One cannot understand the significance of Belleau Wood and the bloodshed that ensued there in June of 1918 without a brief understanding of the events that led up to this historic battle. The United States entered World War I in April of 1917. At that time, there was fighting on three major fronts: the Eastern Front, fought between the Russians and a German-reinforced Austro-Hungarian Empire; Northern Italy where the Italians had engaged the Austro-Hungarian and German troops for over two years; and the Western Front, where the Allies, primarily French and British, embattled the German Armies.
By autumn of 1917 however, the Allied war became a single front conflict, with the Germans and Austrians effectively shattering the Russian war effort on the Eastern Front and the Italian Army in Northern Italy. With the collapse of these two fronts, the German Army was able to shift more than 40 additional divisions to the Western Front making 200 German divisions available for a final offensive. By spring of 1918, with their forces massed on the Western Front, the Germans launched three offensives designed to bring an end to the war before the United States could shift the balance of power in Europe:
The Somme Offensive (March 21st-April 5th) in which the Germans struck a 40 mile wide section at the center of Allied defenses; the Lys Offensive (April 9th-April 29th) to the North; and the Aisne Offensive (May 27th-June 6th) advancing the German Army within 50 kilometers of Paris.
The Aisne Offensive routed the French 6th Army but the German advance was halted at Chateau-Thierry by the U.S. 3d Division on 31 May. Chateau-Thierry fell to the Germans on 1 June but when confronted with American machine-gun fire, the still advancing German Army swerved northwest capturing the village of Vaux and occupied Belleau Wood.
It is here at Belleau Wood that the Germans encountered the American 2d Division formed by the 4thMarine Brigade, the Army’s 3d Infantry Brigade, and the 2d Field Artillery Brigade.6Belleau Wood was ultimately the point at which the Aisne Offensive was stopped and the German forces turned back. General Pershing described the battle as, “the biggest battle [for the United States] since Appomattox and of the greatest magnitude of any engagement that American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy”.
While the geographic strategic importance of Belleau Wood can be contested, one cannot dispute that the true value of the victory was psychological. The battle was instrumental in illustrating lessons learned and in establishing the U.S. as a country capable of bringing to bear a credible force. This psychological significance can be seen in the manner in which not only German forces but also Allied forces perceived the U.S. after the Americans halted the German offensive. Prior to Belleau Wood, U.S. soldiers had yet to be tested in decisive combat with the possible exception of Cantigny (albeit a regimental-level engagement lasting three days against German troops rated at most as third-class).
The Germans certainly tested the Marine Brigade’s will to fight at Belleau Wood by employing four divisions, two of which were rated among the best the Germans had to offer. On August 17, 1918, General Richard von Conta, Commanding General of the German Corps, stated, “that the 2d American may be considered a very good division and might even be considered as fit for use as shock troops. Our fire did not affect their morale sufficiently to interfere appreciably with their advance; their nerves had not been used up….”.Clearly, the Germans were impressed.
Up until then, senior Allied officials had doubts about the competency of a separate and autonomous American Army. While past efforts, specifically Seicheprey and Cantigny, had shown that American enlisted men were generally capable, the Allies questioned the ability of U.S. military leadership to handle a division or larger formation. The Allies presumed that U.S. officers lacked command and staff experience. Therefore, the Allies pushed for amalgamation of U.S. infantrymen and machine-gunners under British and French commands.
Although the months following Belleau Wood still saw French command over American Divisions, the victory there inevitably proved Allied trepidation unwarranted and restored faith in American military leadership. The lessons learned at Belleau Wood would be implemented into Army and Marine Corps tactics and doctrine for years to come. Because American soldiers received training from the French prior to experiencing battle, the 4thBrigade began the battle for Belleau Wood by advancing in four waves. This concept used in trench warfare, where short distances separated front lines, assumed the attrition of the first three waves while the fourth would reach the objective. This procedure was quickly abandoned in the midst of German machine-gun fire and Marines instead began rushing forward in small groups.
The Americans also felt the impact of the lack of organic air support and Allied air superiority. German balloons would frequently spot re-supply trains and call in artillery and machine-gun fire. When commanders called in French air support to shoot down the balloons, the French could not spare the sorties. In the 1920s and 1930s, veterans of this battle, four of whom would become future Commandants, played a pivotal role in transforming the Marine Corps from a second land army to an amphibious force with organic and integrated combined arms.
The battle also created a lasting rift between the Marine Corps and the U.S. Army. Prior to Belleau Wood, Pershing predicted that the combination of Department of the Navy meddling and the Marine Corps’ ability to publicize its own accomplishments would demoralize the rest of the American Expeditionary Force. His predictions proved well founded whereas the U.S. Army performed equally as well as the Marine Corps at the battle of Belleau Wood, the Marine Corps received all the publicity.
The hard feelings spawned during this battle were destined to carry over and became instrumental in restraining the Marine Corps from fighting in the European theater during the Second World War. Belleau Wood cemented itself amongst those battles that will forever be examined by students of military history for its lasting effects on US military doctrine, its psychological impact and for its ultimate test of the strength and mettle of American fighting forces on foreign soil.