Bloody Belleau Wood

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Long before June 25 Harbord became insistent: he was afraid of no one at Chaumont, and the idiotic remark by Fox Conner “that conditions are not very bad” infuriated him. A one-star general, he demanded—and to hell with the French—that his two-star superior, General Bundy, find relief for his brigade. Major General George H. Cameron’s 4th Division had now been moved into the rear area. One of its regiments had had no rifle practice; none of its doughboys had ever fired a Chauchat or a Hotchkiss. Cameron, destined to be one of Pershing’s best before he wore himself out, offered to do what he could, but the Iron Commander would not release his division to Degoutte. It would have been murder to send doughboys just arrived from Camp Greene, North Carolina, into woods fighting with weapons they had never fired. Major Richardson, Chaumont’s liaison, now told Fox Conner that relief was imperative. Timid little Bundy finally went across the Paris road to Mondésir and borrowed the 7th Infantry Regiment of the 3rd Division from the Frenchman for five precious days. The 7th Infantry, which had not yet finished its training behind the bridgehead at Château-Thierry, began moving into Belleau Wood the night of June 16.

The doughboys were appalled by the difficulties of the relief. The foxholes were so randomly placed that some elements destined for the 5th Marines found themselves led by confused guides in darkness to the rear of the 6th Marines, who were continuously exchanging fire fights with German machine gunners. Every depression there was nauseating with stale mustard gas. (The belch of mustard gas was a sickly one, like a bonbon stuffed with perfumed soap.) Two days later the Marine Brigade, having been relieved, was in division support, one battalion minus sixty-four per cent of its original members, lying on wet ground in thick forest, sleeping just forward of French corps artillery. The blast of these hot-mouthed monsters went unnoticed by the men, who slept constantly between hot meals and coffee brought from rolling kitchens in heavy French marmits (clay vessels capable of keeping food warm a few hours).

The Germans still ruled the air, three of their balloons always visible to anyone who walked a mile to Brigade Headquarters; and their artillery still sought the weary battalions hiding in the wood. Sometimes German observers flew so low seeking targets for artillery that men motionless under the trees could see the goggles of the pilots and make out the small Iron Crosses painted on the fuselage. There was one great day when two enemy Rumplers were suddenly set afire by a small French Spad that, like a bolt from the blue, appeared between them with crackling guns. As the two flaming enemy ships began their dive to earth, the Frenchman vanished. The next afternoon, Father Frank Brady brought into the forest a Paris Herald which proclaimed that Captain René Fonck had destroyed five enemy planes in his greatest day above the Marne.

As soon as the 7th Infantry was in place on June 18, orders came for it to attack. The 7th Infantry was in no condition for such an enterprise, yet in due course a series of attacks on a battalion scale were begun, and inevitably they failed. (Marines were not surprised when they learned of this. They had failed to advance on similar sanguinary occasions.) Harbord had no choice but to follow French orders for persistent attacks to recapture Belleau Wood. “Your battalion will be relieved tomorrow night,” he told a 7th Infantry officer June 20. “Tomorrow morning is its only chance to redeem the failure made this morning. If you clear the northern half of the Bois de Belleau, the credit will belong to the ist Battalion, 7th Infantry, and will be freely given. The battalion cannot afford to fail again.”

How a newcomer felt about this hopeless piecemeal action was expressed in a message, privately directed, from Lieutenant Colonel John P. Adams to Harbord at Brigade Headquarters. Adams, commanding the 7th Infantry’s ist Battalion, was from old Regular Army stock and just as feisty as Harbord. If Elliott in the 2 3rd thought some orders were senseless, Adams pointed out the worst folly, he thought, of the whole Belleau Wood affair.