By Floyd Gibbons
[Country Life, December 1918]
After the decisive stopping of the German push on the north bank of the Marne at Chateau-Thierry, the enemy brought up fresh reserve divisions and began to apply a new pressure at that point, under orders to get a footing on the south bank at all costs.
The enemy communications into Chateau-Thierry consisted principally of the road from Soissons to Chateau-Thierry, and the Germans, realizing this, had made desperate efforts to widen their salient north of the Marne, both to the east and the west of Chateau-Thierry.
Just a few miles to the north-west of Chateau-Thierry there is located an expansive collection of comparatively small patches of timber. It is a rolling country. The French peasants found it difficult to till the sides of the hills, so these they devoted to trees, but on the flats either between the wooden hillsides or on top of they hills they worked their fields in oats and wheat. This collection of tree clusters and small flat fields was called the Bois de Belleau.
American arms wrote their names in history in the Bois de Belleau in the month of June of this year. Americans fought and died there and sacrificed to a great cause. To-day traces of their great sacrifice remain in the fields between the tree clumps.
A number of small unpainted wooden crosses tell the story. On the center of each cross is a round aluminum disk on which there is stamped the name of the American soldier who occupied to shallow grave beneath the cross. That disk also carries the name of the world famous fighting organization, of which that American was a unit.
But the fame of those men that died there and their organization is written in more indelible characters in the hearts and memories of the people of France. For years to come their fighting spirit and the willingness with which they gave their fresh young lives to the cause will be told in song and story all over France, in the chateaux of the rich and around the heath fires in the cottages of the peasants.
In all the new maps that are issued by the French government their names can be read. It can be read now, and centuries from now it will remain as a monument to their courage. Those battle-scarred clumps of trees and those fields tinged with American blood have a new designation on the French Government maps. For all time they are to be known as "The Forest of the Brigade of the Marines."
The thin French line that had been falling back steadily from Chemin des Dames, had been fighting vicious rear-guard actions for more than a week against a foe vastly superior in numbers, and supported by an unquestionable preponderance of artillery. Before this terrific pressure the French withdrew slowly, bitterly contesting every inch and foot of the ground they gave.
The French lines fell back through the Bois de Belleau and there on the southern limits of the forest, the blue uniforms of the French passed through and on behind the lines that were composed of green uniforms of the United States Marines.
The German horde, drunk from the victorious advances of the week, pushed on triumphantly into the country of the Marne. This, the German soldiers had been told, was the march to Paris; "Nach Paris" was to come true at last after four long, bloody years. The enemy's veteran battalions blithesomely goose-stepped on the road that they thought led to Paris.
But in the southern limits of the Bois de Belleau the German lines suddenly encountered a stone wall resistance. They were checked and brought to a full stop by withering bursts of machine-gun fire from American guns. Their lines were decimated and the first waves reeled back to cover with some surprise and some chagrin. The enemy's first backward stagger was the signal for the Marine's advance.
The Marines had not orders to hold a specified line, no orders to dig in and entrench themselves, no orders to assume a defensive position. There were no barbed-wire entanglements between them and the enemy, there was no preponderance of artillery to support their advance, and behind them there were no prepared defensive positions to which they could withdraw in case of failure. The Germans at this point were thirty-eight miles from Paris—thirty-eight miles from the capital of France, thirty-eight miles from the heart of the heart of the Allied cause.
This was the crisis—the world emergency that the Marines faced. They tackled it with a will. On the first jump the Germans lost the initiative in the drive. The Marine Brigade advanced directly into the face of the great German steam roller movement.
It was comparatively easy going through the wooded areas. The tree clumps were infested with nests of German machine gunners. Our men liked this fighting; it was work with the bayonet, hand to hand and face to face with the enemy—his life or theirs. They went to it with a relish. In their own words, it was "easy meat." They would clean out the woods leaving only piles of German dead surrounding the machine gun emplacements, or the imp bodies of German snipers hanging in the fork of trees where their careers had ended with Colt pistol balls through their heads.
The Marines would consolidate these gained positions. They would gather their scattered forces and press forward to the edges of the wooded areas. There they would be confronted with flat fields 200 yards across. I lay on the edges of several of those fields and watched the Marines as they negotiated them. On the other side of the field would be another densely wooded area. From my position I would try to peer into those woods for on glance at their occupants. But nothing could be seen.
At the same time, however, it seem that all the foliage and greenery in that fringe of trees opposite rattled and vibrated with the stuttering "put-put-put" of the German machine guns. Sprays and streams of lead swept across the field toward us. The tops of the young oats ten and fifteen inches above the ground seemed to wave and sway as though the wind was sending ripples across the fields. But there was no wind—running rivers of lead swept across the tops of the oats.
Lying on faces and bellies in the edges of the tree clumps were the Marines, this 200-yard field between them and the enemy. It was across such fields as this that the Marines advanced. Some of them fell, but in almost every charge that I witnessed it seemed to me that some of them always managed to reach the trees on the other side, and there they achieved the opportunity for the bayonet work that they liked. The machine gun nests would be silenced and their crews cut down with American steel.
Again the work of consolidation would proceed, and in short order another wooded area would have passed into the possession of the Americans. That fighting continued for eight days, the Marines pushing forward continually, night and day, and at the end of that time they had captured all of the villages in the forest and advanced their line to the extreme northern limits of the woods. There were lots of Germans in back of them but they were all dead Germans.
I did not witness the entire fight. I was wounded in one of those fields on the 6th of June, but up to that time I saw sufficient to give me a greater conception of the fighting spirit of these Americans who wear the uniform of the U. S. Marines. Before that the greatest example of fighting spirit and organization pride that was known to me came to my consciousness through Hugo's chapters on the Battle of Waterloo in "Les Miserables."
I always considered as an ideal of fighting capacity and military spirit of sacrifice, the old sergeant of Napoleon's Old Guard. Hugo made me vividly see this old sergeant standing on the field with a meagre remnant of the Old Guard gathered around him. Unable to resist further, but unwilling to accept surrender, he and his followers faced the British cannon.
The British, respecting this admirable courage, ceased firing and called out to them, "Brave Frenchmen, surrender." But the old sergeant, thus offered his life, hurled back into the very muzzles of the British cannon the vilest epithet in the French language. The cannons roared, and the old sergeant and his followers died with the word on their lips. Hugo wisely devoted a chapter to that single word.
But I have a new ideal to-day. I found it in the Bois de Belleau. A small platoon line of Marines lay on their bellies under the trees at the edge of one of those fields that ran with lead. Two hundred yards across on the other side of the field was the enemy, in trees that bristled with machine guns and snapped and barked with their fire. The minute for the Marine advance was approaching.
An old gunnery sergeant of Marines commanded the platoon in the absence of the lieutenant, who had been shot and was out of the fight. This old sergeant was a veteran. His cheeks were bronzed with the wind and the sun of the seven seas. The service bar across his left breast showed that he had fought in the Philippines, in Santo Domingo, at the walls of Pekin, and in the streets of Vera Cruz.
I make no apologies for his language. Even if Hugo were not my precedent, I would make no apologies. To me his words are ever classic. As the time for the advance arrived and while the bullets were nicking and ripping the bark off the tree trunks above him, he stepped up first and jumped from the trees on the edge of the open field. He turned to give the charge order to the men of his platoon—his mates—the men he loved. And he said:
"Come on you poor ———! Do you want to live forever?"
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
An Odyssey through the World War of 1914-1918
By J. Fred MacDonald