Good Morning Everyone!
Currrent and former members of the United States Marine Corps as well as history buffs interested in World War I or military history will enjoy The Miracle at Belleau Wood by Alan Axelrod. As a rule, I find military histories somewhat hard to follow – I get lost in a maze of place names and general’s names and dates and lose track of where I am in both time and space. This book, focusing on a single battle, is an exception.
The book provides the reader with a good description of trench warfare in World War I at its full maturation. It delivers a hard-hitting, clear view of the reality of terms tossed around in history books such as “the fog of war.”
More than anything else, this book is a coming of age story about the United States Marine Corps. The author’s contention is that this battle consolidated the position of the USMC in the public eye as the leading edge fighters of the United States military, the all-volunteer force that is proud to be “the first to fight.” The USMC, of course, needed no such consolidation in its own mind; it has always known who it is.
Alan Axelrod does a good job of presenting the build-up to the battle and the battle itself in an engaging manner, but without glorifying the concept of war itself. The book is replete with anecdotes from people who were in the battle which highlight not only the bravery but the humor men seem to find in even the grimmest situations. One of my favorite anecdotes is the Marine officer who received a message from a French officer that the Marines were supposed to retreat as the French were retreating. The Marine looked up and told the messenger, “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” My second favorite anecdote is the exchange between one officer and another when the first officer, Major Thomas Holcomb, came forward to meet with Major Frederic Wise, whose battalion he was to relieve shortly. As he arrived, the Germans cut loose with a fierce artillery barrage. Holcomb looked at Wise and asked, “Is this celebration due to my arrival?” Dead pan, Wise replied, “No…This is only routine.”
Axelrod does not shield the reader from the horrors of war in the trenches, either. The casualties in this battle were horrific – over 120 officers and over 5700 men. As Americans rediscovered in another war a generation later on the shores of Normandy, in spite of their heavy losses, the Marines at Belleau Wood ultimately succeeded because American commanders and officers explained to their troops their objectives and how they intended to achieve them. American soldiers then used their ingenuity, experience and gut determination to achieve that objective – if they were cut off from their squad or platoon, if the higher ranking officers were killed, the individual soldiers still strived to forge forward to win the battle.
During the battle, the Marines were commanded by an army general, General Harbord. By the end of the battle, the Marines voted to make General Harbord an honorary marine, an honor he ranked personally as the highest honor he ever achieved.
One of the reasons the battle of Belleau Wood was important was that it was the first time that United States fighting forces would fight the Germans essentially on their own. FN. The Germans hoped that they would be able to squelch and demoralize the American marines completely, gaining a psychological edge on the battlefield. The Germans also were racing against time – the sheer number of men the Americans would be able to field on behalf of the Allies would ultimately overpower Germany, which was reaching exhaustion. For the Germans to win the war, this last offensive push had to succeed – and at Belleau Wood, only the Marines stood between them and a break in the lines to reach Paris.
The extent to which the German troops were able to “squelch” and “demoralize” the Marines can be judged by the nickname the German soldiers gave to them – the Teufelhunden, which means “Devil Dogs.”
I was very interested to learn that among the forces on the field during the battle, only the Marines emphasized the importance of marksmanship in regular battle as well as for snipers. Common military practice at the time was to teach troops to simply point in the general direction of the enemy and shoot, the theory being that you would have so many bullets flying at the enemy at one time that he was bound to suffer casualties. Not so the Marines – each Marine aimed at a target when he shot, and what he aimed at, he hit.
It does take the author several chapters to ease the reader into the battle – about four – and I would have liked to know a little bit more about what happened to various people after the battle throughout the rest of the war. The first four chapters, however, provide the reader with important background information without which the reader would be unable to appreciate exactly what the Marines did at Belleau Wood and there are references throughout the book to what happens to certain of the Marines as time goes on.
The author’s assessment of the final result of the battle is interesting, too. Many historians credit the Marines in this battle with preventing the fall of Paris in Ludendorff’s last offensive to break through the trench lines. However, most historians also believe that once the Marines had done this, fairly early on in the battle, the rest of the fight to take the wood, which cost so many Marine lives, accomplished little. The author agrees, and yet, as he explains, after listing the terrible tally of the battle – 126 Marine officers and 5057 Marine men killed along with many more Germans:
For the U.S. Marine Corps, this investment in blood has never been subject to question or controversy. It was a mission. That in itself is all that really matters. Beyond this however, it was a test of American military capacity and American character, and the marines felt fortunate that were given the responsibility for taking and passing this test. … The reputation of the marines as America’s fiercest warriors, the nation’s elite fighting force, was forged in this battle. After Belleau Wood, the marines claimed the right to be regarded as the American vanguard, the first to fight and if necessary, the last to leave.
This book is definitely worth your time.
Have a great day!
FN. An army unit temporarily “on loan” to the French had acquitted itself well a few weeks earlier as well in stopping a German advance. As a rule, General Pershing, the overall commander of the American Expeditionary Force, wanted the U.S. troops to fight as their own units rather than interspersed between French and English troops; however, one of the Ludendorff offensives compelled him to loan the artillery unit to the French.