Monthly Archives: June 2018
It was during this battle that thousands of US Army and Marine Corps men stood their ground and fell to German guns (like in the above song).
On 1 June, the Germans took Château-Thierry and Vaux and moved into Belleau Wood. That night the Germans punched a whole in the French line on the left flank of the US marines. The US troops held in reserve were force matched 10 kilometers to plug the hole.
By the evening of the 2 June 1918 the Americans had a 20 kilometer front held by two divisions of the US Army. Assigned to the Army divisions was a brigade of marines made up of two US Marine Corp regiments. The soon to be legendary 5th and 6th Marine Regiments.
The French forces were moving back and digging trenches, they ordered the American forces to do the same. US Army general James Harbord, commanding the marine brigade, countermanded that order. He then ordered the marines to “hold where you stand.”
The marines, using their bayonets, dug rifle pits (a shallow depression in the ground). When the Germans attacked the marines held their fire until the Germans were within 100 yards of them before opening fire. The Germans fell back and dug in.
The French repeatedly urged the marines to retreat and dig trenches as they were doing. At this point Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams replied, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” Later Major Frederic Wise claimed to have said that.
June 4, US Army Major General Bundy, commander of the 2nd Division, was given overall command of American forces on the line. For the next two days the marines beat back repeated attacks.
The morning of June 6 the French and American forces attack the German positions. During a German counter-attack a marine sergeant held off the advance of 12 Germans, single-handedly. Two of the Germans he killed with his bayonet. Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Jackson became the first marine to be decorated with the Medal of Honor during World War One.
In the afternoon the 5th and 6th marine regiments of the 3 marine battalion advanced on the woods across a field of waste high wheat. As the marines readied for their advance across the open ground Marine First Sergeant Dan Daly uttered his famous words to his men.
“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
When asked about the quote later Sergeant Daly said, “What I actually said was not so polite.” I believe him too.
Five times the marines advanced across the open wheat field. Five times they were beaten back taking heavy casualties, including most of their junior commissioned officers. The brigade lost 31 officers and 1,056 marines. The sixth advance, on 26 June, the marines took the woods.
The French government also later awarded the 5th and 6th marine regiments the Croix de guerre. An official German report classified the Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen …” General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force even said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.”
It is at this battle that the marines supposedly were given the nickname “teufelshunde” or devil dog. The problem is that according to Official United States Marine Corps Historian Annette Amerman, no such word exists in the German language and the was created by the marine recruiting office. If you search the German language you find she’s correct. The closest German word is “Höllenhunde” which means hellhound. But it is a good story. The marines certainly are a tough dog to beat. As Robert Fulghum says, “…myth is more potent than history.” I like the story. I don’t care if it was a German soldier or someone writing advertising copy for Marine recruiting I will always call marines devil dogs (along with jarhead, leatherneck, and a few choice navy terms for our brothers (& sisters) in arms).
One other legend. At Belleau Wood is a garden with a fountain. Water pours from the mouth of a bulldog of this fountain. Legend has it that any marine who drinks from this fountain has 20 years added to his life. But this garden and the land around it was not liberated by the US Marines, it was the US Army that liberated the land where the fountain stands.
Speaking of the US Army. Next week we will find out what those two Army Divisions were doing while the two Marine Regiments were fighting for the woods. The armies role at the Battle of Belleau Wood has been forgotten to history and over shadowed by the marines.
We leave you today at the military cemetery where thousands of these young men were laid to rest on the French soil they defended. Young men dreaming of a home they would never see again.
I would also like to note that it was on this day 100 years ago (16 June 1918) that my great-uncle Corporal Robert E. Goodykoontz, US Army 7th Infantry Regiment 3rd Infantry Division gave his life for his comrades on this battlefield. He is buried there with his buddies, plot A, Row 4, Grave 53.
The titles given to this war says much about the people at that time. The first two titles are pre-World War Two. There is nothing great about any war. Wars happen because of the failures of politicians. The failures of politicians decide when wars begin and end. As General Patton once said, politicians always pull us up short and leave us with another war to fight. World War Two gave us over 45 years of Cold War. A war that was not cold and brought us to the brink of world wide nuclear war on more than one occasion.
World War One was seeded forty years earlier at the end of the Franco Prussian War. The French were dealt with so severely at the end of that war it made another French German war inevitable. Just as the Germans were dealt with so severely at the end of World War One that it made another war inevitable.
There is nothing honorable or glorious about war, despite what politicians say when they are trying to start one.
General George S. Patton was a man of action, in war and peace. Whether he was commanding Third Army racing across France toward Berlin or the occupational governor of Bavaria after the war. I admire him for that. But when it comes to war the general and I are polar opposites. He loved war, I detest war.
The largest number of casualties in any war are civilians not military. I say civilians and not innocent civilians, because they are the ones who supported the politicians while they beat their war drums. They supported, cheered for, and even demanded war in some instances. They sent their children to fight the war, and when the war came to their neighborhood they either ran or fought back as best they could. No one is innocent when war comes, we all have blood on our hands.
By 1918 Germany had defeated Russia. Germany quickly moved all the armies on the eastern front to the western front and planned an all out battle designed to take Paris, defeat the allies, and end the war before the United States could get her soldiers on the field of battle. Germany failed at all three objectives.
The Battle of Belleau Wood was not an isolated battle. It was part of the offensive Germany initiated along the entire western front, from the sea in Belgium south across all of France to its southern borders.
The American forces had arrived in France more than six weeks before this offensive began. The marines were the first to arrive. The French had been training the Americans for combat since their arrival, and thought very poorly of their ability to fight.
Next week we will discuss the Battle of Belleau Wood itself. You will hear the officers memorable words. You will hear the machine guns.
You will see the courage of the young boys in arms and hear their crys. You will see the scary, impossible goal at the beginning of the battle, and watch these boys as they will accomplish it. In some cases you will watch as the legends of Belleau Wood happen. In some cases you will watch as legends dissolve into myth. You will be there.
But between now and then I want you to do something first. I want you to find a photograph of a young person killed in war, preferably from World War One (a member of your own family if you can).
As we read next week’s article I want you to have that photograph with you. I want you to think about that young person while we watch the Battle of Belleau Wood.
That young person made mistakes and had triumphs in such a short life. They had dreams, aspirations, and goals for a future that never happened. They never got to guide their children into adulthood and know the joys of grandchildren.
That young person died so young that they left few to remember and mourn them. In most cases only parents.
Robert E. Goodykoontz left behind a mother and a brother who mourned his loss for the rest of their lives. He left behind no one of his own. No one to remember his smile or the sound of his laugh, no wife, no children. There is not even a photograph of Bob to show he really lived. All that is left is a cold marble stone in a foreign land to mark his grave and a few short words on the web stating his regiment, division, and place of death.
The only thing left was the grief in the eyes of his younger brother. A grief that persisted for over half a century.
War is not honorable, war is not glorious, war is a thief. Next week we will watch the thief at his worst.
Part three “The Battle of Belleau Wood”