It’s Armistice Day and what better way to celebrate than to tell the story of the heroism unleashed at the Battle of Belleau Wood just a few months prior to peace?
It was March 21, 1918. Europe is split in two by two powerful allied blocs vying for supremacy in a conflict that grew bigger than anyone ever wanted. The Central Powers featured Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. They had made great progress against the myriad of opponents they faced, commonly referred to as the Triple Entente (which we will call the allies for sake of simplicity). Russia had been so rocked with revolution and unrest that it had made peace; however, the Americans had joined the war and the Central Powers knew that they had to win before the Americans arrived in force or else victory would be too far away with too many odds against them.
And so, on the morning of March 21, the Germans arose out of their heavily fortified Hindenburg line and surged forward on their French and English enemies in Operation Michael, an offensive that would be grouped in with the 1918 Spring Offensives, better known as the Kaiserschlacht. On a front that had seen very little in the way of large movements, Operation Michael was a great success, at least initially. It managed to push the allies back over 40 miles and inflicted many casualties on the British and French forces, but it had failed to be the decisive sweeping motion that would capture the channel ports or even Amiens.
Still, the operation had dealt the allies a crushing blow. The sudden advance towards Paris also raised anxiety in the French ranks especially. The casualties and expansion of the frontline brought a new demand for bodies; it just so happened that thousands had arrived from America over the months since its entry into the war. A staunch European bias and a stereotype of Americans as unorderly, unruly, backwards hicks made the allies hesitant to put them in the lines though. It wasn’t until the Kaiserschlacht came to the Aisne and Marne rivers that the American reserve was put into battle (although they did fight at Cantigny).
May 29 saw the fall of Soissons and the Germans were just outside the city of Château-Thierry. On June 1, they attempted to cross the Marne at Château-Thierry but were forced back. A few days later, on the third, the Americans at Belleau Wood showed their prowess by blunting wave after wave of German attacks. The attacks continued for the next two days but it was clear that the German advance had been halted all across the line. The line was held by the U.S. 2nd division consisting of a brigade of Marines (the 4th Marine Brigade) with the 167th French division to its left.
Just before dawn on June 6, the marines captured Hill 142 overlooking Belleau Wood. Here, the first marine to ever recieve the Medal, Earnest A. Janson, of Honor made his act of bravery, repelling 12 German soldiers by bayonetting the two leaders and forcing the others to retreat. They then put into play on the Germans in Belleau Wood their open warfare tactics where they would essentially charge the enemy lines without artillery support and overwhelm them. The marines of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (3/5 above) were cut to pieces as they advanced through a wheat field as heavy German artillery fire and machine gun fire rained down on them. The 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment was met with better success however, planting themselves in the forest albeit just a foothold. This is when Sgt. Daniel Daly uttered his famous line, “Come on you sons of bitches! Do you want to live forever?”
To the east, the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment led an assault on the village of Bouresches but again, artillery fire was not provided but the Marines were still able to enter the village and oust the Germans. They would have to withstand determined German counterattacks for over a week, only recieving reinforcements from 100 soldiers of Company A of the 2nd Regiment of Engineers.
Heavy fighting raged all across the front as the Marines at Hill 142 struggled to defend their position and the Marines at Belleau Woods and Bouresches fought in hand-to-hand combat.
Total casualties for the first day were staggering with 31 officers and 1,056 of the brigade becoming casualties, the most of any Marine brigade to this day.
The battle was far from over though and on the 8th, both sides traded blows in Belleau Wood. Fierce fighting continued and mustard gas was introduced to the battle on the 10th. Daniel Daly again showed his courage as he charged a machine gun nest and took it out singlehandedly. The next day the Americans pushed and captured most of the wood but parts remained in German hands. A desperate German counterattack came on the 13th as parts of several German divisions tried to recapture their positions but were unsuccessful and only incurred the wrath of French artillery which bombarded German positions for 14 hours.
By the 26th, the battle was over as the Americans secured the wood. They had stalled and pushed back the German advance which put the allies in so much peril.
The Battle of Belleau Wood established the American army as an equal to the European powers. It also established the Marine Corps as a fighting force and gave them a baptism by fire.
In the coming months, the German army was thrust out of the salient it had created and forced even out of Soissons. Germany and the allies signed an armistice, halting all hostilities beginning on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The brother war had come to an end.
The European people are a magnificent race, capable of amazing bravery and daring feats. Our people were forged in bloodshed. We are not weak, corny, nice guys, we are warriors.