A Marine Corporal’s War Diary Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Howard Fletcher Davidson was a US Marine Corps corporal who had a firsthand view of the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood, the first large-scale battle fought by American soldiers in World War I and one of the most complex and bloody American engagements of the war. Davidson was in the Sixth Machine Gun Battalion, which was sent in late May 1918 to shore up the defense of the road to Paris near the town of Château-Thierry. Davidson’s role as a section runner was particularly perilous because he was exposed to hostile fire while relaying messages between units on the front. As he gained the advantage of familiarity with the surrounding countryside, Davidson was able to find the safest way to relay messages and find food and water for the troops that were cut off from supply lines. Davidson’s diary offers insight into aspects of the battle other than those experienced by the assault troops.

Summary Overview

Howard Fletcher Davidson was a US Marine Corps corporal who had a firsthand view of the bloody Battle of Belleau Wood, the first large-scale battle fought by American soldiers in World War I and one of the most complex and bloody American engagements of the war. Davidson was in the Sixth Machine Gun Battalion, which was sent in late May 1918 to shore up the defense of the road to Paris near the town of Château-Thierry. Davidson’s role as a section runner was particularly perilous because he was exposed to hostile fire while relaying messages between units on the front. As he gained the advantage of familiarity with the surrounding countryside, Davidson was able to find the safest way to relay messages and find food and water for the troops that were cut off from supply lines. Davidson’s diary offers insight into aspects of the battle other than those experienced by the assault troops.

Defining Moment

The Sixth Marine Machine Gun Battalion arrived in France at the end of December 1917. After several months of intensive training, they were considered battle-ready by March 1918, and they then took part in every major battle for the remaining nine months of the war. Germany was in the midst of a major and surprisingly successful offensive in the spring of 1918. By late May, in the major offensive known as the Third Battle of the Aisne, the German army had reached the Marne River at the town of Château-Thierry and had penetrated the Western Front to within sixty miles of Paris. This portion of Davidson’s diary begins as he marches and then rides to a defensive line along the road to Paris near the town of Lucy-le-Bocage.

On May 31, the German advance toward Paris was halted by the Second and Third Divisions, who shored up the French line and defended the Marne crossing. German troops turned toward Belleau Wood, a dense forest that was easier to defend than to assault. On June 1, US Marines established a front just north of the village of Lucy-le-Bocage and fought the Germans as they made their way to Belleau Wood. Davidson was left behind in the village as a section runner, but most of the Sixth Marine Machine Gun Battalion followed the Germans into Belleau Wood. Insufficient reconnaissance had determined that the woods were only partially occupied when, in fact, the German Army had taken the entire area and reinforced their position.

The Marines, backed by army artillery, attacked Belleau Wood on June 6. As they advanced toward the forest, they were easily visible through wheat fields and were cut down by machine gun fire. Casualties on that one day were the highest in Marine Corps history, with over one thousand Marines dead or wounded, but they had gained a foothold in Belleau Wood that they would defend tenaciously over the coming weeks.

The attack of June 6 did not result in a breakthrough for the US military. Over the next few days, fierce fighting continued through thick forest woods and fog, but deadlock had ensued and was broken only by the destruction of Belleau Wood by a barrage of French and American artillery on June 9. Over the next three weeks, the Marines launched numerous attacks and counterattacks, but the Germans were determined to hold Belleau Wood, and they resisted the attacks with mustard gas, machine guns and artillery, and hand-to-hand combat. Davidson was sent to Paris in the middle of the three-week fight. His last view of the town of Lucy-le-Bocage was one of total destruction, and there would be nearly another two weeks of fighting. Allied victory finally came on June 26, but at a great cost: US forces lost nearly ten thousand men.

Author Biography

Howard Fletcher Davidson was born in Bovina, New York, in 1895. He was the youngest of four children, two of whom survived early childhood. After graduating from high school in 1913, Davidson entered the forestry program at Cornell University, but he left after one year to study electrical engineering at the Bliss Electrical School in College Park, Maryland. He had received some military training while at Cornell, and when war with Germany was declared on April 6, 1917, Davidson went to the Marine Corps recruiting office in New York City and volunteered for service. After the war, Davidson returned to Bovina, where he worked as an electrician and as the town historian. His sons, Allen and Edward, both fought in World War II. H. Fletcher Davidson was buried in Bovina Center in 1987.

Document Analysis

This section of Davidson’s diary begins on May 30, 1918, with his journey to the front near Château-Thierry. As they first hike and then drive toward the front, Davidson watches refugees headed away from the fighting. Throughout his diary, Davidson provides details about the impact of battle on civilians, livestock, and the surrounding towns and farms. Refugees walk with a few meager possessions, sometimes with animals or their few belongings in baby carriages, and Davidson is clearly sympathetic to their plight: “Such a scene I never saw before and hope never will happen again.” His journey is a difficult one, trying to sleep in a truck full of soldiers and then enduring bombs when the convoy stopped. One of the disadvantages of moving so quickly along the front line is that supply lines are stretched thin and food supplies do not reach the soldiers fighting at Belleau Wood for several days. Because of this, the soldiers need to scavenge what they can from abandoned homes along the way. Davidson notes that during the trip, the soldiers “did [their] first salvaging” and had quite a good meal. When the soldiers arrive at the road to Paris, they were immediately engaged in fighting, and Davidson’s day is marked with confusion and near disaster as he “out on run at night” with a message and lost track of his section. As he searched for them, he wandered into the area between the lines and was almost shot by a French patrol.

Davidson spent June 2 looking for food and helping his platoon defend their position at the village of Lucy-le-Bocage. He marks this day as the farthest the Germans had advanced, and his platoon had a “very strenuous night” when the French infantry retreated and left them to guard the village with only four machine guns. Davidson was able to bring a milk cow and a calf to his men. The next day, Davidson manages to get even more food, “twelve rabbits, five hens, and a goat. Also a bag of beans and some eggs.”

Section runners were also scouts, and Davidson is ordered to lead a group of men to the village of Lucy, presumably to take up more defensible positions. As he tries to lead them to the place where he had seen French positions the day before, his section comes under fire, and he goes out with the sergeant of the section to find a safer way to get to the village. This is a particularly dangerous task because they are uncertain of the German position, but Davidson finds the section a safer path behind an embankment and gets them into the village as the Germans begin to shell them. Davidson notes the loss of one of the men to shrapnel in the back and also comments on the death of the milk cow they had left behind. As the Marines advance, “with considerable losses,” Davidson stays behind in the village as a runner and witnesses the wounded coming into Lucy-le-Bocage in a “steady stream.”

Davidson’s perspective on the Battle of Belleau Wood is from the vantage point of a village behind the lines, which in no way diminishes the danger he was in. The town is shelled relentlessly with a “big shell into it every five minutes.” The intensity of the fighting going on around him may have influenced the relative brevity of his diary entries from June 4–13. Davidson stays in Lucy with five other runners and “we had a little club formed.” When he leaves the tiny village of Lucy-le-Bocage, it is reduced to “tumbled waste and a smoking mass of ruins.”

Essential Themes

H. Fletcher Davidson’s diary provided details about the experience of an American soldier at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Davidson’s role as section runner places him in particular danger, but he is also kept out of the most forward combat positions during the battle. His efforts to scavenge–or “salvage” as he describes it–enough food to feed himself and his men highlight the strain to the supply line that came with quick movement and a shifting front line. His sympathy for the refugees fleeing the front lines demonstrates that he is aware of the cost of war to civilians as well as to soldiers.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Browne, George Waldo. The American Army in the World War: A Divisional Record of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Manchester, NH: Overseas Book Company, 1921. Print.
  • Camp, Dick. The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I. Minneapolis: Zenith, 2008. Print.
  • Horne, Charles Francis. The Great Events of the Great War. New York: National Alumni, 1920. Print.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
  • Simmons, Edwin Howard. Through the Wheat: The U.S. Marines in World War I. Annapolis: Naval Institute P, 2011. Print.
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