Bloody Belleau Wood

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The action had been set in motion the night before when General Dégoutte passed the word that he was going to counterattack around Belleau Wood—counterattack blindly, for he did not know the enemy strength or disposition there. Around midnight, regimental commanders began receiving orders: the Marines would attack at dawn on June 6, seizing positions in patches of trees and on hillocks facing the wheatfields that stretched north to Belleau Wood. The 23rd Infantry Regiment would advance to support their right flank, but had received no orders in the confusion of French ascendancy at Major General Omar Bundy’s headquarters. The gth Infantry would hold fast a thin line, its main elements in reserve. After attaining this attacking position, which Dégoutte outlined in Paragraph 2 of his order, the Marines would then, at 5 P.M. , execute Paragraph 3 and cross the wheatfields to seize Belleau Wood. The Marines had rifles and bayonets, Chauchat and Hotchkiss guns. They had neither mortars nor hand grenades, nor did they have signal flares or Very pistols. The whole operation seemed nearer to San Juan Hill than the western front, except that no spiritless colonial garrisons awaited the Americans. Degoutte’s name bears no luster in the memories of those whose buddies perished while serving under a Frenchman who was profligate with American blood when all other corps troops in the Aisne-Marne area were digging in to await Ludendorff’s next assault.

Led by lieutenants in Sam Browne belts, prime targets for machine gunners and telescopic riflemen, the first movement went off with dash and verve. But it grew very rough around the square of woods fronting Lucy-le-Bocage; it was, in fact, rough everywhere, with furious fighting until noon. Messages told the story: “We have reached our objective and are entrenching,” Major Julius Turril sent word from his battalion. He could not as yet count losses, but he let his colonel know they were heavy, as indicated in his second sentence:“Williams is up on the left with three platoons —Hamilton in the center and Winans on right—the remnants of other companies have joined the other two.” An outfit without grenades or trench mortars had recourse to the bayonet.

Shortly after noon on the sixth, Dégoutte, satisfied with developments, sent the following message to Brigadier General James G. Harbord, the onetime cavalryman who now commanded the Marine Brigade: “The first part of the operation prescribed in Paragraph 2 having succeeded, the American and Division will execute, this evening, the second part of the operation described in Paragraph 3 of the same order,” which was the proposed capture of the tangled square mile of Belleau Wood.

Lieutenant Hadrot, French Air Squadron 252, dropped a field message: ”… it is uncertain who holds Belleau Wood.” The Marines had taken 150 prisoners, mainly machine gunners, who could have told Hadrot that one German battalion held the main line of resistance in the woods, sacrificial units in thin lines ahead of it, with another battalion in support. Each company had four light Maxim machine guns in the line, with two heavy ones with their gun teams in support. There was a reserve line of heavy machine guns behind the two German battalions but no deep trenches, as they did not intend to remain there after more artillery came up. Machine gunners were behind huge boulders in small ravines, hidden in amphitheatres in the second-growth timber, echelonned in the mass of brush that carpeted the wood, all unseen, with flanking fields of fire. The German prisoners knew nothing of Bouresches, a village of one thousand souls, which was a key position to be assaulted and captured as per Degoutte’s Paragraph 3. It lay at the southern tip of Belleau Wood—which was shaped like a sea horse, with its head and curling tail facing west, and a crown of rocks the mane of the horse’s head and neck.

Private Leo J. Bailey of the gth Infantry saw the first evolutions prescribed in Degoutte’s Paragraph 3 as he lay in support near Lucy-le-Bocage south of the wood. He was well dug in, with captured pigs and rabbits numerous for the cookpots. Someone even found a barrel of hard cider, bringing it back lashed between the wheels of an old baby carriage. All day Private Bailey listened to “the hellish clatter and roaring of our guns” on some woods beyond his position.