Bloody Belleau Wood

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The two friends drove into Bouresches and were saddened to find the warm tile of yellow roofs now repaired with galvanized iron, hideous where it glinted blue in the sun. They found the estaminet, ordered wine for the mayor and sundry farmers, switched to brandy, and soon had the villagers, none of whom they had ever seen before, almost feloniously drunk. The major learned that the old man had taken his blind wife farther south. The mayor called the captain aside and walked him to a nearby barn, where deep in the gloom he could see a U.S. Army 1918 Dodge. His Honor set the spark and the throttle levers on the steering-wheel quadrant, and twisted the crank. The old Dodge began tickety-ticking like a watch. “ Bonne voiture! ” belched the mayor. In what patch of woods had the mayor been hiding? Had he stolen the Dodge? Unlikely, M’sieu. Some Marine had sold it to him.

The orchard was small and plain, and much as the captain had imagined it, apple trees above a fine stone wall six feet high with a broken-glass crown to thwart any urchin who did not have a corduroy jacket thick enough to pad the jagged teeth. Someone had replaced the gate on its iron strap hinges, the gate he had removed for speedier access to light Chauchat and Hotchkiss machine guns and a captured Maxim placed there to repel the many probings in the dark. The two friends pulled the bell rope and a young woman appeared, auburn-haired, pale from a recent confinement, a pallid baby blinking at her breast. The two friends explained that they had done some fighting around the orchard and would like to sit there for a time to smoke a cigarette.

“Then it was you who defiled our orchard,” said the young Frenchwoman, narrowing the distance between gate and gatepost. The captain wanted to say that he had left no German dead in the orchard; they had been dumped into the streets after the bestial frenzy of night fighting beneath white parachute flares and many-colored rockets, fighting amidst hoarse screams and exultant shouts so intense that a man was enervated for hours afterward, shuddering at the thought that, had he stopped to put a fresh clip in a pistol instead of seizing a shovel and splitting a raider’s skull beneath his pillbox cap, he would not have lived to see the morning.

“You did not save my village, M’sieu,” the young mother went on. “You ruined the soil of the orchard. Every year we dig up the empty cartouches from les mitrailleuses . The brass can be tasted in the fruit itself, M’sieu. When you left, why did you not clean up our orchard? Take your sordid cartouches with you?” She closed the gate without haste.

“I don’t think I’ll try to see the grandfather clock,” said the major.

The major climbed the railway embankment for a German’s-eye view of Bouresches and marvelled that Robertson had ever taken the town with rifle and bayonet and lived. And that business of Lieutenant Moore and Sergeant Major Quick driving a laden ammunition truck in daylight over open fields into the town. … Some men, such as the sergeant major, possessed the maximum durability, fortune always at its peak, that Almighty God sometimes vouchsafed a soldier. At Guantanamo in 1898 when the U.S. Fleet began firing on his battalion’s positions, Quick stood on ramparts to signal “cease firing” for an hour before a quartermaster happened to read him. (See “How We Got Guantanamo,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1962.)

The captain, sticking to level ground, came upon a long-forgotten hedge. There had been a badly wounded doughboy officer lying beneath it one mid-June night, come with a company of the 7th Infantry of the 3rd Division to relieve the exhausted Marines in a hell of high explosives and toxic shells. He had not made it, this officer, but he had offered his life to relieve his unknown friend. What was his name? Lieutenant Loucks: it came back after seven years.

Nearby the town there was a cemetery of German dead, crosses creosoted black by the thrifty French, names stencilled in white, home towns included in the legend. The name of Mulhausen was prominent: these boys came from the country around Strasbourg, which was German from 1871 to 1918. Here were many of the 250 men who broke into Bouresches one night and almost won it back. They left fifty dead in the streets and orchards before being beaten off, uncounted others in fields behind the village. The two friends drove by the German cemetery without a word, and entered Belleau Wood.

Seven years before, on the evening of the same day, June 6, elements of the 2nd Division’s Marine Brigade lay shattered and exhausted in the confused tangle of the Bois de Belleau, having seized about twothirds of the forest at awful cost by overwhelming enemy machine-gun nests with rifle and bayonet. Unable to advance farther in the dark with their ranks so depleted, uncertain about the future when the Germans struck back, as they assuredly would, the leathernecks had merely set the stage for a long nightmare that could have been avoided with the help of one weapon. The British Mark IV tank was the key to unlock the gates of Belleau Wood in fifteen minutes, but it was never available to the Yanks. Had the Marines possessed two companies of these tanks, clumsily lumbering over scrub and brush with field guns in their snouts, machine guns for antennas, and Chauchat gunners, riflemen, and grenadiers swarming around them, the name of Belleau Wood would not have been long remembered.