Battle of Belleau Wood at 100

June 6, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of one of the first American offensives—the Battle of Belleau Wood, a pivotal event in World War I and an iconic battle in U.S. Marine Corps history. The Imperial German Army had the initiative on the Western Front in  the first half of 1918, and was determined to defeat the Allies before American forces could effectively intervene. But the momentum attained by the German Army wouldn’t last. The sheer mass of arriving American reinforcements, along with effective planning by Allied leadership and that of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF),  seemed likely to tip the scales in the Allies’ favor by the summer of 1918.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917 the U.S. Army was woefully unprepared. The Germans knew this, and believed they could win the war before American units were ready for combat. Defeating Russia in 1917, the Germans shifted vast forces to the Western Front for a series of offensives in the spring of 1918. The first two of these struck the British along the Somme region in France and in Belgium. The third offensive broke through on a broad front between Soissons and Rheims, crossing the Aisne and Vesle Rivers. German forces raced towards the Marne River with their sights set on Paris, which lay about 60 miles to the west. Should the Germans capture the City of Light, there was no telling how the war might end.

As this crisis struck, a handful of U.S. divisions were ready for combat. Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, hastily dispatched the U.S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions to reinforce the French Sixth Army in the Aisne-Marne region, desperately contesting the forward edge of the German advance. The 3rd arrived just in time to assist in blocking a crossing of the Marne River at Chateau-Thierry. The 2nd, which included one Army brigade and one brigade of Marines, blocked the main road to Paris in the vicinity of Lucy-le-Bocage. Despite  growing Allied resistance , the Germans were not easily deterred. They continued  probing the front line, determined to find a weak point they could exploit.

In response the 2nd spread out along their front, putting the Marine brigade opposite Belleau Wood, a dense mile and a half long forest. A withdrawing officer from a French unit recommended that the Marines withdraw as well. To this Capt. Lloyd Williams famously replied, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!” The Marines dug in where they were, and prepared for the inevitable German attack.

The Germans hammered the American positions with artillery, mortars, machine guns and poison gas. On the afternoon of June 3, they swarmed out of the woods to launch a major attack into the positions held by the Marines. The Marines and supporting Army units held their fire until the Germans were within a hundred yards, then swept them away with well-aimed rifle marksmanship. For two days the Germans repeatedly attacked all along the front, and were repulsed  with heavy losses.

On June 6 the Marine brigade, under the command of Army Brig. Gen. James Harbord and supported by 2nd Division artillery units, went over to the offensive. They penetrated into Belleau Wood, suffering substantial casualties. The fighting for Belleau Wood eddied and swirled over the next two weeks, with both sides pouring in replacements and reinforcements, attacking or counter-attacking, momentarily pausing, and attacking or counter-attacking again. Units bypassed each other in the broken terrain, creating further confusion as they emerged in each other’s rear. Brutal close quarters fighting became the norm, amidst terrain pock-marked with shell fragments and mustard gas.

The carnage in Belleau Wood became a brutal test of wills. The Germans were committed to embarrass this fledgling American effort, discouraging Allied hope for eventual victory. The Americans were even more determined to prove themselves. By June 15 the Marine brigade controlled the southern half of the woods. Soldiers from the 3rd temporarily replaced the Marines, who pulled out to rest and refurbish.

The Marines infiltrated back into Belleau Wood between June 22 and 24, refreshed and ready to end the battle. Following an intense Army-led artillery barrage, they attacked on June 25. Stunned and exhausted, German resistance collapsed. Over 500 surrendered as the well-rehearsed Marine attack ground on through the woods. German counterattacks were bloodily repulsed. On June 26 a Marine battalion commander tersely reported “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”

The Battle of Belleau Wood marked the debut of the U.S. Marine Corps as a modern, ground-combat force capable of sustained combat. The striking performance of U.S. forces in Belleau Wood proved as heartening to the Allies as it did discouraging to the Germans.

Recommended Reading

American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: A History, Guide and Reference Book (Washington DC: American Battle Monuments Commission, Government Printing Office, 1938)

Coffman, Edward M., The War to End all Wars: The American Military Experience in World War I (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998)

Eisenhower, John S. D. Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I (New York, Free Press, 2001)