The Bengal Club - The Battle of Belleau Wood
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The brief article below was written as research material for a Hollywood director who wanted to make a movie about 'Cowboys in Mexico.' Don't ask me why the first thing he wanted researched for his cowboy movie was the W.W.I Battle of Belleau Wood, but there you go, "It's a Magical Business."


BATTLE OF BELLEAU WOOD

The action at Belleau Wood took place half way through the third of Ludendorff's five 'War Winning' offensives in 1918, and as such may be viewed as the turning point of the whole campaign. In the Somme (#1, 03/21/18) and Lys (#2, 04/09/18) offensives the German troops remained optimistic and aggressive despite their eventual loss of momentum. However, after the Aisne offensive (#3, 05/27/18) things had changed. Neither the Noyon-Montdidier (#4, 06/09/18) or Champagne-Marne (#5,07/15/18) offensives were pressed with the same determination as the preceding three. In addition German intentions were telegraphed by numerous deserters who forewarned the French & Americans of impending attacks. German morale hadn't shattered, but it had been badly cracked. While it may be argued that this demoralization had a cumulative cause it is certain that Belleau Wood was the watershed.

On May 28, 1918 the U.S. Army's 1st, 2nd, & 3rd infantry Divisions moved up towards the 4-kilometer gap opened by the disintegrating French 43rd infantry division. In a series of local operations the 1st Division halted the advance of the German 18th Army. This was an event far more important than perceived at the time because the 1st Division was just a bunch of regular guys, and the 18th Army was composed of eastern front veterans and commanded by General Hutier. Hutier was an innovator who had developed so called 'Hutier Tactics' while fighting the Russians. Unfortunately Hutier didn't have a snappy sounding name and his techniques, later much refined, were renamed 'Blitzkrieg Tactics'.

On May 30 the 3rd Division halted the Germans at Chateau-Thierry, then counterattacked pushing them back over the Marne river.

On June 1 the 2nd Division (and here we finally get to the Marines) relieved the French XXI Corps taking up a position between Vaux and Belleau. The 4th brigade, consisting of the 5th Marines, 6th Marines & 6th Marine MG battalion, was deployed blocking the Paris-Metz Highway. Then, for reasons I can't figure, the 3rd (Army) Brigade was split in half, with its 23rd Regiment on the Marines left and the 9th Regiment on their right. Were the Marines more heavily armed than their army counterparts, less heavily armed? Were the most steady troops placed in the center? Or was deployment just dictated by order of march?

Anyway, at dawn on June 2 the German 28th Division came rolling down the highway straight towards the center of the Marine position, and was stopped dead. German survivors used a variety of adjectives to describe the unpleasant experience of Marine marksmanship. It wasn't really much of a contest, although it seemed a close run thing back at US headquarters because French aviators kept reporting that they saw "American troops falling back". The Germans gave it another go on June 4-5, then took up a defensive posture themselves. The key to their position was northeast of the highway, Belleau Wood.

The 1st bat. 5th Marines began the attack on the morning of June 6 by moving against hill 142, which provided the Germans with enfilading fire against troops approaching the wood from the west. The marines were hampered by the flat terrain they had to cross, the well aimed & massive enemy machine gun fire, and the fact that the attack was being coordinated by the local French headquarters.

General Jean Degoutte had been unable to provide any but the most general maps. His intelligence staff had evaluated the enemy positions as "Occupe de force reduite" (Lightly
held). And his staff seemed to have misplaced the French regiment selected to join in the attack, so the marines had to go it alone. To add insult to injury Degoutte recommended that the Americans attack in four waves, taking care to keep their ranks well dressed. These 'counter productive' tactics were no longer used by the French army, not because its officers didn't have faith in them, but because the enlisted men refused to follow them. The hill was taken by noon, but not without high casualties. Some companies lost 50%, with officer casualties reaching 90%.

After their brilliant success at hill 142, remember this is World War I, the marines began the attack on the actual wood. The 2nd Bat. 5th Marines and the 2nd & 3rd Bat. 6th Marines advanced, in four neat waves, towards the tree line. Waiting for them in the forest gloom were two battalions of the 461st Imperial Infantry.

At this point it might be a good idea to reflect on the nature of the geographical feature known as Belleau Wood. Descriptions differ, but they all stress that the wood was a random collection of; rocks, trees, big rocks, lots of unpleasant underbrush, and even bigger rocks. It was also dim, sometimes dark, even in daytime. This means that it was not the bright, open, birds-singing, flowers-blooming, sort of woodland suburbanites conjure up when thinking about a wood. It was a nasty, cluttered, wild place. Also, Belleau Wood hadn't been on the front line long enough to have been changed by constant shelling. (By 1918 most veterans of the western front thought of a forest/wood as a muddy patch with blackened tree stumps, as opposed to an open field which was a muddy patch with no blackened tree stumps.)

As the action developed the Germans committed two more 'reserve' battalions (I don't know whether these were regulars brought up from reserve, or battalions composed of reservists),
then unleashed terrifyingly accurate artillery support. The 5th Marine attack stalled on the left flank in front of the wood. Trapped in the wheat fields the marines desperately sought the smallest gully or ditch for cover. In the center the 3rd Bat. 6th Marines made it to the tree line, but that was about all. However, on the right the 2nd Bat. 6th Marines punched through and seized the town of Bouresches just to the rear of the Belleau Wood position. They then turned north into the wood, and started to roll up the German line.

The marines lacked the equipment deemed 'necessary' for close quarters fighting (trench mortars, etc.) and made do with just Springfields, bayonets, Chauchat automatic rifles, and
Hotchkiss machine guns. They were even short on hand grenades. Despite these disadvantages they had seized two thirds of the wood by dusk. The position was consolidated on June 7, with the marines digging a series of shallow rifle pits because there wasn't enough time for full trenches. Someone ridiculed the size and depth of these positions by calling them 'foxholes' and the name entered the American vocabulary.

The Germans tried a local counterattack on June 8, but the marines were back on the offensive June 9. By nightfall on June 12 marines had reached the northern tip of the wood. Now
they turned to move east. On June 13 the German High Command decided to quit subtlety, and saturated the entire position with mustard gas. Then they started jamming most of their IV
Army Corps into the meat grinder. By this point many of the marine battalions were down to one-third strength and the brigade was pulled out for a rest on June 16. They were replaced by the US 7th infantry which, after repeated IV Corps attacks, ceased to be a functioning combat unit and had to be replace with the only available substitute - the depleted Marine Brigade. By June 23 the marines were back on the attack, and on June 26, 1918 it was announced, "Woods now USMarine Corps entirely."

When it was all over the US had suffered 4,000 casualties, or 55% of all troops engaged (both Army & Marines). The Germans had lost 9,500 men with more than 1,600 prisoners, and coined a new term 'Devil Dogs' to describe the much feared marines. As I've mentioned above Ludendorff had two more offensives up his sleeve, but he'd lost his momentum. For the German army it was all downhill from here.

PERSONALITIES

Of all the individuals involved at Belleau Wood General Jean Degoutte is perhaps the most easily dealt with. The action for which he is most remembered was probably his best of
the whole campaign. After it was all over and the dust had settled it was he who announced, "Henceforth in all official papers, Belleau Wood shall bear the name 'Bois de la Brigade de
Marine.'"

While not directly involved at Belleau Wood, Field Marshal Foch is responsible for the most famous, and often repeated, remark made about US troops before that action. After
glumly reviewing depressing situation maps, or reading unsettling dispatches on repeated German advances he would turn to his subordinates and say, "Where are the Americans... And what are they doing?"

The most famous marine quote of the battle was officially attributed to the Colonel of the 5th Marines, Wendell "Whispering Buck" Neville (seems that "WB" had a voice that was a tad loud & some of his men conjectured that could communicate with GHQ without the use of a field telephone). Anyway, shortly before the battle Col. Neville met with the general of the shattered French 43rd Division. The general admitted that he didn't know where most of his men were, but suggested that the Americans attack east towards Belleau Wood. His staff looked embarrassed, coughed, shuffled their feet, then recommended that it might be wiser if the Americans just joined in the retreat. Neville is supposed to have glowered at them and roared, "Retreat, hell. We just got here."

The remark became very popular and was eventually claimed by around a dozen other individuals. Interestingly enough Col. Neville credited it to Captain Lloyd Williams (no nickname) commanding the 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. Williams' unit was moving east when a note arrived from a major in the 49th Chasseurs a Pied. It read, "Retreat, the Germans are coming." Williams looked at the note then uttered the famous line.

Not to be outdone Major Thomas Holcomb, commanding 2nd Battalion 6th Marines, also made a contribution to the legend of the Corps. Seems that while his men were trouncing the German's June 2 attack on the Paris-Metz Highway French aviators kept reporting that they saw "the American line falling back". Eventually this 'information' reached the commander of the Marine Brigade, General James G. Harbord who was quite naturally concerned. However, Harbord was an army brigadier who had only recently been put in charge of the marines. Not wanting to cause friction he delayed and delayed, hoping to hear better news. Eventually he telephoned Holcomb to ask about the rumor. Holcomb replied flatly, "When I do my running, it will be in the opposite direction."

General Harbord seems to have been a well-meaning guy. Originally Pershing's Chief of Staff he was much concerned about 'his' marines. Early in the battle, alarmed by the high casualties amongst officers, he officially ordered junior officers to take better care of themselves.

During the unsuccessful attack on the west edge of the wood Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Daly, who had served at Peking and Hati, encouraged his pinned platoon forward with the words,
"Come on, you sons of bitches. Do you want to live forever?" This is strangely ironic for a sergeant fighting the Germans, because it's also a famous Prussian military quote. Frederick
the Great often encouraged his grenadiers into one last bayonet charge with the words, "Come on, you rascals. Do you want to live forever?" I guess Sergeant Daly changed it to make it more meaningful for a marine audience.

The marine's atypical behavior frequently saved them in dangerous situations. While his battalion was assaulting Hill 142 Sergeant Charles Hoffman noticed five Germans crawling
forward to set up machine guns in enfilade on the flank. Not knowing what else to do, he charged them with the bayonet. The Germans didn't have any bayonets of their own, and couldn't get the machine guns set up in time. Hoffman killed two of them and the other three ran away, leaving all their equipment behind.

The capture of Bouresches, the key event in the battle, was never actually part of the official plan. It was after all behind the woods, which were the main target. But it seemed like a good idea to Captain Donald F. Duncan when he saw the rest of his battalion pinned down at the wood's edge. Duncan was killed in the assault, but his successor, Lieutenant James F. Robertson, led the surviving 50% of the company into the town. When he left for reinforcements his successor Lieutenant Clifton B. Cates (a Tennessee law graduate) realized that the town was being defended by only 21 marines.

The Germans sealed off the town with an artillery barrage. But while Cates desperately hung on Sergeant Major John H. Quick, winner of the Medal of Honor in Cuba, drove a Ford truck
back and forth through the rain of shells bringing up cases of badly needed hand grenades.

By June 23 German morale was crumbling, although the marines didn't quite realize it. Corporal Joseph Rendell, a replacement who didn't participate in the earlier fighting, said, "We got around the woods pretty fast. The Germans were almost too willing to surrender." It was during this final assault that a marine runner, Private Leonard, got lost and fell into a German machine gun pit. Trying to bluff his way out of trouble he described the, "several regiments of reinforcements that are preparing to sweep Belleau Wood and you Germans off the map." A nervous German NCO asked him, "Will you take us as prisoners, then?" Leonard gratefully obliged.

To my mind the most interesting character at Belleau Wood was war correspondent Floyd Gibbons. Previous to the battle Gibbons had filed a skeleton report with the Paris censor in
which he mentioned that he was with the Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood. It was strictly against regulations to mention unit names or numbers, but maybe he thought he was being general enough. Later he advanced with the 5th Battalion and was, like the marines, pinned down in the wheat field. It was he who first quoted Sergeant Daly. Accounts of his severe eye wound became garbled and by the time the news reached Paris he was reported dead in action. The Paris censor, a close buddy of Gibbons', published his 'last' report immediately as a tribute to his supposedly dead friend. The US papers picked up on the story and splashed it all over the headlines suggesting that the evil Hun was being beaten with, "the Help of God and a Few Marines." The American public was jubilant, the US Navy was amused, the US Army was furious at having been outflanked on the PR front, and Pershing would never forgive or forget. When he received a second brigade of marines and it was suggested that the two brigades might be formed into their own division Pershing immediately wrote to the US Secretary of War stating, "While Marines are splendid troops, their use as a separate division is inadvisable."

ANALYSIS

Why did we beat the pants off them? Basically, because we were better than they were, but what does that mean. First of all the marines had a real chip on their shoulder because, well
because they were a few marines adrift in a sea of US Army units. They knew they were better than 'ordinary' infantry and by God they were going to prove it.

If the Marine Brigade was more aggressive than the US Army in general, all American troops were more aggressive than their European counterparts, who had lost their edge over the four grueling years of trench warfare since 1914. The German infantryman was described as "well disciplined, but quietly bitter." Also the creation of independent Stormtrooper Battalions further weakened the fighting ability of average German infantry units. The High Command was constantly sifting out the best men to use as 'Stosstruppen' replacements.

American infantry had a considerable edge over their opponents with respect to basic training. The average German recruit got six weeks training, and then it was off to the hell of trench warfare. US recruits received six months training. The Germans, as well as the British and French, concentrated on trench warfare; digging, filling sandbags, shoring up redoubts, stringing barbed wire, keeping your head down, etc. Marksmanship was viewed as largely superfluous. Take the British army as an example. In 1914 a divisional champion might make 35 aimed shots per minute. In 1916 it was down to 12. By 1918 a 'crack' marksman was doing well to squeeze off 10 aimed shots per minute, whereas an 'average' American trooper shot somewhere around 20 per minute.

Pershing's theory of infantry training was radically different from that of the Europeans. He felt that since the object of every 'Big Push' was to break through the enemy line, into the open country beyond, that his men should know how to fight across open country. Consequently all US troops were trained in; aimed fire, all around security, rapid maneuver, and the bypassing of strong points. In other words, Stormtrooper training. The average German just wasn't as good at fighting in a 'trenchless' environment. At one point, after Belleau Wood, a marine runner looked over a German unit deployed in open terrain (i.e. not a formal trench line) and commented, "This looks easy - they do not seem to have much art."

Marines had an added advantage over their army brethren, although GHQ didn't originally see it as such. All of their previous combat experience had been in small unit actions in 'trenchless' environments. British observers described it as 'Red Indian style fighting'. The terrain at Belleau Wood was perfect for this kind of combat. When Ludendorff commented that the Marine Brigade "may even be reckoned as a storm troop" he was not paying a compliment. It was simply an accurate description. Think back on any paintings you've seen about Belleau Wood. The heroically posed marines are all either blasting away with their Springfields, or rushing forward with fixed bayonets. On the other hand the German defenders are; dying, surrendering, or frequently staring intently in the wrong direction - their position having been neatly outflanked.

With regard to firepower, once again, US units had an advantage over the Germans. German infantry divisions had 54 heavy machine guns, the Americans had 168. German divisions
had 144 light machine guns (or automatic rifles), the Americans had 768. Americans liked the Browning automatic rifle, really liked the Lewis gun, but because of supply shortages frequently had to make do with the inferior French Chauterlaut.

Finally, there's the matter of unit size. It wasn't just because US troops were enthusiastic that British and French generals wanted Americans to lead their attacks. US divisions were just plain bigger than those of the Europeans. (The British tended to refer to American units as "husky".) There were two reasons for this. First European divisions were 'triangular', three regiments/brigades each. American divisions were 'square', they had four regiments. Secondly, US units went into combat at full strength, sometimes over strength. German divisions averaged 12,000 men, American divisions weighed in at 28,000. The French were so impressed by the sheer size of US units that they officially treated American brigade commanders like division commanders. This is understandable when one realizes that a US brigade never sank below 7,500 strong while a 1918 French division averaged around 3,500 men.

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The Bengal Club - The Battle of Belleau Wood