Bloody Belleau Wood


True to the dying officer’s warning, the Germans put up another ugly fight in the small hours of that night, in a confusion of fallen trees, huge boulders, bloody gullies. “We have a runner in from the battalion on my right stating that the enemy has taken Bouresches,” Harbord reported before dawn, on June 13, in a field message to Division. The runner was Lieutenant Davies, who had been ordered by his wounded captain to tell Harbord that all was lost. He had run the gantlet to Triangle Farm and, being suspected unjustly of having panicked, was subjected to a day of hard questioning before he was cleared and returned to the lines. Major John Hughes sent word from the woods at 5 A.M. : “Have had terrific bombardment and attack. I have every man, except a few odd ones, in line now. We have not broken contact and have held.” Two minutes later, he sent another message which read in part: “Estimate casualties at under 20%, including Captain Fuller killed and Captain Burns wounded. … Can’t you get hot coffee and water to me by using prisoners?” At the same minute Harbord was ordering two companies out of reserve for a dawn attack to recapture Bouresches. Eight minutes later Harbord cancelled this order. “I have a message, received at 5:25 from my major in Bouresches that we still hold it,” he explained. “There is nothing but U.S. Marines in the town of Bouresches.”

Harbord now began sending messages to the Regulars at Division that he, an old Regular, alone could have written—no Marine brigadier would have done so. His brigade had been fighting thirteen days, not a man having taken off his shoes, and few of them the recipient of a cup of hot coffee. He demanded that his brigade be relieved, citing the British and French practice of never subjecting an outfit to more than four or five days in the hell of an incessant attack, with battalions leapfrogging forward over one another in turn. His demand went all the way to the A.E.F. headquarters in Chaumont, where Fox Conner, Pershing’s G-3, informed Major Richardson, Chaumont’s liaison officer with Dégoutte: “On that question of relief, leave that matter entirely to the French. Do not insist on any relief. The reports that we have show that conditions are not very bad. Do nothing further in the matter.” Degoutte then informed Harbord that there could be no question of relief until June 25, two weeks later. (The French poilu of 1918 would have picked up his musettes at this point and decamped in a civilized manner.) Dégoutte issued a bulletin in precise French style, reviving the murderous follies of Verdun and the Somme two years earlier. Paragraph a of these orders read:

With a view to continuing the impression of the enemy that he is being threatened by an attack on our part and thus compelling him to engage, as heretofore, fresh units needed for battle, the Army Corps will preserve the offensive attitude which it has adopted since i June.

Preserve this attitude against fresh German divisions, replaced every four or five days, preserve it with a brigade where a battalion reported, “About out of officers.” Just as no Marine brigadier could have challenged Chaumont, so no Marine officer would appeal to Brigadier Harbord summarily, though messages could read: “Lost a great many men. … Everything running smoothly and in fine shape but … I am afraid of reaction. This is a different outfit from the one of yesterday.”

The 2$rd Infantry, continually whipped into tactical superiority by a born teacher, Colonel Malone, was having its tribulations on the right of Belleau Wood. It daily met and repulsed countless assaults, improving its position and taking heavy casualties. A battalion commander in the agrd grew weary of the constant stream of memoranda telling him what to do. It was indicative of the birth pangs of a combat outfit. “As some of the requests, orders and reports of some of the staff are so absurd, ludicrous, and in many cases impossible,” Major Charles E. Elliott informed Colonel Malone,

I request that the following officers visit my C.P. as soon as possible to see situations for themselves: Regimental Gas Officer, Regimental Intelligence Officer, Regimental Signal Officer, Regimental Surgeon. For instance, to receive instruction that no one will sleep within 1,300 yards of the front line unless in a gas-proof dugout, and with gas sentries over each dugout, would keep us awake all the time, as such things are not possible. … Another is that a man who is exposed to mustard gas should have a warm bath with soap and water, and a change of clothing … we don’t get enough water to wash regularly … some of us are about to fall through our clothes … it becomes exasperating to receive so many requests and orders which someone has “doped” out of a book. … They must remember the actual defense of this position must be considered.

Major Elliott had been fighting nineteen days by this time, his doughboys unwashed, half-fed, and always thirsty. He ended a fighting man’s rebuke to staff officers with the sarcastic remark that defense of his line “takes some time each day.”

By June 25, Malone had reported 855 casualties in the 23rd Infantry, 334 of them caused by gas. He estimated that 4,000 gas shells had effected these, whereas a total of 116,000 rounds—cannon, mortars, machine guns, and enemy rifles—had caused the remaining 521 casualties. Only two gassed men died, but the others were out of action for two weeks. Masks would protect a man’s lungs against mustard gas, but not his hide.