World War I was a horrendous slugfest that lasted far too long. In the aftermath of this war, when world leaders understood how many millions of men had lost their lives, they declared it the war to end all wars; surely, no one in their right mind would ever repeat such a calamity as this. The war was indeed a world war, with battles and confrontations in Germany, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Battle of Belleau Wood was but one of these.
We can explain Germany’s 1918 spring offensive by the surrender of Russian forces on the Eastern Front. No longer having to contend with a two-front war, Germany moved fifty divisions of infantry into the Western campaign. The timing of the German assault had as its purpose the unsettlement of newly arrived infantry from the United States. The Germans wished to shock these raw troops before it was possible to incorporate them into the line.
A third German assault targeted French forces between Soissons and Reims. Known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, German forces reached the northern bank of the Marne River at Château-Thierry, only 59 miles from Paris, on 27 May 1918. On 31 May, the US 3rd Division held the German advance. In response, elements of the 7th German Imperial Army turned right toward Vaux and Belleau Wood. The 461st Imperial German Infantry Regiment occupied the wood. The Battle of Belleau Wood actually comprised two actions—the first at Chateau-Thierry (3-4 June 1918), and the second within the wood itself (6-26 June 1918).
After the fall of Château-Thierry and Vaux, the US 2nd Division, which included the 4th Marine Brigade (then commanded by Army Brigadier General James G. Harbord), was brought up along the Paris-Metz highway. The US 9th Infantry Regiment and 6th Marine Regiment went into the line while Harbord placed the US 23rd Infantry and 5th Marine Regiment in reserve.
On the evening of 1 June 1918, German infantry punched a hole through the French line, just left of the American Marine’s position. In response, Harbord directed his reserve, consisting of the US 23rd Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and elements of the 6th Machinegun Battalion, to force march ten miles to plug the gap in the French line. These units were in place before dawn of 2 June; by the end of the day, American forces held a 12-mile front north of the Paris-Metz highway. The line extended through grain fields and scattered woods, from Triangle Farm west to Lucy, and then north to Hill 142. The German line opposite extended from Vaux to Bouresches to Belleau Wood. It was their intent to cross the Marne but General Harbord had a different notion.
As his forces withdrew from their previous position, the French commander ordered Harbord to withdraw, to dig trenches, and prepare for a German assault. Harbord ignored the order. He ordered his Marines to fix bayonets and stand where they were. The Marines prepared shallow fighting placements from which they could fire from a prone position. The German attack materialized on the afternoon of 3 June. Marines held their fire until the Germans were within 100 yards, and then with deadly fire for which American Marines are known, slaughtered wave after wave of German infantry. Having suffered heavy losses, the Germans prepared defensive positions in a line between Hill 204 near Vaux and Torcy within the woods.
French officers continued to implore the Marines to retreat from their line; when ignored by General Harbord and his staff, they even approached company officers. One Marine officer, Captain Lloyd W. Williams commanding a company within the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines uttered his famous retort: “Retreat hell, we just got here.”
Continued next week