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100 years ago to the day, on June 26, 1918, from an obscure wood 50 miles from Paris, the Bois de Belleau, was captured by American forces in a long battle of the First World War. no US military hopes, an early and vital demonstration of the US Expeditionary Force’s ability on the battlefield. The Bloody Encounter holds a special place in the annals of American military history. Patrick Gregory looks at what happened there and asks why the battle is still standing out.
At the end of April 2018, a photoshoot featuring the Presidents of the United States and France and their wives planting a tree was broadcast around the world. What seemed to attract so much publicity at the time was the fact that the sapling in question had been removed soon after the ceremony, placed in temporary quarantine. What has drawn less attention is where the sapling came from or why – Belleau Wood.
As with most massacre scenes from World War I, the Bois de Belleau is as calm now as it arguably was before the fighting that erupted there in June 1918. And the fighting was brutal. What happened there was an important moment in the United States’ contribution to WWI. It was also an important moment in the development of the US Marine Corps.
(Photo by Library of Congress)
By May 1918, the United States had been a fighter in Europe for over a year; however the American troops, still arrived in France, had so far only played a role of support. This was all about to change. US Expeditionary Force Commander John Pershing had stubbornly resisted Allied efforts to co-opt his men – one regiment here, one regiment there – to supplement their own ranks, remaining determined to form and muster an army of their own. whole.
The moment of truth has now arrived to test these men in combat: May 28, 1918, the first war offensive led by the United States. Led by Pershing’s trusted first division, Robert Bullard’s “Big Red One” attacked Cantigny in northern France, 20 miles from Amiens. Of limited strategic value, perhaps, but the three-day battle was a success, showing the Americans could fight. It was a shot in the arm for AEF, a much needed psychological boost after all the months of waiting.
However, a more immediate concern for the Allies was a deadly new enemy offensive which had meanwhile been unleashed 50 miles to the southeast: one easily cutting through Allied lines and heading further south towards the Marne, leaving German forces at hand. from Paris.
On May 30, two separate American divisions, 2 and 3, were ordered to enter the Marne region, arriving from different directions east and west. A machine gun battalion of the latter secured the south bank of the river at the key bridgehead of Chateau-Thierry, while others of them began to take up positions.
But the main action in the coming weeks would be in the northwest of the city, involving men from the 2nd Division; in particular, two of their regiments, a Marine Brigade led by former Pershing Chief of Staff James Harbord. It would be their efforts to secure a forest there that would make headlines, aided in part by journalist Floyd Gibbons’ purple prose.
(Photo by Library of Congress)
The Bois de Belleau was just over a mile long and half a mile wide, but it would cost many lives to capture and would be reported around the world. “It might have been a small battle in WWI terms,” says Professor Andrew Wiest of the University of Southern Mississippi, “but it was of disproportionate historical significance. It was the battle that brought about the arrival of the United States. “
Yet as the operations unfold – as courageous and resolute as the troops have been throughout – they have been poorly planned and poorly commanded, certainly in its opening phases. After the adjacent areas were captured on the morning of June 6, the decision was made to advance on the wood this afternoon from two directions, west and south. The first was led by a battalion of 5th Marines under Benjamin Berry; the southern attack undertaken by the battalion of Berton Sibley of the 6th Marines, supported on its right by the 23rd infantry of the other brigade of the regular army of the division.
But little reconnaissance had been done in advance of what to expect once there, and only limited artillery fire had been planned in advance. Inside, German machine gunners had taken up positions in defensive holes, behind rocky outcrops and protected by dense undergrowth. Worse yet, the Marines now advanced towards them in rank formation on the exposed terrain outside, with Berry’s western advance particularly exposed. They were slaughtered. By nightfall, 222 were dead and more than 850 injured.
Bloody but remaining focused on the task, the men left the next day. And the next one. Yet little progress has been made. An intense 24-hour artillery barrage was ordered late, followed by another assault. Progress was eventually made, but losses continued to increase as German troops clung to the far ends of the wood. The 7th Infantry of the neighboring 3rd Division was called in for a few days to help lighten the load.
The fighting lasted three weeks and in its final stages, foot to foot, hand to hand, they intensified into savagery. Shells and artillery guns now gave way to bayonets and “toad stickers,” 8-inch triangular blades attached to handles, as the Marines pushed their way through the last of their enemies. But eventually a word came on the morning of June 26 from Major Maurice Shearer: “Belleau Wood now fully US Marine Corps.”
(Photo by Library of Congress)
As the story goes, German officers, in their battle reports, referred to Teufelshunde’s Marines as “Devil Dogs”; and reporter Floyd Gibbons also helped, designating an artillery sergeant in the dispatches as “Devil Dog Dan”. Either way, the name and image stuck and became a famous symbol of the Marines.
“It was the day the US Marines went from being a small force that few people knew to personifying elite status in the United States. military, ”says Andrew Wiest. The body had roots dating back to the American Revolutionary War, but from Belleau much of the modern tradition and myth of the body developed.
More significantly, and of strategic importance, their intervention in Belleau and that of their colleagues of the 2nd and 3rd Division in the vicinity of the Marne put an end to the German advance, at a dangerous moment of the war for the Allies.
Commander of the US First Division Robert Lee Bullard later said, “The Marines did not win the war here. But they saved the Allies from defeat. If they had arrived a few hours later, I think that would have been the beginning of the end. France could not have supported the loss of Paris.
This article originally appeared on the United States Army. Follow @usarmy on Twitter.