US Marines in Belleau Wood

How one of the last battles of the First World War has gone down in US Marine history

By the summer of 1918, the First World War was approaching its grinding conclusion. The German Spring Offensive had begun to run out of steam.

The advantage of extra German soldiers being brought over from the Eastern Front following the surrender of Russia was lost by June, and the United States Marine corps would be thrown into their first full engagement of the war.

Initial altercations between the sides were short and sharp as the Germans came up against US and French troops by the Marne River.

The Germans made their way through Belleau Wood and confronted 2nd Division Marines. The French had begun to retreat and when they urged the Americans to do the same were met with the famous response from U.S. Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”

Williams and his men, determined to make a name for themselves and to show off as the finest branch of the US armed forces, dug in and resisted a German attack on 4 June.

The fighting appetite of the Americans and French differed greatly. Whilst the latter had come to have the stale existence of trench warfare ingrained into them after four years of war, the Americans were keen to attack swiftly and with little hesitation.

The fresh impetus of the Americans would, months down the line, help to seal Germany’s fate as the defeated side in the war. However, despite their short involvement in the war thousands of Americans would become casualties.

At Belleau Wood, the Marines would suffer a number of casualties that would only be surpassed at the Battle of Tarawa in the Second World War 25 years later.

The fighting in and around the wood was fierce, and it was a baptism of fire for the Americans on the Western Front.

American enthusiasm locked horns with German forces that were clinging on to every inch of land they could. The momentum of the Spring Offensive had been replaced by a resilience to prevent the Allies from pushing the Germans out of France and Belgium.

On June 6, the Marines had a brutal introduction to the battle. Men of the Sixth Marine regiment were cut to pieces by machine gun fire when marching towards German lines. In the evening, the 2nd Battalion attacked but were left exposed when their rolling artillery barrage failed to support them.

Throughout June, aggressive hand to hand fighting took place around the wood as the Americans fought to gain control. Casualties were high on both sides and it would take six American attacks before finally, on 26 June, the Germans were finally forced out.

The back and forth fighting in and around Belleau Wood was typical of some of the more attritional battles of the war.

Belleau Wood has gone down in US Marine lore as an early example of their battle hardened attitude. However, in reality, they suffered badly.

Take the Fourth Marine Brigade, for example. Of its complement of 9,500 men, the brigade suffered 1,000 killed in action, and 4,000 wounded, gassed, or missing equaling a 55 percent casualty rate.

Over the next 50 years, the Marines would be involved in some of the most brutal and infamous battles ever to inflict the planet. By the time the Vietnam War ignited in the 1960s, the US Marines had picked up quite the reputation.

It was a reputation that has its origins in a corner of France through involvement in a war like no other.