The Battle of Belleau Wood Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of Belleau Wood was 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. It was a three-week-long struggle in two stages, first the fight for Château-Thierry and then a series of engagements in the Belleau Wood along the road to Paris. The battle was fought by the Second and Third Divisions, who were trying to push back German territorial gains made during the Spring Offensive. The Battle of Belleau Wood is important in the history of the US Marines, who fought against nearly impossible odds and lost more men in a single day than at any other time in their history. General Pershing’s report is chronological and is more subdued and less congratulatory than his previous account of the Battle of Cantigny, perhaps because of the extremely heavy losses suffered by American troops. It was, as Pershing notes, a “desperate situation” for the troops on the ground, ameliorated only by ultimate German withdrawal and heavy losses.

Summary Overview

The Battle of Belleau Wood was 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. It was a three-week-long struggle in two stages, first the fight for Château-Thierry and then a series of engagements in the Belleau Wood along the road to Paris. The battle was fought by the Second and Third Divisions, who were trying to push back German territorial gains made during the Spring Offensive. The Battle of Belleau Wood is important in the history of the US Marines, who fought against nearly impossible odds and lost more men in a single day than at any other time in their history. General Pershing’s report is chronological and is more subdued and less congratulatory than his previous account of the Battle of Cantigny, perhaps because of the extremely heavy losses suffered by American troops. It was, as Pershing notes, a “desperate situation” for the troops on the ground, ameliorated only by ultimate German withdrawal and heavy losses.

Defining Moment

In the spring of 1918, the German High Command initiated a series of offensives they hoped would finally break through stalemate in France and win the war. The so-called Spring Offensive began on March 21, with a significant German advance. By late May, in a third 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. 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. Between June 1 and June 4, the Germans were pushed back from Château-Thierry, and German troops turned toward Belleau Wood, a dense forest that was easier to defend than to assault. On June 6, General Pershing ordered a counteroffensive to take Belleau Wood. Insufficient reconnaissance had determined that the woods were only partially occupied, when in fact the German Army had taken the entire wood and reinforced its position.

The Marines, backed by US Army artillery, attacked Belleau Wood on June 6, but their scouting had failed to uncover nests of machine guns and artillery. As they advanced toward the forest, easily visible through fields of wheat, the Marines were cut down by machine-gun fire. One company was famously urged forward by their commander, Dan Daly, shouting, “Come on, you sons of b––s, do you want to live forever?” The Marines that made it through to the wood were soon forced into hand-to-hand combat with the German soldiers there. Casualties on that one day were the highest in Marine Corps history, with over one thousand Marines dead or wounded, but the Marines 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 Army. During the following few days, fierce fighting continued through thick forest and fog, but deadlock had ensued, broken only by the destruction of Belleau Wood by a barrage of French and American artillery on June 9 and 10. Over the next three weeks, the Marines launched numerous attacks and counterattacks, but the Germans were determined to hold Belleau Wood and resisted with mustard gas, machine guns and artillery, and hand-to-hand combat. After numerous large-scale attempts, the Marines finally won Belleau Wood on June 26, ending one of the most ferocious and bloody battles that the United States was engaged in during the war. The victory came at great cost, however, with US forces losing nearly ten thousand service members. German casualties are estimated at over 8,600, and some sixteen hundred prisoners were taken. The Battle of Belleau Wood marked the end of the last large-scale German offensive of the war.

Author Biography

John Joseph Pershing was born in Laclede, Missouri, in 1860. He was a precocious student and became a teacher after graduating from high school. In 1880, Pershing completed college at the Kirksville Normal School and two years later applied to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was highly commended by his instructors at West Point and graduated with the rank of second lieutenant in the United States Army.

After West Point, Pershing was assigned to cavalry units in the West and Southwest, and in 1891, he was appointed instructor of military tactics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In 1897, Pershing returned to West Point as an instructor and was the regimental commander of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment of African American “Buffalo” soldiers. Pershing fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and again in Manila during the Phillipine-American conflict in 1899. From 1903 to 1917, Pershing held a variety of military and diplomatic posts and was also sent to Mexico in search of revolutionary Pancho Villa. When Pershing’s commanding officer died suddenly on the eve of war in Europe, President Wilson promoted Pershing to general and gave him command of the American Expeditionary Force. He arrived in France in June 1917, in preparation for large-scale deployment that fall. After the war, Pershing published his memoirs, My Experiences in the World War (1932), which won the Pulitzer Prize for History. Pershing died in Washington, DC, in 1948 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Document Analysis

This report on the Battle of Belleau Wood is actually a summary of the Allies’ response to the unexpectedly successful German Spring Offensive. Belleau Wood was part of this response, but it involved other battles along the Marne and Oise Rivers. General Pershing acknowledges that this “third German offensive… soon developed a desperate situation for the Allies.” Pershing describes the conflict at Château-Thierry, where US soldiers defended both the road to Paris and the Marne River crossing.

Pershing’s description of the bloody and sustained Battle of Belleau Wood is succinct and matter-of-fact, as opposed to his celebratory tone in other reports. He states that the Second Division engaged in “a series of vigorous attacks,” which resulted in the capture of Belleau Wood after “very severe fighting.” Pershing does state that the US soldiers were met with “most desperate resistance by Germany’s best troops.” The high casualties and questionable tactics employed during the battle may have led Pershing to keep his description of the battle short. He does not mention that it took twenty days for the Marines to capture Belleau Wood, that insufficient reconnaissance had led soldiers directly into withering machine gun fire, or that it was the bloodiest day in Marine Corps history. Though Pershing identifies the losses suffered by the Germans as “unusually heavy,” he does not address the equally heavy losses suffered by the US troops. Pershing chooses instead to focus on the ways that US troops supported their French and British allies and describes the Battle of Belleau Wood as a part of a much larger counteroffensive.

The recapture of Château-Thierry, the defense of the Montdidier-Noyon sector, and the winning of Belleau Wood served, in Pershing’s opinion, as excellent morale boosts for the Allies, who had turned the tide of the German Spring Offensive and inflicted numerous casualties. Pershing was right to believe that these battles were important–they marked the last significant territory gained by the Germans during the war.

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this report is to convey the outcome of the last phase of the German Army’s Spring Offensive. General Pershing, while acknowledging that the Battle of Belleau Wood was a difficult fight, downplays its significance as the single bloodiest day in Marine Corps history. Pershing also emphasizes the cooperation between French and British and American forces, a relationship he had downplayed in previous months as he fought to have the US Army under its own command. Though losses were extremely heavy, the Battle of Belleau Wood was a clear American victory and the first large-scale battle in which US troops played a primary role.

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: A.D. 1918. Indianapolis: U of Indiana Alumni P, 1920. Digital file.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
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