WWI – In June of 1918, a division of Marines was sent to bolster French troops at Belleau Wood. When they arrived, they found the French army retreating through their lines. Their commander handed the Marine commander a note that ordered him to retreat. He responded in typical Marine fashion: “Retreat, hell. We just got here.” That was reportedly Captain Lloyd Williams, commander of the 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
Battle of Belleau Wood
Belleau Wood was about 30 miles north of Paris, and was once a quiet sanctuary of forests and beautiful landscapes. But by June 1, the Germans had launched a major offensive that took them into what once was a lush area. Their intent was to capture Paris.
Army Gen John J Pershing ordered American troops to stop the Germans. He was unsure of the Marine Corps at the time, since they were such a small fighting force. U.S. Marines under General James Harbord fought against 4 German Divisions.
He ordered them to hold their positions. They fixed their bayonets and began shooting with precision as the Germans attacked. Faced with withering gunfire, the Germans retreated to fortify their positions. The Marines held their ground against all odds.
Devil Dog Tenacity
10,000 Americans died, were wounded, or went missing in action in the three week battle. Multiple medals were awarded, including the Medal of Honor. The 5th Marines became one of the most decorated of all Marine divisions.
“The only thing that drove those Marines through those woods in the face of such resistance as they met was their individual, elemental guts, plus the hardening of the training through which they had gone.” Lt. Col. Frederick May Wise, commander 2nd battalion, 5th Marines
The battle was over on June 26, 1918, when the Marine Major sent word that the woods were now in the hands of US Marines. The Marines, backed by US Army artillery, had fought a bloody battle against German machine guns, artillery, and gas for three weeks.
The stuff of legend
A war correspondent who was shot in the eye splashed their exploits across every newspaper in America. Pershing had ruled against any kind of exploits being reported, but newspapers gobbled up his report- after all he was a wounded war hero. So the Battle of Belleau Wood became legendary.
The US Marines proved themselves in the battle…enough that the Germans were prevented from taking Paris. The battle itself did not win the war, but it prevented the Germans from obtaining their prize.
Tradition holds that the Germans gave the Marines the nickname of “Devil Dogs” or Teufelhunden from the ferocity of their fighting at Belleau Wood. It doesn’t matter what the origin of that nickname really was, the Marines will always be “Devil Dogs.” And they don’t retreat.
Featured photo via Pinterest- some of the Marines of Belleau Wood