The Battle of Belleau Wood (1 June 1918 – 26 June 1918) occurred during the German 1918 Spring Offensive in World War I, near the Marne River in France. The battle was fought between the U.S. Second (under the command of Major General Omar Bundy) and Third Divisions and an assortment of German units including elements from the 237th, 10th, 197th, 87th, and 28th Divisions.
In March 1918, with nearly 50 additional divisions freed by the Russian surrender on the Eastern Front, the German Army launched a series of attacks on the Western Front, hoping to defeat the Allies before United States forces could be fully deployed. In the north, the British 5th Army was virtually destroyed by two major offensive operations, Michael and Georgette around the Somme. A third offensive launched in May against the French between Soissons and Reims, known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, saw the Germans reach the north bank of the Marne river at Château-Thierry, 40 miles (64 km) from Paris, on 27 May. Two U.S. Army divisions, the 2nd and the 3rd, were thrown into the Allied effort to stop the Germans. On 31 May, the 3rd Division held the German advance at Château-Thierry and the German advance turned right towards Vaux and Belleau Wood.
On the evening of 1 June, German forces punched a hole in the French lines to the left of the Marines' position. In response, the U.S. reserve, consisting of the 23rd Infantry regiment, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, and an element of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, conducted a forced march over 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) to plug the gap in the line , which they achieved by dawn. By the night of 2 June, the U.S. forces held a 12 miles (19 km) front line north of the Paris-Metz Highway running through grain fields and scattered woods, from Triangle Farm west to Lucy and then north to Hill 142. The German line opposite ran from Vaux to Bouresches to Belleau.
German advance halted at Belleau Wood
German commanders ordered an advance on Marigny and Lucy through Belleau Wood as part of a major offensive, in which other German troops would cross the Marne River. The commander of the Marine Brigade, Army Gen. James Harbord, countermanding a French order to dig trenches further to the rear, ordered the Marines to "hold where they stand." With bayonets, the Marines dug shallow fighting positions from which they could fight from the prone position. In the afternoon of 3 June, German infantry attacked the Marine positions through the grain fields with bayonets fixed. The Marines waited until the Germans were within 100 yards (91 m) before opening fire with deadly rifle fire which mowed down waves of German infantry and forced the survivors to retreat into the wood.
At 3:45 a.m. on the morning of 6 June the Allies launched an attack on the German forces, who were preparing their own strike. The French 167th Division attacked to the left of the American line, while the Marines attacked Hill 142 to prevent flanking fire against the French. As part of the second phase, the 2nd Division would capture the ridge overlooking Torcy and Belleau Wood, as well as occupying Belleau Wood. However, the Marines failed to scout the woods. As a consequence, they missed a regiment of German infantry dug in, with a network of machine gun nests and artillery.
At 5 pm on 6 June, the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines (3/5), commanded by Major Benjamin S. Berry, and the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines (3/6), commanded by Maj. Berton W. Sibley, on their right, advanced from the west into Belleau Wood as part of the second phase of the Allied offensive. Again, the Marines had to advance through a waist-high wheat field into murderous machine gun fire. One of the most famous quotations in Marine Corps legend came during the initial step-off for the battle when Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly, a recipient of two Medals of Honor who had served in the Philippines, Santo Domingo, Haiti, Peking and Vera Cruz, prompted his men of the 73rd Machine Gun company forward with the words: "Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?"
The battle was now deadlocked. At midnight on 7–8 June, a German attack was stopped cold and an American counter-attack in the morning of 8 June was similarly defeated. Sibley's battalion, having sustained nearly 400 casualties, was relieved by the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines. Major Shearer took over the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines for the wounded Berry. On 9 June, an enormous American and French barrage devastated Belleau Wood, turning the formerly attractive hunting preserve into a jungle of shattered trees. The Germans counter-fired into Lucy and Bouresches and reorganized their defenses inside Belleau Wood.
U.S. forces suffered 9,777 casualties, included 1,811 killed. Many are buried in the nearby Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. There is no clear information on the number of Germans killed, although 1,600 Germans were taken prisoner.
In 1923, an American battle monument was built in Belleau Wood. Army General James. G. Harbord, the commander of the Marines during the battle, was made an honorary Marine. In his address, he summed up the future of the site: