaim their old positions. Then, the French Army’s artillery finally unleashed a 14-hour long heavy bombardment that allowed marines in 2/5, 3/5, and 3/6 to dislodge the remaining Germans from the northern end of Belleau Wood on June 26.

After three of weeks of intense combat, a report announced the 4th Marine Brigade’s success with the message “Belleau Wood now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” The French government renamed it Bois de la Brigade de Marine in honor of the incredible sacrifices and fierce struggles there. The members of the 4th Marine Brigade were also awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Although a victory for the Americans, the Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade. Of its complement of 9,500 men, the brigade suffered 1,000 killed in action, and 4,000 wounded, gassed, or missing equaling a 55 percent casualty rate. The supporting 2nd Regiment of Engineers lost another 450 casualties of its assigned unit strength of 1,700 soldiers. During the three weeks of fighting, Thomas Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion alone suffered a shocking 764 casualties out of a paper strength of 900 marines. On June 6 alone, his unit started across the wheat field with two companies with some 500 marines. After wrenching control of Bouresches, only 200 of Holcomb’s men remained able to repel German counterattacks. This represented a 60-percent casualty rate, which matched the rates of earlier battles in World War I. Not to put too grim a face on this high figure, but Holcomb’s career as a future commandant of the Marine Corps may easily have ended in obscurity, and the heroic memories of the wheat field would have been for naught if the remnants of the 2nd Battalion had not held Bouresches. Surviving the rest of the World War I, Holcomb continued to rise through ranks until being named the seventeenth commandant of the Marines Corps in December 1936. He shepherded the Corps through the last years of the Great Depression, managed its mobilization, and directed the Corps’ first two years of the Pacific War. In this time, the Corps expanded from 17,000 marines in 1936 to 385,000 by Holcomb’s retirement in December 1943.

Battlefield success at Belleau Wood merited an immortal place in Marine Corps history and lore. Similar observations can be made about the other famous battles of Fallujah, Khe Sanh, Chosin, and Iwo Jima, all of which should be sobering reminders that victorious ends have often required bloody means.

These points of pride notwithstanding, all the battles left other indelible marks on those marines fighting in them that exceeded celebratory and triumphalist tones. Beyond Marine Corps lore, the Battle of Belleau Wood represented a substantive step in the organization’s maturation from shipboard guard or constabulary forces of the 19th century into the multi-purpose force-in-readiness of the 20th and 21st centuries. This battle and the others later in World War I gave the Marines invaluable experiences of prolonged combined arms operations in modern warfare.

Several future Marine Corps senior leaders saw action at Belleau Wood, including future commandants such as John Lejeune, Clifton Cates, Lemuel Shepherd Jr., Wendell Neville, and Thomas Holcomb, as well as marines who later attained flag rank such as Roy Geiger, Charles Price, Holland Smith, Keller Rockey, and Merwin Silverthorn. In one extraordinary case, Gerald Thomas rose through the ranks from sergeant at Belleau Wood in 1918 to become lieutenant general and assistant commandant of the Marine Corps from 1952 to 1954. These marines became a group of veterans famously known as the “Old Breed” during the decades after World War I ended. The future flag officers gleaned many vital lessons from serving in France, thereby recognizing that the Marine Corps needed effective training in appropriate weapons and tactics, relevant doctrines for those weapons and tactics, planning for operational roles for the Marine Corps in future conflicts, military education of Marine officers in the art of war, suitable force structures to perform particular missions, and reorganization of the U.S. Marine Corps in structures similar to the French General Staff. Consequently, Belleau Wood has maintained not only a legacy as an iconic battle but also as the first of several learning laboratories for those Marine officers who eventually led their Corps to victory in World War II.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the German army as the Wehrmacht. This term did not come into use until later in the 20th century, and the error has been corrected.

David Ulbrich, Ph.D., is currently director of the M.A. in Military History program at Norwich University. This article draws on materials in his award-winning book Preparing for Victory: Thomas Holcomb and the Making of the Modern Marine Corps, 1936-1943 (Naval Institute Press, 2011) and in Ways of War: American Military History from the Colonial Era to the Twenty-First Century (2nd ed., Routledge, 2017) co-authored with Matthew S. Muehlbauer.

Image: Wikimedia Commons