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.