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Battle of Belleau Wood & Château-Thierry American Monument

Belleau, in northern France in the Champagne region, resonates the sombre memory of a battle that was fought over one hundred years ago. The Battle of Belleau Wood, a conflict between American Marines and German troops, took place in the final summer of the First World War.

Belleau Wood Cemetary

The Battle of Belleau Wood is now but a distant event and all that remains is the American battlefield and cemetery at Belleau Wood, and the Château-Thierry American Monument located a short drive away. Though the story ended in victory, the American battlefield and cemetery at Belleau Wood – also known as the Aisne Marne American cemetery – is a poignant reminder of the 3,000 soldiers who lost their lives.

History of the Battle of Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood - Cannon

The offensive against the Germans at the Battle of Belleau was the first major battle fought by US troops in the First World War. It was a military operation that claimed many young lives and lasted for almost four weeks. The battle took place between allied troops; US marines were joined by a small number of French, British, and German soldiers.

Importance of the Battle of Belleau Wood

America entered the First World War in 1917 but troops weren't deployed to Europe on a large scale until the summer of 1918. At the beginning of June, US reinforcements arrived to support the struggling British and French regiments at the Western Front and the Battle of Belleau was their first big contribution to the Great War.

Anticipating the arrival of US troops, and in a bid to prevent allied forces from gaining back territory, German forces had started to push back towards Paris. The opposing forces would meet to the north of Paris in Belleau Wood, near the Marne River.

On 6 June 1918, US Marines from the 2nd and 3rd divisions were joined by French and British troops in an assault on the Germans. The US commanders had received incorrect intelligence that the Germans had only occupied a small part of the wood. Assuming that the wood would be easy to regain, waves of US marines left the trenches to advance through open wheat fields towards Belleau Wood.

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood was a forested area covering about 250 acres of land. Allied forces were quickly overpowered by machine gun fire which rained down on the men from the cover of the wood. Very few soldiers made it through the open fields and snipers hidden in the forest laid in wait to pick off stragglers.

Belleau Wood Monument - Soldier

Because of the difficult terrain they fought on, much of the fighting during the Battle of Belleau Wood took place at close quarters and involved bayonets, knives, and physical fist fights.

Continuous heavy shelling from both sides meant the trees in Belleau Wood were completely destroyed. Many injuries to both sides were caused by shrapnel and splinters from the exploding trees.

Morale turned the tide of the Battle of Belleau Wood in favor of the allies, with one German private describing the marines as "terribly reckless fellows". The young American reinforcements were fit, energetic and had high spirits, that were difficult to dash. The US marines' tenacity and determination to succeed in the face of danger resulted in them becoming known as "devil dogs". In one of the most famous quotes of the war, when told to turn back, Marine Captain Lloyd Williams retorted “Retreat? Hell no. We only just got here!”

Many of the US marines had European heritage, and were first- or second-generation immigrants with German, Dutch or Italian parents. Their patriotism to the USA, however, was unrivalled by their foe, and this helped them find the strength to continuously attack German forces.

Once the small town of Bouresches had been taken, victory was in sight for the Americans and their allies. Belleau Wood was finally cleared of German soldiers on 26th June 1918. In total, the US military lost 1811 men at the Battle of Belleau Wood and suffered 9777 casualties. The total number of German soldiers lost is unknown, though 1600 were taken prisoner after the battle.

Places to Visit

Belleau Wood - American Monument

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