This great Nation & Its People War


By the time America entered World War I in April 1917, the British Imperial and French armies had been all but bled dry, having lost 2 million killed in action and over 6 million wounded. While Germany and its allies had also suffered horrendous casualties, they knew the American army was pitifully small, ill-equipped, inexperienced and an ocean away from intervention.

They were right. The process of conscripting and outfitting 2.8 million men and transporting them to France meant there was virtually no American presence on the battlefield until the spring of 1918, and even then, the Yanks initially deployed in relatively small numbers. In the meantime, Germany’s fortunes had changed dramatically. The Russian armistice on the Eastern Front freed up 50 divisions of battle-hardened troops to be thrown against the shaky and shell-shocked trenchlines of France.

The Kaiser’s staff reckoned that a breakthrough of the exhausted French and British lines and a few swift, decisive defeats inflicted on the Americans before the bulk of the expeditionary forces arrived could effectively neutralize them—and win the war. Almost lost to history is consideration of how close that effort came to success.

A massive German offensive destroyed the British 5th Army, swept the French forces aside and pushed to less than 40 miles from Paris. The capitol itself was battered with 183 shells fired by monstrous Krupp railway guns. Kaiser Wilhelm II was so pleased that he declared a national holiday. That celebration proved to be premature.

Four Australian divisions rushed into the breach and stalled the offensive, just as the overextended German supply lines were failing. The Germans reeled away from the surprisingly aggressive Aussies and drove into what they saw as easier avenues around Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood. They had more surprises in store: the Americans they had dismissed as “amateurs, who will not fight.”

As the first units of Yanks arrived, retreating French troops urged them to fall back before the Boche onslaught. The Marine Brigade was ordered to “hold where they stand.” Lacking shovels, they dug shallow fighting positions with their bayonets at the edge of broad wheat fields. When the Germans advanced en masse, they were rudely introduced to the Springfield ’03 and American marksmanship.
“Lafayette, we are here!”

This drove the Germans back into the Belleau Wood, but left them with excellent defensive positions, a prime marshaling area for hordes of reinforcements and an ideal launching point to continue their offensive.

Interlocking fields of machine gun and artillery fire were established, and the Germans were masters of that art. But the woods had to be taken—and those deadly wheat fields crossed.

Again, the Yanks were repeatedly urged to retreat, fall back and dig in. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams’ famed reply, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” made its way through the ranks, putting steel in the Yanks’ spines.

The assault on Belleau Wood is the stuff of legends, but true ones; not myths. Casualties were the worst in the Corps’ history, but the Yanks could not be stopped.

It was there, under murderous fire, that Marine First Sergeant Dan Daly leaped up with pistol in hand and yelled to his men, “Come on, you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”—then led them through the carnage of the wheat fields and into the woods.

He was nominated for a Medal of Honor, but Congress denied it because he already had two, for extraordinary heroism during the Boxer Rebellion in China, and in Nicaragua in 1915. It was there, for their sheer ferocity in hand-to-hand combat, that the Germans gave the Marines their “Devil Dogs” nickname, fleeing survivors describing them as teufel hunden—“hounds from hell.”

When the great German offensive was over, they had lost 270,000 men, all the gains they had made and the ability to press another assault for the rest of the war. Americans began flowing into Europe at the rate of 10,000 men per day. Germany’s fate was sealed.

Had Paris been taken; had the French ports fallen; had the Americans failed, as so many expected them to do, then … what?

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