View Full Version : Belleau Wood victory came at a high cost

11-01-05, 05:58 PM
November 07, 2005
The Lore of the Corps: Belleau Wood victory came at a high cost
By Robert F. Dorr
Special to the Times

On May 27, 1918, Germany’s Gen. Erich von Ludendorff launched an offensive against the Allied northern front in France. It was the last great German attack of World War I, which was then referred to as “The Great War.”

The 4th Brigade, American Expeditionary Forces, with other Allied units, was ordered to move up from training areas. Although the brigade was commanded by Army Maj. Gen. James Harbord, it included leathernecks from 5th and 6th Marines at its center. France’s 167th Division was on its left, and the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade was on its right.

The Marines were well-equipped. Most carried 1903 Springfield .30-caliber rifles. Officers and sergeants carried the 1911 Colt .45-caliber automatic pistol. Leathernecks also carried fresh gear, rations and ammunition.

At 4 a.m. May 30, Marines climbed into trucks and headed north, skirting Paris and taking positions astride the strategic Paris-Metz highway. As fragments of the Allied armies retreated along the highway, a French officer urged the Marines to join them. Marine Capt. Lloyd Williams replied: “Retreat hell. We just got here.”

To the left of the Marines was Belleau Wood, three square miles of rocks, woods and 1,200 elite soldiers from the 461st Imperial German Infantry all located east of Chateau-Thierry in northern France.

On June 4 and 5, Marines held their positions along the highway as the Germans attacked. On June 6, 5th Marines counterattacked.

“It was a confused tactical mess,” said Andrew F. Antippas, a historian who has studied the battle. It was also costly: June 6 saw the Corps’ greatest single-day losses to that time.

Although he was later named an “Honorary Marine,” Harbord was criticized for not directing concentrated artillery fire in support of the Marines; casualties may have been higher than necessary. By the end of June 6, the edge of Belleau Wood and Hill 142 had been taken at a cost of more than 1,000 casualties. Historian Thomas Fleming wrote that these casualties were unnecessary and that the fight could have been avoided, but New York Times correspondent Edwin L. James rated the battle “among the neatest pieces of military work of the conflict.”

The Marines hammered their way through the woods for four days before they secured their position June 10.

On June 13, the Germans counterattacked. The entrenched Marines dropped the enemy at 400 yards with concentrated rifle fire. After the attack waned, the lines did not change until June 24, when leathernecks began mopping up the area. Two days later, they proudly announced that the “woods are now United States Marine Corps’ entirely.” At the end of the battle, the Marines had suffered 55 percent casualties — 1,062 killed and 3,615 wounded.

The Marines’ spirited fight wrested more than just a small, battered woodland. The action halted Germany’s last major offensive of the war. In doing so, it earned the Corps the respect and admiration of the United States and its allies.

Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He is the author of books on military topics, including “Chopper,” a history of helicopter pilots. His e-mail address is robert.f.dorr@cox.net.