The day that Allied Forces made history on the beaches of Normandy in World War II was already the anniversary of a critical World War I battle. What would befall the United States Marine Corps at Belleau Wood beginning June 6, 1918, would change the Corps forever.
In the spring of 1918, German forces launched a massive attack on France. The German Spring Offensive was a focused attempt to take France and win the war. By June, the Germans had already made significant gains.
The Marines’ orders were to counterattack the Germans who were stopped at Belleau Wood, about 50 miles outside of Paris. But Belleau Wood was no ordinary place. For the Allied soldiers, it was a challenging nightmare.
The Bois (Wood) de Belleau was a square mile of an old hunting preserve that provided a keen view of surrounding wheat fields. Where there was forest, the brush was so thick to be almost impassable. A deep gorge ran all the way through, also difficult to cross.
The Germans were set up on a knoll with rocks and boulders large enough to protect them from gunfire. There were about a thousand soldiers under the command of Major Josef Bischoff. They had been there for three days—a big headstart to learn the area, get organized, and fill the area with machine guns.
From the forest, the knoll was about 400 yards across a wheat field that provided no cover. The soldiers could look at the trees’ edge and see the German machine gunners in the foliage. Maj. Benjamin S. Berry led the first battalion of marines who were stopped almost immediately by a barrage of German machine-gun fire. Those who survived laid in the field awaiting night when they could retreat to the safety of the woods.
Over on the other side of the woods, the news was better. When Maj. Berton W. Sibley’s battalion charged into the field, the Germans faltered. The marines were able to hold their position until reinforcements arrived. The fighting went on every day for three more weeks. The Germans were driven out of Belleau Wood by the end of June. The French army was so grateful, that they renamed the place “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”
The cost was enormous though. Over half of the Marines were dead or injured—more than at any time in history. Most of the officers were lost to death or rehabilitation. The organization would have to be built again from the ground up.
Belleau Wood was the first major battle in which the US Marines had fought. New norms would be developed from what was learned.
The commander of the US First Division Robert Lee Bullard described the win aptly: “The Marines didn’t win the war here. But they saved the Allies from defeat. Had they arrived a few hours later I think that would have been the beginning of the end. France could not have stood the loss of Paris.”
One hundred years later, FrenchPrime Minister Emmanuel Macron brought President Donald Trump a sapling from Belleau Wood, where, he said, “the blood [of Americans] was spilled to defend France.” Together, Macron and Trump planted the little tree on the grounds of the White House.