Re-Visiting World War I

—on Armistice Day, 2020

June 1918

The sweaty Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines marched wearily through the pitch-black of the night along a hard-packed wheel-rutted road.  German shelling had stopped a few hours earlier.  The respite allowed these Marines to reach La Voie du Chatel unmolested and take up their fighting positions in a clump of woods about a mile farther.  The battalion was down to three companies; the colonel had detached one rifle company to reinforce another battalion.

The wood contained little in the way of underbrush, so there was no way for the Marines to conceal themselves.  When dismissed from marching formation, the men broke ranks and began eating their cold rations. Some of the Marines remained on their feet, eating erect; others wearily sat on the ground to nibble and rest.  There may not have been much food, but there was plenty of tobacco, and the men took advantage of it.

Even after daybreak, the wood remained dim and damp from low cloud cover and early morning dew.  The Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frederic Wise, a nineteen-year veteran of Marine Corps service, established his command post under a few trees on the edge of a thicket not far from the road that came down from Champillon.  Allied artillery began promptly at 0600 —right on schedule.   The thunder of distant guns brought slouching Marines to their feet, and they stood silently listening.  Then came the rifle and machine-gun fire heard from afar; it was ominously distinctive.  After a few moments, the Marines returned to what they had been doing, mostly resting.  They were tired.  Very tired.

After an hour or so, 2/5 Marines saw the walking wounded as they approached along the adjacent road.  Some of the men struggled by themselves; others walked in groups.  Some of the men had their arms wrapped in slings; others had bandages wrapped around their heads.  They all hobbled along, some using their rifles for crutches.  A few blinded men followed behind others with their hands resting upon the men’s shoulders ahead of them.  The injured men brought with them various accounts of the distant battle.   None of it being particularly good news.  The Germans had repelled their assault.  The attack was a disaster, they said.

Sometime later, behind the long line of injured men, came a group of motorized ambulances.  They stopped not far away, across the road from Colonel Wise’s command post, and began to set up a dressing station.  In the distance, the battle raged on.  After the ambulances came, the stretcher-bearers.  Someone had pressed these captured German soldiers into service.  The line of stretchers was not too long, and the Marines of 2/5 wondered if injured men told them exaggerated stories.  The stretcher men took their charges into the dressing station.  Some of the Marines wondered aloud at the foolishness of having medics so far from the battlefield.  Damn, Marines question everything.

At around 1100, a company of Army engineers passed by, moving toward Champillon.   Their captain soon appeared marching along behind them.  His face was pale, and he seemed much disturbed.  “The attack has failed,” he told the Wise.  “The Marines are cut to pieces.”  A few of Wise’s Marines, who stood nearby along the edge of the wood, heard this and muttered, “Bullshit.”  The captain soon continued on his way.

By noon, the distant fire slackened, but the men no longer paid any attention to it.  There was no excitement among them.  Some of the Marines slept; others sat around smoking.  Not long after, a runner came up the road with messages from Colonel Neville, the regimental commander.  Colonel Wise had orders to proceed with his Marines to the northeast edge of the wood, northwest of Luc-le-Bocage —there to await further orders.  The Sergeant Major passed the word, which prompted the NCOs to get their men on the road.  “Mount up.”   After mustering the men, the Marines stepped off in compliance with their orders.  One Marine noticed a German observation balloon hovering far above them and passed the word back through the ranks.  It was a bad sign.

An hour later, the Marines arrived at their newly assigned position on the wood’s northeast section.  The terrain was completely different; this section of wood afforded good concealment.  Company commanders dispersed their men, and sergeants inspected their positions, admonishing them to spread out—avoid bunching up, assigning them fields of fire.  Colonel Wise (post-war picture at right) walked among his Marines checking on his captains’ work —they, in turn, supervising the work of their lieutenants, and the sergeants, who already knew what to do, muttered “yes sir” and got on with it.  The veteran NCOs knew that setting into defensive positions is an ongoing process; there is always time to improve fighting positions —but there does come a time when the effort is less urgent, though no less critical.

When the Germans were not directing artillery fire against an allied advance, they used their big guns to harass suspected bivouac areas.  It seemed to the Marines that there was never any shortage of German artillery.  The enemy preferred shelling at night because it denied rest to the allied forces.  On this night, the shelling began at 2200.  Shell after shell poured into the wood.  The noise was deafening.  There was also the sound of shrapnel whizzing overhead, of trees crashing down.  The Marines leaned in closer to mother earth.  There were a few casualties, but not too many.  Then, as suddenly as the barrage had begun, it stopped.

At midnight, another messenger arrived —with new orders.  Colonel Neville ordered Wise to move his men again.  Wise had two hours to assemble his men, move them once more along the Lucy-Torcy Road, locate Colonel Feland[1], the regimental executive officer, and obtain orders about what next to do.  Wise signed for his orders and called for his captains.  Mustering the men in the dark after two hours of heavy shelling would be no easy task.  Wise sent out runners to find the Fifth Marines’ headquarters.  Locating Colonel Feland in the dark of night would be a miracle.

Wise already knew the score.  The battle of 2 June 1918 produced mixed results.  The 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had done rather well against the Germans, but the Germans severely mauled the 3rd Battalion.  The brigade’s objective had been the Bois de Belleau, and German resistance stopped the Allied advance.

Company officers and NCOs mustered the men as they came out of the woods in two’s and threes.  The Lucy-Torcy Road formed a defile between the high ground on both sides of the road.  On the right of the line of march was the Belleau Wood; Colonel Wise knew that the wood was teeming with German troops.  His map informed him that the road would open up into a sloping grain field about one-half mile distant.  It was not unlike a bottleneck from which his Marines would spill out onto a table.

When NCOs and officers finally organized their companies, and all hands accounted for, Colonel Wise stepped off, leading his Marines between those high banks.  But Wise was worried.  He knew they would soon encounter terrain that afforded no cover at all.  The night was still—the only noticeable sound was the crunching of booted feet.  There was no muttering in the ranks.  Wise thought the night was too still.  He didn’t have a good feeling about what lay ahead.  About 100 yards before the bottleneck, Wise halted his battalion and ordered them off the road.

When the road was clear of Marines, Colonel Wise called for a lieutenant and two rifle squads to reconnoiter the road ahead.  After a slow advance over a couple of hundred yards, rifle fire suddenly erupted from the left, the sound of which was unmistakably Springfield rifles.  Colonel Wise hollered out, “Ceasefire god damn it.  What in the hell do you mean by shooting us?  We’re Americans!”

The firing stopped —the shooters revealed themselves.  They were all that remained of the 3rd Battalion.  “Look to your right,” someone advised, “The Germans are in the Bois de Belleau.”  Colonel Wise no sooner started his men back the way they had come when the Germans opened fire with machine guns.  Their aim was low, but several Marines received wounds.  And then the entire German line opened up; most of the fire was indiscriminate and ineffective.  When Wise and his Marines returned to the battalion’s main body, he instructed his company commanders to take cover along the ridgeline on the left of the road and tie in with what remained of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines.  Colonel Wise shuddered; he was well aware that had he led his battalion further down the road, the Germans might have destroyed 2/5.

While conferring with his company officers, Captain John Blanchfield suddenly grabbed at his groin and then fell to the ground.  A sniper’s well-aimed shot brought him down.  Two young NCOs picked him up and carried him to safety, but he was soon dead.  German fire continued unabated.  Overconfident, Germans began standing up and shooting at the Marines.  Germans also wounded Lieutenant Sam Cummings and several others; their comrades helped them along.  Some of these young men were beyond help.  The well-disciplined Marines held their fire.  There was no good reason to reveal their exact position.

When the NCOs had finally positioned their Marines, the battalion extended a mile in distance.  German fire continued, and it didn’t take much urging for the Marines to begin digging in —just in time for the arrival of more German artillery.

Colonel Wise made his way to his battalion’s left flank to find out about the remnants of 3/5.  He found fifty men; they were all that remained of a rifle company.  The lieutenant commanding the platoon had done a good job establishing defensive positions for his Marines.  They were in mutually supporting foxholes but nervous, which is not unusual.  The lieutenant apologized for firing on Colonel Wise; he explained that the Germans had been probing the Marine’s position for several hours.  Wise informed the young officer that he was now attached to the 2nd Battalion.

Within a half-hour, the soil being sandy and easily disturbed, 2/5 Marines were well-entrenched and expecting a German attack.  No attack materialized.  There were only persistent artillery and a constant stream of machine gunfire.  A continuous stream of machine-gun fire is not how experienced troops fire their automatic weapons; Wise suspected that the German troops were new to the line.

At 0900, Colonel Feland came up behind the ridge on foot.  He informed Wise that 1/5 was now on his left; there was little left of the Third Battalion.  He told the battalion commander, “Stay here and hold this ridge.”

Just as the Marines concluded that the German shelling couldn’t get worse, the German began to employ trench mortars on the Marine position.  Trench mortars were aerial torpedoes about four feet long and packed with explosives.  Once fired, they sailed through the air and landed along the top of the ridge; when they exploded, the entire ridge line shook.  The bombardment kept up for the whole of the day.  Gas shells fell, as well, but they were few.  In time, the regiment sent up a machine gun section to support the 1st and 2nd battalions[2].  No one entrenched on the Marine line could understand why the Germans did not launch a full-scale assault.  Had they done so, with so few men, no defense-in-depth, and no opportunity to establish secondary positions, the Germans would have crushed the First and Second Battalion of the 5th Marines.

The Marines were still on that ridge on the third day.  They held out against German artillery and murderous machine-gun fire; they maintained their position.  The Marines had nothing to shoot at, except trees.  Owing to the Marine positions’ disbursement and the depth of their fighting holes, the third day passed with few casualties.  The supply sergeant sent up cold food in the evening with resupplies of ammunition.  The Marines, on fifty-percent alert, slept as well as they could.  German artillery began again on the morning of the fourth day.

At 0900, a runner came up with a message for the Battalion commander; the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Harbord,[3] wanted to see Colonel Wise at his headquarters.  It was an unusual meeting.  Without going through the regimental commander, Harbord ordered Wise into the attack on Belleau Wood.  Wise went straightaway to the regimental command post to inform Colonel Neville of his orders and requested the return of his third rifle company.

General Harbord had given Wise carte blanch authority to execute his attack.  What Wise did not want to do was to use the same unsuccessful strategy employed by the 6th Marines.  Using the same old playbook would only cost his Marines more suffering.  What Wise wanted was to hit the Germans where they weren’t looking —from behind.

LtCol Wise called for his company commanders.  Captain Wass, Captain Williams[4], Captain Dunbeck, and First Lieutenant Cook soon appeared.  They were red-eyed, unshaven, and dirty.  Wise explained the mission assigned to 2/5, informed him of his plan, outlined the risks, and asked for their opinions.  They agreed with Wise; there was no good reason to launch a frontal assault.  Wise informed his officers that 2/5 would move out at 0400 for an attack before daybreak.  In addition to the standard allotment of 100 rounds of ammunition, each Marine would receive two bandoliers (60 rounds each).  Colonel Neville directed 1/5 relieve 2/5 on the line at midnight.  (Shown right, Captain Lloyd Williams, USMC).

For the rest of the day, company officers and NCOs readied their men.  The Marines displayed no excitement at all.  They were veterans and, as such, resigned to whatever fate had in store for them.  Colonel Wise conferred with Major Terrill, the officer commanding 1/5, and Major John A. Hughes, commanding 1/6, to confirm the midnight relief.  Hughes agreed with Wise’s plan.  A frontal attack would be suicidal, he said.  Hughes offered good insight as to the German defenses and the terrain.  Hughes told him that within the wood was a knoll that extended a mile long and about a half-mile wide.  The knoll rose sharply from the surrounding field; there was an outcrop of boulders cut with gullies and ravines with thick underbrush inhibiting good observation beyond a few feet.  Within this tangle, Hughes continued, were well camouflaged German machine gun nests, protected by fallen trees and woodpiles.  Hughes told Wise to expect sniper fire from ground and treetop positions, by shooters desperate to defend the wood.

Colonel Wise was thankful for his conversation with Hughes, and for the fact that he would not have to make a frontal assault against the German positions.  But his relief was short-lived.  At midnight, General Harbord sent forward another message, countermanding his earlier order and directing Wise to make a frontal assault from the Wood’s southern edge.  Major Hughes’ 1/6 would attack on the right of 2/5[5].  To make sure that the Germans knew the Marines were coming, Harbord ordered a rolling barrage of artillery beginning at 0400.  Wise was dumbstruck.  It was now necessary to change his entire scheme of maneuver.  He called up his company officers and gave them their new orders.

At 0300, the 2/5 was ready to attack.  The early morning hour was still.  Colonel Wise informed his officers that he would establish his command post to the right of the battalion line.  Birds began to chirp; Wise later remembered how amazed he was that there were any birds at all in those woods.  With his Marines positioned for the attack, Colonel Wise awaited the commencement of allied artillery.  The morning light slowly revealed an odd, very eerie looking terrain.

A rolling barrage began at 0400, rounds dropping several hundred yards in front of the Marine position.  A cultivated field extended upward to meet the thick wall of the Belleau Wood.  Artillery pushed dirt high into the air, tons of soil dropping back to earth in a disorderly fashion.  As the bombardment began to creep forward, German machine guns came to life.  The Germans could not see any Marines yet, but the barrage informed them of what direction the attack would come.

Platoon sergeants blew their whistles; on cue, the battalion began its movement forward, now in plain sight of the Germans.  They had the range of these Marines, and young men started dropping, but the line moved steadily on.  In Colonel Wise’s opinion, the Germans could not have done better if they had ordered the attack themselves.  Marines dropped one after another.  In time, the Marine advance disappeared into the wood, and suddenly, German machine-gun fire abated.  Now it was time for the Germans to die.  Company commanders sent word back to Wise: objective achieved; casualties many.

Marines began escorting prisoners to the battalion command post.  These men were from the Jaeger Division.  The prisoners told the Marines that there were 1,800 Germans inside the wood[6].  The Marine strength, before the attack, was half that.  The German soldiers taken as prisoners said that they were glad to be out of the war.

The Marines took the wood.  Every shred of post-battle evidence pointed to the fact that it was a horrific fight.  In front of the German machine-gun nests were dead Marines.  Inside the next lay the remains of Germans.  A strange silence engulfed the entire area.  Colonel Wise looked for Captain Williams.  He instead found Williams executive officer; Captain Williams was dead.  It was pure carnage.  As the Marines continued their advance, Germans feigning death rose and shot them in the back.  This behavior so thoroughly pissed-off the Marines that they stopped taking prisoners; they even shot Germans who had thrown down their weapons —not out of cruelty, but for survival.  A dead enemy can’t kill you.

What made attacking German machine gun positions so dangerous, beyond the obvious, was how the Germans positioned their automatic weapons: Germans protected the first emplacement with two carefully camouflaged machine-gun nests behind it.  As the Marines assaulted one such position, machine gun crews in the rear would wait until the Marines seized the forward nest before opening fire —which was essentially how Second Lieutenant Heiser, of Captain Dunbeck’s company, lost his life.  A stream of machine-gun fire decapitated him.  Among the German soldiers in Belleau Wood, machine gunners were the first to surrender.  Unhappily for them, U.S. Marines were not very inclined to accept their surrender.

Colonel Wise’s companies fought their way through the Belleau Wood, from one side to the other.  A lot of Marines died in the process of taking the wood.  The attack began after daylight, but in some places, the wood was as dark as night, visibility impaired by think foliage, complex terrain, a place with no discernible landmarks.  If one happened to turn entirely around twice, he would lose his sense of direction, and only a compass could set them straight.  The density of the wood’s underbrush made close combat savage, deadly work.  Up close and personal could not have been more personal.  What made the American Marines stand out from their U.S. Army contemporaries was elemental courage, gallantry, fortitude, and the mental and physical hardening and determination instilled into them by their drill instructors.

At the end of this fight, German soldiers still occupied the northeast sector.  Colonel Wise no longer had enough men to take it.  Moreover, he didn’t have a sufficient number of Marines to defend what he’d taken.  Half of 2/5 lay dead, dying or wounded on the field of battle.  Colonel Wise had to establish a defensive perimeter that extended nearly two miles with what remained of his battalion.  Everyone left alive knew that a counterattack was only a matter of time.  Colonel Wise approached Major Hughes and requested the loan of a company of Marines to press the remaining Germans, but just then, General Harbord’s courier told Wise not to bother cleaning up the Germans; Army artillery would do the job.  Colonel Wise shook his head because he knew artillery would do nothing to defend Belleau Wood.  Major Snow brought up two companies of combat engineers; Wise promoted them to infantry and set them into defensive positions.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of stretcher-bearers emerged from the wood.  For some, medical attention mattered; for most, it didn’t.  This carnage was the price of glory; a word one never hears from the lips of a combat Marine.  There is glory, of course, but only in the sense that young, well-trained American Marines can overcome their natural fear of death to accomplish that which is necessary, and in this process, distinguishing themselves at the most critical of times.

Semper Fidelis

Post Script

The Battle of Belleau Wood exacted a heavy toll on the 4th Marine Brigade.  Within this brigade of 9,500 Marines, 1,000 lost their lives while in action, 4,000 more received serious battle wounds from gunfire or mustard gas —a 55% casualty rate.  Colonel Thomas Holcomb’s 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines, suffered 764 casualties out of roughly 900-man assigned.  The battle ended in victory for the American Expedition Forces, but its significance went far beyond a single bloody engagement.

In subsequent years, the Marine Corps underwent a substantial reorganization and a change in direction, from its traditional role of serving in ship’s detachments to a multi-purpose force in readiness.  The Corps’ senior officers who were ultimately responsible for this reorganization were men who fought at Belleau Wood, including future commandants John A. Lejeune, Clifton Cates, Lemuel Shepherd, Jr., Wendell Neville, and Thomas Holcomb.

The list of Belleau Wood combatants also includes Roy Geiger, the only Marine to command a U.S. field army.  Charles F. B. Price commanded the 2nd Marine Division in World War II.  Holland M. “Howling Mad” Smith commanded V Amphibious Corps in World War II, and Keller E. Rockey commanded the 5th Marine Division during the battle for Iwo Jima.  Merwin Silverthorn was a sergeant in the 5th Marines who later retired as a lieutenant general as one of the Marine Corps’ foremost authorities on amphibious warfare.

Modern Marines refer to these World War I veterans as the “Old Breed.”  The men identified above later shaped the Marine Corps in its new image: a force in readiness.  They created and implemented intense training programs, adopted new weapons, devised new battlefield tactics, emphasized the importance of contingency planning, and instituted rigorous education programs for officers, noncommissioned officers, and entry-level Marines.  Wisely, the Marine Corps learned many lessons from the Battle of Belleau Wood, and these lessons in turn prepared future Marines for World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle Eastern Wars.

Endnotes:

[1] Logan Feland (1869-1936) was a career Marine Corps officer who retired as a major general in 1933.  He participated in the Spanish American War while serving with the 3rd Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, and as a Marine Corps officer from 1899.  In every battle in which he served, Feland was at the forefront of the fight.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Army Distinguished Service Medal, and five awards of the Silver Star medal.

[2] At this particular time, all crew-served weapons were held in readiness by the brigade, distributed to regiments on an “as needed” basis.

[3] James Guthrie Harbord (1866-1947) was a senior officer of the US Army who, during World War I, commanded the 4th Marine Brigade during the battles of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

[4] Captain Lloyd Williams commanded the 51st Company, 2/5.  He will live forever in the hearts of Marines for his famous reply to a French colonel.  As the Marines took their positions on 2 June, relieving elements of the French army, the colonel was attempting to acquaint the Americans with the realities of the situation outside Belleau Wood and not trusting his spoken English, wrote a note to Williams ordering him to retreat.  Captain Williams looked at the colonel coldly and said, “Retreat hell!  We just got here.”  Other Marine officers parroted Williams’ eloquence several times since then.

[5] Major Hughes later claimed that he received no such order from Harbord.

[6] It was actually around 2,500 Germans.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.

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