Battles - The Battle of Belleau Wood, 1918
Comprising two related actions, firstly at Chateau-Thierry from 3-4 June and then at Belleau Wood itself from 6-26 June, the Battle of Belleau Wood saw the re-capture by U.S. forces of the wood on the Metz-Paris road taken at the end of May by German Seventh Army forces arriving at the Marne River around Chateau-Thierry and held by four divisions as part of the German Aisne offensive.
Chateau-Thierry formed the tip of the German advance towards Paris, some 50 miles south-west. Defended by U.S. Second and Third Divisions dispatched at the behest of the French by AEF Commander-in-Chief Jack Pershing, the Americans launched a counter-attack on 3-4 June with the assistance of the French Tenth Colonial Division; in a spirited action together they succeeded in pushing the Germans back across the Marne to Jaulgonne.
Rejuvenated by success first at Cantigny (at the end of May) and now at Chateau-Thierry, General Bundy's Second Division forces followed up Chateau-Thierry two days later with the difficult exercise of capturing Belleau Wood.
Second Division's Marine Corps, under James Harbord, were tasked with the taking of the wood. This perilous venture involved a murderous trek across an open wheat field, swept from end to end by German machine gun fire, a fact that continues to generate controversy today among some historians.
As a consequence of the open nature of the advance on the wood, casualties on the first day, 6 June, were the highest in Marine Corps history (a dubious record which remained until the capture of Japanese-held Tarawa in November 1943).
Fiercely defended by the Germans, the wood was first taken by the Marines (and Third Infantry Brigade), then ceded back to the Germans - and again taken by the U.S. forces a total of six times before the Germans were finally expelled. Also captured were the nearby villages of Vaux and Bouresche.
The battle ran from 6-26 June and by its end saw U.S. forces suffer 9,777 casualties, of which 1,811 were fatal. The number of German casualties is not known, although some 1,600 troops were taken prisoner. More critically, the combined Chateau-Thierry/Belleau Wood action brought to an end the last major German offensive of the war.
The French name for the wood, Bois Belleau, was subsequently officially renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marine, in honour of the Marine Corps's tenacity in its re-taking.
Click here to read Pershing's brief summary of fighting at Belleau Wood. Click here to read an official French military report based on early fighting during the battle. Click here to read a British press dispatch summarising the Americans' success in defending Chateau-Thierry at the start of June. Click here to read the text of an official French citation honouring the U.S. effort at Belleau Wood, issued on 8 December 1918. Click here to read the text of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniel's account of the battle.
Photograph courtesy of Photos of the Great War website
A 'flying pig' was a mortar bomb.
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