The Battle of Belleau Wood

It was the U.S. Marine Corps efforts at Belleau Wood (3- 16 June 1918) that halted the German advance on Paris after the British and French armies collapsed, and then by dislodging them from Belleau Wood, spearheaded the Allied advance that resulted in a final victory over Germany.

The German Advance on Paris:

In March 1918, with 50 divisions now available due to Russia's surrender, the German Army launched a series of attacks on the Western Front, hoping to defeat the Allies before U.S. forces could be fully deployed. In April 1918, a German advance under Gen Eric von Ludendorff shattered the French and British lines, driving their armies back to Paris. With the Germans only some 75 miles from Paris, French Gen Henri Petain begged American Gen John Joseph Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, for troops to help bolster the wavering Allied defense. In response, Pershing sent the 5th and 6th Marine Corps Regiments.

3 June: The Marines Halt the German Advance!

As 6th Marines moved to the front, the retreating French urged them to follow. "Retreat? Hell, we just got here," Maj Lloyd Williams told a French major, and on 3 June, the Marines received orders to 'dig-in and hold at all costs." The Marines dug shallow fighting positions with bayonets from which they could fight from the prone position.
That afternoon, German infantry attacked the Marine positions, advancing through the wheat fields with bayonets fixed. The Marines waited until the Germans were within 100 yards before opening a deadly rifle fire that mowed down waves of German infantry. The Germans attacked three times, leaving piles of dead in the fields and suffering fearsome losses before the survivors were forced to retreat into the woods. For the first time in 60 days, the German advance had been stopped.

See: Belleau Wood!

6 June: "Come On, You Son's of Bitches - Do You Want to Live Forever?"

Phase 1: The first assault:

At dawn, two companies of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines attacked Hill 142. They advanced in waves with bayonets fixed across an open wheat field, but were swept by German machine gun and artillery fire. Many Marines were cut down, but the survivors attacked against the entrenched Germans and took the hill. The Germans counter-attacked, with GySgt Ernest A. Janson repelling 12 Germans; killing two with his bayonet before the others fled; he became the first Marine to earn the Medal of Honor in WW1. The remainder of 1st Bn, 5th arrived, and by afternoon, had taken Hill 142, at a cost of nine officers and most of the 325 men of the battalion.

Phase 2: Through the Wheat:

At 17:00 3rd Bn 5th Marines and 3rd Bn 6th Marines were ordered to attack. Spread out, but advancing in well-disciplined lines, the first waves of Marines were slaughtered by German machine guns. But the Marines continued to advance, and small groups would rush forward, lose 1-2, go to ground, and then rise and rush again. But with 50 yards to to the attack seemed to falter, until GySgt Dan Daly stood and roared "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?" and the surviving Marines rushed the Germans, fought them hand-to-hand, and grabbed a foothold inside Belleau Wood

7-29 June: The Fight Continues:

The battle was deadlocked. At midnight on 7-8 June, a German attack was stopped cold and an American counter-attack in the morning of 8 June was similarly defeated. 3rd Bn, 6th, with heavy casualties, was replaced by 1st Bn 6th. A huge American and French artillery barrage devastated Belleau Wood, turning it into a jungle of shattered trees. The Germans counter-fired, reorganized their defenses, and began using poison gas against the Marines. The fight see-sawed over the next three weeks, but the Germans were slowly driven back.

Overall, the woods were attacked six times by the Marines before they successfully expelled the Germans. They fought off parts of five divisions of Germans, often reduced to using only their bayonets or fists in hand-to-hand combat. But on 26 June, 3rd Bn 5th cleared the last pocket of German resistance, and C.O. Maj Maurice Shearer submitted a report simply stating, "Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely."


The Marines suffered more casualties the first day at Belleau Wood (1,087) than their entire previous 142 years of combat combined, but those lessons and experiences helped shape the Marine Corps. Those Marines who went on to distinguished careers included Holland M (Howlin Mad) Smith later commanded Marine forces at Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima, as did Erskine Graves, while Clifton Cates and Lemuel Shepherd finished their careers as the 19th and 20th Commandants of the Marine Corps.

The French renamed the wood "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" ("Wood of the Marine Brigade") in honor of the Marines' tenacity, and later awarded them the Croix de guerre. An official German report classified the Marines as "vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen..." General John Joseph Pershing, Commander of the AEF. said, "The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle!"

Legend and lore says the Germans used the term "Teufelhunden"for the Marines, in honor of the way these young Marines fought. No one knows for sure, but the nickname "DevilDogs" for the Marines remains popular today.

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