Jun 6

The Battle of Belleau Wood: a Devilish Overview

Wednesday, June 6, 2018 2:00 PM

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June 6th, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood. This three week long engagement between German infantry forces and the 4th Marine Brigade helped forge the culture of the Corps over the past century. Perhaps most significantly, the Germans gifted the Marines with one of their favorite nicknames: the Devil Dogs, but that is not even close to the most interesting part of the battle. Let’s take a closer look at what Belleau Wood was when it was fought and what it left in its wake.

 

If the Marines did not win the Battle, the Germans could have taken Paris.

The battle held great strategic significance to the outcome of World War I. By road, Belleau Wood is located 55.24 miles (88.8 kilometers) from Paris. If the Marines did not help stop the Aisne offensive, the Germans could have continued towards the French capital and ended the war.

(Photo: Google Earth)

 

Belleau Wood was considered lost when the Marines arrived.

The day after a contingent of Southeast Asians trucked the Marines towards the German force, the Americans met large groups of French refugees. The inhabitants of the surrounding towns were convinced all was lost, lamenting that “La guerre est finie” (the war is over). Additionally, the French forces the Marines came to relieve urged them to retreat, to which an officer replied “Retreat, hell! We just got here.”

 

A Marine Corps lieutenant almost died five times, but survived.

Second Lieutenant Clifton Cates was inches away from a gunshot wound three times. Two bullets ricocheted off his hemet, and a third clipped his shoulder strap. Additionally, he survived a shell burst that killed his orderly with its concussion alone and suffered burns from a mustard gas attack during heavy German artillery bombardment. He made a name for himself as one of the most effective commanders during the battle and later became the 19th Commandant of the Marine Corps. He died in 1970 in what was formerly the U.S. Naval hospital in Annapolis Maryland, now the headquarters for the U.S. Naval Institute.

(Photo: Marine Corps Association)

 

The battle not only engulfed the woods, but also the surrounding towns.

The photo below shows the main wooded area of the battle (right of center, crescent shaped) as well as towns around it. The Marines advanced primarily from the East, while the Germans were already defensively situated when they arrived. The town of Bouresches (bottom right hand corner) was of particular significance in the opening days of the battle. Heavily outnumbered, a team of 24 men led by Second Lieutenant Clifton Cates cleared the town of German resistance early on. This allowed Marine elements to make their advance northwestward to clear the woods while others moved eastward across the open wheat fields that lay to the west of the woods.

(Photo: Google Earth)

 

Below is a view looking northeast over the wheat fields across which the Marines made a major assault on June 6th 2018.

(Photo: Marine Corps History Division)

(Photo: Marine Corps History Division)

 

In this image, Marines take a rest in the woods after a bout of hard fighting. The battle was difficult not just because of the German resistance. The roughness of the bramble through which the Marines had to fight is clear.

(Photo: The Marine Corps History Division)

(Photo: The Marine Corps History Division)

 

The Marines suffered more casualties in one day at Belleau Wood than in their entire history.

On June 6th, 1918, the Marines suffered 1,087 casualties. This included 6 officers and 222 enlisted killed. The wounded numbered 25 officers and 834 enlisted. This outweighs all previous casualties suffered by the Corps combined throughout its history.

 

The Navy Named Two Ships After the Battle.

The first (CVL-24) was a light carrier used during World War II. The ship was commissioned in March of 1943, but decommissioned after four years. The American navy gave the ship to the French with whom it served in Indochina. In 1960, the ship was returned to the United States and stricken.

(Photo: U.S. Naval Institute)

The second Belleau Wood (LHA 3) was the first amphibious assault ship to be home-ported outside the United States. The ship was commissioned in 1978 and decommissioned in 2005. It was the third ship of the Tarawa class.

(Photo: Photographer 3rd class Kerryl Cacho)

 

The battle lives on.

A century ago, Major Maurice Shearer marked the Marine victory at Belleau Wood with his report: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.” Even after so much time, the battle remains a fixture of Marine Corps history, and continues to affect its unique sense of identity as a fighting force.