The Battle of Belleau Wood, fought in June 1918 during World War I, saw the U.S. Marine Corps staunchly defend against a formidable German offensive near the Marne River in France.

Demonstrating exceptional valor and tenacity, the Marines halted the German advance, marking a pivotal point in the war and preventing them from capturing Paris.

Contents

Background

By 1918, the First World War had raged across Europe for almost four grueling years, with neither the Allies nor the Central Powers achieving a decisive advantage. The landscapes of Belgium and northern France were marked by trenches, barbed wire, and shell holes, providing a grim testament to the scale of devastation and the stalemated nature of the conflict.

Read More Plan Z – Germany’s Naval Ambitions

The Allies, a coalition primarily consisting of France, Britain, and Russia, were locked in a prolonged struggle against the Central Powers, with Germany being the primary force among them. Over the course of the war, there were several theatres of conflict, but the Western Front, which stretched across northern France, became the central battleground, characterized by its trench warfare.

However, a shift occurred in early 1918. The Eastern Front, where Germany had been battling Russia, collapsed after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918, marking Russia’s formal exit from the war. This event was pivotal.

A painting depicting the Battle of Belleau Wood from 1919.

It allowed Germany to move vast numbers of troops and resources from the eastern theatre to the Western Front. With this reinforcement, the German military command aimed to launch an all-out offensive, hoping to break the deadlock and win the war before the full force of the United States, which had entered the war in April 1917, could be effectively deployed.

This German offensive, known as the Spring Offensive or the Ludendorff Offensive, began in March 1918. With fresh troops and a renewed sense of urgency, the Germans rapidly advanced, pushing the Allies back across significant portions of the Western Front. By May 1918, the German forces reached the Marne River, coming perilously close to Paris, just fifty miles away. The rapidity of the German advance threatened to split the British and French forces, potentially leading to a catastrophic defeat for the Allies.

It was under these dire circumstances that the Battle of Belleau Wood took place. The German drive towards Paris and the urgency to prevent the fall of the French capital set the stage for this iconic confrontation, marking the United States’ major entry into the Western Front’s trench warfare and the larger conflict of World War I.

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood, a serene forested area about eight square kilometers in size, lay in the northern region of France, near the village of Belleau. Prior to the Great War, this forest would have been considered an unassuming piece of the French countryside, but in 1918, its strategic location near the Marne River turned it into one of the most contested terrains on the Western Front.

Read More USS Monitor – A Revolution In Naval Warfare

The forest’s proximity to the Marne River made it of paramount importance. If German forces managed to decisively capture and hold Belleau Wood, they would have a strategic advantage in their push towards Paris. The Marne itself had been a focal point earlier in the war during the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, where German advances had been halted. In 1918, the river and its surrounding terrains, including Belleau Wood, once again became significant.

When the German Spring Offensive commenced, the German army made swift advances across the Western Front, alarming the Allies. By the time they reached Belleau Wood, French forces, who had borne the brunt of the war for years and were stretched thin from the onslaught of the Spring Offensive, began to withdraw. The retreat was not borne out of cowardice, but out of strategic necessity given the overwhelming German onslaught.

the battered landscape of Belleau Wood after the fighting.

However, the U.S. Marine Corps’ 2nd and 3rd Divisions had different plans. As fresh entrants into the theater of war in Europe, they were eager to prove their mettle. And Belleau Wood provided that exact opportunity. When the Marines were informed about the French retreat and the possible directive to pull back, their defiant stance became legendary. Marine Captain Lloyd Williams’ retort, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” encapsulated the Marines’ intent to hold the line, come what may.

The woods themselves posed a challenge for the approaching Marines. Dense underbrush, rocky outcroppings, and undulating terrain made for a difficult advance. These natural defenses were exploited to the fullest by the entrenched German forces.

German soldiers had set up machine gun nests and sniper positions, capitalizing on the forest’s natural cover. Their defensive positions were well-coordinated, providing overlapping fields of fire that could rake any advancing force with deadly crossfire.

Moreover, the forest’s labyrinthine nature made communication challenging. As units advanced, they could easily become isolated or be ambushed, making the battle not just one of grand tactics but also of small unit leadership and individual bravery.

Read More Unsinkable Sam – That Cat That Survived Three Sinking Ships

The stage was set: an eager, relatively fresh American force ready to prove itself against a battle-hardened, strategically positioned German army. Belleau Wood was about to become a crucible, testing the mettle and resolve of every soldier that dared to step into its shadow.

The Battle Of Belleau Wood

The early days of June in 1918 saw Belleau Wood transformed from a peaceful forest into a maelstrom of violence, courage, and determination. As the Marines of the U.S. 2nd and 3rd Divisions approached the woods, they faced not just the physical challenge of the rugged terrain but the devastating power of modern warfare deployed by the Germans.

From the onset, the Marines confronted a hailstorm of machine gun fire. The Germans had strategically placed their machine guns to maximize their firing arcs, creating interlocking fields of fire. Any advance seemed almost suicidal. The machine guns, with their rapid rate of fire, could mow down entire squads of soldiers in mere moments. Alongside this, German artillery barrages sought to disorient and demoralize the American forces, with shells exploding amidst the trees, turning the forest into a deadly trap of flying shrapnel and splintered wood.

However, the Marines, driven by their training and determination, were undeterred. Employing small unit tactics, they began to maneuver through the woods, using its natural cover to their advantage and isolating German positions one by one.

But this approach was not without its perils. Close-quarters combat became the norm, as soldiers often found themselves face-to-face with the enemy in brutal and visceral encounters. Bayonets, knives, and even fists were employed when ammunition ran out or when the distances were too close for rifles. Such close combat was not just about skill and strength but also about raw courage and willpower.

In the midst of this chaos, several key moments and tactics defined the Marines’ approach. Recognizing the deadly nature of machine gun nests, they often employed “corkscrew and blowtorch” tactics. This involved one group of soldiers drawing the machine gun’s fire and pinning it in place (the corkscrew), while another group would flank the position and eliminate it (the blowtorch).

Throughout the battle, the Americans demonstrated a tenacious spirit, charging positions time and again, despite suffering heavy casualties. Their relentless approach became both a source of inspiration and a legend. It’s during these brutal confrontations that stories emerged of Germans labeling the Marines as “Teufel Hunden,” or “Devil Dogs” — a testament to the fierce fighting spirit of the American troops.

An illustraion from a French magazine titles ‘American Marine in Belleau Wood’.

Yet, it wasn’t just about brute force. The Marines also showcased their ability to adapt on the battlefield, utilizing indirect fire, coordinating with artillery support, and taking advantage of any gap in German defenses.

The Battle of Belleau Wood wasn’t won in a day. For three intense weeks, the woods echoed with the sounds of gunfire, explosions, and the cries of the wounded. Every inch of ground was contested, every advance met with resistance. But with each passing day, the Marines’ resilience, training, and determination began to turn the tide against the German forces.

Read More U-864 – The U-Boat That Was Sunk With A Deadly Cargo

By the end of June, after countless acts of valor and sacrifice, Belleau Wood was finally cleared of German forces. The Marines had not only held the line but had also pushed back one of the most formidable armies of the time, setting a standard for courage and effectiveness that would become emblematic of the U.S. Marine Corps for generations to come.

Aftermath

As the dust settled over the scarred landscape of Belleau Wood, the immediate impact of the confrontation between the German and American forces began to be felt, both on the front lines and in the broader theater of the war. The aftermath was not limited to the immediate strategic gains or losses but rippled across various facets of the conflict and beyond.

The human cost of Belleau Wood was profound. The U.S. Marine Corps suffered nearly 10,000 casualties, including more than 1,800 killed. For the Germans, the exact numbers remain debated, but it’s estimated that they endured similar, if not higher, casualties. Each side experienced the tragic loss of young lives, a somber reminder of the high price of war.

Read More The Bizarre Story Of The Navy Blimp L-8

The Germans realized that their Spring Offensive, while initially successful, was being met with increased resistance. The unexpected and fierce defense by the Marines at Belleau Wood signaled that pushing further might not yield the decisive victory they had hoped for. As a result, there was a tactical shift, with the Germans now opting for a more defensive posture in various sectors of the Western Front.

Beyond the tactical and strategic implications, the victory at Belleau Wood resonated with the Allied forces. The determination and success of the U.S. Marines became a beacon of hope for the tired French and British troops, reinvigorating their spirit. It was a psychological shift, reaffirming the belief that with the full might of the American forces now in play, the war could be won.

A memorial Day service at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery for the 93rd anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood.

For the United States, the battle reaffirmed their commitment to the war. The bravery displayed and sacrifices made at Belleau Wood cemented America’s resolve to see the conflict through to its end. It made clear to both Allies and Central Powers that the U.S. was in the war not as a mere participant, but as a major force determined to shape the outcome.

Belleau Wood left a huge mark on the U.S. Marine Corps. The battle is commemorated every year, with ceremonies that honor the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought. The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, located close to where the battle took place, serves as a lasting tribute, with over 2,000 graves of American servicemen. Moreover, in a symbolic gesture of gratitude and respect, the French officially renamed the woods “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” or “Wood of the Marine Brigade.”

Lessons from Belleau Wood informed tactics and strategies in subsequent battles of World War I. The emphasis on combined arms, small unit leadership, and the importance of morale were all underlined by the events at Belleau Wood.

In the grand narrative of World War I, the Battle of Belleau Wood stands out not just for the fierceness of the combat, but for its profound impact on the direction of the war and the psyche of the nations involved. The aftermath was felt immediately on the Western Front, in the halls of political power, and in the hearts of countless individuals who viewed the battle as a symbol of hope, sacrifice, and determination.