Do you want to live forever?: Marine assault was turning point of WWI

U.S. Marines fought at Belleau Wood from June 6-26 1918.

By Jeffrey S. Williams

Mankato Times

When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28, 1914, it set in motion a series of events that led to the outbreak of World War I a month later.

Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, which was followed by Germany declaring war on Russia and France a week later. The British declared war on Germany on August 4 followed by the Japanese joining the British with their own declaration nine days later.

Known as the Central Powers, Germany was aided by Austria-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empire. Their opponents, Great Britain, Russia, France, Italy and Japan, are better known as the Allied Powers. The United States, meanwhile, continued to sit out of the Great War for the next three years. 

The Great War was fought on two fronts by late August 1914 and the Germans had the advantage on both.

On the Eastern Front, the German Army destroyed the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg near Olsztyn, Poland from August 26-30. The Russians sustained casualties around 170,000 including 78,000 killed or wounded with 92,000 taken prisoner, compared to a loss of 13,000 for the Germans.

The Germans advanced through Belgium on the Western Front pushing their 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies against the French 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 9th Armies in the vicinity of Verdun, France beginning September 5 in what became known as the First Battle of the Marne. Over two million soldiers fought in the First Battle of the Marne and casualties are estimated at a half million. The German advance was halted.

Both sides dug in and created an elaborate system of trenches across northeastern France by the time winter set in. Even though the trenches were supposed to be temporary, they would become a deadly home for soldiers for the next four years.

The United States stayed neutral when the war began in 1914. At that time, there were less than 100,000 American soldiers scattered around the world, while another 120,000 had enrolled in the National Guard. To bolster recruiting, Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1917, which required all males between ages 21 and 30 to register for potential conscription for military service. It would be expanded a year later to include all men from ages 18 to 45. By the end of the war, approximately two million men volunteered for service while another 2.8 million were drafted.

6th Machine Gun battalion at Belleau Wood, June 1918.

After training in the United States, the fresh American troops were arriving at the battlefields in France at the rate of 10,000 each day by the spring of 1918. While the Allied armies were getting replenished, the Germans were unable to replace their losses.  The U.S. Marine Corps entered the war with 511 officers and 13,214 enlisted Marines, and by war’s end had an attained strength of 2,400 officers and 70,000 enlisted.

Nearly fifty additional German Army divisions were freed up by March 1918 when the Russians surrendered on the Eastern Front. Consequently, those divisions were rapidly redeployed to the Western Front in hopes of defeating the Allies before the U.S. forces could be fully deployed.

Once the additional German divisions arrived by May, they unleashed a third offensive against the French between Soissons and Reims, known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, which pushed them to the north bank of the Marne River at Château-Thierry on May 27. The Germans advanced towards Vaux and Belleau Wood four days later. Château-Thierry and Vaux were both occupied by the German Army on June 1 leaving Belleau Wood, a two hundred-acre forest five miles west of Château-Thierry as its next objective while en route to Marigny where they were going to attempt a crossing of the Marne River.

Belleau Wood is a forested area on high ground that runs approximately one mile on its north-south axis and between one-quarter to one-half mile on the east-west axis with Hill 142 to the west of the wood and a wheat field to the southeast. North of the wood was the village of Bouresches which contained sixty buildings and another wheat field.

The U.S. Army’s 2nd Division, which included the 4th Marine Brigade comprised of two Marine Corps regiments and a Marine machine gun battalion, was brought up along the Paris-Metz highway on June 1. The Army’s 9th Infantry regiment was placed between the highway and the Marne River, with the 6th Marine regiment deployed to the east and the 5th Marine regiment to the west and Army’s 23rd Infantry regiment placed in reserve with the line centered on the village of Lucy-le-Bocage.  

The French were further into the wood fighting a delaying action while the Marines were moving into defense on June 2. The Marines, with bayonets, dug a shallow defensive line just north of Lucy-le-Bocage from which they could fight from a prone position. The French succeeded in slowing the German advance by holding against the German’s 10th, 237th and 197th divisions, which gave the Americans enough time to get into line.   

Battle of Belleau Wood map.

When Captain Lloyd Williams, commanding the 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, was advised to withdraw after the French Army was in retreat, the captain replied, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here!”

By June 4, the Germans had more than two thousand soldiers and more than thirty machine guns dug in at Belleau Wood while another one hundred German soldiers and six machine guns held Bouresches. The Marines, in a defensive action, repelled a series of German skirmishes for the next two days before the Allied forces assumed an offensive posture.

At 3:45 a.m. on June 6, the French 167th Division attacked to the left of the American line while the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines launched an attack on Hill 142 to drive the German’s out and prevent them from providing flanking fire against the French. Despite only having two companies in position, missing half of their effective strength, the Marines advanced in waves with bayonets fixed across an open wheat field. They were swept with German machine gun and artillery fire.

As the German Army’s 197th Division was preparing a counterattack, Gunnery Sergeant Ernest A. Janson, who was serving under the name Charles Hoffman, discovered a dozen German soldiers with machine guns set up in a wheat field. He led his detachment on a bayonet charge against the position, personally killing two with his bayonet, and became the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor in World War I by doing so.

Marine Gunner Henry Hulbert, who had just turned fifty years old six months earlier and had received the Medal of Honor in 1899, was awarded the Navy Cross and Distinguished Service Cross for a similar attack which “left seven of the enemy dead and put the remainder to flight.”

The rest of the battalion arrived and went into action and soon the Marines were exhausting their ammunition. By that afternoon, they had driven the Germans off of Hill 142 at a cost of nine officers and 325 enlisted.

Because the 4th Marine Brigade’s attention had been placed upon the morning attack at Hill 142, Army Brigadier General James Harbord, the brigade’s commander, didn’t issue his order to the 6th Marines until 2:05 p.m. The motorcycle courier didn’t arrive at the regiment’s command post until 3:45 p.m. Colonel Albertus Catlin, the regiment’s commander, gave the verbal orders to his brigade commanders at 4 p.m. and the regiment was finally in place for a 5 p.m. attack.

Battle of Belleau Wood painting.

Major Benjamin Berry led his 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines into Belleau Wood while Major Berton Sibley did the same with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines on their right. The second phase of the Allied offensive launched on schedule at 5 p.m., and, like the morning battle, the Marines advanced through a waist-high wheat field into deadly machine gun fire.

First Sergeant Dan Daly from the 73rd Marine Gun Company, who had been the recipient of two Medals of Honor prior to World War I, rallied his Marines forward by yelling, “For Christ’s sake men – come on! Do you want to live forever?” 

The first waves of Marines were slaughtered, but additional waves withstood the heavy machine gun fire, sharpshooters and barbed wire and soon grabbed a toehold in Belleau Wood. It wouldn’t take long before the Marines and German soldiers were engaged in hand-to-hand combat as nightfall approached.

“The minute they got into the woods our boys found themselves in a perfect hornets’ nest of … gunners, grenadiers and riflemen,” Catlin recalled. “There were machine gun nests everywhere — on every hillock … every ravine … and every gun was trained on the … Marines.”

1st Lieutenant Clifton B. Cates led his 4th Platoon, 96th Company, through a ravine to Bouresches. Despite losing half of their strength between the ravine and Bouresches, Cates took out one machine gun as the Germans retreated from their outpost and began setting up a defense of the village. Cates’s defense would be vital for the brigade’s efforts during the remainder of the battle.

During the fighting on June 6, 1918, the 4th Marine Brigade sustained casualties of 31 officers and 1,056 enlisted Marines killed or wounded, making it the largest single loss the Marine Corps had sustained up to that time.

Neither the Marines nor the Germans gave up. A German attack was stopped around midnight on the night of June 7, but they fended off a Marine attack on the morning of June 8.

“The attack we made was the first chance the Marines have had to show what they really had, and I’m mighty glad we got it,” wrote 1st Lieutenant James McBrayer Sellers, 78th Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marines. He was wounded in action on June 8.

Then on June 9, American and French artillery devastated Belleau Wood. The Germans responded with an artillery barrage of their own into Lucy-le-Bocage and Bouresches before reorganizing their defenses inside the forest.

Major John Arthur Hughes led his 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and elements of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion into the woods on the morning of June 10 in an attack from the south. The Germans responded by popping canisters of mustard gas on the attackers. Even with the use of the chemicals, Hughes’s attack continued and was joined by Colonel Frederick May Wise’s 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, advancing from the west.

This is what it may have been like going through the wheat field on the morning of June 6, 1918 at Belleau Wood. Courtesy of the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

At 4 a.m. the next morning, Wise’s Marines advanced through Belleau Wood in a thick morning mist. They advanced in the wrong direction and were cut to ribbons by heavy fire leaving several platoons isolated and then destroyed by interlocking machine gun fire. Despite the costly mix-up, Wise’s men managed to wreak havoc on the southern defensive lines of the Germans.

“As soon as a company of infantry took over their part of the front, what was left of one of my companies came out. Their eyes were red around the rims, bloodshot, burnt out. They were grimed with earth. Their cartridge belts were almost empty. They were damned near exhausted. Past physical limits. Traveling on their naked nerve. But every one of them was cocky … full of fight,” recalled Wise.

One German private wrote, “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows,” while another added, “The Americans are savages. They kill everything that moves.”

German 1st Lieutenant Lothar Tillmann, 40th Grenadier Regiment remarked, “This was the worst day of my life… God has mercifully spared me… The Americans fight like devils.”

The Marines assaulted Belleau Wood six times before they finally forced the Germans to retreat. One brigade of Marines fought off parts of five German Army divisions, several times at the bayonet or in hand-to-hand combat.

Major Maurice Shearer, commanding the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, along with two companies of the 4th Machine Gun Battalion and the 15th Company of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, launched a final attack on June 26 which finally cleared the forest of the last of the German Army. Shearer reported back to headquarters, “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”

The Battle of Belleau Wood was now over. The Allied losses, which included the Marines and Army soldiers from the 2nd Division, along with the French 6th Army and elements of the British IX Corps, totaled 9,777 with 1,811 killed and 7,966 wounded. The estimated loss from the 4th Marine Brigade alone is at 55 percent. They took approximately 1,600 German prisoners, but the total number of German dead is unknown. Most of the American dead are buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery which is adjacent to the ground they fought over.

“This bitter struggle for a bit of ground smaller than Central Park marked the turning point of this whole war,” Catlin recalled.

Twelve years after the battle, Jack West, a company commander during the battle, made his return to Belleau Wood.

“After Belleau Wood, war for us became largely a business. Men, just numbers, changing constantly,” he wrote after his visit. “Here, men were living things, personalities, friends. Here, many of those friends gave all they had…”

A Marine sergeant from the 1st Marine Division takes a drink from the bull dog fountain at Belleau Wood during the 97th Anniversary commemoration in 2015. The fountain with a Mastiff’s head, predated the battle. Legend has it that the Marines received the nickname “Devil Dog’s” from their German opponents after the battle, but recent scholarship shows that the name probably came from the recruiting office in New York. (US Marine Corps Photo).

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