Belleau Wood, 6 – 26 June 1918.
Early in June of 1918, the 2nd U.S. Division was rushed into the line to plug a gap that the Germans had cut in the French lines. The Marine Brigade’s assignment was to “Hold the line at all hazards.” The German attack was eventually stopped and both sides consolidated their positions. The Germans facing the Marines were dug into defensive positions in a place called Bois de Belleau, or Belleau Wood. As Marines moved to the front, retreating French soldiers encouraged them to “fall back… retreat…” telling them that advancement was impossible. In classic Marine fashion Capt Lloyd Williams reportedly answered, “Retreat hell, we just got here!”
Poor battlefield intelligence and a lack of patrolling led the Marines to believe that the Germans did not occupy Belleau Wood. The Marines took up positions along the Paris-Metz road, the Germans’ fortified positions in Belleau Wood, and attacked on 6 June. They ran headlong into a regiment of German infantry with an interlocking network of machinegun nests and artillery support. For twenty days, the Marines fought the Germans before securing the woods. It was some of the fiercest fighting in Corps’ history and involved a great deal of hand-to-hand combat. It was not until 0700 on 26 June 1918 that a Marine rifle company reached the north edge of the woods.
Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly led one of the charges across the wheat fields. To inspire his Marines, he was heard to say, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?” By evening, the Marines destroyed the German defensive line and pushed the Germans out of Bouresches. For five days the Marines pushed forward until 12 June when the last German defensive line was broken. The woods, except for a small corner, were controlled by the Marines. On 13 June, the Germans counterattacked, only to be repelled as Marine sharpshooters dropped the German attackers at 400 yards. In massive assaults, the Germans kept coming behind a wall of mustard gas. The Germans met death and failure against the Marines.
During the battle a Marine took a diary from a dead German soldier and while reading it, chanced upon some of the soldier’s last written words that stated his unit had found a nickname suitable for the gallant Marines–they called them “Teufelhunden” which means “Devil dogs”. The German high command classified the Marines as “Shock Troops,” a classification reserved only for the finest military organizations.
Casualties were extremely high. In less than three weeks of fighting, the Marine Brigade had taken over 50 percent casualties; 126 officers and 5,057 enlisted men were killed or wounded.
The French were extremely impressed with the U.S. Marines and their tenacious spirit. The French Parliament declared the Fourth of July to be a national holiday in honor of the Americans fighting in France. The French gave the Marines a citation for gallantry at Belleau Wood, the Croix de Guerre, and ordered that the Bois de Belleau be renamed the “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”