- Historic Sites
Bloody Belleau Wood
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
In the aftermath there was only a broken wood of second-growth timber where corpses lay in pools of blood, the red trickles thinning out until they formed into pools again around rocky nests where both Germans and Americans slumped across machine guns, with trails of wounded leading farther on to the edge of the woods. There were shallow trenches along this skirting fringe of trees, and frantic victors, lifting the weight of German dead, stretched bayoneted corpses lengthwise in lieu of sandbags for a parados against inevitable counterattacks. All through the wood the U.S. Navy’s hospital corpsmen swarmed, here and there a captured German medic aiding. To the latter, there seemed to be no change in a four-year situation. It was all a matter of applying sponges and tourniquets wherever they might be; of crying “ Langsam … langsam ” (“Slowly … slowly”) to prisoners lifting Yanks on stretchers made by slinging a blanket between two Mauser rifles, barrels still hot from the intense fire directed at the leathernecks. As the medics and wounded awaited the arrival of more prisoners for carrying parties—there were gangs of them in groups of twenty and thirty—shots, screams, and battlefield yells told them where the fighting continued in the twilight of isolated glades and wooded patches. Wounded men became alarmed when some German brancardier would stoop to loosen a tourniquet and bleed a man a little. “ Es vas besser ,” these veterans would explain. Some lad from Milwaukee would sit up and translate: “He does it so you won’t fester and get gangrene.” Around nine o’clock Colonel Neville messaged Harbord: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”
Harbord was sick of slaughter. In a moment of indulgence he had permitted his headquarters’ first sergeant, always nagging the General, to participate in an attack, and now he had to send out searchers to find the body. He had given his favorite messman the same permission, this for the afternoon attack when the eager messman pleaded that he had found a buddy who would take his place if he were late getting back to supper. He, too, was killed. Harbord had never ceased to scold officers for getting themselves killed in droves, saying the proportions were now reaching the tragic percentages of Britain’s Old Contemptibles in the battles of 1914; now the 3rd Battalion was almost bereft of them. Harbord read Neville’s message. Words like “glory” were not in his lexicon. He merely replied: “Your Shearer Battalion has done splendid work.” And this was the capture of Belleau Wood.
There have been many differing views as to the importance of Belleau Wood, though all historians agree that, whatever its tactical value, the performance of the Americans was an inspiration to the failing French, who had suffered 400,000 casualties since March 21. Taking part in their first major action of the war, the Americans had proved beyond a doubt that they could fight; after Belleau Wood, not even the Germans would dispute that fact. Lieutenant von Buy, examining prisoners from the 2nd Division, informed his group commander that the Americans were “of assault quality.” “The various attacks by both of the Marine regiments were carried out with vigor and regardless of losses. The moral effect of our firearms did not materially check the advance of the infantry. The nerves of the Americans are still unshaken.” Of the doughboy replacements he could say:
Millions were ready to take their places. The personnel may be considered excellent. They are healthy, strong, and physically well-developed men from eighteen-twenty who, at present, lack only the necessary training to make them into a very worthy opponent. The spirit of the troops is fresh and one of careless confidence. A characteristic expression of one of the prisoners is “We kill or get killed.” The prisoners made a wide-awake, agreeable impression; but they were entirely disinterested in military matters.
Lieutenant von Buy—an intellectual with the burgundy stripe of the General Staff—was amazed at a salient characteristic of his captives. They considered themselves Americans! “Only a few of the men are genuine Americans by ancestry, the majority is of German, Dutch, or Italian parentage; but these halfAmericans, who with few exceptions were born in America, and who never before had been in Europe, consider themselves unhesitatingly as genuine sons of America.”
Harbord had Belleau Wood, but he knew relief of his leathernecks was not imminent, even though it had been promised for June 25. A product of the Regular Army, familiar with its ranking personnel, whom he first knew as an enlisted man, Harbord jestingly told his leatherneck staff that the doughboy brigade would never consent to relief until it was identified with a show all its own. As if to prove Harbord’s jest, Dégoutte singled out the town of Vaux, one mile west of Château-Thierry, as the next objective.
Its two hundred souls were people of means who lived in fortress-strong houses with fine gardens behind heavy walls, establishments built of stone to last out the ages. Few doomed villages were ever so thoroughly reconnoitered before being reduced to rock piles. All soldiers of the 2§rd Infantry, and those of the gth Infantry who had sought and been given a piece of the action, knew the nature and location of every machinegun pit ringing the town, every house in it, and some even knew the names of the occupants, long since fled.