Within the Marine Corps the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood is legendary.  Outside the Corps it is relatively unknown.  Yet the battle was a turning point in the history of the Corps, clearly demonstrating that the Marines could operate at brigade strength in conventional warfare.  Until then Marines were used principally as landing parties to secure a harbor or protect an American consulate, or as special operations and counterinsurgency forces.  The Marines were swift and deadly, but large-scale operations were not their forte.

Before the Great War erupted the Marine Corps was only a few thousand strong.  In 1916 Congress authorized an increase to 15,000; in May 1917, to 31,000.  This would mean that the Corps could supply not only enough Marines for the Navy in the war but also enough Marines for two regiments of infantry to serve with the American Expeditionary Force.  First, though, a grand recruiting campaign was necessary to inspire fighting-age men to join the Corps.  The Marines’ typical appeal to the martial spirit of American males was effective, and thousands were soon swearing oaths at recruiting stations.

“The officers, from captain up, and fifty or so of the non-commissioned officers were old-time Marines,” said Col. Albertus Catlin, CO of the 6th Marine Regiment,

but the junior officers and all of the privates were new men. . . . Sixty per cent of the entire regiment . . . were college men.  Two-thirds of one entire company came straight from the University of Minnesota. . . . Of our young lieutenants a large number were college athletes.

By mid-March 1918 the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments reached the front in France as part of the 2nd Division of the AEF.  They had been moved up just in time for the German offensive.  By early June the Marines, already the veterans of several skirmishes and battles, were approaching Belleau Wood.  Leading his troops in retreat, a French major came upon a company of Marines, commanded by Capt. Lloyd Williams.  The major ordered Williams to join the retreat.  Williams exploded, “Retreat, hell.  We just got here.”

The Marines quickly dug shallow fighting positions and readied themselves for the oncoming Germans.  “We watched them come on,” said Lt. Lemuel Shepherd, a recent graduate of VMI.  “A thousand yards, seven hundred, five hundred.  I held our fire.  Our sights were set for three hundred.”  A Marine machine gunner estimated that 500 Germans were approaching his position.

We waited until they got close, oh, very close.  In fact, we let them think they were going to have a leadpipe cinch.

Oh, it was too easy; just like a bunch of cattle coming to slaughter.

I always thought it was rather a fearful thing to take a human life, but I felt a savage thrill of joy and I could hardly wait for the Germans to get close enough.  And they came arrogant, confident in their power, to within 300 yards.

Deadly accurate Marine rifle and machine-gun fire stopped the German advance.  “You couldn’t begrudge a tribute to their pluck at that,” wrote Maj. Frank E. Evans (later brigadier general), in a letter to the commandant.  “It was too much for any men.  They burrowed in or broke to the cover of the woods, and you could follow them by the ripples of the green wheat as they raced for cover.”

The Germans remained fully entrenched in the woods and supported by artillery, mortars, and machine guns.  It was now the Marines’ job to dislodge them, and that meant crossing hundreds of yards of open wheat fields exposed to German fire.  The Marines launched their assault with an artillery barrage.  With the shells whistling overhead, riflemen came on the run.  Soon their blood was mixing with the blood-red poppies of the wheat fields.  Marines were dropping everywhere, either knocked down by German machine-gun bullets or seeking some cover by hugging the ground.

Just when it appeared that withering German fire had stopped the assault, First Sergeant Dan Daly, a 20-year veteran who already had been awarded the Medal of Honor twice, rose from the ground and, waving his .45 overhead, yelled, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”

Seeing the legendary Marine charging forward inspired others to do the same.  By twos and threes, and then by dozens, they rose to their feet and followed.  Miraculously, Daly reached the woods and single-handedly destroyed three machine-gun nests, while other survivors of the charge took out more.  The Marines were in the woods, but the carnage behind them in the wheat fields was horrific.  Some 1,100 Marines had been killed or wounded, including 31 officers—the most losses at that time in Marine Corps history.

Fighting in the woods had its own kind of horror.  The combat was at close quarters, often with grenades, pistols, bayonets, and knives.  Fog occasionally reduced visibility to near zero.  Land navigation with crude maps and compass, even on clear days, was half guesswork.  Capt. George Hamilton, who had been a star athlete in college, led his company of Marines, at least those who had survived the crossings of two wheat fields, on the run well into the woods.  He had outdistanced all but a handful of his own Marines and was about a half-mile beyond his objective when he realized his mistake.  Retreating was no easy proposition.  “I crawled back through a drainage ditch filled with cold water and shiny reeds,” said Hamilton.  “Machine gun bullets were just grazing my back and our own artillery was dropping close[.]”

Once back to his objective for the day, Hamilton set about reorganizing his company.  He learned he had lost all five of his lieutenants and several of his sergeants.  One platoon would have to be led by a corporal.  Although German artillery shells were falling from the sky, Hamilton ran from position to position until he had formed his men into a defensive line.  And none too soon.  Having moved stealthily through thick undergrowth, a squad of Germans began hurling grenades into the Marines.  Hamilton himself was struck, not by shrapnel, but by fragments of rock that a grenade had hit.

At the same time, Hamilton’s gunnery sergeant, Charles Hoffman, spied a dozen Germans creeping through heavy brush on the Marines’ flank.  The 40-year-old Hoffman, a lifer in the Corps, charged into the brush and bayoneted two of the Germans before other Marines joined him and killed the remaining enemy.  The Germans had been carrying five light machine guns that, if put into action on the Marines’ flank, would have destroyed what was left of Hamilton’s company.

And so it went, yard by yard, casualty after casualty, day after day through Belleau Wood.  Wounded were evacuated, but not necessarily quickly.  The dead remained where they were, some not buried for days.  The stench was godawful.  Searching for wounded comrades, a squad of Marines came upon a macabre scene.  A German officer was

seated comfortably with his knees crossed.  Before him was spread a little field table on which was cake, jam, cookies and a fine array of food.  A knife and fork was in either hand.  Beside the officer was seated a large, bulky sergeant who had been knitting socks.  The darning needles were still between his fingers.  Both their heads had been blown off by a large shell.

While the Marines were fighting their way through the woods, they scored a publicity coup.  Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, had his press section rigorously enforce a policy of censoring anything that identified units.  There could be no mention of individual troops and their home states, or even whether they were artillery or infantry or cavalry.  Frustrated in their efforts to write interesting copy, reporters complained bitterly to their newspapers back home.

Then they got a break.  Beginning on June 6, they were allowed to identify Marine units as Marines.  Pershing and his press section clearly did not anticipate the consequences of the policy change—and the timing for the Corps could not have been more propitious.  Suddenly, stories on the Marines in Belleau Wood poured into newspapers in the United States, and headlines blared, Marines Smash Huns, Gain Glory in Brisk Fight on the Marne; Marines in Great Charge Overthrow Crack Foe; Marines Win Hot Battle; Our Marines Attack; Marines Sink Wedge in Enemy Front.  Underneath the headlines ran colorful stories of the Marines, naming individuals such as Dan Daly.  The public could talk of nothing but the Marines.

It wasn’t until June 26 that a Marine officer declared, “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps entirely.”  By then U.S. forces, which included Army elements, had suffered almost 10,000 casualties.  Of those, more than 1,800 were deaths.  There are no good figures for German casualties, although they were thought even higher.  A nearby cemetery holds the graves of more than 8,000 German soldiers, but how many of those came from engagements other than Belleau Wood is unknown.

In honor of the Marines the French renamed the woods Bois de la Brigade de Marine and awarded the Marine brigade the Croix de Guerre.  General Pershing declared, “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.”  Pershing also exclaimed, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle.”  The Germans agreed.  An after-action report described the Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen.”  And legend has it that during the fighting in the woods the German troops began calling the Marines Teufelshunde.  Devil dogs or not, the Marines now had an international reputation.