June 6 is not only the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion of WWII. It is also the anniversary of the Marine attack on Belleau Wood.
At the beginning of June 1918, the spearhead of the German Army’s offensive had captured Belleau Wood on the Paris-Metz road, only 50 miles from Paris. The American Expeditionary Force launched a counter-attack to stop the German advance.
The Marine 4th Brigade, comprising the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, was ordered to take the woods. The Brigade began its advance across an open field of wheat, swept by murderous fire from German machine guns and artillery. Urged to turn back by retreating French forces, Marine Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered the now-famous retort: “Retreat, hell. We just got here.”
His platoon wavered momentarily under heavy fire at the entrance to the wood, but Sergeant Major Dan Daly charged forward, shouting “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” for which, among other actions, Daly received the Navy Cross. (He had, previous to WWI, been twice awarded the Medal of Honor.)
The woods were taken, and retaken six times, by the Marine Brigade against the resistance of more than four German Divisions, including the crack 5th German Guards Divison.
Josephus Daniels, US Secretary of the Navy, wrote:
The marines fought strictly according to American methods – a rush, a halt, a rush again, in four-wave formation, the rear waves taking over the work of those who had fallen before them, passing over the bodies of their dead comrades and plunging ahead, until they, too, should be torn to bits. But behind those waves were more waves, and the attack went on.
“Men fell like flies,” the expression is that of an officer writing from the field. Companies that had entered the battle 250 strong dwindled to 50 and 60, with a Sergeant in command; but the attack did not falter. At 9.45 o’clock that night Bouresches was taken by Lieutenant James F. Robertson and twenty-odd men of his platoon; these soon were joined by two reinforcing platoons.
Then came the enemy counter-attacks, but the marines held…
Belleau Wood was a jungle, its every rocky formation containing a German machine-gun nest, almost impossible to reach by artillery or grenade fire. There was only one way to wipe out these nests – by the bayonet. And by this method were they wiped out, for United States marines, bare-chested, shouting their battle cry of “E-e-e-e-e y-a-a-hh-h yip!” charged straight into the murderous fire from those guns, and won!
Out of the number that charged, in more than one instance, only one would reach the stronghold. There, with his bayonet as his only weapon, he would either kill or capture the defenders of the nest, and then swinging the gun about in its position, turn it against the remaining German positions in the forest.
After the battle, the French renamed the wood “Le Bois de la Brigade de Marine” (“The Wood of the Marine Brigade”) in honor of the Marines’ tenacity. The French government also later awarded the 4th Brigade the Croix de Guerre, entitling members of those Marine regiments to wear the fouragere.
Belleau Wood is also where the Marines got their German nickname of “Teufelshunde” or “Devil Dogs” because of the ferocity of their attack on the German lines. An official German report described the American Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen.”
General John J. Pershing, Commander of the AEF, at the time, said, “The Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.”
One of our commenters asked about US press coverage back then. There is an account from the New York Times, June 20, 1918 on the web, which gets the date of the attack wrong, but has some good comments from the Germans:
The prisoners said they were glad of the chance to surrender and get out of the woods, because the American artillery fire for three days had cut off their food and other supplies and they had lived in a hell on earth. The Germans seemed deeply impressed by the fury of the American attack. One of the captured officers, when asked what he thought of the Americans as fighters, answered that the artillery was crazy and the infantry drunk. A little German private, taking up his master’s thought, pointed to three tousled but smiling marines, and said: “Vin rouge, vin blanc, beaucoup vin.” He meant he thought the Americans must be intoxicated, to fight as they did for that wood.