Primary Documents - Josephus Daniels on the Battle of Belleau Wood, June 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 recapture 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 John J. Pershing, the Americans launched a counter-attack on 3-4 June with the assistance of the French Tenth Colonial Division; together they succeeded in pushing the Germans back across the Marne.
Buoyed by success at Cantigny and now at Chateau-Thierry, General Bundy's Second Division forces followed up success at Chateau-Thierry two days later with the difficult exercise of capturing Belleau Wood. Casualties proved very heavy.
Stubbornly 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.
Reproduced below is the text of U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniel's account of the battle.
Click here to read Pershing's account 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.
U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels on the Battle of Belleau Wood
It was June 6th that the attack of the American troops began against Belleau Wood and its adjacent surroundings, with the wood itself and the towns of Torcy and Bouresches forming the objectives.
At 5 o'clock the attack came, and there began the tremendous sacrifices which the Marine Corps gladly suffered that the German fighters might be thrown back.
The marines fought strictly according to American methods - a rush, a halt, a rush again, in four-wave formation, the rear waves taking over the work of those who had fallen before them, passing over the bodies of their dead comrades and plunging ahead, until they, too, should be torn to bits. But behind those waves were more waves, and the attack went on.
"Men fell like flies," the expression is that of an officer writing from the field. Companies that had entered the battle 250 strong dwindled to 50 and 60, with a Sergeant in command; but the attack did not falter. At 9.45 o'clock that night Bouresches was taken by Lieutenant James F. Robertson and twenty-odd men of his platoon; these soon were joined by two reinforcing platoons.
Then came the enemy counter-attacks, but the marines held.
In Belleau Wood the fighting had been literally from tree to tree, stronghold to stronghold; and it was a fight which must last for weeks before its accomplishment in victory.
Belleau Wood was a jungle, its every rocky formation containing a German machine-gun nest, almost impossible to reach by artillery or grenade fire. There was only one way to wipe out these nests - by the bayonet. And by this method were they wiped out, for United States marines, bare-chested, shouting their battle cry of "E-e-e-e-e y-a-a-hh-h yip!" charged straight into the murderous fire from those guns, and won!
Out of the number that charged, in more than one instance, only one would reach the stronghold. There, with his bayonet as his only weapon, he would either kill or capture the defenders of the nest, and then swinging the gun about in its position, turn it against the remaining German positions in the forest.
Such was the character of the fighting in Belleau Wood; fighting which continued until July 6th, when after a short relief the invincible Americans finally were taken back to the rest billet for recuperation.
In all the history of the Marine Corps there is no such battle as that one in Belleau Wood. Fighting day and night without relief, without sleep, often without water, and for days without hot rations, the marines met and defeated the best divisions that Germany could throw into the line.
The heroism and doggedness of that battle are unparalleled. Time after time officers seeing their lines cut to pieces, seeing their men so dog tired that they even fell asleep under shellfire, hearing their wounded calling for the water they were unable to supply, seeing men fight on after they had been wounded and until they dropped unconscious; time after time officers seeing these things, believing that the very limit of human endurance had been reached, would send back messages to their post command that their men were exhausted.
But in answer to this would come the word that the line must hold, and, if possible, those lines must attack. And the lines obeyed. Without water, without food, without rest, they went forward - and forward every time to victory.
Companies had been so torn and lacerated by losses that they were hardly platoons, but they held their lines and advanced them. In more than one case companies lost every officer, leaving a Sergeant and sometimes a Corporal to command, and the advance continued.
After thirteen days in this inferno of fire a captured German officer told with his dying breath of a fresh division of Germans that was about to be thrown into the battle to attempt to wrest from the marines that part of the wood they had gained.
The marines, who for days had been fighting only on their sheer nerve, who had been worn out from nights of sleeplessness, from lack of rations, from terrific shell and machine-gun fire, straightened their lines and prepared for the attack. It came - as the dying German officer had predicted.
At 2 o'clock on the morning of June 13th it was launched by the Germans along the whole front. Without regard for men, the enemy hurled his forces against Bouresches and the Bois de Belleau, and sought to win back what had been taken from Germany by the Americans.
The orders were that these positions must be taken at all costs; that the utmost losses in men must be endured that the Bois de Belleau and Bouresches might fall again into German hands.
But the depleted lines of the marines held; the men who had fought on their nerve alone for days once more showed the mettle of which they were made.
With their backs to the trees and boulders of the Bois de Belleau, with their sole shelter the scattered ruins of Bouresches, the thinning lines of the marines repelled the attack and crashed hack the new division which had sought to wrest the position from them.
And so it went. Day after day, night after night, while time after time messages like the following travelled to the post command:
Losses heavy. Difficult to get runners through. Some have never returned. Morale excellent, but troops about all in. Men exhausted.
Exhausted, but holding on. And they continued to hold on in spite of every difficulty. Advancing their lines slowly day by day, the marines finally prepared their positions to such an extent that the last rush for the possession of the wood could be made.
Then, on June 24th, following a tremendous barrage, the struggle began.
The barrage literally tore the woods to pieces, but even its immensity could not wipe out all the nests that remained, the emplacements that were behind almost every clump of bushes, every jagged, rough group of boulders.
But those that remained were wiped out by the American method of the rush and the bayonet, and in the days that followed every foot of Belleau Wood was cleared of the enemy and held by the frayed lines of the Americans.
It was, therefore, with the feeling of work well done that the depleted lines of the marines were relieved in July, that they might be filled with replacements and made ready for a grand offensive in the vicinity of Soissons, July 18th.
And in recognition of their sacrifice and bravery this praise was forthcoming from the French:
Army Headquarters, June 30, 1918
In view of the brilliant conduct of the Fourth Brigade of the Second United States Division, which in a spirited fight took Bouresches and the important strong point of Bois de Belleau, stubbornly defended by a large enemy force, the General commanding the Sixth Army orders that henceforth, in all official papers, the Bois de Belleau shall be named "Bois de la Brigade de Marine."
DIVISION GENERAL DEGOUTTE,
Commanding Sixth Army
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
A "conchie" was slang used to refer to a conscientious objector.
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