The Marines who won a decisive battle in France that led to victory in World War I 100 years ago

Patrick O'Donald:
This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, which changed the course of World War I and gained the U.S. Marines their honored reputation. With a few exceptions, major media outlets have neglected this centennial.

By contrast, the 74th anniversary of D-Day, falling during the same time period, was covered by broadcast, print, and online outlets across the country. It’s more than appropriate that we give the D-Day troops their due, but it’s a shame that the Doughboys who fought in the Great War have not been similarly remembered. They were part of one of the most heroic, innovative, and self-sacrificing generations of Americans. Their struggles and triumphs reshaped the world as we know it. To this day the consequences of World War I are still costing Americans their lives, and the efforts of the Doughboys at the Battle of Belleau Wood are emblematic of the war as a whole.

The Doughboys at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France exemplified American valor and established the brilliant reputation of the U.S. Marine Corps.
This summer marks the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood, which changed the course of World War I and gained the U.S. Marines their honored reputation. With a few exceptions, major media outlets have neglected this centennial.

By contrast, the 74th anniversary of D-Day, falling during the same time period, was covered by broadcast, print, and online outlets across the country. It’s more than appropriate that we give the D-Day troops their due, but it’s a shame that the Doughboys who fought in the Great War have not been similarly remembered. They were part of one of the most heroic, innovative, and self-sacrificing generations of Americans. Their struggles and triumphs reshaped the world as we know it. To this day the consequences of World War I are still costing Americans their lives, and the efforts of the Doughboys at the Battle of Belleau Wood are emblematic of the war as a whole.

In the spring of 1918, the United States was still sending troops to Europe and organizing them into the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF). Germany, then led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, saw a narrow window of opportunity to annihilate the Allies before the U.S. could fully deploy. Following the revolution, Russia ceded the Eastern Front, leaving the Germans free to concentrate nearly all their military might on the Western Front.

They launched a series of blistering offensives in France, rolling through one town after another as they drew ever closer to their ultimate goal: Paris. By June 1, they had advanced all the way to Belleau Wood, a kidney-shaped hunting preserve that occupied about a square mile of land 40 miles east of Paris.

Demoralized, the French army was melting away, as officers ordered withdrawals and individual soldiers abandoned their posts. The French began dusting off plans for abandoning Paris, and even the British were contemplating evacuation.

But both the Germans and the Allies had underestimated the Americans. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the AEF, ordered the 3rd Division and the 2nd Division, which included the 4th Marine Brigade, to stop the Germans in what would become known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, of which Belleau Wood was a part. Clambering into trucks, the 28,000 men of the 2nd raced toward the front lines. Along the way, they passed hordes of fleeing civilians and numerous French soldiers who, trying to wave them off, shouted, “Fini la guerre!” (the war is finished).

By contrast, the American military leadership knew the quality of their men. When a French general openly doubted the Doughboys’ ability to make a stand at Belleau Wood, Colonel Preston Brown, the 2nd Division chief of staff, replied, “General, these are American regulars. In 150 years, they have never been beaten. They will hold.”

He was right. Ordered to “hold the line at all hazards,” the Marines and their Army counterparts dug in at forward positions. They withstood a harrowing artillery attack even as the few remaining French units on the front lines pulled back. A retreating French officer advised U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams to do the same, but he coolly responded, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!”

Remaining in their shallow, hastily dug fighting holes, the Marines waited as the German ground forces waded through a field of wheat in front of Belleau Wood. When the enemy troops had closed within 300 yards, the Americans opened up. Many of the Marines had qualified as expert riflemen, sharpshooters, or marksmen, and they made every bullet count, cutting down line after line of enemy soldiers. Those who didn’t fall fled.
...
Thousands of Americans died. In fact, it was the deadliest battle in U.S. Marine Corps history up that point. Yet through it all, the Marines refused to give up, prompting the Germans to dub them Teufel Hunden, or “Devil Dogs,” a moniker they proudly claim to this day. “The Americans are savages,” one officer wrote. “They kill everything that moves.”
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There is more.

The Marines saved Paris, the French and went on to help defeat the Germans.  At one point during the battle First Sergeant Dan Daly, yelled, “Come on, you sons-o’-bitches! Do you want to live forever!?”  One thing is for certain, what they did in that battle is something that will live as long as there is a Marine Corps.  It is the same spirit that Marines exemplify today.  The Taliban found out in Helmand Province when they were shocked to learn that Marines did not run away when attacked, but toward those attackers.

Semper Fi.

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