Into a veritable hell of hissing bullets, into that death-dealing torrent, with heads bent as though facing a March gale, the shattered lines of Marines pushed on. The headed wheat bowed and waved in that metal cloud-burst like meadow grass in a summer breeze. The advancing lines wavered, and the voice of Sergeant Daniel Daly was heard above the uproar: "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?"
Marines overcame such odds, and won such a victory, that a grateful France renamed Belleau Wood, "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" ("Wood of the Marine Brigade"). General Pershing, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, was quoted as saying, "The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle." General Pershing also stated "the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy."
Taken from, Barron, Elwyn Alfred. "Deeds of heroism and bravery: the book of heroes and personal daring." (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
It has been insisted that more than their share of glory was bestowed upon the Marines for their work at Chateau-Thierry, other units of the A.E.F. being entitled to share the honors of those terrible but wonderful days when the barbarians were stopped. That is of course true, for the battle generally described as Chateau-Thierry had to do with a region, not merely a town, and it was in Belleau Wood that the Marines fought so splendidly and so successfully to save Paris. Honors conferred in the early and censored dispatches have since been more properly distributed, and the various divisions — the 1st and 2d, the 3d, the 26th and the 42d — engaged at different points and at different times, have had the just recognition of the honors due them. But the distribution has not in any degree diminished the proud record of the Marines in maintaining the place of honor to which they were assigned June 6th. A very voluminous and authoritative account of the 6th Regiment, 2d Division, and its service in France was written by its commander. Brig. Gen. A. W. Catlin under the title "With the Help of God and a Few Marines." In that volume one may find the authentic details of the heroic exploits of the Marines. But we are now concerned only with the incidents and events that caused the French to change the name of Belleau Wood (Bois de Belleau) to "Bois de la Brigade de Marine."
The first spring drive of the Germans began March 21, 1918. It swept across the Somme and over the plains of Picardy irresistibly. Foch seemed unable to check the advance and there was consternation among the Allied nations, and the men in the trenches were anxious and restless. The enemy were sweeping everything before them. "With forty divisions, including some 400,000 of their best troops, and with the greatest auxiliary force of tanks, machine guns and poison gas projectiles ever mobilized," says Gen. Catlin.
To the northwest of Chateau-Thierry lay Belleau Wood, a natural fortress which was full of Germans. Although the enemy had been checked in the attempt to cross the Marne, his position in Belleau Wood was a very strong one, constituting an excellent point of vantage for a sudden thrust against the Allied line along the river. Foch now decided to call upon American troops, and the Marines of the 2nd Division were ordered up and sent into the line to capture Belleau Wood.
French-American resistance at Chateau-Thierry delayed the German advance and gave time for the organization of the defensive strategy which culminated in the battle of Belleau Wood. It is interesting to know in connection with Chateau-Thierry that the Americans entered under the direction of the French. General Catlin says apropos of the Belleau Wood preparation:
"I think the French hesitated to trust us too far in this crisis. We were without tanks, gas shells, or flame projectors. We were untried in open warfare. But General Harbord begged to be allowed to tackle the job. 'Let us fight In our own way,' said he, 'and we'll stop them.'
"The situation was acute; there seemed to be no alternative. General Harbord was given free rein, and in that moment we passed out from our French tutelage and acted as an American army fighting side by side with our hard-pressed Allies. The battle of Belleau Wood was fought by American troops, under American officers, supported by American guns, In a typically American manner. And the battle was won."
"We stood facing the dark, sullen mystery of Belleau Wood. It was a mystery, for we knew not what terrible destruction the Hun might be preparing for us within its baleful borders, nor at what moment It might be launched in all its fury against us. That the wood was strongly held we knew, and so we waited.
"No one knows how many Germans were in those woods. I have seen the estimate placed at 1,000, but there were certainly more than that. It had been Impossible to get patrols into the woods, but we knew they were full of machine guns and that the enemy had trench mortars there. We captured five of their minnenwerfers later. So far as we knew, there might have been any number of men In there, but we had to attack just the same, and with but a handful. Sibley and Berry had a thousand men each, but only half of these could be used for the first rush, and as Berry's position was problematical. It was Sibley's stupendous task to lead his 500 through the southern end of the wood clear to the eastern border If the attack was not to be a total failure. Even to a Marine it seemed hardly men enough.
"Orders had been given to begin the attack at 5 o'clock. The men knew in a general way what was expected of them and what they were up against, but I think only the officers realized the almost impossible task that lay before them. I knew, and the knowledge left me little comfort. But I had perfect confidence in the men; that never faltered. That they might break never once entered my head. They might be wiped out, I knew, but they would never break.
"With map in hand, I explained the situation to them without trying to gloss over any of its difficulties, and gave them their orders. The men seemed cool, in good spirits and ready for the word to start. Some one has asked me what I said, what final word of inspiration I gave those men about to face sudden death.
"I am no speech maker. If the truth must be told, I think what I said was, 'Give 'em Hell, boys!’ It was the sort of thing the Marine understands. And that is about what they did.
"No orders as to the adjustment of rifle sights had been given, as the range was point blank. Watches had been synchronized and no further orders were given. As the hands touched the zero hour there was a single shout, and at exactly 5 o'clock the whole line leaped up simultaneously and started for- ward. Berry's 500 and Sibley's 500, with the others in support.
"Instantly the beast in the wood bared his claws. The Boches were ready and let loose a sickening machine gun and rifle fire into the teeth of which the Marines advanced. The German artillery in the woods increased the fury of its fire, and the big guns at Belleau and Torcy, a mile and a half away, pounded our advancing lines.
"On Berry's front there was the open wheat field, 400 yards or more wide — winter wheat, still green but tall and headed out. Other cover there was none. On Sibley's left there was open grass land perhaps 200 yards wide; his right was close to the woods.
"My eyes were on what Sibley's men were doing, and I only knew in a general way what was happening to the battalion of the 5th. But Floyd Gibbons, the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, was with Berry and saw it all. He was, in fact, seriously wounded himself, and has lost an eye as a result. Gibbons says that the platoons started in good order and advanced steadily into the field between clumps of woods. It was flat country with no protection of any sort except the bending wheat. The enemy opened up at once and it seemed, he says, as if the air were full of red-hot nails. The losses were terrific. Men fell on every hand there in the open, leaving great gaps in the line. Berry was wounded in the arm, but pressed on with the blood running down his sleeve.
"Into a veritable hell of hissing bullets, into that death-dealing torrent, with heads bent as though facing a March gale, the shattered lines of Marines pushed on. The headed wheat bowed and waved in that metal cloud-burst like meadow grass in a summer breeze. The advancing lines wavered, and the voice of Sergeant Daniel Daly was heard above the uproar: 'Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?'
"The ripping fire grew hotter. The machine guns at the edge of the woods were now a bare hundred yards away, and the enemy gunners could scarcely miss their targets. It was more than flesh and blood could stand. Our men were forced to throw themselves flat on the ground or be annihilated, and there they remained in that terrible hail till darkness made it possible for them to withdraw to their original position.
"Berry's men did not win that first encounter in the attack on Belleau Wood, but it was not their fault. Never did men advance more gallantly in the face of certain death; never did men deserve greater honor for valor.
"Sibley, meanwhile, was having better luck. I watched his men go in and it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever witnessed. The battalion pivoted on its right, the left sweeping across the open ground in four waves, as steadily and correctly as though on parade. There were two companies of them, deployed in four skirmish lines, the men placed five yards apart and the waves fifteen to twenty yards behind each other.
"I say they went in as if on parade, and that is literally true. There was no yell and wild rush, but a deliberate forward march, with the lines at right dress. They walked at the regulation pace, because a man is of little use in a hand-to-hand bayonet struggle after a hundred yards dash. My hands were clenched and all my muscles taut as I watched that cool, intrepid, masterful defiance of the German spite. And still there was no sign of wavering or breaking.
"Oh, it took courage and steady nerves to do that in the face of the enemy's machine gun fire. Men fell there in the open, but the advance kept steadily on to the woods. It was then that discipline and training counted. Their minds were concentrated not on the enemy's fire but on the thing they had to do and the necessity for doing it right. They were listening for orders and obeying them. In this frame of mind the soldier can perhaps walk with even more coolness and determination than he can run.
"The Marines have a war cry that they can use to advantage when there is need of it. It is a blood-curdling yell calculated to carry terror to the heart of the waiting Hun. I am told that there were wild yells in the woods that night, when the Marines charged the machine gun nests, but there was no yelling when they went in. Some one has reported that they advanced on those woods crying, 'Remember the Lusitania!' If they did so, I failed to hear it. Somehow that doesn't sound like the sort of things the Marine says under the conditions. So far as I could observe not a sound was uttered throughout the length of those four lines. The men were saving their breath for what was to follow.
"I am afraid I have given but a poor picture of that splendid advance. There was nothing dashing about it like a cavalry charge, but it was one of the finest things I have ever seen men do. They were men who had never before been called upon to attack a strongly held enemy position. Before them were the dense woods effectively sheltering armed and highly trained opponents of unknown strength. Within its depths the machine guns snarled and rattled and spat forth a leaden death. It was like some mythical monster belching smoke and fire from its lair. And straight against it marched the United States Marines, with heads up and the light of battle in their eyes.
"Well, they made it. They reached the woods without breaking. They had the advantage of slightly better cover than Berry's men and the defensive positions at the lower end of the woods had not been so well organized by the Germans as those on the western side. The first wave reached the low growth at the edge of the woods and plunged in. Then the second wave followed, and the third and the fourth, and disappeared from view."
"The action was all in the hands of the platoon officers. Success or failure rested on their shoulders. It is not the general who wins such a battle as that, but the captain, the sergeant, the private.
"It has been called an exaggerated riot, that desperate conflict in the wood. It was hand-to-hand fighting from the first, and those Germans, hating cold steel as they do, soon learned what American muscle and determination are like. From tree to tree fought our Marines, from rock to rock, like the wild Indians of their native land. It is the sort of fighting the Marine has always gloried in. And in that fighting they beat the Germans on two points — initiative and daring, and accuracy of rifle fire. They picked the German gunners out of the trees like squirrels, and in innumerable fierce onslaughts that took place at the machine gun nests the Marines always struck the first blow and it was usually a knock-out. It was a wild, tempestuous, rough- and-tumble scrap, with no quarter asked or given. Rifles grew hot from constant firing and bayonets reeked with German gore. It was man to man, there in the dark recesses of the woods, with no gallery to cheer the gladiators, and it was the best man that won.
"The thick woods made the fighting a matter of constant ambuscades and nerve-racking surprises, but the Marines tore on. With Sibley at their head nothing could stop them. Machine gun nests whose crews held out formed little islands in the welter about which the Marine flood swept, eventually to engulf them. Some of the Germans turned and fled, abandoning their guns; others waited till caught in the rear and then threw up their hands and surrendered; some waited in huddled groups in the ravines till the gleaming-eyed devil dogs should leap upon them; some stuck to their guns till an American bullet or an American bayonet laid them low. One by one the guns were silenced or were turned in the opposite direction.
"They started in at 5 o'clock. At 6:45 the report was sent to headquarters that the machine gun fire at the lower end of the woods had been practically silenced. At 7:30 German prisoners began to come in.
"Night fell with the fighting still going on and only the flash of shooting to see by. But at 9 o'clock word came from Sibley by runner that he had got through and had attained the first objective, the eastern edge of the wood. In four hours he and his men had passed clear through the lower quarter of Belleau Wood, traversing nearly a mile, and had cleaned things up as they went. And only 500 of them started; I hesitate to mention the number that finished.