Nightmare at Belleau Wood

The year before the Americans entered the war, the United States had a small army of barely 100,000 men. US president Woodrow Wilson had mixed feelings about committing his country to the conflict. Many American citizens were European immigrants, who had fled to the New World partly to avoid wars like the one currently tearing their old countries apart. Also, a sizable proportion of America’s immigrants were from Germany, further complicating any decision about which side to support.

In January 1917, Germany’s military commanders decided to allow their U-boats to sink any ship found in British waters. Inevitably, this led to the loss of American cargo ships and the occasional passenger liner, too. This shifted public opinion in America from wary neutrality to a more anti-German outlook. Wilson guessed the time was right; so in April 1917, the United States finally joined the war on the side of the Allies.

Once the Americans had joined the conflict, they set about preparing to prove themselves on the world stage with all the enthusiasm of the bright, upcoming and immensely prosperous nation they had recently become. By the time the war ended in November 1918, there were four million US citizens in the armed forces, and three and three-quarter million of them had been transported over to Europe. They came packed like sardines, in liners hurriedly transformed into troopships. Here, men slept in steel and wire bunk beds placed four on top of each other. The journey was so bad that many soldiers later remarked the trenches that awaited them were more comfortable.

The Germans knew America joining the Allies would make their own victory far more unlikely. Yet in 1917 the war was going Germany’s way. Russia, in the throes of revolution, was desperate to make peace, which would end fighting on the Eastern Front. Germany prepared to turn its full attention to the Western Front, intending to sweep away the exhausted French and British armies with the full force of its previously divided army.

At the beginning of 1918, American troopships with newly trained soldiers began to arrive in France, but there were still only a few thousand American troops in Europe. It took time, after all, to raise and prepare a fighting force almost from scratch, and to transport huge numbers of men across the Atlantic. The German generals knew that to win in the West, they would have to strike hard before the Americans arrived in unstoppable numbers. At the end of March, in a carefully planned attack known as the Ludendorff Offensive, German troops broke through the Allied front lines. Part of their success was due to a new tactic. They made surprise attacks to discover their enemy’s weak spots, then broke through in strength when they found them.

Throughout the spring, the German armies made a series of extraordinary advances, causing panic among British and French forces. In April, British commander-in-chief Field Marshal Haig issued the desperate order: “With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight to the end.”

Haig feared the loss of the French and Belgian Channel ports, from which troops and supplies were easily transported from Britain to its army on the Western Front. The threat to the French was even more drastic. By early June, the German army had reached the River Marne and the town of Château-Thierry, barely 70km (40 miles) from Paris. As roads became clogged with French civilians fleeing from the fighting, exhausted and demoralized troops melted away, unable to find the will to fight the tidal wave of German troops that welled up before them.

In these desperate circumstances, the British and French generals turned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), the first wave of American troops to arrive in Europe, to save the situation. The AEF was under the command of General John J. Pershing. He was well aware that his British and French allies had all but lost the will to wage the war. So the burden of winning was now mainly on the shoulders of his fresh and enthusiastic troops. Yet, so far, Pershing had found commanding his army in Europe to be an unexpectedly frustrating experience. Rather than welcoming the Americans as equal partners, the British and French generals had persistently talked down to Pershing and his staff. They assumed the Americans were naïve and inexperienced – which of course they were. In particular, the Europeans believed that American soldiers would not really have the courage and motivation to fight. One of Pershing’s staff remembers the American commander-in-chief banging his fists on the table in a rage and shouting, “I am certainly going to jump down the throat of the next person who asks me ‘Will the Americans really fight?’ ”

The fault for this lack of understanding and trust between the three sides did not entirely lie with the Europeans. Throughout the war, British and French generals had fought together as allies. The Americans, on President Wilson’s insistence, did not wish to be considered allies, preferring the term “co-belligerents”. They intended to fight alongside the French and British, but not with them. But this situation changed for the better during the Ludendorff Offensive. Drastic, combined action was called for. For the duration of the crisis, all the Allied forces were placed under the control of the veteran French commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

It was in May 1918 that American soldiers first engaged the German army in heavy fighting, at the small village of Cantigny, near the River Somme. Over a third of the American forces there were killed or injured in three days of intense combat – more than enough to prove they were capable of fighting with as much determination as anyone.

At the end of May, Pershing was asked to send soldiers to plug a weak spot in the Allied lines at the town of Château-Thierry. As the German army approached, French troops had fled along with a desperate stream of terrified civilians, clogging the roads away from the town. The nearest American soldiers, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, were 160 km (100 miles) away. The Americans had to make an exhausting overnight journey, and were expected to begin fighting as soon as they got there. As they approached their destination, the roads became thicker with fleeing French troops and civilians. “You’re too late,” they kept shouting at the Americans, which can hardly have helped to boost their confidence.

When they arrived in the almost deserted town on June 1, the Americans found a small number of African troops defending it – left behind by their French colonial masters to fight and die in a seemingly impossible situation. Now, they were joined by 17,000 American troops, from both the army and the marines. When the Germans arrived, the battle for the town was intense, but the Americans held on. Fighting turned instead to the nearby town of Lucy-le-Bocage, close to Belleau Wood – a dense, almost impenetrable area of forest and rock around a mile long, and half a mile deep. Belleau Wood had no particular value in itself, but German troops had set up defensive positions there over June 2 and 3. It was proving to be a particularly effective base from which to harass the Americans, so army commanders decided that the Germans had to be driven out – especially as machine gun fire from positions cleverly hidden in the thick undergrowth was causing high casualties.

It had already been a hard battle for the Americans. The whole time they had been in Château-Thierry it had not stopped raining. Artillery fire had fallen on them constantly, and German planes frequently swooped down from the sky to strafe them. It was difficult to shake off the feeling that they were facing a foe far superior in strength and experience.

In many ways, the German troops were much better. They had the most vital advantage any soldier can have – experience. But the Americans were out to prove themselves. They were fresh, well-armed and determined to win. When a French senior officer suggested to Colonel Wendell C. Neville, commander of the 5th Marines, that his men should withdraw, Neville spat: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”

His marines had had a particularly difficult journey to the Château-Thierry battlefront and, for many of them, it would be their first time in combat. They had been dropped at Meaux station, 30km (20 miles) from the fighting, and had then had to march for two hours uphill. All around them, French artillery batteries fired a continuous barrage over to the German lines, and the ground shook constantly. Neville’s men were exhausted, drenched from the rain, and had not been able to wash or shave for days.

Eventually, they arrived at a rendezvous point and were transferred to trucks which carried them towards Château-Thierry. Once there, they were sent to the nearby town of Lucy-le-Bocage, right next to Belleau Wood. Above the woods they spotted German observation balloons (which they nicknamed “sausages” because of their elongated shape). This was not good news. Certain they had been spotted, they awaited their enemy’s attentions.

One marine private, William Francis, noted his thoughts about the place in his diary: “The Germans are shelling us pretty hard and the town is practically destroyed… A building on our right is burning, and as the flames light up the ground around us I can see dead marines lying in the narrow road…” Then his battalion was ordered into Belleau Wood itself:

“At three o’ clock [a.m.] we started again for the front trenches. We must reach the front lines before daylight. The woods we are going through is [sic] very dense, it seems impossible to make our way through, the limbs of the trees are hitting us in the face and the men are cursing like the devil… After a miserable night of hiking we reached the front-line trenches… The Germans are shelling us very hard; a shell hit close by caving in our dug-out. A friend by the name of Burke was just killed, a piece of shrapnel taking his head off.”

The trenches his fellow soldiers found themselves in were barely waist-high. After their exhausting day, men had to try to sleep while crouching ankle-deep in water.

Over the next couple of days, the Germans launched night attacks on the newly arrived Americans. Francis recorded that they were attacked throughout the hours of darkness. On one occasion, a soldier threw a grenade at the approaching Germans, only to have it bounce off a tree and land back in his trench: “… we saw it just in time to hit the bottom of our trench and keep from getting killed. I could hardly keep from laughing for the boy on the other side of me started cursing because he came near to getting killed by one of our own men.”

On June 6, marines were involved in a particularly costly assault on the woods, when they were ordered to charge against well-defended German positions over an open field. Pinned down by heavy fire during this attack, marine veteran Sergeant Dan Daly had inspired his men with the winning phrase: “Come on ya sons of ****, ya wanna live for ever?” A journalist had been on hand to capture the moment. Daly’s immortality in Marine Corps folk law was assured. Such gung-ho bravery in the face of daunting odds was exactly what the marines were supposed to be all about. Daly survived the attack, and the war, although he was wounded in the fighting at Belleau Wood.

What followed was the worst single day’s fighting in Marine Corps history, with 1,087 men killed or wounded. But the marines gained a foothold in the woods, and captured the small town of Bouresches on its edge.

Fighting for possession of Belleau Wood took on a grisly, claustrophobic quality. Inside this confined battleground, trees were close together and it was constantly dark. Thick underbrush often covered the ground left between the trees, and there were huge boulders there too, complete with their own little nooks and crannies.

The entire battle was fought in an atmosphere of great confusion. So dense were the woods, it was possible for enemies to pass within a few feet of each other and not see their opponents. In such a place, edgy soldiers had to exercise great care not to shoot their own comrades. As both German and American troops poured into this enclosed place, the ground between the trees became thick with fallen bodies. The personal debris of these dead soldiers – their knapsacks, letters from home and tattered uniforms – all blew around in the wind, pathetic remnants of their young lives, and dark omens for those who were still alive. Hand grenades, machine guns, gas and explosive shells all stripped the leaves from the trees.

When enemies met, it was often in that most dreaded form of fighting, hand-to-hand combat. Men fought with knuckle-dusters, bayonets and a hideous device the marines called a “toad-sticker” – a long, triangular blade attached to a knuckle handle. One marine private, who had been in the thick of hand-to-hand fighting for a terrifying 15 minutes before their surviving German opponents fled, wrote of the awful psychological strain such combat caused. After the fighting, he noted in a letter home, “most of us just sat down and cried.”

Having to hold onto such a tightly confined space was an unnerving experience. Shells fell constantly on the American positions, and machine-gun and rifle fire continually sprayed through the trees, raining down chunks of rock, earth and splintered wood on the soldiers. The Germans also fired trench mortars at them – tube-like projectiles 1.3m (4ft) long, packed with high explosives, that the Americans called “aerial torpedoes”. They would sail up in the air, stop leisurely at the apex of their short, high arc, and then come crashing down with an explosion that shook all the ground around.

Gas shells also landed in the woods, leaving pockets of highly noxious fumes lurking low on the ground. Usually, the gas dispersed enough to be harmless, but it could catch sleeping or resting marines lying in shallow fox-holes, and leave them choking and retching. On one occasion, in the middle of a gas attack, Gunnery Sergeant Frederick Stockham gave his gas mask to a wounded marine. Stockham died a wretched death a few days later, his lungs destroyed by the gas, but he was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor in 1939.

When the woods were shelled at night, violent flashes of blue flame would silhouette the splintered tree trunks and branches. Sometimes, said one marine officer, the flashes would come so fast, “it looked as if a great ragged searchlight was playing up and down in the dark.” The shell blasts would hammer on the eardrums of the soldiers in the woods, until their ears sang in a constant, disorienting hum. But, more often than not, the shell fire proved ineffective. The blast of the shells was muffled by the density of the trees and vegetation.

With visibility so poor, soldiers on the edge of the woods followed the course of the battles within by listening to a ghastly procession of noises. From time to time, there would be a rapid ripple of machine-gun fire. This could only mean marines were attacking a machine-gun nest, and men were surely dying as they rushed at it. Then there would be an ominous pause, as the machine gunners were killed by bayonets and trench knives – the silent weapons of hand-to-hand fighting.

By June 11, two-thirds of the woods had been captured by the Americans, who were now close to physical exhaustion. But the Germans counter-attacked in force, and intense fighting continued. As corpses piled up inside the woods, marines picked their way past the bodies of their enemy. Sometimes among the dead would be a living soldier, who would rise up behind them to shoot them in the back. The woods were full of snipers, both high in the trees and hidden in the undergrowth. These courageous men, hand-picked for a job that promised almost certain death, were an ever-present hazard when the machine-gunning and shelling died down, and the woods took on a sinister silence.

As if this were not enough, it was easy to get lost in such thick woods. There were few landmarks, and a man could lose all sense of direction. Soldiers had to carry compasses to make sure they returned to their own lines, rather than the enemy’s.

On June 23, the Americans withdrew their troops and bombarded the forest for a full 14 hours. Then the soldiers entered again in force, and fought for another two days to try to rid Belleau Wood of German troops. Fighting was so heavy that 200 ambulances were needed to ferry away the wounded. Eventually, on June 26, Belleau Wood finally fell into American hands. It had taken an agonizing 26 days.

Belleau Wood was one of the most significant battles of the war. If the Americans had not halted the German advance, the Germans could have carried on to Paris. US army general Robert L. Bullard was in no doubt as to the value of these men’s achievement: “Had [the marines] arrived a few hours later I think that would have been the beginning of the end – France could not have stood the loss of Paris.” The fighting at Belleau Wood was so intense, it also put an end to the speculation about whether American soldiers would really have the heart to fight.

But, for this victory, the marines paid a terrible price. On average, one in three men who took part in the battle was killed or wounded. One company lost 230 of its 250 men.

When the fighting ended, Marine Colonel Frederick May Wise, commander of the second battalion of the 5th Marines, reviewed his men: “At the battle’s end… I lined the men up and looked over them. It was enough to break your heart. I had left Courcelles [their previous French position] on May 31 with 965 men and 26 officers – the best battalion I ever saw anywhere. I had taken them, raw recruits for the most. Ten months I had trained them. I had seen them grow into marines. Now before me stood 350 men and six officers; 615 men and 19 officers were gone.”

Belleau Wood showed that the American military meant serious business. The Americans would fight a hard war, and casualties would be high, despite the short time they were engaged on the Western Front. By the time the war ended, over 126,000 American troops had lost their lives and 250,000 were wounded.

The American marines were immensely proud of their victory at Belleau Wood. The name is now given to a marine aircraft and troop carrier currently in service in the United States Navy. But, nearly 90 years later, the battle is still a source of controversy and resentment. Some American military historians feel marines should never have been sent into the woods. After all, similar fighting, especially between British and German troops in heavily wooded areas around the Somme and Ypres, had resulted in similarly high casualties. Perhaps American commanders should not have agreed to requests from their French counterparts to clear and hold this dreadful battleground.

Today, the forest looks as beautiful as any deep wood, and is a popular spot for family picnics. When the sun shines, dappled light plays through the branches, giving a luminous glow to the green moss growing up the trees and a fleeting warmth to the dank, brown carpet of leaves covering the ground. But, for decades after the fighting there, bodies and unexploded shells continued to be discovered in the forest, and only in their nightmares would visitors venture into the darker depths of Belleau Wood.

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