June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
For nineteen days in June of 1918, American marines and doughboys contested a fire-raked square mile of French woodland against the best Germany had to offer and, at terrible cost, prevailed. Laurence Stallings, co-author of What Price Glory? , served at Belleau Wood as a young marine officer and was himself grievously wounded in the last day of fighting there. Here Mr. Stallings tells the story of this first major encounter in which the American Expeditionary Force was involved. His account is taken from his book, The Doughboys , a history of the A.E.F. in France, due this month from Harper & Row.
In the spring of 1918, Germany made her great bid for victory in the four-year deadlock on the western front and came very close to winning the First World War. She staked everything on one awesome gamble—that she could defeat the weakened British and French before the Americans arrived in force that summer. So, on March 21, the German commander, General Erich Ludendorff, struck near the juncture of the British and French lines in Picardy; before his offensive lost momentum, he had driven the Allies back some forty miles. In April Ludendorff attacked again, this time farther to the north, and all but hurled the British into the sea. Then, on May 27, came his third and in some ways most menacing thrust. In a surprise attack, the German Seventh Army smashed along the chalky ridges north of the Aisne River; by May 31, leading units had reached the Marne River, little more than forty miles away from Paris: it seemed like 1914 all over again.
Every available man was needed; now, ready or not, the Americans would have to fight. Thus, late in the afternoon of May ji, doughboys of the $rd Division began to arrive at Château-Thierry on the Marne. The following day, the American 2nd Division (Major General Omar Bundy), with 26,000 men in its twin brigades of Regulars and Marines, was rushed in to plug a four-mile gap in the line left by a disintegrating French division. As part of General Jean Degoutte’s XXI French Corps, the 2nd held a sector a few miles west of Château-Thierry. Its line faced the village of Bouresches and a nearby mass of trees and rocks called the Bois de Belleau—Belleau Wood. For the better part of a week, the 2nd stood its ground against the oncoming Germans; then the order came to counterattack.
June 6, 1918—few days in the history of American arms have witnessed so much bravery, and such futile sacrifice. But unhappily, as it proved, the ordeal of the 2nd Division was far from over. Recalling a visit he later made to Bouresches on that tragic anniversary, Mr. Stallings—who refers to himself only as the captain with the foot made of Idaho willow-wood—begins his moving account of the nightmare that was Belleau Wood. —The Editors
On the morning of June 6, 1925, two retired Marine officers returned to the village of Bouresches, more out of curiosity than sentiment, to see how two friends, Lieutenant James Robertson and Lieutenant Clifton B. Gates, had stayed alive while leading platoons across the field from Triangle Farm. Neither of the two visitors, one a major with a withered arm, the other a captain with a foot made of Idaho willow, knew much about Bouresches, though they had spent some time in garrison there seven years before, after relieving Robertson’s outfit. In a disputed town there were few daytime vistas, and Bouresches in mid-June, 1918, was an ideal place to get killed if one so much as threw his shadow across a doorway.
The major was desirous of seeing two things in Bouresches. He wished to see if the old man who kept his blind wife in the cellar throughout the fighting was still there; and further, he wished to see if the people in the first house to the right as one entered the village had restored the fine old fruitwood case of a grandfather clock in the parlor. The French, falling back during the brief time they held Bouresches, had desecrated this clock, overturning it and using the case as a privy seat, with velvet portieres nearby to do the office of toilet tissue. The major had seen war at Vera Cruz, and amid the savage fighting in the jungles of Haiti; but this vandalism had shocked him beyond anything else he had ever seen. He had been in great pain at the time, having been shot through the left elbow the week before, and his arm was in a sling and swollen like a football. The major had refused to leave the field on June 8, and was led away on June 22 when the enemy got to his other arm.
The captain with the Idaho willow foot wanted to see the apple orchard in the garden next to the house at the left side of the main street. He had managed a few hours’ sleep there that busy week, but only knew its walls of flint and fragrant trees by night. German snipers in the railroad station on the embankment beyond the village would have killed him in five seconds had he visited the orchard by day.
The two friends drove into Bouresches and were saddened to find the warm tile of yellow roofs now repaired with galvanized iron, hideous where it glinted blue in the sun. They found the estaminet, ordered wine for the mayor and sundry farmers, switched to brandy, and soon had the villagers, none of whom they had ever seen before, almost feloniously drunk. The major learned that the old man had taken his blind wife farther south. The mayor called the captain aside and walked him to a nearby barn, where deep in the gloom he could see a U.S. Army 1918 Dodge. His Honor set the spark and the throttle levers on the steering-wheel quadrant, and twisted the crank. The old Dodge began tickety-ticking like a watch. “ Bonne voiture! ” belched the mayor. In what patch of woods had the mayor been hiding? Had he stolen the Dodge? Unlikely, M’sieu. Some Marine had sold it to him.
The orchard was small and plain, and much as the captain had imagined it, apple trees above a fine stone wall six feet high with a broken-glass crown to thwart any urchin who did not have a corduroy jacket thick enough to pad the jagged teeth. Someone had replaced the gate on its iron strap hinges, the gate he had removed for speedier access to light Chauchat and Hotchkiss machine guns and a captured Maxim placed there to repel the many probings in the dark. The two friends pulled the bell rope and a young woman appeared, auburn-haired, pale from a recent confinement, a pallid baby blinking at her breast. The two friends explained that they had done some fighting around the orchard and would like to sit there for a time to smoke a cigarette.
“Then it was you who defiled our orchard,” said the young Frenchwoman, narrowing the distance between gate and gatepost. The captain wanted to say that he had left no German dead in the orchard; they had been dumped into the streets after the bestial frenzy of night fighting beneath white parachute flares and many-colored rockets, fighting amidst hoarse screams and exultant shouts so intense that a man was enervated for hours afterward, shuddering at the thought that, had he stopped to put a fresh clip in a pistol instead of seizing a shovel and splitting a raider’s skull beneath his pillbox cap, he would not have lived to see the morning.
“You did not save my village, M’sieu,” the young mother went on. “You ruined the soil of the orchard. Every year we dig up the empty cartouches from les mitrailleuses . The brass can be tasted in the fruit itself, M’sieu. When you left, why did you not clean up our orchard? Take your sordid cartouches with you?” She closed the gate without haste.
“I don’t think I’ll try to see the grandfather clock,” said the major.
The major climbed the railway embankment for a German’s-eye view of Bouresches and marvelled that Robertson had ever taken the town with rifle and bayonet and lived. And that business of Lieutenant Moore and Sergeant Major Quick driving a laden ammunition truck in daylight over open fields into the town. … Some men, such as the sergeant major, possessed the maximum durability, fortune always at its peak, that Almighty God sometimes vouchsafed a soldier. At Guantanamo in 1898 when the U.S. Fleet began firing on his battalion’s positions, Quick stood on ramparts to signal “cease firing” for an hour before a quartermaster happened to read him. (See “How We Got Guantanamo,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , February, 1962.)
The captain, sticking to level ground, came upon a long-forgotten hedge. There had been a badly wounded doughboy officer lying beneath it one mid-June night, come with a company of the 7th Infantry of the 3rd Division to relieve the exhausted Marines in a hell of high explosives and toxic shells. He had not made it, this officer, but he had offered his life to relieve his unknown friend. What was his name? Lieutenant Loucks: it came back after seven years.
Nearby the town there was a cemetery of German dead, crosses creosoted black by the thrifty French, names stencilled in white, home towns included in the legend. The name of Mulhausen was prominent: these boys came from the country around Strasbourg, which was German from 1871 to 1918. Here were many of the 250 men who broke into Bouresches one night and almost won it back. They left fifty dead in the streets and orchards before being beaten off, uncounted others in fields behind the village. The two friends drove by the German cemetery without a word, and entered Belleau Wood.
Seven years before, on the evening of the same day, June 6, elements of the 2nd Division’s Marine Brigade lay shattered and exhausted in the confused tangle of the Bois de Belleau, having seized about twothirds of the forest at awful cost by overwhelming enemy machine-gun nests with rifle and bayonet. Unable to advance farther in the dark with their ranks so depleted, uncertain about the future when the Germans struck back, as they assuredly would, the leathernecks had merely set the stage for a long nightmare that could have been avoided with the help of one weapon. The British Mark IV tank was the key to unlock the gates of Belleau Wood in fifteen minutes, but it was never available to the Yanks. Had the Marines possessed two companies of these tanks, clumsily lumbering over scrub and brush with field guns in their snouts, machine guns for antennas, and Chauchat gunners, riflemen, and grenadiers swarming around them, the name of Belleau Wood would not have been long remembered.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
First, he agreed that A Company, led by Lieutenant Helm, would lead the first wave at 3:15 in the morning, but it was absolutely necessary that he be given one thousand hand grenades and five hundred V.B. rifle grenades at once. Inasmuch as his men had had little to eat for twenty-four hours, he wanted some food sent Helm’s company by 11 P.M. Accompanying these sensible demands was the following message: ”… I do not believe any attack without a heavy artillery fire preceding can move the guns from the woods. They are all emplaced and strongly held. The woods is almost a thicket and the throwing of troops into the woods is filtering away men with nothing gained.” Adams then recommended withdrawal of two companies from the line, leaving Helm holding with only one company, and a murderous shelling of the machine-gun nests, and then an advance. “I can assure you that the orders to attack will stand as given, but it cannot succeed. This is only my original expression and has not reached the ears of anyone else.” He then told Harbord that after such an attack as he was ordered to make, his line could be crushed at any time, leaving the woods, bought with Marine blood, open to the enemy. The battalion had only two trench mortars. (The Marine Brigade’s six infantry battalions had none on June 6.) In a postscript, Adams added: “The two Stokes guns won’t even worry the German machine guns.” Adams kept his word next morning, June 2i, at 3:15, and everything he had written Harbord came to pass. The battalion was broken, and the woods were left open, though the Germans in their own confusion did not learn of it before nightfall; and by that time the lice-infested Marines, who hoped never again to enter Belleau Wood, were moving into its legendary hell once more.
No one knew where the lost positions were in the dark shambles ahead. Some of the leatherneck outfits took a chance and moved by the flank through wheatfields, long files of men freezing motionless lest moving shadows betray them when enemy parachute flares, daylight-white, burned long in the sky. The yth Infantry guide, after his four nights of horror, could not regulate his pace when ranging shells roared into flame a hundred yards away. When he quickened his step almost to a dogtrot, the files were broken and the company halted perilously to repair the break. After three such breaks the leading officer said harshly, “Do I have to shoot you in the ass to slow you down?” The doughboy was anguished. “Officer,” he cried, “don’t shoot me, officer! I got no business here. I only been in the United States Army five weeks.” He kept his pace thereafter and found his old position. The next morning in a foxhole his new friends were teaching him how to work the bolt on his Springfield rifle. He begged to stay until he had killed “just one Joirman” but was sent back with a runner that night, and a note of thanks to whomever it concerned in the yth U.S. Infantry. “The sergeants among the replacements,” the Chaumont inspectors noted, “know less than privates here in the line. …” Everyone liked the guide. “If that little guy learns to keep his head down, he’ll do all right.”
Where the gth Infantry’s 3rd Battalion lay in reserve, Private Leo Bailey and his buddies felt that inaction while their friends were fighting and dying was more bitter to endure than the trials of the combatants themselves. (Why were they not sent in to relieve such battalions as Elliott’s of the agrd Infantry? That was something the inept Major General Bundy would have to pay for.∗) The Germans had brought heavy guns into play, and they ranged and searched wooded patches for Bailey and his friends, maintaining a harassing fire of high explosive and toxic shells. Bailey heard one of their heavy shells coming the evening of June 15.
∗He was relieved of the command of the Second Division soon after Belleau Wood and replaced by Harbord.— Ed.
There was something unusual about the sound of this particular shell. It seemed to be coming closer than the general run of shells. I was certain that no shell could fall in this sheltered spot but I thought it best not to trust my judgment too far. Then I considered whether I would try to get to my dugout or lie down where I was and take my chances. … I decided I would try for my dugout. … I was diving through the air and just as I was about to disappear … the shell exploded. … I felt a stinging sensation in my right elbow. … At noon the nurse came around and told me I was to have the dressing on my wound changed. … I looked and saw that the little hole that had been there the night before had been enlarged to a cut that extended from a couple of inches below the elbow nearly to my shoulder and was into the bone.
Three days later, strolling in pink pajamas and robe outside the hospital gates, he saw some green 4th Division lads trying to figure head or tail out of French Chauchats they had just been issued with instructions in French. Private Bailey’s fighting days were over before he ever saw the enemy, but he had also served, and he continued to do so as he sat on the ground and with one arm conducted classes in how to affix a halfmoon clip of flimsy construction to that beastly looking weapon.
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.
Buck Sergeant Allison Page held a grade unattainable to a nineteen-year-old in the peacetime Corps. He was a tall boy, popular with his two-squad section of the 47th Company, with a darkly handsome face that seemed incapable of showing any meanness. He was from North Carolina, a college boy enlisted at Wilson’s call. His uncle had spent six years as Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, three of them dedicated to provoking American intervention in the First World War. Some historians looked upon the actions of Walter Hines Page in London as treasonable, in his disloyalty to Wilson’s demand that Americans remain neutral in spirit as well as in deed; but this was no concern of Sergeant Page. He was exactly in the center of the 47th Company at five o’clock on the afternoon of June 25, and the company was in the center of the full battalion attack. The corps artillery was in such fine fettle that it did not seem possible that any living thing could have survived its night-and-day bombardment, but the moment Sergeant Page stepped out, the machine gunners were beaded on him. He was killed instantly; and many times thereafter the officer with the Idaho willow foot who led that first wave was besought by Red Cross workers to describe just where Sergeant Page fell, so that salvage sections might recover the boy’s rifle for the Ambassador. It was not possible to denote the place for Mr. Page’s emissary. In the shattering confusion of the attack it was impossible to recall where everyone fell.
The officer himself was twenty-three, and he did not know whether he was a second lieutenant, a first lieutenant, or a captain in the expanding Regular line. But he was gas-sick, he had a piece of steel in his left leg, and he did not care. Having lost a spiral legging while crawling, he had cut his left breeches leg short, and his beautiful forest-green uniform was held together with strings. He still wore his Sam Browne, spitshined to conceal his cowardice in having to wear it, and his Colt .45, cocked, was stuffed into his shirt front. His company commander had been badly wounded, and Colonel Neville had given the company to an oldtimer, Captain Gaines Moseley.
The attack took the shape of a fan: the 47th Company in the center, with the longest distance to go to reach the north end of the wood; the aoth plus two platoons of the 45th on the right; and the igth on the left. As the barrage lifted, the scarecrow leader and his men moved forward, Moseley following a hundred yards behind, watching him like a hawk. At the first hundred yards someone from forty yards away threw a potato-masher grenade at the scarecrow’s feet. He dropped, but not before its explosion had driven fragments of his tin hat into his right cheek. He was up immediately, with ears ringing, for Harbord had said at Shearer’s old command post on the 24th, “When you reach the curve [drawn correctly to denote the north end of the wood by Lieutenant Colonel Logan Feland after a very perilous reconnaissance that morning], pick up a rifle and lead with steel.”
Feland had asserted, correctly, that there were no deep trenches at the end of the wood, only six-foot rifle pits about twelve feet in length and about three feet apart, scattered among boulders that dotted the area. On reaching the rifle pits the gas-sick boy jumped in and began fighting his way from pit to pit, diving headfirst over the undug links. The barrage had done almost nothing to the expert riflemen defending their posts, or to the light Maxim gunners deployed before them. Only twice, in diving from pit to pit, did this officer fall on the shell-shattered body of an enemy soldier; the German survivors, knowing it would be death to raise their hands, resisted stubbornly.
The 47th Company reached its center objective, the curve at the north end of Belleau Wood, with about seventy survivors, and was preparing to hold it against a counterattack when the scarecrow received his first and only suggestion from Captain Moseley. Lieutenant Jacob Heckman, leading the left platoon, had sent word by runner that he had reached some high boulders short of his objective with only twenty men left, and could not survive a counterattack, and would thus uncover the right flank of the igth Company that was being bitterly opposed on the left spoke of the fan. “You must try to uncover Heckman,” said Moseley. “Take as few as you can, begin your demonstration, and I’ll get word to Heckman, when he hears you, to go in with what he has left.”
The young officer took nine men, leaving the rest to hold the curve, and moved west by south, now out of the woods. He did not last two hundred yards. Awaiting him were about 150 troops of the counterassault teams, untouched by the bombardment. Half an hour later, well tourniquetted, he sat up and gave Major Ralph Keyser of the leapfrog battalion their exact position, and soon heard the shouts, shots, and screams of the mopping-up.
In the aftermath there was only a broken wood of second-growth timber where corpses lay in pools of blood, the red trickles thinning out until they formed into pools again around rocky nests where both Germans and Americans slumped across machine guns, with trails of wounded leading farther on to the edge of the woods. There were shallow trenches along this skirting fringe of trees, and frantic victors, lifting the weight of German dead, stretched bayoneted corpses lengthwise in lieu of sandbags for a parados against inevitable counterattacks. All through the wood the U.S. Navy’s hospital corpsmen swarmed, here and there a captured German medic aiding. To the latter, there seemed to be no change in a four-year situation. It was all a matter of applying sponges and tourniquets wherever they might be; of crying “ Langsam … langsam ” (“Slowly … slowly”) to prisoners lifting Yanks on stretchers made by slinging a blanket between two Mauser rifles, barrels still hot from the intense fire directed at the leathernecks. As the medics and wounded awaited the arrival of more prisoners for carrying parties—there were gangs of them in groups of twenty and thirty—shots, screams, and battlefield yells told them where the fighting continued in the twilight of isolated glades and wooded patches. Wounded men became alarmed when some German brancardier would stoop to loosen a tourniquet and bleed a man a little. “ Es vas besser ,” these veterans would explain. Some lad from Milwaukee would sit up and translate: “He does it so you won’t fester and get gangrene.” Around nine o’clock Colonel Neville messaged Harbord: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”
Harbord was sick of slaughter. In a moment of indulgence he had permitted his headquarters’ first sergeant, always nagging the General, to participate in an attack, and now he had to send out searchers to find the body. He had given his favorite messman the same permission, this for the afternoon attack when the eager messman pleaded that he had found a buddy who would take his place if he were late getting back to supper. He, too, was killed. Harbord had never ceased to scold officers for getting themselves killed in droves, saying the proportions were now reaching the tragic percentages of Britain’s Old Contemptibles in the battles of 1914; now the 3rd Battalion was almost bereft of them. Harbord read Neville’s message. Words like “glory” were not in his lexicon. He merely replied: “Your Shearer Battalion has done splendid work.” And this was the capture of Belleau Wood.
There have been many differing views as to the importance of Belleau Wood, though all historians agree that, whatever its tactical value, the performance of the Americans was an inspiration to the failing French, who had suffered 400,000 casualties since March 21. Taking part in their first major action of the war, the Americans had proved beyond a doubt that they could fight; after Belleau Wood, not even the Germans would dispute that fact. Lieutenant von Buy, examining prisoners from the 2nd Division, informed his group commander that the Americans were “of assault quality.” “The various attacks by both of the Marine regiments were carried out with vigor and regardless of losses. The moral effect of our firearms did not materially check the advance of the infantry. The nerves of the Americans are still unshaken.” Of the doughboy replacements he could say:
Millions were ready to take their places. The personnel may be considered excellent. They are healthy, strong, and physically well-developed men from eighteen-twenty who, at present, lack only the necessary training to make them into a very worthy opponent. The spirit of the troops is fresh and one of careless confidence. A characteristic expression of one of the prisoners is “We kill or get killed.” The prisoners made a wide-awake, agreeable impression; but they were entirely disinterested in military matters.
Lieutenant von Buy—an intellectual with the burgundy stripe of the General Staff—was amazed at a salient characteristic of his captives. They considered themselves Americans! “Only a few of the men are genuine Americans by ancestry, the majority is of German, Dutch, or Italian parentage; but these halfAmericans, who with few exceptions were born in America, and who never before had been in Europe, consider themselves unhesitatingly as genuine sons of America.”
Harbord had Belleau Wood, but he knew relief of his leathernecks was not imminent, even though it had been promised for June 25. A product of the Regular Army, familiar with its ranking personnel, whom he first knew as an enlisted man, Harbord jestingly told his leatherneck staff that the doughboy brigade would never consent to relief until it was identified with a show all its own. As if to prove Harbord’s jest, Dégoutte singled out the town of Vaux, one mile west of Château-Thierry, as the next objective.
Its two hundred souls were people of means who lived in fortress-strong houses with fine gardens behind heavy walls, establishments built of stone to last out the ages. Few doomed villages were ever so thoroughly reconnoitered before being reduced to rock piles. All soldiers of the 2§rd Infantry, and those of the gth Infantry who had sought and been given a piece of the action, knew the nature and location of every machinegun pit ringing the town, every house in it, and some even knew the names of the occupants, long since fled.
The Vaux attack on the night of July i went off with dash and style. Colonel Malone of the 23rd Infantry directed it, and the doughboys displayed much daring on the wooded flanks where the French, in their now cautious style, failed to move up in time. When a French machine-gun outfit arrived tardily on the right of Vaux and tried to expropriate some Germans captured by the doughboys—to make a token showing—a Yank lieutenant overrode his sergeant’s blasphemous objections. “Oh, let ’em keep ’em. We’ll catch some more.” Vaux itself was the target for Major Elliott’s battalion, the same Elliott and the same battalion that had just finished a month of continuous fighting while being pestered with staff orders which he had called “absurd and ludicrous.”
The battalion was angry in three directions all at once, chiefly angry with the Paris Herald , which, by a censor’s lamentable slip, had reported that the Marine Brigade was fighting in Belleau Wood five miles west of Château-Thierry, the first and last mention of an infantry cadre by designation. It opened the floodgates of a managing editor’s fancy in every American city; and to them nothing but Marines were fighting in the Château-Thierry area, though the Marines, never ones to hide their fierce light beneath a censor’s bushel, claimed nothing of the sort. (The feeling that a censor’s lapse engendered still endures, though Pershing lopped no head because of the slip; he knew the fanfare would cause every sergeant in France, Regular, National Guard, or Selective Service, to die rather than suffer by comparison.) Secondly, the battalion was angry with officious staff officers whom Major Elliott had called foolish; and to some extent the doughboys were even angry at the Germans opposing them.
Many were its shooting gallantries that night in the crumbling streets of Vaux and in the woods to its left. No one ever knew how many doughboys were in the assault teams that night: men played hookey and went along, engineers, signallers, artillerymen, and mule skinners included, in a “show of their own.” The maddening headline of the Paris edition of the New York Herald , which ran a week of U.S. Marine exploits before Pershing stopped the leak, had stung the doughboys to a fury that the unfortunate enemy in Vaux had to sustain. “We have fought the Canadians and Australians,” a captured officer said, “but you fellows are rougher.” Everyone beamed, and the officer was showered with cigarettes.
Marine casualties lying in tents around Coulommiers saw the glare and listened to the faraway fury. The first ambulance clattered up around dawn. Bedridden men knew the scene outside: rows of stretchers bearing faintly moaning men leading to the operating trucks of Mobile Hospital No. 1, where Army medics instantly clapped wood battens upon a wounded man to restrain his first revulsion to sulphuric ether, big hands slapping vaseline on the patient’s face to avoid burns, and then the ether cone. Two breaths later the production-line speed came to a halt. The surgeons in their blood-soaked gowns took their time.
The first messenger bearing tidings from Vaux to the Marines in one tent was a giant doughboy captain, legs now in splints, overseas cap with the infantry’s blue cord for piping still on his head. He sat erect on his stretcher, drunk on ether fumes, shouting happily as orderlies lurched down aisles of grass toward the row of beds prepared at high speed by Army nurses from Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Oh, the goddam sonsabitchesl” the captain shouted joyously. “The headline-hunting bastardsl We showed the sonsabitches how to do itl” No one in that tent thought the captain’s remarks applied to the sonsabitches in Colonel General von Boehn’s German Seventh Army. … By noon, awaking thick-mouthed to gag down his tin plateful of an eye-stinging salmon salad—one part salmon, one part chopped onion and no fuel to boil any potatoes for it—the doughboy captain was courtesy itself to the leatherneck runner of Italian origin minus a leg in the neighboring bed. Had not Lieutenant von Buy said that all considered themselves unhesitatingly as genuine sons of America?
Thirty-two years later it was still true. The 23rd U.S. Infantry was crouched forlorn with MacArthur’s handful behind the fatal parallel in Korea, shaken by appalling casualties, when it was relieved by a regiment fresh from the Inchon landing. The old pros of the 5th Marines were giving some buddies from the days of Belleau Wood their turn to rest in the loud Korean woods.