Bloody Belleau Wood

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The French frenzy to seize Belleau Wood again revealed itself in the situation there. In the days that followed the first assault on June 6, Harbord’s brigade had been driven, inch by inch, into a crescent, with its deepest penetration against the last three hundred yards of machine guns in the rocky amphitheatre of its northern edge. “The situation is intolerable,” Harbord messaged Major Maurice Shearer of the 5th Marine Regiment. The Germans could pour enfilading fire into every trench and foxhole, making great use of their fiendish little one-inch cannon, a toy much liked by their snipers. Shearer was told on June 22 he “must clean out the woods by tomorrow night” by means of the kind of attack which Lieutenant Colonel Adams had said would fail: hand grenades, rifle grenades, Springfields, Chauchats, Hotchkisses—and no massive artillery preparation.

Thus on the afternoon of June 23 the 3rd Battalion tried again for Shearer, and soon ambulances were ferrying shattered men into field hospitals. The division organization provided forty-one ambulances, but another 159 Fords had been found somewhere to carry the overload. The attack was spent by eleven o’clock that night, survivors digging in as possessors of a few more yards of fallen trees, rocky traps, and some captured Maxims. “Things are rather bad. One company almost wiped out,” the commander of the 5th Marine Regiment, Colonel Wendell “Buck” Neville, informed General Harbord after midnight. Men in supporting platoons, inching forward to plug the gaps in a decimated company when there was no artillery roar to drown the cries of human beings, sometimes thought this duty the worst of war’s alarms. The cries of men as blood drained from them and they lost selfcontrol were almost not to be endured. Officers restraining men who wished to administer first aid to such sufferers felt themselves unconscionable brutes as they hazed the kindhearted into gaps littered with corpses, to crawl forward hugging the ground, the blood of other men on their sleeves, their hands, their faces. A wounded lad lying on his back, his kneecap still on its ligaments and caught in brambles, begged for someone to release it so he might inch back farther to some slight depression. He might find succor; but the ones who needed tourniquets and compresses—and precious time—could not be accommodated. The gaps had to be plugged. This last failure in Belleau Wood would be remembered by some as the worst afternoon of their lives, no matter what fortune later befell them.

One company estimated that, advancing twenty yards, it had faced sixteen heavy and thirty-five light machine guns. It was now time someone at French Corps Headquarters accepted the facts of the situation and the need to proceed along lines recommended by Lieutenant Colonel Adams of the 7th Infantry, who by this time had returned to the other side of ChâteauThierry to rejoin the 3rd Division. “The Marines fighting in Belleau Wood are magnificent,” Major General Joseph T. Dickman, his commanding officer, told Adams, “but theirs is a useless sacrifice.”

The next day, June 24, Shearer, as strong as a plow horse and as imperturbable, moved his battalion post almost into the front lines. At nightfall the lines were pulled back two hundred yards, and gunners on both sides resumed their deafening arguments. Runners from Regimental Headquarters passed along the scuttlebutt that this was the last attack, and that battalion survivors would parade in Paris on the Fourth of July; but there was little speculation as to who would survive. Once again exhausted men fell asleep supperless, thanks to German fire of interdiction so fierce that ration parties carrying marmits of hot beef stew could not make their way up “Gob Gully,” the supply route. The marmits arrived the next morning, trie stew cold and sour. Men about to die that afternoon ate it greedily for breakfast.

All day the big guns plastered the woods in front of Shearer’s position in preparation for the final attack. When the heavy shelling stopped and the creeping barrage crackled on the mass of brush and fallen trees a hundred yards ahead, the curtain of fire almost singed the first wave at 5:15 P.M. as it climbed the bank of a sunken road and started for the machine guns among the rocks.