In the north of France at Belleau resonates the sombre memory of a battle that was fought over one hundred years ago. A conflict between American Marines and German troops, the Battle of Belleau Wood took place in the final summer of the First World War.
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.
What is the history of the Battle of Belleau Wood?
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 joined by a small number of French and British soldiers; and Germans.
Why was the Battle of Belleau Wood important?
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 6th 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.
What was 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.
What kind of warfare took place at Belleau Wood?
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.
Who won the Battle of Belleau Wood?
Morale turned the tide of the Battle of Belleau Wood in favour 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 and 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.
How many soldiers died at the Battle of Belleau Wood?
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.
What is there to see at Belleau Wood and the Château-Thierry American Monument?
1. Belleau Wood battlefield
See Belleau Wood battlefield for yourself and take in its sombre ambience. This forest is now filled with trees once again and you can wander amongst its shadow. At the centre of the wood stands a monument which memorialises the US Marine divisions who captured the area in 1918. It is specifically dedicated to the 2nd division who began the assault against Germany on 6th June 1918. Near the memorial, visitors can see what is left of the trenches, shell holes and weapons that remained in the area after the battle.
2. American Cemetery at Belleau Wood
At the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, headstones fan out from a central point in the shape of a semi-circular curve. Occupying the space immediately next to Belleau Wood, the cemetery contains the graves of 2289 soldiers and expands over 42.5 acres. This peaceful place seems quiet and restful – a far cry from the noise and terror of the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The graves in the cemetery are the final resting place of those who fought in the Aisne-Marne offensive that took place in the summer of 1918. Overlooked by a memorial chapel with an inscribed wall bearing the names of 1060 missing personnel, the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery is a tranquil resting place for many killed in action. Visitors can respectfully look around the site and visit the chapel to learn about some of the graves.
3. Château-Thierry American Monument
Built on top of a hill, to the west of Château-Thierry is the Château-Thierry American Monument – located a short drive away from Belleau Wood. Designed by Paul Cret, it bears the sculptures of a man and woman who represent the United States of America and France. The monument was erected to commemorate the sacrifices and successes of allied forces in the Aisne-Marne region during 1918.
Known also as the Aisne-Marne Memorial, the monument is in a double colonnade shape. On the west side, the monument towers over a large terrace that overlooks the Marne river and offers vistas of the area. The east side of the Château-Thierry American Monument has a façade engraved with a map that marks the important American battle sites in the area.
Discover Belleau Wood on a hotel barge cruise
Cruise aboard 12-passenger Panache for an opportunity to visit the Château-Thierry American Monument and the American battlefield and cemetery at Belleau Wood. Learn about how the tides of the First World War were turned by US soldiers who were deployed to the Aisne-Marne region and leave your respects to those that lost their lives in the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918.
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