It was a pilgrimage of sorts. We were travelling in northern France and staying at a holiday rental, in a small villages just short of the Belgian border. While there we noticed a plaque near the church which noted the occupation of the village. No, not “The Occupation” of the 1940s, but rather of World War One. This small community had been just inside German lines for much of The Great War.
This gave us a thought. We could visit a WWI site as part of our stay. This especially interested my English wife as she had through her tracing of her family tree found that that conflict had cost her the life of a great grandfather (whose war grave she had already visited in Egypt), and a limb of another great grandfather.
What we found was not her heritage, but mine. We were relatively near Château-Thierry. A name I knew from a young age from my Marine father, and drilled into me in my own time serving with the Corps. Our destination then became Belleau Wood.
We knew we were on the right track when we saw the brown information sign “Bois Belleau,” and we continued past the stone gate marked “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.” Shortly afterwards we were there. The black marble monument of the shirtless Marine, and a cluster of period artillery pieces said we had arrived.
We took some time taking in the tranquility of the wood, and examined the guns, then off we were to the solemn visit to the cemetery. The rows of white crosses and stars never cease to make me emotional. What more emotive way could these young men have said, “Semper Fidelis?”
The Battle of Belleau Wood took place from the 1st to 26th of June 1918. The recent capitulation of the Russians had freed the German high command to move almost fifty divisions to the Western Front. These were immediately employed in a major offensive with the hope of defeating the Allies before the new American presence in the war could have an effect. The result was that the Germans would engage the US 2nd Division, including its elements of the 5th and 6th Marines. The result (put concisely) was that the German offensive was halted, and then repulsed.
The legacy of the battle is great. Tradition says that it was here that the USMC earned one of its nicknames Teufelshunde, “Devil Dogs.” A great epitaph for a fighting man, especially when given to him by an enemy. Of the Marines at “The Wood,” Blackjack Pershing said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.” The French as well weighed in on the Marines’ valour, awarding the 5th and 6th Marines the right to wear the fourragère, and renaming the wood, “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”
The greatest legacy, however, is found at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Here the crosses and stars mark the graves of the 2,289 fallen, plus 250 for the unknown, and there is also a listing of the 1,060 missing. While not all of these were “Devil Dog’s,” it should be noted that more Marines died in that battle than the Corps had lost from 1775 until that time.
Belleau Wood is an important part of history. As a “tourist” destination it is emotive. As a “pilgrimage” site for the families of the fallen and for those who have worn Marine Corps green, it is a must.