The “Teufelshunde” Devil Dogs lived up to that nickname at the battle of Belleau Woods.
The Battle of Belleau Wood in France became a defining battle of World War I. For the Americans, it’s particularly significant. How come? Well before this brutal engagement with German forces took place, the US Marines weren’t on the map. They’d been around a while, but Belleau Wood was when they first came into their own and gained a reputation as elite fighters.
The story of Belleau Wood is about Allied Victory but it also forms a key chapter in the development of US Marines. So how did it all start…?
World War I had been raging for 3 years before America got involved. Once Germany started attacking US merchant ships, the die was cast. By 1918 the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) were established. Gen Jon J. Pershing – who had the nickname “Black Jack” – was in charge. After a year of backing up the Allies, an American fighting force had finally been assembled to take the heat to the Kaiser.
The Germans were hitting France hard as part of their Spring Offensive on the Western Front. In June 1918 Paris was under threat, and the aggressors had to be intercepted. Belleau Wood, around 50 miles outside the French capital and near the River Marne, was packed with Germans. Alongside British and French troops, US Marines under the command of Gen James Harbord were sent to this complex battleground to drive them out.
Why complex? Belleau Wood sounds harmless enough, but it was rough terrain. Around a mile long and half a mile wide, it contained thick brush. Not exactly somewhere a soldier could stroll through! In addition, a gorge was running through the middle. There were all kinds of places for the enemy to conceal themselves. And in terms of where they were based, the Germans had picked a dangerous doozy of a spot to fight from.
A knoll lying across a wheat field hosted the Kaiser’s finest, led by Gen Richard von Conta. If the Allies wanted to get near the enemy they had to cross an exposed area of 400 yds. The Marines suffered heavy losses during that first push. A reported 222 men were lost to machine gun fire. It was a slow and savage confrontation. Reportedly as the Americans arrived, the French were in the process of leaving. Confidence clearly wasn’t high. After a rocky start, said to be poorly thought out, the Marines gradually gained a foothold.
Various stories of bravery in the field exist. The place known as Hill 142 was a key part of the battle. In fact when their orders came in, that’s where the Americans headed. One of the most extraordinary stories concerns Gunnery Sgt Ernest Janson. When no less than a dozen Germans made for Hill 142 as part of a counter-attack, he was waiting for them. Janson was alone, armed with a bayonet. He took on 2 of the soldiers, killing them. This act drove off the rest. For his courage he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Janson made history, as the first ever US Marine to be given the medal during World War I.
If it wasn’t for the keen eyes of Capt George Wallace Hamilton of the 49th Company there would have been absolute slaughter at an early stage. He noticed his team were hemmed in by German machine guns. Thankfully the Marines overpowered the enemy and took the weapons for themselves. The Captain earned 2 Distinguished Service Crosses and a Navy Cross as a result.
Overall the battle lasted 3 weeks, between the 1st and the 26th of June. The Americans needed to attack 6 times before the Germans gave up. As America’s first major battle of World War I it was a small but important step toward defeating the Germans. According to some commentators if the Marines had arrived at Belleau Wood just a matter of hours later, they might not have stopped the enemy marching into Paris.
Floyd Gibbons was a journalist who covered the conflict. It was he who coined the name “Devil Dog Dan”, in ref to First Sergeant Dan Daly. Daly launched a one man assault on a machine gun emplacement. Gibbons immortalized him and others.
The Battle of Belleau Wood was a grim chapter, despite the victory. 1,811 Americans died and nearly 8,000 were wounded. On the German side, casualties numbered over 10,000. What started as a hail of bullets and grenades descended into stabbings and hand to hand combat. “Toad stickers”, blades mounted on knuckles, made the battle especially bloody.
The place was renamed “Bois (Wood) de la Brigade de Marine” after the Americans went home. They had joined the war effort and passed the first test with flying colors.
Steve is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.