In June of 1918 the First World War had been going on for four years. Europe was being laid to waste. The German Army at this stage fielded some 50 divisions and the most modern technological weapons the world had seen up to that time, including modern artillery, trench mortars, heavy machine guns and chemical warfare.
The Germans were pushing the English forces back with incredible efficiency. The French forces were literally collapsing and in full retreat.
It was into this seemingly disastrous milieu that the Marines of the United States Marine Corps 5th and 6th Regiments were ordered to fill in the front lines at a place called Belleau Wood. They would enter the battle on the morning of June 6, 1918, and would fight with such ferocity and determination for the next three weeks that they would not only halt the German advance they actually turned the tide of battle for the war.
They fought so hard and so effectively that the Germans would give them a name that has lasted with Marines to this day; they called those Marines, “Teufel Hunden,” meaning devil dogs. The Germans were so deeply impressed by the fighting spirit of those Marines in the 5th and 6th Regiments that they also called them “storm troops” the highest possible praise for military prowess and fierceness in the German military mind.
When the Marines arrived and were given their orders, they started for the front, they passed fleeing French forces that yelled at them to retreat, the Germans were not far behind. Marine Captain, Lloyd Williams responded to the fleeing French troops with a phrase that is remembered and honored by every Marine, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” They went forward and entered into a battle that would prove to be ferocious, bloody and violent from the beginning.
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At the beginning of the battle the Marines had to cross an open wheat field under intense, concentrated machine gun fire. Sgt. Major Daniel Joseph, “Dan” Daly, in order to encourage his Marines, uttered the famous, oft quoted epithet as they went forward into that kill zone, “Come on you sons a bitches, do you want to live forever?”
They engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat, fighting with their rifles, pistols, hand grenades, bayonets and whatever else was at hand. They fought day and night without being relieved, often without rations and to the point of exhaustion, while the Germans remained well supplied and supported. The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments would fight this way for three weeks straight against 4 divisions of German troops.
Sgt. Major Daly had already been awarded two Medals of Honor before that battle. His first was awarded for his leadership of his Marines in defense of the American Consulate in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. His second one was for his courageous actions in Haiti in 1915.
Among other Medals of Honor awarded to 5th and 6th Marine Regiment warriors for actions during the Battle of Belleau Wood was one to Gunnery Sgt. F. Stockham. He gave up his gas mask for a wounded Marine during one of the chemical attacks. The wounded Marine survived, but Stockham would die days later from the effects of the gas.
Each member of the 5th and 6th Marines who fought at Belleau Wood was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest award for valor the French give. Those units would be awarded that honor two more times. That is why Marines in the 5th or the 6th Marines today are allowed to wear the lanyard that signifies the Croix de Guerre.
The Veterans Site honors the history of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments for their valor during the Battle of Belleau Wood 101 years ago. The United States Marine Corps has continued to add to that noble history in the century since that time as well.
Semper Fidelis, Marines! OooRah!
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.