|| Quick Facts | Background | Chronology |
| A First Hand Account |
Where: The Aisne-Marne Sector, 5 miles immediately northwest of the town of Chateau-Thierry on the River Marne.
Check the Location on a Map of the Western Front
When: June 1 – 26, 1918
AEF Units Participating: Under command of the XXI Corps of the Sixth French Army – Second Division: 4th [Marine] Brigade, 2nd Engineers; Third Division: Elements of 7th Infantry Regiment
Click Here To See the disposition of 2nd Forces around Belleau Wood.
Opposing Forces: From German Army Group Crown Prince – In Belleau Wood – the 461st Regiment of the German 237th Division; At Bouresches – elements of the 10th Division; Later reinforcements included elements of the 197th, 87th and 28th German Divisions.
Memorable As: The first battle where the AEF experienced the heavy casualties associated with the Great War; the embodiment of U.S. Marine Corps determination and dedication; and a signal to both allies and adversaries that America was on the Western Front to fight.
The Hunting Lodge within Belleau Wood
Note the Temporary US Graves
Explaining the Battle for Belleau Wood is a doubly difficult challenge. The three-week long action was simply a confused mess tactically. None of the participants ever quite knew where they, the front line or the enemy were inside that mile-square dark forest. This has made it almost impossible to create an hour-by-hour account of what transpired during the action.
Also, for eighty years, Belleau Wood has been the source of a number of disputes and controversies. Some writers, like Historian/Novelist Thomas Fleming, feel the battle should have never been fought, that American commanders should have seen the predictable outcome given the bloody results of similar assaults against other densely wooded patches on the Somme and in the Ypres Salient. Thus, the American generals should have resisted French orders to mount the attack. When the fight was still being waged, Army regulars began resenting the way the Marine Corps circumvented AEF news management to get their story told while the contributions of army units at Chateau-Thierry were unreported. Thus, military historians have put the tactics and methods applied at Belleau Wood under a very strong microscope. But also, there is considerable criticism laid at the feet of 4th Brigade Commander James Harbord, a Pershing favorite from the Army, for his lack of appreciation for the need to apply concentrated artillery fire to the task of clearing the wood and his piecemeal tactics.
The Editors of the Doughboy Center cannot resolve any of these issues. But, we want to give the readers an appreciation of what transpired at Belleau Wood during those grim days and we also want to make sure the contributions of all the participants are respected. We will try to do this by giving a day-by-day chronology of the major events of the battle and also share excerpts from the first hand account of one of its best known participants. Also, in our standard Sources and Thanks sections, we will list some of the best resources on Belleau Wood including some internet links.
Chronology: Belleau Wood, Day-by-Day
1 June 1918
2nd Division troops dig in along a defensive line just north of the village of Lucy-le-Bocage. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams when advised to withdraw, replies, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!” Capt. Williams would not survive the ensuing battle.
The line was centered on Lucy-le-Bocage. Although the initial disposition of troops was haphazard at first due the emergency, the front settled eventually with the 5th Marines to the west and the 6th Marines to the east. Most of the units deployed without machineguns in support. At Les Mares Farm, members of 2nd Bn, 5th Marines began to show the Germans the effects of long distance marksmanship.
2 June 1918
Vanguard of the German advance reaches Belleau Wood.
3 June 1918
Units of German 237th Division occupy Belleau Wood.
4 June 1918
Determined German assault against American line turned back. .There as significant failure in coordination between 2dn Bn, 5th Marines around Les Mares Farm and 1st Bn, 5th Marine, on the right of 2/5’s position near Champillon. The German attack failed to take advantage of this gap between the units and attacked directly against the farm. By this time, the divisional artillery brigade and machinegun battalions had arrived. Many Marines, however, were feeling hungry because their kitchens were still stuck on the road trying to catchup. The failure of the attack on 4 June at the farm is generally acknowledged a the high water mark of the German offensive. It is the closest the Germans got to Paris, about 50 miles away. Future Commandant, Lt. Lemuel Shepard distinguished himself as the 55th Company defended the farm itself.
5 June 1918
French XXI Corps commander orders the 2nd Division to recapture of Belleau Wood indicating the enemy only holds a corner of the Wood. The main assault falls to the unit in that sector, the 4th [Marine] Brigade of the 2nd Division. Actually, the German Army had taken the entire wood and turned it into a bastion. No reconnaissance is made to confirm the position of the opposition.
6 June 1918
Arguably, this was the most catastrophic day in Marine Corps history to this date. Two assaults take place. At 0500, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment attacks west of Belleau Wood straightening the front and capturing strategic Hill 142 to support an assault on the wooded area. The attack was successful despite the lack of preparation and poor timing. It went off with only 2 companies and timely arrival of the other two avoided a defeat. Gunnery Sgt E. A. Janson’s was awarded a Medal of Honor for his service in this assault. A member of Capt. Hamilton’s 49th Co., he was responsible for effectively stopping a German counterattack.
Twelve hours later battalions of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments frontally assault the woods from the south and west and attempt to capture Bouresches on the east edge of the woods. This afternoon attack was to be coordinated between the 3rd Batt, 5th Marines [3/5] and 3rd Batt, 6th Marines [3/6] with the latter eventually taking the village of Bouresches.
The attack against the woods proper goes grimly. Crossing a wheat field where they are exposed to machine gun fire. Gunnery Sgt Dan Daly asks his men, “Come on ya sons-of-bitches, ya want to live forever?’ The attack is only able to seize a small corner of the wood. The army 2nd Engineer Regiment is called on to provide reinforcements.
The poorly coordinated attack on the woods left the 3/5 decimated and the 3/6 struggling to get into the southern edge of the woods. The Brigade order was amended and the 2/6 (in reserve around Triangle Farm) was directed to take Bouresches. Capt Duncan’s 96th Company led the way with future Corps Commandant Lt. Clifton Cates. Lead elements of the company got into the village and were then reinforced by Capt Zane’s 79th Company. The retention of the village was a real struggle due to the fact that the Marine flanks were wide-open fields and any attempt to reinforce received heavy German fire. Personal bravery kept the Marines supplied with needed supplies. US Navy Dental Service Officer Lt. JG. Weedon Osborne’s received the Medal of Honor after being killed trying to save Capt Duncan. Today there is street in Bouresches named for him.
In addition to the village, the Brigade was directed to take the railroad station just outside. However, it was heavily manned and protected by a railroad embankment providing the Germans excellent fields of fire and the attack failed. On this day, the Marine Brigade suffered the worst single day’s casualties in USMC history with 1087 men killed or wounded.
7 June 1918
Mostly a quiet day as US forces prepare to renew the offensive and the German units bring in relief.
8 June 1918
A renewed American assault fails to gain ground.
9 June 1918
Orders are issued for an attack the next morning. Late in the evening the assault units move into position.
10 June 1918
New attacks at 4:30 am with first use of heavy artillery. Units deep in the woods are ordered to withdraw to the south edge of the trees to avoid the shelling.
11 June 1918
The assault following the bombardment succeeds in capturing two-thirds of Belleau Wood, but again with heavy casualties. A battalion commander, Lt. Col. Frederick Wise erroneously reports his men were in control of the woods, but has misread his maps and position. Brigade Commander James Harbord requests relief for his men reporting their near physical exhaustion. Another Navy medical officer Lt Orlando Petty received the Medal of Honor for his service this day.
12 June 1918
Brigade command holds a council of war and conclude the German hold on the northern third of the wood is tenuous. An attack at 6 pm achieves a breakthrough, but they are now exposed.
13 June 1918
Marines plug the line in their exposed area. German counterattack begins supported by the artillery from three divisions and almost recaptures Bouresches. Heavy gas casualties. A planned relief of 2/5 goes for naught as 2/6 is caught in the open by a artillery barrage with gas. Gunnery Sgt F. Stockham is nominated for the Medal of Honor for putting his gas mask on a wounded Marine while continuing to assist others. Stockham died a few days later from the effects of the gas, but his medal was not awarded until 1939 following a unit reunion at which it was discovered that the recommendation from the then Lt. Clifton Cates was never acted on.
14 June 1918
Continued German counterattack fails. The 23rd Infantry extends its line to the edge of Bouresches freeing up Marines for the woods.
15 June 1918
Heavy bombardment from Germans.
Marines from Belleau Being Relieved June 16th
16 June 1918
Relief of Marine Units by 3rd Division’s 7th Infantry.
17 June 1918
Three battalions of the 7th Infantry deploy in the woods under 5th Marines commander Colonel Wendell Neville.
18 June 1918
Series attacks and maneuvers by 7th Infantry begin, All fail with Army officers complaining about tactics ordered of them.
19 June 1918
Continuous operations by 7th Infantry.
20 June 1918
French III Corps assumes direction of the sector.
21 June 1918
The last battalion-scale attack by Army units fail leaving the woods open. 7th Infantry deployments hit with heavy bombardment and machine gun fire.
22 June 1918
Marine units back in line replacing 7th Infantry relief forces. French commanders reiterate demands that the woods be seized.
23 June 1918
3rd Battalion of 5th Regiment begins final assault with minimal gains and terrible losses. Two hundred ambulances are needed to evacuate the wounded.
24 June 1918
French command commits sufficient artillery to reduce the woods. The guns are brought in to prepare for a renewed assault.
25 June 1918
Major 14-hour bombardment starting at 0300 makes clearance of the remaining woods possible. The following attack swamps the remaining machine gun outposts of the enemy. Marines and Army machine-gunners participate in the assault.
26 June 1918
After beating off some early morning counterattacks, Major Maurice Shearer sends signal, “Woods now entirely — US Marine Corps.”
The Battle for Belleau Wood –
A First Hand Account
From Colonel Frederick May Wise’s description of Bois de Belleau. Newly promoted Lt. Col. Wise was the commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Marines at Belleau Wood. His incorrect report that the woods were occupied on June 11th was a serious error. He was, however, a fine combat reporter. Excerpts from his account of the battle are included here to give the reader a sense of the experience of the Battle for Belleau Wood. Wise’s remarks have been considerably abridged and the action line is somewhat disjointed in what follows.
Fifth Marine Mascot Jimmy the Anteater
with a Leatherneck Pal in Calmer Times
Just past noon, a runner came up the road with orders from Colonel Neville. We were to proceed to the northeast edge of the woods, which were northwest of Lucy-le-Bocage, and await orders.
By two o’clock that afternoon we were under way, going across open fields. High in the air I saw several German sausages (observation balloons). I knew those woods were going to catch hell shortly. In about an hour we were newly established on their edge. This time I had the men scatter well among the trees. I warned them especially against bunching up. We settled down again to wait for orders.
Along toward ten o’clock that night the German shelling started. They gave those woods hell. The Germans were pouring everything they had into that ridge. It didn’t take any urging for the Marines to get into fox holes the minute they knew we were going to hold it. But though the Germans didn’t launch any infantry attack, they kept up a continuous shelling with all the artillery in range, and poured an unceasing stream of machine-gun and rifle fire against that ridge. Everywhere up and down the line, masses of earth, chunks of rock, splinters of trees, leaped into the air as the shells exploded. Machine-gun and rifle bullets thudded into the earth unendingly. That place was getting warm.
Clinging to the crest of that ridge, we found the German shells bad enough. But there was worse to come. They had trench mortars in the Bois de Belleau, and presently they began to cut loose on us with them. Those aerial torpedoes, nearly four feet long, packed with T.N.T., would come sailing through the air and land on the ridge. That whole ridge literally shook every time one of them exploded.
All that day the bombardment kept up. It was the most terrific fire I had ever experienced. At night it slackened somewhat, only to resume next morning. It kept up all next day. Some gas shells fell, too, but the gas wasn’t bad enough to make us put on our masks. Why the Germans didn’t attack and break through that line of ours I never will be able to understand. All that second day we took the shelling in our faces and held the line. That night, thank God, it slackened again.
From where we sat we could see the ground where the attack was to be formed, and they’d have plenty of time to explain to the junior officers and men exactly what was to be done. The whole thing depended on getting across the Lucy-Torcy road before daybreak and making a rapid advance to the northern edge of the woods. The First Battalion was to relieve us at midnight. I had seen Major Turrill about it personally, so that the relief would be made rapidly and without noise.
Late that afternoon . . . I also went over and saw Major John A. Hughes, commanding the First Battalion of the Sixth Marines, who had made the last attack on the southern edge of Bois de Belleau and was still holding it. Major Hughes confirmed my idea that it was almost an impossible task to take that position by frontal attack. He told me a lot, too, about what the German defenses were. In that clump of woods covering a knoll a mile long and a half mile wide, rising sharply from the fields that surrounded it, was an outcrop of huge boulders cut with gullies and ravines, and with underbrush so thick in it that men could pass a few feet from each other, unseen. In that tangle were machine-guns camouflaged behind brush heaps and woodpiles, back of boulders and in shell proof pits under boulders. Snipers on the ground and in the tree tops. Picked German veterans who were fighting desperately.
I went back to the ridge after my talk with him, thankful that I had a free hand and could hit them from the rear instead of having to make a frontal attack.” “Night came on. I sat there under the trees, going over all the details in my mind, waiting for four A.M. to come.
Through the dark a runner showed up, asking for me. “A message, sir,” he said, when I called to him. I looked at my wrist watch. Midnight. Four hours more to wait. I unfolded the message he handed me, crouched down, and turned the light of my electric torch on the paper. I read those typewritten lines. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an attack order.
My battalion was ordered to attack the Bois de Belleau FROM THE SOUTHERN EDGE at four o’clock that morning, behind a rolling barrage. It was signed “Harbord.” I was dumfounded. All my plans were up in the air. I knew that piece of paper I held in my hand meant the needless death of most of my battalion. “The plans have been changed,” I [had to tell my subordinates].
[Later] I stood there under some trees by a ditch on the southern edge of the Bois de Belleau, and in the growing light watched my battalion march into position. It was getting lighter every minute. Suddenly the barrage dropped, several hundred yards in front of our lines. . . Amid the explosions of the bursting shells we could hear the German machine guns in the woods come to life. They couldn’t see us yet, but they knew from the barrage that the attack was coming.”
“The barrage lifted and crawled ahead. The whistles of our platoon leaders sounded up and down the line. The battalion rose to its feet. Bayonets fixed, rifles at the ready, the men started their slow advance.
I stood there watching them go forward. The Germans could see us now. They had the range. Here and there men were dropping. But the line went steadily on. The Germans couldn’t have had better targets if they had ordered the attack themselves. The barrage kept crawling on. About two hundred and fifty yards behind it the battalion went on, men dropping, men dropping, men dropping. Yard by yard they advanced. Minutes after, I saw them disappear into the woods. Those woods seemed to have swallowed up the barrage without an effort. Now they swallowed up the battalion.
As the Marines vanished into the undergrowth beneath the trees, the German machine-gun fire slackened. The detonations of the barrage had ceased. Across those fields from the woods I could distinguish machine-gun fire, rifle fire. A sudden ripping burst of machine-gun fire would break out. That meant the Marines were advancing on a nest. It would die down. That meant the nest was taken. Back across that open field wounded men began crawling to the rear. There was a dressing station at Lucy, about a mile away.
Marine Memorial at Belleau Wood Glade – Detail
Company runners began to come back out of the woods with reports. Messages hastily scrawled in pencil. This objective attained. That objective attained. Heavy casualties. Prisoners commenced to come back. Convoys of twenty, thirty, fifty Germans, herded along by some single Marine – generally a wounded one at that.
From time to time company runners kept coming out of the woods with reports of objectives gained and held, about mid-afternoon I figured it was time for me to go and take a look-see. I left Legendre at the P.C., took Coutra with me, and went over to the edge of the woods. There were paths I could follow through the undergrowth.
Just inside the edge of the woods I came upon one of those German machine-guns camouflaged behind a brush pile. Dead Marines lay in front of it. Dead Germans lay about it. A strange silence held in the woods. The youngster in command told me of the terrific fighting they’d had. Foot by foot they had pushed their way through the underbrush in the face of a continuous machine-gun and rifle fire. Snipers had shot them from brush piles on the ground; from perches high in the trees. Germans they had left sprawled on the ground for dead as they went on, had risen and shot them in the back.
I went on down the line. Lieutenant Cook was unwounded, but he had lost several of his juniors and a lot of his men. . . “Whenever we took a machine-gun nest,” he said, “another one opened up on their flank. That happened many times. The second one would never fire a shot until we had taken the first. Then they opened up on us.” His outfit, too, were in fox holes and waiting for the expected German counterattack. . .Captain Dunbeck told me how Lieutenant Heiser had died. Leading an attack on a German machine-gun nest, Heiser had been literally decapitated. His head had been cut clean from his body by a stream of machine-gun bullets that caught him in the throat.
Capt. Wass told me of. . . the difficulties they had in orienting themselves in that heavy underbrush. There were no landmarks, once you got into those woods. If you turned around twice you lost all sense of direction and only your compass could straighten you out. “The German machine-gunners are braver than the infantry,” Wass said. “But when you once get within bayonet reach of any of them, they’re eager enough to surrender.”
Nothing in all our training had foreseen fighting like this. If there was any strategy in it, it was the strategy of the Red Indian. The only thing that drove those Marines through those woods in the face of such resistance as they met was their individual, elemental guts, plus the hardening of the training through which they had gone. I passed nest after nest of German machine-guns. Out in front of every gun lay Marines where they had fallen. Around the guns themselves there weren’t so very many dead Germans. They had worked their guns up to the moment the Marines got among them with the bayonet — and then they had surrendered. Most of my wounded had been worked out. Here and there through the woods stretcher bearers were searching for more. There was some little evidence of that rolling barrage under which we had advanced, in a few shell holes and splintered trees. But not much. It hadn’t hurt the Germans enough to mention. But it had given them plenty of notice that we were coming.
Though everywhere I could see Marines who had been killed by machine guns and snipers, though there were plenty of dead Germans, killed by rifle fire, nowhere was there any sign that the Germans had stood face to face with Marines at close quarters and fought it out. Always when it got hot and hand to hand, they had surrendered. But now the German artillery stepped in. They had a pretty thorough idea of our position in those woods. About ten o’clock that night they sounded off. They gave us an awful pounding. It lasted for about two hours.
. . . The Bois de Belleau was an unforgettable sight that night. I had dozed off in the dark during a lull. The explosions of renewed shelling woke me to see the blackness rent and torn everywhere with those terrific flashes of bluish flame from the bursting shells. Silhouetted in that ghastly light I could see splintered tree trunks and twisted limbs and the black mass of the forest stretching off on both sides. Then for minutes those flashes would come so fast that it looked as if a great ragged searchlight was playing up and down in the dark, so continuous would be the illumination. And all the time the shattering impact of the bursts would hammer on your ears.
By daybreak next morning I was out on inspection again. The woods were strangely silent. I found to my amazement that the terrific barrage of the night before had done comparatively little damage to our front line. It had torn the woods just behind the line to pieces. If we’d had supports in those woods, they would have been annihilated.
At the battle’s end. . .I lined the men up and looked them over. It was enough to break your heart. I had left Courcelles May 31st with nine hundred and sixty-five men and twenty six officers — the best battalion I ever saw anywhere. I had taken them, raw recruits for the most. Ten months I had trained them. I had seen them grow into Marines. Now before me stood three hundred and fifty men and six officers. Six hundred and fifteen men and nineteen officers were gone.
Click here to visit Part III of Chateau-Thierry:
The Capture of Vaux
|Sources and thanks: A half dozen works were consulted for this page including E.M. Coffman’s War to End All Wars, Stalling’s The Doughboys, Friedel’s Over There, SLA Marshall text in the American Heritage History of World War I and American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. The most valuable resource for the chronology was the Official 2nd Division History which is now available on CD from our friends at the Digital Bookshelf. A forgotten Marine contributor sent the Frederick Wise comments which are from the memoir, A MARINE TELLS IT TO YOU. The top illustration is a detail from a Leatherneck Magazine cover. Regular contributors Herb Stickel and Ray Mentzer helped with the other photos.All of the above are recommended for deeper study of the battle as well as two interesting websites:
Bradley Omanson’s Scuttlebutt & Small Chow: A Salty Old Harbor of Marine Corps History
Great War Society Member Edward Swaim’s Belleau Wood Today Photo Essay
Last, a special thanks for Col. Bill Anderson, USMC, a Great War Society Member and student of the battle who caught some serious errors of omission in my original draft.
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