- - Tuesday, April 24, 2018


Donald Trump’s romance with Emmanuel Macron continued to blossom Tuesday when they planted a tree together on the White House lawn. The French president brought the sapling, a cutting from the European Sessile oak, with him from Paris.

The two presidents, each armed with a brass shovel, repaired to the back lawn with their wives, Brigitte and Melania, to get their hands dirty in soil and mulch to settle the sapling in its new home in the West. “A hundred years ago,” Mr. Macron said, “American soldiers were fighting in France, in order to defend our freedom. This oak will be a reminder, in the heart of the White House, of this bond that unites us.”

Mr. Trump responded in kind, saying that “France is a very special country. I love the tree.”

Well he might, because this was not just an ordinary oak from France. This was an oak selected, with the unerring French instinct for perfectly marking the special occasion, from Belleau Wood in northern France, the site and scene of an extraordinary battle that saved Paris from the Germans in the waning days of World War I.

The usual carping voices on social media tried to make the gift merely something of politics, with several suggesting that it was an environmentally pointed dig at Mr. Trump and the United States for withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Belleau Wood is a name lost on the uneducated masses of the present day, but it’s a name crucial in the telling of the “war to end wars.” If this were merely a “photo-op,” it nevertheless educates, reminds, and remembers when valor, courage and sacrifice was in season.

This was in March 1918, with the war only eight months from the finish but with the outcome still much in doubt. Russia had surrendered the eastern front, and this freed 50 German divisions to launch attacks on the allies — primarily Britain, France and the untested Americans. The Germans plotted a knockout offensive, intended to win before the green American troops could fully deploy.

At first fortune smiled on the Germans, and at the end of May they had advanced to the Marne River, and after defeating the French at Chateau-Thierry moved into the dark and dense forest called Belleau Wood. At the river, the French ordered the allies to dig defensive trenches, but the order was countermanded by an American general, ordering the Marines in the American force to “hold where you stand.”

Hold they did. The fighting over the next days produced some of the familiar lore of the Marine Corps. When the Marines, in the face of a heavy German attack, were urged by the retreating French forces to join them, a Marine captain, Lloyd Williams of the 5th Marines answered with the legendary retort: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” And authentically legendary it was, because the battalion commander, Maj. Frederic Wise, later insisted that it was he, not a mere captain, who gave out with the retort. A hundred years later the corps historians are still trying to sort out who actually said it. But the French loved him, whomever he was.

Nevertheless, the Germans continued to bring fresh troops to the fight, and allied intelligence rightly suspected the Germans were preparing to seize and occupy Paris. Once more the Marines had to advance on the German positions through waist-high wheat against deadly machine-gun fire, and it was here that a gunnery sergeant named Dan Daly, who had received the Medal of Honor twice in service in the Philippines, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Peking and Vera Cruz — the Marines got around a lot in that era — famously urged his men forward with the cry that John Wayne took for his own in a movie 40 years later about the sands of Iwo Jima: “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”

Speaking of bitches, it was at Belleau Wood that the Marines picked up one of their cherished nicknames, when the Germans, impressed by the ferocity of the Americans, were said to have called the Marines “devil dogs,” or “Tuefel Hunden,” though the U.S. Army said it was coined by an enthusiastic newspaper correspondent, probably from the Chicago Tribune. Harry S Truman, once an Army soldier in France, was bitter about the Marine Corps reputation forged in France until the day he died.

A German private, writing home after his unit of 120 men could count only 30 at the end of the battle, said it simply: “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.” This is the tribute the French now pay with an oak sapling on the White House lawn. Sometimes you don’t need marble to remember.

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