Wednesday, June 25, 2008

This Day in World War I History (Marines Take Belleau Wood)

June 25, 1918—Capping three weeks of combat in the face of enemy machine-gun fire, artillery barrages and poison gas, the Marine Corps contingent of the American Expedition Force’s Second Division finally achieved victory at the Battle of Belleau Wood, stopping the last major German offensive of the war.

Today, the American sacrifice—9,777 casualties, of which 1,811 were fatal—is commemorated by a nearly 100-ft.-tall monument towering over the Aisne-Marne Cemetery (see the picture accompanying this post). Anti-American slogans must ring pretty hollow in the vast stillness here—the first of two instances in the past century when American troops helped save France from falling to an authoritarian German power.

One regret of mine in writing this blog—one I hope to rectify over the next several months—has been the lack of material on the First World War. The conflict might have ended 90 years ago, but we are still suffering from the ghastly wound it opened in civilization.

After four years of trench warfare, mostly on its home ground, France in particular was loosening its grip in the death grapple with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Army. It could hardly wait for fresh American troops to face off against the Germans.

“Belleau Wood” is shorthand for two parts of the epic battle. On June 3-4, 1918, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force,
General John J. Pershing, acceding to the wishes of the French, ordered the Second and Third Divisions to link up with the French Tenth Colonial Division to halt a German advance at Chateau-Thierry, a mere 50 miles from Paris. Only two days after this combined force drove the Germans back across the Marne, the Americans embarked on the second part of the engagement: capturing Belleau Wood itself. Easier said than done.

Slaughter in the Wheat Field

After emerging from a shallow trench, the Marines had to cross an open wheat field to seize their objective. Whatever fleeting thoughts they might have entertained that the shoulder-length wheat stalks might camouflage their advance were immediately dashed by an enemy crouching behind firmly entrenched positions.

They Called Us Devil Dogs, by Byron Scarbrough, an as-told-memoir from the perspective of his grandfather, the Tennesseean Jim Scarbrough, offers an extraordinarily vivid retrospective of that day:

“From the wood line came a constant rain of machine gun fire sweeping left to right and back, clipping off the stalks of wheat and the men in between them. I remember thinking the bullets sounded just like crickets, loud crickets. I also remember the men were falling just like mown grass. There was shouting and screaming near and far. It was hard to make anything out.”

Crossing an open field, completely exposed to enemy fire—does this sound to you at least somewhat like Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg? Me, too.

And though the results were not as calamitous for the Marines as they proved for the Marines as they had been for the Confederates a half-century before, they were bad enough, as weapon advances had heightened defenses’ ability to inflict damage. That day—June 6, 1918—the Marine Corps sustained the most casualties in its history (a terrible record not surpassed until the Battle of Tarawa in the South Pacific in November 1943).

For the next three weeks, the action seesawed between the Germans and Americans, with the woods being taken by the Americans—then recaptured by the Germans—a total of six times.

Reasons for the Marine Victory

Marines had three major assets in the fight:

* Precision long-distance marksmanship. German experience with British snipers did not prepare them for the Americans’ ability to hit targets more than 500 yards away. If the Americans could get that close, the Germans would have the fight of their lives on their hands. They did.

* Experienced leadership. Approximately one-fifth of the 5th Marines and one-tenth of the 6th Marines were "old-timers" (defined as someone with more than one year's service). In contrast, their counterparts in the 9th Infantry and 23d Infantry regiments, could only muster one out of every 20 men with similar experience.

* Tenacity. Marine commanders added luster to their growing legend for toughness in the course of the battle. At the beginning of the three weeks of bloodshed, French forces, exhausted after so much fighting, asked Captain Lloyd Williams of the 2nd Battalion about withdrawing. Williams’ response: "Retreat, Hell! We just got here!" Later, on June 6, with his men pinned down, Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly called "Come on ya sons-of-bitches, ya want to live forever?" and –remarkably, given the chaotic surroundings—induced them to advance again

Perhaps an even more astonishing example of heroism was provided by First Lieutenant Jacob Harrison Heckman, whose actions on June 25 were just one of many examples of courage up and down the line that day that secured victory. His citation reads as follows:

The Distinguished Service Cross is presented to Jacob Harrison Heckman, First Lieutenant, U.S. Marine Corps, for extraordinary heroism while serving with the 5th Regiment (Marines), 2d Division, A.E.F. in action in the Bois-de-Belleau, France, June 25, 1918 resistance, and captured one officer and ninety men. Each of his men destroyed a nest and captured two of the enemy at each po. With the assistance of three sergeants, Lieutenant Heckman started out to destroy the final stand of the enemy in the Bois-de-Belleau, an impregnable position, where enemy guns were concealed by rocks and heavy shrubbery. Armed with only a pistol, Lieutenant Heckman rushed the nest which was offering the most violent sition. After effecting the complete reduction of the last element, Lieutenant Heckman marched his prisoners in under a severe and harassing fire of the retreating enemy.

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