- Historic Sites
Bloody Belleau Wood
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
For nineteen days in June of 1918, American marines and doughboys contested a fire-raked square mile of French woodland against the best Germany had to offer and, at terrible cost, prevailed. Laurence Stallings, co-author of What Price Glory? , served at Belleau Wood as a young marine officer and was himself grievously wounded in the last day of fighting there. Here Mr. Stallings tells the story of this first major encounter in which the American Expeditionary Force was involved. His account is taken from his book, The Doughboys , a history of the A.E.F. in France, due this month from Harper & Row.
In the spring of 1918, Germany made her great bid for victory in the four-year deadlock on the western front and came very close to winning the First World War. She staked everything on one awesome gamble—that she could defeat the weakened British and French before the Americans arrived in force that summer. So, on March 21, the German commander, General Erich Ludendorff, struck near the juncture of the British and French lines in Picardy; before his offensive lost momentum, he had driven the Allies back some forty miles. In April Ludendorff attacked again, this time farther to the north, and all but hurled the British into the sea. Then, on May 27, came his third and in some ways most menacing thrust. In a surprise attack, the German Seventh Army smashed along the chalky ridges north of the Aisne River; by May 31, leading units had reached the Marne River, little more than forty miles away from Paris: it seemed like 1914 all over again.
Every available man was needed; now, ready or not, the Americans would have to fight. Thus, late in the afternoon of May ji, doughboys of the $rd Division began to arrive at Château-Thierry on the Marne. The following day, the American 2nd Division (Major General Omar Bundy), with 26,000 men in its twin brigades of Regulars and Marines, was rushed in to plug a four-mile gap in the line left by a disintegrating French division. As part of General Jean Degoutte’s XXI French Corps, the 2nd held a sector a few miles west of Château-Thierry. Its line faced the village of Bouresches and a nearby mass of trees and rocks called the Bois de Belleau—Belleau Wood. For the better part of a week, the 2nd stood its ground against the oncoming Germans; then the order came to counterattack.
June 6, 1918—few days in the history of American arms have witnessed so much bravery, and such futile sacrifice. But unhappily, as it proved, the ordeal of the 2nd Division was far from over. Recalling a visit he later made to Bouresches on that tragic anniversary, Mr. Stallings—who refers to himself only as the captain with the foot made of Idaho willow-wood—begins his moving account of the nightmare that was Belleau Wood. —The Editors
On the morning of June 6, 1925, two retired Marine officers returned to the village of Bouresches, more out of curiosity than sentiment, to see how two friends, Lieutenant James Robertson and Lieutenant Clifton B. Gates, had stayed alive while leading platoons across the field from Triangle Farm. Neither of the two visitors, one a major with a withered arm, the other a captain with a foot made of Idaho willow, knew much about Bouresches, though they had spent some time in garrison there seven years before, after relieving Robertson’s outfit. In a disputed town there were few daytime vistas, and Bouresches in mid-June, 1918, was an ideal place to get killed if one so much as threw his shadow across a doorway.
The major was desirous of seeing two things in Bouresches. He wished to see if the old man who kept his blind wife in the cellar throughout the fighting was still there; and further, he wished to see if the people in the first house to the right as one entered the village had restored the fine old fruitwood case of a grandfather clock in the parlor. The French, falling back during the brief time they held Bouresches, had desecrated this clock, overturning it and using the case as a privy seat, with velvet portieres nearby to do the office of toilet tissue. The major had seen war at Vera Cruz, and amid the savage fighting in the jungles of Haiti; but this vandalism had shocked him beyond anything else he had ever seen. He had been in great pain at the time, having been shot through the left elbow the week before, and his arm was in a sling and swollen like a football. The major had refused to leave the field on June 8, and was led away on June 22 when the enemy got to his other arm.
The captain with the Idaho willow foot wanted to see the apple orchard in the garden next to the house at the left side of the main street. He had managed a few hours’ sleep there that busy week, but only knew its walls of flint and fragrant trees by night. German snipers in the railroad station on the embankment beyond the village would have killed him in five seconds had he visited the orchard by day.