WWI Centennial: Americans Victorious at Belleau Wood
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 311th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
JUNE 6-JULY 1, 1918: AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT BELLEAU WOOD
“I am writing this—I have force to write this—because I am full of brandy. I am crying hard inside. It is more terrible than any one has written or told.” So began a letter dated June 12, 1918, from Elmer Harden, an American soldier volunteering with the French Army, to his mother. “The battle is still raging on a front of many miles. We are progressing foot by foot," He continued. "It is awful and I’m strangled by the affection in me for my poor comrades—for all the world. It is too awful. Tonight—tomorrow? How can anyone live in this hell?"
Harden’s wrenching letter echoed the feelings of tens of thousands of American soldiers experiencing their baptism of fire in the dramatic days of mid-June 1918. German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff had unleashed his fourth great offensive, Operation Gneisenau, and U.S. Marines and U.S. Army divisions—“devil dogs” and “doughboys”—fought to drive the Germans back from the Marne River in the Battle of Belleau Wood, from June 6-July 1, 1918. By late June the small forest was in Allied hands, and the Americans had proved their fighting mettle to the world (above, an illustration from Collier’s depicting U.S. Marines fighting at Belleau Wood).
Operation Gneisenau (named for August von Gneisenau, a famous Prussian field marshal) was Ludendorff’s attempt to restore the momentum of his stalled third offensive, Blücher-Yorck, also known as the Third Battle of the Aisne. The movement had conquered a large amount of territory between Reims and Soissons, northeast of Paris, but failed to achieve its main goal of forcing the Allies to draw reinforcements from their reserves north of the Somme, in preparation for a renewed German attack on British forces there.
The twin salients created by the tactical successes of Operation Michael in March 1918 and Blücher-Yorck in May held out the alluring possibility of a pincer movement on Paris by the German Seventh and Eighteenth Armies. At the same time, they were an enormous extension of the length of the German lines, threatening to overtax dwindling German manpower. Thus it was imperative to conquer the counter-salient held by the Allies in between, in order to shorten the German lines, seize control of the rail hub of Compiègne—key to sustaining the German supply system in the recently conquered areas—and maybe even set the stage for an advance on Paris.
In the first phase of Gneisenau the German Eighteenth Army would attempt to shatter the right flank of the French Third Army to prepare for a second phase, Hammerschlag (Hammer Blow), against the French Tenth Army, planned for two days later. Together, Ludendorff hoped the two phases would breach the French line, isolating the French First and Third Armies south of the Somme and capturing Compiègne; as in the previous offensive, he also hoped the threat of a breakthrough here would force the French to draw reinforcements from their reserve force behind the British armies in Flanders. At this point he could turn his attention to Paris or return to his original plan of smashing the British, now largely cut off from their French allies.
Gneisenau began at 12:50 a.m. on June 9, 1918, with another massive barrage by 2,276 guns firing 1.4 million shells in the first day alone, about a third of them containing various types of poison gas. Once again, the Germans made successful use of the pioneering Pulkowski method advocated by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller—a new mathematical technique that targeted artillery without the need to first “register” them to get the range (essentially practice shots which gave away the element of surprise).
However, this time around the German opening bombardment wasn’t as effective as previous ones, because surprise was now impossible. It was obvious to the Allies where the German blow would fall, and after the bitter experience of the first three German offensives, Allied commander-in-chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch made sure that all the generals under his command obeyed his order to pull most of their troops back from the frontline trenches, holding them in reserve or withdrawing even further in order to stage counterattacks later, in line with the new doctrine of “defense in depth.”
The German infantry went over the top at 4:20 a.m., led as usual by battalions of stormtroopers employing infiltration techniques to break up the enemy’s defenses—but this time the Germans found the French already falling back and regrouping beyond the range of the German heavy artillery. By the late afternoon of the first day, the Germans had advanced up to 6.5 miles in places, a substantial gain by the standards of trench warfare but less than in Operation Michael or Blücher-Yorck; they had also taken only 5000 prisoners, much fewer than the first day’s bag on previous occasions.
The offensive continued to lose momentum on the second day, June 10, as some artillery was transferred from the German Eighteenth Army to the Seventh Army for the Hammerschlag attack, and French divisions began to arrive from other parts of the Western Front. But, crucially, none of these reinforcements came from the French reserve forces behind the BEF, as Foch judged (correctly) that he didn’t need to weaken the front’s northern sector in order to fend off the Germans in the middle. As a result, Allied defenses remained strong in the north, and Foch retained a large reserve force that he could employ in a swift counterattack following future German offensives.
The situation was still serious for the Allies on June 10, as the French 53rd Division disintegrated under German pressure, making it impossible to stage a planned counterattack. But the next day the French began to push back, as Foch authorized the newly appointed Tenth Army commander general Charles Mangin (nicknamed “The Butcher” for his alleged disregard for casualties during Verdun and the Nivelle Offensive) to mount a counterattack against the western flank of the German offensive, about 10 miles northwest of Compiègne. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, took part in the audacious French assault on German positions near the village of Courcelles-Epayelles on June 11, 1918:
“The enemy has seen our movements and is firing for all he is worth. The whole plain is showered with 105s and 150s. We can clearly distinguish three successive barrages … We think we must be dreaming. Is it possible that they have ordered the division to attack under such conditions? On we go, however, stopping occasionally to check on the men and to inspect the horizon … We are in the thick of the barrage, clods of earth are flying in all directions, fire and smoke swirl around us, we hasten to cross this wall. Swear words ring out everywhere, men stop, killed or wounded, but there is no stopping, we go on and on, we have to get through at any cost.”
As the battle unfolded, Desegneaux noted another example of an all-too-common tragedy of the First World War, as French wounded were left to die by comrades pulled away by the tide of battle:
“We move off again. We have difficulty in advancing through these huge cornfields, and from now on we do nothing but stumble across the wounded. They are abandoned here, amid the tall blades of corn, helpless. Those who can walk, flee towards the rear; those wounded in the leg, the stomach, or even more seriously patch themselves up while waiting for help. Help; when will it come? The regiment has moved on, will they find them in these huge fields, lying among the tall corn? How many are going to end up dying through lack of attention and will rot where they fell!”
Desegneaux also witnessed the arrival of French tanks, which occasionally made impressive advances but still suffered from the same shortcomings as their British counterparts. He watched in awe as French planes were outgunned by the Germans, who had once again achieved temporary air superiority in this sector:
“Suddenly, a shout: the tanks! They are big Saint-Chamonds, monstrous masses of iron, rumbling up the road in broad daylight. What a sight! The Boches concentrate all their guns upon them; it’s a deluge of fire. Some are destroyed on the spot, some are set on fire, some stagger along, trying to reach the plain, only to be blown up further on, others succeed in crossing the lines only to be brought to a crushing halt 100 meters later. In a quarter of an hour, it’s all over; this day will have cost us 37 out of the 40 tanks which were escorting the division. As soon as our tanks are no more, our attention turns to the sky, a swarm of German planes are attacking ours, about 10 in number. It’s a massacre. The guns chatter; our planes are outnumbered 10 to one. Five of ours are shot down immediately. We forget everything happening up front. With a lump in our throats, we watch these planes come crashing down in flames to the ground.”
Mangin’s counterattack was ultimately halted by enemy resistance, but it did force German Eighteenth Army commander general Oskar von Hutier to transfer two army corps to the army’s right flank in order to hold off the French, foreclosing any possibility of continuing its main effort further east. On June 12, Desegneaux was on the scene at Courcelles:
“I am at the northern edge of the village, the road is littered with bodies. It’s unbelievable. There’s a blown-up tank which is lying across and blocking the road. Inside are two burnt corpses, black, unrecognizable. Further on, bunches of men, legs twisted and mangled, or with gaping holes in their bodies, their eyeballs dangling out of their sockets, half their jaws missing, with terror written all over them. We can’t take them away, they are too numerous … All we can do is cover them with lime and then with a sheet or a blanket. We pick them up in mounds; but there are still more and more of them … Further on, I fall into a pool of coagulated blood, it stinks. There’s a dug-out beside it which has served as a first-aid post. The bodies are piled there in heaps, it’s awful—we are forced to move on.”
By June 12, Operation Gneisenau was stalled, just as it was supposed to be converging with the other arm of the pincer movement, Operation Hammerschlag, the westward attack by the German Seventh Army from the area near Soissons in the southern salient. In fact, Hammerschlag fared even worse: Once again, the French withdrew most of their forces before the German offensive began in the early morning of June 12, and Foch, no longer facing the threat of a real pincer movement, was free to transfer reinforcements to the French Tenth Army. Meanwhile, the French Third Army continued to counterattack the German Eighteenth Army further north, disrupting the planned advance and spelling the end of Gneisenau. By June 13, Ludendorff decided to call off both attacks. Germany’s fourth desperate bid for victory had failed.
For the first time on the Western Front, U.S. troops played a key role in the overall Allied strategy to halt the German onslaught, with a hard-fought victory against enemy troops on the southern flank of the German Seventh Army at Belleau Wood. Although this was just one action among many in the Allied defensive strategy, by stopping the Germans and then driving them out of Belleau Wood, the U.S. Marines threatened the enemy’s position on the Marne and raised the prospect of further attacks against the Seventh Army’s southern flank. The battle continued long after Ludendorff called off Gneisenau, with the last Germans expelled from the small forest by July 1, 1918.
The American attacks were led by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division, which included 9500 Marines in the 4th Marine Brigade. They faced heavily entrenched German troops armed with machine guns in the woods, the village of Bouresches, as well as on a small rise (Hill 142) to the west. On taking over the defense of the area in early June, one Marine officer, Captain Lloyd Williams, famously disregarded French advice to retreat, exclaiming, “Retreat, hell, we just got here!”
After establishing a defensive line south of the woods, the Americans shifted to the offensive on June 6, 1918, employing “open warfare” tactics in the form of massed rushes against German positions—exactly the sort of tactics the European combatants had abandoned following the bitter experience of trench warfare. However, the fresh American troops, eager to demonstrate their courage, disregarded very heavy casualties as they mounted attack after attack, eventually engaging the tired and demoralized troops in fierce close quarters combat with rifles, pistols, and bayonets, turning the woods into a slaughterhouse (below, U.S. Marines in a shell hole in Belleau Wood in April 1919). Before one particularly bloody attack, gunnery sergeant Dan Daley encouraged his Marines with the rhetorical question: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches, do you want to live forever?”
Despite major losses, by June 11 the Marines had reclaimed most of Belleau Wood. But the Germans clung tenaciously to the northern edge of the forest for several more weeks, resulting in nightmarish, chaotic combat characterized by hand-to-hand fighting, grenade duels, and bayonet rushes between shell holes and shattered tree trunks. Finally, the arrival of French field artillery helped dislodge most of the last German defenders from the woods by June 26, and the Marines completed mopping up and straightening the new defensive line by July 1. The battle had cost the lives of 1000 Marines plus another 4000 wounded—meaning more than half of the force fell in battle.
Belleau Wood was a milestone for the U.S. in the First World War, demonstrating America’s fighting mettle and earning it the respect of its French and British allies, who now understood that the great republic across the ocean intended to play a decisive role in the war. It was equally dispiriting for the Germans, as ordinary soldiers began to suspect that official propaganda—portraying Americans as an undisciplined, polyglot rabble—was far off the mark. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, transcribed a letter taken from the body of a dead German soldier at Belleau Wood, dated June 21, 1918. It gave a sense of the terrible privations, including hunger, experienced by German soldiers:
“About 400 of us are lying around here. We have one corner of the woods and the American has the other corner. This is not nice, for all of a sudden he rushes forward and one does not know it beforehand … Here one lies day and night without a blanket, only with a coat and a shelter-half. One freezes at night like a tailor, for the nights are fiercely cold. I hope that I will be lucky enough to escape from this horrible mess, for up to now I have always been lucky. The enemy sweeps every evening the whole countryside with machine guns and rifle fire, and then artillery fire … At present our food is miserable. We are now fed upon dried vegetables and marmalade and when at night we obtain more food it is unpalatable. It is half sour and all cold. In the daytime we receive nothing.”
Gibbons also transcribed a captured German intelligence report, based on interviews with captured American soldiers:
“The majority of the prisoners took as a matter of course that they have come to Europe to defend their country. Only a few of the troops are of pure American [Anglo-Saxon] origin; the majority is of German, Dutch, and Italian parentage, but these semi-Americans, almost all of whom were born in America and never have been in Europe before, fully feel themselves to be true born sons of their country.”
The nickname “devil dogs” (in German, teufelshunde or Höllenhunde, “hell hounds”) was supposedly bestowed on the Marines by German soldiers in recognition of their ferocity and zeal in this and earlier battles; the term is first mentioned in American newspapers April 1918, but some historians consider the alleged German origins apocryphal. The French government renamed Belleau Wood “the Marine Brigade Wood” in honor of its liberators, and today a fountain with a statue of a “devil dog” commemorates the battle (below).
As always, American soldiers enjoyed engaging in the long-standing rivalry between the Army and Marine branches, and veterans were quick to remind newcomers of their “newbie” status. Vernon Kniptash, a soldier from Indiana with the 42nd Division, also known as the Rainbow Division because it included troops from dozens of states, noted in his diary on June 20, 1918:
“The 77th Div., the first draft division to reach France, is going to relieve us. They hail from little old New York and that’s all they talk about … They landed here in April and from the way they blow about themselves it would lead us to believe that they’ve been over here ever since the war started. The Rainbow boys told ‘em a few things to help ‘em out but they knew it all, didn’t need any pointers, said they could take care of the Bosche alright. Last night a long column of them, four regiments, passed our station on the way up to the trenches for the first time. They tried to kid us but didn’t have much luck. They yelled, “Fall in line and fight for your Uncle.” I called back, “You fellows ought to have come over when the soldiers did,” and they shut up like a clam. They went up singing but it’s an easy matter to sing on the first time up.”
American soldiers also faced the same trying conditions that their European counterparts had suffered over the previous four years. In June 1918 Robert J. Patterson, an American officer, noted the discomfort of ordinary American soldiers aboard French troop trains, which were in fact just repurposed open-air cars for transporting horses (below, members of the U.S. Army Air Force’s 147th Aero Squadron in Toul, France, in May-June 1918):
“The crowding of the soldiers into the cars beats anything I had ever seen. Each freight car was supposed to hold 40 men, which was fitting them in very tight; but in fact most cars held 50. None could lie down, and many could not even sit down on the floor. The choice places were in the doors, where men could sit and hang their legs out. The officers were fairly comfortable in compartments on ordinary French passenger cars. We were on the train three days."
Most American soldiers were still ignorant of the rules of trench warfare, and in many cases had received minimal training before being rushed into service. One sergeant with the 42nd Division—supposedly one of the better-prepared units in the U.S. Army—remembered encountering a shocking lack of preparation in some companies:
“While giving a short talk on the necessity of strict obedience, I was floored by one of the boys, who spoke for his four or five companies, that, although they were anxious and eager to do exactly what I said, if they didn’t, it would be because they didn’t understand, as their service and training was of the most meager. They had fired a service rifle about ten times, that is, about ten rounds. They had never fired a live hand grenade … They didn’t know what a rifle grenade looked like, and, to make it complete, had never had bayonet instruction.”
And still more were coming, with 278,664 American troops embarked for Europe in June, and another 308,350 in July, most of them aboard British or American ships escorted by the Royal Navy. As always, the sea journey presented its own miseries. Emmet Britton, an American officer, described the common woe of seasickness in a letter home dated July 1, 1918:
“The air was foul and 95 of the men were sick, and quite often we shipped a sea through the open hatchway, so there was about 6 inches of water all over. It seemed like one of Gustave Dore’s pictures of the Inferno with a flickering half-light showing the tossing, writing figures of close-packed men, suffering bodily discomforts and mental unrest. For none of them were allowed to remove a single garment, though it was stifling hot and the slept with their life-preservers on.”
It was probably little comfort to ordinary people, but conditions were even worse on the other side, as the food shortages resulting from the Allied blockade and wartime disruptions reached crisis proportions. German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers and civilians faced starvation, provoking widespread food strikes in big cities and talk of revolution. Evelyn, Princess Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in the German countryside, confided in her diary in June 1918, “The food question is always the most important topic of the day. The less there is of it, the more do we talk of it … We ourselves have little to eat but smoked meat and dried peas and beans, but in the towns they are considerably worse off.” And Clifford Markle, an American medical officer held captive in Germany, recorded one heartbreaking encounter at the government-run restaurant where he worked in July 1918:
“Food conditions were extremely critical at this time. One example of the scarcity of food may be obtained from the following incident. A young girl, 14 years old, whose sister was a waitress in the restaurant, came into the kitchen weeping bitterly. Her sister asked her why she was crying. The little girl told her that she had had nothing to eat for three days, as she had been ill and so could not work in the dynamite factory, where she was employed, and therefore had no money to buy food tickets. If one didn’t work, one didn’t eat in Germany. The German woman who was cooking in the kitchen at the time heard the girl’s pitiful story, and told her to sit down at the table. The cook then gave her bread, potatoes, and bean soup … Of course, the rest of us had a little less to eat that night, but we did not mind, for the little girl needed it so much more than we did.”