The battle fought in Belleau Wood (June 1918) was the first real taste of battle for the US Marines in World War One with General Pershing calling Belleau Wood the most important battle fought by US forces since the US Civil War. The Battle of Belleau Wood was part of the Allied drive east away from an axis from Amiens to Paris in what was a response to the German Spring Offensive in 1918.
During the Spring Offensive, the Germans had come dangerously close to breaking the Allied lines protecting Amiens and Paris. Ludendorff’s force was strengthened by a huge influx of experienced German soldiers who had fought in Russia. However, as a result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1917), Russia had pulled out of World War One and Germany, therefore, could move her soldiers to the Western Front. The German push, ironically, was so successful that those at the front – Stormtroopers who had done so much damage to the Allied front line – could not be supplied and their advance slowed to a halt short of Amiens. Along the line of advance, however, the Germans had constructed heavily defended positions that while in place threatened cities such as the major rail hub at Amiens and Paris itself. One such place was Belleau Wood.
The task of clearing Belleau Wood was given to the 2nd and 3rd Divisions of the US Army. Half of the 2nd Division was made up of units of the US Marines (the 4th Marine Brigade, which comprised of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments).
To get to the woods, the Marines had to cross wheat fields and meadows. The Germans had placed their machine guns in a way that they could continuously sweep these fields with accurate and high intensity fire. The Marines had to launch six attacks on German positions in Belleau Wood that were for the most part difficult to identify in an initial attack because they were so well positioned. The wood itself was also made up of closely packed trees that made any advance difficult in the extreme.
Caught in the open fields or in the densely packed wood, French officers advised the Marines to turn back. This they refused to do. US Marine Captain Lloyd Williams said in response to this, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”
US Marine casualties were the highest in the Corp’s history up to that date. However, once units got into the woods, the trees that hindered a swift advance also became a source of protection. Marine snipers could pick-off German machine gun posts with some ease. Once a machine gun fired, it gave away the position of the machine gun team. General Pershing was to state that “the deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.” Even a post-battle German report stated that the Marines marksmanship was “remarkable”.
By June 26th, the Marines confirmed that they had taken the entire woods. To clear the woods in their entirety, the Marines had frequently resorted to hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets and knives. Such was the ferocity of this that the Germans gave the Marines the nickname “Teufel Hunden”, which roughly translates as “Devil Dogs”.
The success of the US Marines in clearing such a strategically important place came at a cost. Out of the 9,777 US casualties, 1,811 were fatalities. No one is quite sure about German casualties because the end of the battle at Belleau Wood corresponded with a general German withdrawal along the whole front. Over 1,600 German prisoners were taken, so it is assumed that German casualties were high.
In terms of overall casualty figures, the casualties at the Somme and Verdun dwarf the number of deaths at Belleau Wood. However, the psychological damage the defeat had on the German military cannot be underestimated. The Germans were in a very well defended stronghold with a sweep of fire that was to prove deadly. Few in the German military hierarchy would have expected the woods to fall so quickly. Not only was the defeat of the Germans at Belleau Wood a major blow to the Germans it also proved to be a huge morale booster to the Allied forces that were still suffering from the onslaught that was the German Spring Offensive. After the battle, the French renamed Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” – Wood of the Marine Brigade and the 4th Brigade was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French in recognition of their achievement.