Devil Dogs to the Rescue: The Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood
The fate of the First World War was very much in doubt for the Allies in June 1918. With the Germans only 45 miles from Paris and the Allies desperate to turn the tide of the enemy onslaught, a rare breed of American warrior was called upon to meet the crisis head-on. In the eyes of the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, the Marines who fought at the ensuing Battle of Belleau Wood proved, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.”
The United States had entered the First World War on the side of the Allies in April 1917. For the battered British and French armies, the infusion of American manpower into the fight was the greatest possible news. By this point in the conflict, the French alone had lost nearly a million “lives out of a male population of 20 million,” according to historian Russell Freedman. With such staggering losses resulting from a war that seemed to be nothing but an endless stalemate, many found their resolve waning. As 21-year old French Second Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire had written before he was killed at the titanic Battle of Verdun in 1916, “Humanity is mad! It must be to do what it is doing. What a massacre. What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!” It was amidst this backdrop that the Americans stepped onto the scene, providing the Allies with much-needed hope that they would finally be able to tip the balance of the war in their favor.
The first troops of the American Expeditionary Force hit the ground in France on June 26, 1917. (Photo Credit: The United States World War One Centennial Commission)
Although America’s entry into the conflict promised to give the Allies the edge in the war, the Germans knew it was going to take time before U.S. forces could fully mobilize and add their power to the fight. They were determined to finish off the stubborn British and French before that could happen. The Germans got an opening to make their move when Russia, which had been on the side of the Allies, withdrew from the war in March 1918. With Russia gone, the Germans were free to send 50 divisions to reinforce their armies along the bitterly contested Western Front, a massive series of fortified trenches and defensive works that stretched 475 miles from the English Channel to the Swiss Alps. This added strength was maximized that spring as the Germans launched their largest offensive since the beginning of the war nearly four years earlier. As thousands of German soldiers stormed out of their trenches and raced across the battle-scarred fields of northern France, they succeeded in driving back the British and and damaged the French so severely that Paris was within reach. Despite their efforts to bring the bloody struggle to an end before they had to face the Americans, however, the Germans were too late. Along the open fields and 200 acres of deep woods that made up Belleau Wood in the French countryside, the Germans would learn just what kind of mettle this new enemy was made of.
The Allies needed to battle back, and that meant putting American units in the field. Spearheading the effort to snatch Belleau Wood from four crack German divisions was the 9,500-strong 4th Marine Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 2nd Division. As the Marines moved into position, they encountered many frantic French troops in retreat. “They told us they were the last of their bloodied units,” said Marine 1st Lt. James McBrayer Sellers. “Although the French were glad to see us, they said on many occasions, 'It’s too late.'” One French officer urged Marine Captain Lloyd Williams to join him and his men as they pulled back to a new defensive line. Williams famously responded, “Retreat hell! We just got here.” The Marines were determined to go forward and fight.
After several days of trading shots with German riflemen and exchanging punishing artillery fire, orders came down that the Marines were to advance across a wheat field to their front and capture Belleau Wood. Waiting for them was what the commander of the 6th Marine Regiment, Col. Albertus Catlin, described as a “lurking menace.” Facing an enemy concealed in the woods and equipped with heavy machine guns, trench mortars, poison gas, and strong artillery, the Marines were going to have to give the Germans everything they were worth.
On June 6, 1918, the Marines entered the cauldron of hell and raced across the wheat field as murderous levels of German machine gun and artillery fire filled the air. It was in this mayhem that Marine Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Daly, a double recipient of the Medal of Honor, unforgettably urged his men forward with the following words: “Well come on, ya sons of bitches. Ya want to live forever?” Tremendous gallantry was shown by the Marines as they battled their way across the wheat field. They paid a bloody price for their valor. According to one historian, more Marines were “killed and wounded on June 6 than the total of such casualties in the entire previous history of the Marine Corps.” As Pvt. Onnie Cords put it, “Many of our bayonets were bloody that day.”
Marines braving German bullets and steel as they charge through the wheat field on June 6, 1918. (Photo Credit: U.S. Naval Institute)
After crossing the bloody wheat field and securing a foothold on the edge of Belleau Wood, the Marines stepped forward once again to confront the well dug in and heavily armed Germans. For three agonizing weeks, the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments waged a relentless back-and-forth battle in the wood. Whether enduring poison gas attacks, facing artillery barrages, or ripping into the enemy with their bayonets in merciless hand-to-hand fighting, the Marines experienced the most intense struggle of their lives. Combat in Belleau wood was so grueling for the Americans that author Hans A. von Spakovsky writes, “They fought day and night without being relieved, often without water and rations, to the point of exhaustion, while the Germans remained well supplied, with new troops constantly being brought up from the rear to reinforce the German positions.” In the face of this bone-weary carnage, the Marines persevered through it all and fought with a fierceness that the enemy would not soon forget. “The woods were just covered with dead Marines and Germans, mostly Germans,” wrote Pvt. Martin Gulberg.
At the cost of another 1,000 dead since the initial attack on June 6, and approximately 8,000 wounded, the Marines ultimately succeeded in expelling the Germans from Belleau Wood, capturing the position on June 26. Just days after the battle was over, the commander of the French 6th Army officially renamed Belleau Wood. The bloody ground where so many had given the last full measure of devotion was now to be known as the “Wood of the Marine Brigade.”
The Marines battling their way through Belleau Wood. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In what was the first large scale battle fought by the Americans in World War I, the Germans were left in awe of the fighting spirit of the Marines. As one German general put it, the Marines had taken Belleau Wood “with incomparable bravery” and he deemed them “opponents worthy of respect.” After this ferocious fight, the Germans came to refer to the Marines as “Teufel Hunden,” which roughly translates to the “Hounds from Hell” or the “Devil Dogs.” The “Devil Dogs” nickname was adopted by the Marines and endures to this day.
In early June 1918, the capital of France seemed lost and French spirits were extremely low, but after the “Devil Dogs” raced to the rescue, everything changed. The victory achieved by the Marines at Belleau Wood was a major turning point that the Allies desperately needed in the Great War. Newspapers in France went on to proclaim with pride that Paris was saved, and French morale greatly improved. The performance of the Marines on the battlefield not only helped put an end to the German offensive, but it also set the fighting tone for the entire American Expeditionary Force, teaching the Germans just what kind of enemy they would now be continuously facing. American manpower ultimately helped win the final fight against the Germans. Five months after the Battle of Belleau Wood, the First World War ended in victory for the Allies at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
American Battle Monuments Commission: Belleau Wood.
Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of Belleau Wood.
The Heritage Foundation: 100 Years Ago, Marines Helped Turn the Tide of World War I.
The United States World War One Centennial Commission: "Incomparable bravery" gave U.S. Marines victory at Belleau Wood.
The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman.
WarOnTheRocks.com: The Importance of the Battle of Belleau Wood.