Bloody Belleau Wood

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For the last few minutes before five the fire was terrible. At exactly five there was a silence … then the guns were directed to the fields behind Belleau Wood to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements … we could see the long white line of explosions, but we did not watch that for long … there were some yells to our left toward Lucyle-Bocage. We saw the long lines of Marines leap from somewhere and start across the wheatfields toward the woods. Those lines were straight and moved steadily, a few paces in front of each its officer leading, not driving. The attackers went up the gentle slope and, as the first wave disappeared over the crest we heard the opening clatter of dozens of machine guns that sprayed the advancing lines. Then we heard some shrieks that made our blood run cold. High above the roar of the artillery and the clatter of machine guns we heard the war cries of the Marines. The lines continued to go over the crest and, as the last disappeared, we began to notice that a machine gun would go out of action. This meant that the Marines were either shooting the gunners or crawling up and bayoneting the crews. … How long this took I do not know, but it seemed less than half an hour before all the machine guns had stopped firing. … Directly in front of us, though concealed by some woods, the Marines had attacked and captured Bouresches.

As night fell, messages told the story of the charge through the wheat: “What is left of battalion is in woods close by. Do not know whether will be able to stand or not. Increase artillery range.” This was from Major Berry of the 5th Marines. “Unable to advance farther because of strong machine gun positions and artillery fire. Have given orders to hold present position at far edge of woods. Losses already heavy. Await instructions. Berton W. Sibley, Major, USMC.” “Have just come back from the Bois de Belleau,” Major Edward B. Cole reported. “When I left, about sundown, the whole outfit was held up in the north edge of the wood by machine gun nests. … They should be furnished with trench mortars and hand grenades, if possible. Had these been furnished, they would have been over with it two hours ago.”

On the right of the wood, the doughboys of the sycd Infantry had received Degoutte’s orders only fifty minutes before the leathernecks jumped off. The regiment was to support the Marine right, its left platoon keeping contact with the adjoining Marine platoon. Its commander, Colonel Paul B. Malone, drove an automobile into the front line in his haste to make sure his two battalion commanders there got the proper word, sketching positions on their maps before he was recalled to Brigade Headquarters. But the right-flank platoon of the Marines was under orders to hold fast. A foul-up resulted, and the men of the 23rd were unable to restrain themselves when so many buddies on their left were fighting for their lives. In the late twilight of a French June they broke over with wild shouts and went after the enemy; this became a habit with Americans which persisted through dozens of battalion actions until the Armistice.

The men of the 23rd Infantry could not be restrained when they reached their objective, the Marine flanks. They rushed on, driving their way deep into German lines. There were spontaneous fights conducted with great skill and courage, Malone reported of this regrettable action. The Germans broke through to shatter M Company on the left flank, destroying the doughboy platoon that refused to halt by the Marine platoon, but Malone brought up reserves and drove them off, later in the night extricating the impetuous battalion and bringing it back to the original objective. The battalion and its support suffered 27 killed, 225 wounded and missing.

Thus ended the hardest day in American history since Sheridan broke through at Five Forks and overwhelmed the remnants of Lee’s army.

On June 7, the Marine Brigade and the 23rd’s doughboys attempted to consolidate their lines, to tend to the wounded and to bring up ammunition and food; and the Marines tried to pinpoint the German strong points in the total and gloomy confusion of the forest. The latter proved impossible; no one knew exactly how much of the wood was in American hands, or where or in what strength the enemy lay. It was to cost them dearly to find out.

Fortunately, the last serious German attack did not strike Belleau Wood till June 8. The Marines answered by sending up troops to be slaughtered in driblets in a continuous series of brutal actions, and the contest seesawed during six days of cruelties. The fighting in the wood was such that, on June 12, messages read like this dispatch from Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Wise: “A dying German officer states that a fresh division is in and the plan was to attack tonight. … We are in full spirits. Have only 350 old men left and 7 officers. They are shelling very heavy.”