In almost any French town one visits, large or small, one can find at the local church a monument with a long, sad catalog of the men, almost boys, who left their homes and died far away on the battle lines of World War I. Invariably, it is the longest of any such list of casualties, a reminder of the terrible toll that war took on France, but which might have been longer still were it not for the Americans who died there too.
“Everyone felt,” wrote the French historian Jean de Pierrefue, “that the Americans were present at the magical operation of blood transfusion. Life arrived in torrents to revive the mangled body of a France bled white by the countless wounds of four years.”
Today, Veterans Day, we are again thinking of the U.S. military on the frontline, this time in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. The bravery of our troops will be needed no less as the nation faces down this threat, than it was in the spring and summer of 1918 on the battlefield of Western Europe.
Allied troops there were looking down the barrel of a German juggernaut under the command of Gen. Erich Luddendorff, which threatened to roll westward right down the Marne Valley into Paris. Not once or even twice, but five times, Luddendorff’s forces would try to pound their way in. The general had promised Kaiser Wilhelm II that while the assault would be long and difficult, ultimately it would be successful. The supreme Allied commander, Ferdinand Foch, found his forces in a “compromised situation, a dissolving front, a battle in full progress turning against us.” Parisians poured out of the city in the spring of 1918 to escape the advancing Germans.
In the midst of the third German wave, U.S. forces, including the Second Division and its proud Marine Brigade, rushed into a gap in the French lines armed with something more than mere weapons. In today’s jargon, you might call it an “attitude” or perhaps bravado; by whatever name, it raised the spirits of the demoralized troops around them. “Retreat, hell. We’ve just got here,” went up a yell attributed to several Marine Corps officers fighting there. “Come on, you sons of bitches,” cried one Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Daley, “Do you want to live forever?”
Those who heard him must have wondered whether they would live another five minutes in that grim place their maps called Belleau Wood, a tangle of seemingly impenetrable and unassailable forest. But after checking the German advance over the space of a week, the Second Division launched a counteroffensive that swept over and through the enemy and earned the Marine Brigade the German name “Teufelhunde” or Devil Dogs. On June 26, a Marine major sent back a terse message to his superiors: “Woods now U.S. Marine Corps’ entirely.” More than 1,800 members of the Second Division, including more than 1,000 Marines, died over this month-long period of constant fighting. Thousands more were wounded.
But those forces left behind more than their blood.They left their name. In honor of their efforts, French officials immediately changed their maps to rename the Bois de Belleau to Bois de la Brigade de Marine. A number of French mayors offered official thanks in the form of a resolution: “The civilian population of this part of the country will never forget that the beginning of this month of June, when their homes were threatened by the invader, the Second American Division victoriously stepped forth and succeeded in saving them from impending danger.”
Although the end of the war was just a few months away, there would be more fighting and more heroics to come. Following the repulse of the remaining German attacks and the beginning of a general Allied offensive, military historians record the message of still another Marine, First Lieutenant Clifton Cates, fighting in the area of Soissons, “I have only two men out of my company and 20 out of some other company. We need support, but it is almost suicide to try to get it here as we are swept by machine gun fire and a constant barrage is on us. I have no one my left and only a few on my right. I will hold.” And so the Allies held.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the war ended with the signing of the Armistice, which President Woodrow Wilson would commemorate a year later by declaring an annual observance of Armistice Day. In 1954, lawmakers changed the observance to Veterans Day to honor all veterans. Today we remember all their sacrifice, as well as that of the men at a little-known place called Belleau Wood, who knew there was something more important than living forever.