Why Belleau Wood still matters

by Madeleine Johnson

On Nov. 11, 2018, President Donald Trump was scheduled to observe the centenary of World War I’s armistice in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, where the dead of the Battle of Belleau Wood are buried. At the time, I and a dozen other descendants of men who had fought at Belleau Wood were also in France. We were touring Belleau Wood and other battlefields where our ancestors had fought with the American Expeditionary Forces’ 2nd Infantry Division in World War I.

          Over five days we braved mud, downpours and woodland underbrush to follow our grandfathers’ and great-uncles’ footsteps in combat and to honor their companions’ graves.

          So we were stunned when we heard that Trump had cancelled his visit to the Belleau Wood cemetery because of “bad weather.” There was only a light mist and drizzle. We stood under it for several hours while observing the armistice at another monument.

          The combat veterans in our group snorted. They had seen combat-trained pilots like the one flying Trump’s helicopter land in much worse — and under enemy fire — in Vietnam and Iraq.

          Perplexed, we shook our heads in disbelief and filed the episode among other curiosities of the Trump presidency.

          But now the story is back and now we are more perplexed — less about Trump than about the silence of top Marines who served in the Trump administration: John Kelly, James Mattis and Joseph E. Dunford. To understand our perplexity, a bit of history can illuminate why a battle that was tiny by World War I standards was consequential for the Marines, for the U.S., and for me.

          Numerous authors have written about Belleau Wood. Kevin Seldon has dedicated his life to a minute-by-minute account of the battle (now at volume two): The Ranks of the Carrion Men: The Epic Story of the Thirty-Six-Day Fight in and Around Belleau Wood. Until his death in 2016, George Clark, of Pike, N.H., was the world authority on the World War I Marines and his account is definitive: Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War I.  Laurence Stallings’ The Doughboys is a lively and authoritative account of the AEF in World War I.

‘Only’ 9,777 dead

          The wood is a patch of forest the size of Central Park an hour and a half from Paris. The battle for it lasted “only” 36 days; the Battle for Verdun stretched over nine months. There were “only” 9,777 dead and wounded; 57,000 died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

          The U.S. entered the war in April 1917. By January 1918, Germany knew it had little time to knock France and Britain out before America really geared up for the fight. In March 1918 Germany “rolled the dice” and launched a series of offensives that punched through French and British lines. By May, German troops were at Chateau-Thierry, barely 45 miles from Paris.

          In May 1918, the 2nd Division, a unique hybrid of both Marine and regular U.S. Army units, was feeling cocky. They were retraining after their baptism of fire in a few trench raids — Boy Scout stuff — during a month of service near Verdun. On May 31 they were engaged in Memorial Day ball games and religious services when a panicked French messenger burst in. The Germans had reached Chateau Thierry!  The French were in retreat!  

          The 2nd Division scrambled. After an overnight ride on springless trucks over refugee-packed roads, the 2nd Division stopped outside Chateau-Thierry near the town of Belleau.

          The Marines dug in, threw up a line of machine guns and waited for the Germans. On June 2, they arrived. On June 3 the fight began in earnest.

          My great-uncle, Capt. Lothar R. Long, a machine-gun offcer in the Marines wrote: “They came over the top of the ridge and down into the valley and town in a regular stream, — a long, thick line of slow moving gray, right through bursting 75 shell, and into a belt of machine gun fire — about 72200000000000000 of ’em, I should say. … The marines never budged an inch.”

          Repulsed, the Germans fell back and holed up in Belleau Wood. Their leader, who was a veteran of bush wars in Africa, used the wood’s rocky outcroppings and ravines to create mini-fortresses and machine-gun nests.

          On June 6, the Marines struck back. Benjamin S. Berry, the ancestor of a family on our French tour, led Marines across the open, poppy-studded wheat field in front of the wood. With measured step and bayonets glistening in the June sun, they were mowed down by German machine gun fire. More Marines died on June 6 than in the Corps’ entire history before that day.

          After that, Marine and Army regiments spent the next month in a series of operations to root the Germans from the woods. We think of World War I battles as impersonal industrial slaughter. But Belleau Wood was up close and personal — hand-to-hand combat — as dozens of survivors’ diaries, letters and oral histories revealed. One veteran compared it to deadly hide-and-seek. Others described companions taking out machine-gun nests by creeping up and pushing the guns’ muzzles away with their bare hands. Attempts to clear the wood with artillery only fouled the terrain with boughs and twisted trunks. Corpses rotted without burial for weeks.

          In a Marine Corps oral history, future Gen. Gerald Thomas, the grandfather of another member of our French group, said he did not eat for five days. A culvert was a first-aid station, a wine cellar an operating room. Poison gas sank and lingered in ravines. Shell-shock turned men into laughing maniacs and made a civilian’s lost dog chase its tail.

          French and British leaders learned troops could handle frontline trenches for only three or four days. Marines were only rotated out of “Hellwood” after two weeks. My own great-uncle was in Belleau Wood for 35 days.

Founding myth of the Corps

          American journalists were forbidden to name individual units, but a story naming the Marines by a Chicago newspaperman who was embedded with Benjamin Berry slipped by the censors. At battle’s end, American headlines screamed “Marines Win Hot Battle, Sweep Enemy From Height Near Thierry” and “Americans Dash Into Prussian Baby Butchers and Do Beautiful Work With Bayonets and Bombs.” The French “went nutty” over the Marines, my great-uncle wrote. They re-named Belleau Wood for them and gave them the honor of wearing the fourragère — a braided cord on their epaulets.

          The Germans were stunned. Captured Germans interrogated in an intelligence report my great-uncle saved said the 2nd Division shot anything that moved; they were animals. British historians call Belleau Wood a mere “psychological victory.” But it renewed the French will to fight. The Germans knew it heralded the end. After Belleau Wood, they were on the back foot.

          Belleau Wood became the founding myth of the modern Marine Corps, up there with Iwo Jima and Khe Sanh. It gave them stirring words: “C’mon, you sons of bitches, you want to live forever?” and “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”

          Belleau Wood was a dark initiation rite. The Marines went in as boys and came out men.

          Likewise, the battle matured the Corps, transforming it from a small expeditionary force into an internationally recognized fighting machine. Marines still make pilgrimages to Belleau to drink from the fountain used to fill canteens in 1918. John Kelly and Joseph Dunford drank there in 2018. Marines of the 5th and 6th regiments, which fought at Belleau Wood, still wear the fourragére. Dunford has worn it twice.

          The attention the Corps got in 1918 soured Army leaders, who kept the Marines off European soil in World War II. Prescient Belleau Wood veterans understood the importance of the Pacific in the 1930s and used their experience against the German army in 1918 at Guadalcanal and Peleliu. Belleau Wood veterans commanded the Corps into the 1960s.

The battle’s long shadow

          Belleau Wood’s influence goes beyond the Marines. Belleau Wood set the bar for the entire American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The AEF later earned President Woodrow Wilson the power to dictate the peace. They crowned the U.S. as a global leader. Saving Europe from the Germans created a pattern and sense of obligation alive today (and colored Americans’ view of the French military). World War I Marines became models for American men. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were openly jealous of the writers who were Belleau Wood veterans, John W. Thomason, Thomas Boyd and Laurence Stallings.

          Forgotten now, Thomason’s book of poignant ink and written sketches, Fix Bayonets!, Boyd’s autobiographical novel Through the Wheat and Stallings’ Broadway and Hollywood hits What Price Glory? and The Big Parade were larger commercial successes than anything Fitzgerald or Hemingway had produced. Nevertheless, a visit to Belleau Wood was a key scene in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and the protagonist of Hemingway’s story Soldier’s Home “had been at Belleau Wood.”

          And for descendants of men who fought at Belleau Wood?

          My tour group included third-generation Marines, inspired by their grandfathers’ service. In contrast, one friend’s father never shook the malign influence of a Belleau Wood veteran who railroaded him into the Marines and Vietnam.

          My great-uncle stayed in the Marines, which ordered him back to France in 1919 to make a map of Belleau Wood. He had told his brother that the memory of Germans coming over the hill would torment him forever; he couldn’t face seeing Belleau Wood for at least 20 years. Back on the battlefield of 1918, my great-uncle shot and killed himself.

          A hundred years later, Belleau Wood casts a shadow over our lives. It must certainly do the same for Kelly, Mattis and Dunford. How can they be silent? I hope it is because they feel as I do: that Trump’s alleged comments (“losers,” “suckers”) are so petty in comparison to the sacrifices of Belleau Wood they are hardly worth response.

          Or, maybe, like me, Kelly, Mattis and Dunford are perversely grateful for a fracas that has brought attention to a stirring American moment.

drawing by John W. Thomason

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Madeleine Johnson, of Enfield, New Hampshire, is a freelance journalist who has studied the Marines in World War I for many years. In 2018, she delivered a paper at the Marine Corps History Division’s World War I Centennial Symposium titled “The Art of War: Laurence Stallings, John W. Thomason, Thomas Boyd.”

~~~~~ This essay was first published in the Valley News of West Lebanon, New Hampshire. https://www.vnews.com/Column-Why-Trump-s-ignorance-of-Belleau-Wood-is-a-real-sore-point-36162845

Pilgrimage on behalf of one long dead

Cpl Alpheus Appenheimer, USMCMy lifelong fascination with the history and culture of the First World War began as a small boy with stories heard from my grandfather, who had served with the Marine Brigade, 2nd Division AEF, in France.  He had been a muleskinner, driving rations and ammunition into the front lines, at times under heavy shellfire, and had twice been awarded a Silver Star Citation and Croix de Guerre, once at Belleau Wood and again at Blanc Mont.   

On more than one occasion I asked if had ever wished to return to France, to visit again the places he had been during the war.  He said he had often wished to return, to show those places to his wife, but that they had always been too poor and too busy with a growing family and running the farm.  And in any case he would have wanted to return within the first ten years after the war, before the places had greatly changed from what he remembered.

In later years, after his death, his only son made the attempt and got as far as Paris, but being an older man himself at the time, and a partial invalid, with little travel experience abroad and not speaking the language, he found himself unable to complete the final leg of the journey from Paris to Chateau-Thierry.  He could not find Belleau Wood on any map, was uncertain where it was, and could find no English-speaking French person patient enough to assist him.

Some years later I made the attempt myself, and even with my French-speaking wife was nearly defeated.  We got as far as Chateau-Thierry, but only to be told that there was no longer a bus to Belleau, and that we would have to rent a taxi, if one could be found who would not mind waiting for us as we walked around the cemetery.  Hailing a cab from a central intersection proved impossible, and making herself understood over a phone to a cab company dispatcher, whose country patois bore little resemblance to any French Marian had heard before, was an obstacle surmounted only after many minutes of mutual bewilderment and exasperation.  But somehow, against all odds, at the very end of the day, we managed it, and the experience of arriving at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery not long before sunset was so overwhelming that Marian mistook my speechlessness for morosity and felt slighted and hurt, and wandered off alone into the deep wood, until driven back into the sunlight by what she encountered there . . . 

Only after returning to Chateau Thierry where, in a local bistro she plied me with repeated glasses of beer in an effort to soften what she mistook as my incivility, did we sort things out.  And it was not until days later that she begin to speak of she had experienced in the shadows of the wood itself.

For weeks afterwards I was haunted by the graves and ghosts of Belleau Wood until, finally, I was able to lay the phantoms partially to rest by rendering the experience into artistic form: a series of fourteen rough-hewn sonnets whose basic rectangular form and controlled phrasing recall the form and function of memorial plaques.  The rhymes, however, are not regular and commemorative, but widely-spaced, and often more suggested than actual — like distant echoes.

BJ Omanson



The Tower at the Edge of the Wood

Demure, nestled fields so intensely green
they appear to float amid clouds of swallows…
shimmering fields of incipient wheat
awash with scarlet of poppies, like those
my grandfather mentioned. Here, where arises
on battlements of crag and ravine,
the huge and shadowy bulk of a wood,
a sole brigade of Americans met
the army that swept towards Paris and stood
against it, dying by hundreds. I stare
at its rocky defiles and crevices
till my scalp begins to tingle and crawl.
My grandfather spoke of the poppies here,
how petals by hundreds would break and fall ~~ 

how every sullen recess of the wood
would flicker a vicious flame ~~ how a mighty
moan arose from the ranks as poppies,
soldiers and grain were cut down together
till not one man or stalk of wheat stood ~~
how those still breathing cringed behind bodies
crumpled or sprawling ~~ how raking fire
shredded their haversacks and pinned them
close to the earth ~ how strangely, somewhere,
the note of a warbler, piercingly clear,
emerged for a moment above the din ~~
how the fire hit them again, again,
as curse accompanied prayer ~~ how cries
of the wounded tore at the heart with pity.

Grandfather never spoke of such dying
directly ~~ there were clipped allusions,
disquieting, never intentional
and, often, there was the lapse of silence
that fell like frost on the otherwise green
and pastoral heart of each reminiscence.
Mostly what he imparted were small
vignettes and stories of commonplace things
reassuring to any farmer’s son:
how he stole up into the loft of a barn
with a bottle, or how he hauled ammunition
on a night so dark that he walked his team
by the flaring of shells ~~ how he stole a swim
while washing his lathered mules in the Marne. 

One evening he held the porch like a stage
for a crowd of us boys and related the time
that he turned an all-but-terrified team
directly into a rolling barrage ~~
how he steadied the creatures, with reins taut
in his left hand, and a watch in his right
and, timing the march of the fiery wall
that bore upon them until the earth shook,
how he barked a brusque command to his mules
and bullied them straight through the coiling smoke.
But there was a darker side to the war
not found in his tales or among his letters,
or even between the lines of the battered
diary stashed in the back of a drawer. 

In all his words there was nothing of what
when, years afterward, exhuming the past
in the moldy crypt of an archival vault,
I uncovered by chance a written account
by a young corporal in Grandpa’s detachment
who described how the dead lay in summer heat
all swollen and black ~~ how Marines were sent
on burial parties, not from a sense
of rightness, but only to stop the stench ~~
how, unceremoniously, they tossed
the corpses in shell-holes ~~ how when they pulled
on limbs they could feel the joints separate ~~
how flies buzzed up from the flesh in a cloud ~~
how, mostly, the bodies were left to rot. 

Such images weltered up in a flood
as our taxi turned through the somber gate
some minutes ago and proceeded straight
through a corridor of identical trees
and bordering hedges of clustered roses.
Directly before us, positioned midway
up the side of a hill, in a brooding wood,
an immaculate, white, unworldly tower
commanded a field of white marble crosses.
As we left the car, the driver leaned out,
and said he would wait for one full hour,
and turned off the meter. At our surprise,
he told how his father had also fought
on the Marne, and with that he looked away. 

In the years just after the war they came
in multitudes here ~~ the mothers, widows,
and fatherless children ~~ to walk among rows
of crosses in search of some single name
out of all the rest ~~ and there came, as well,
the soldiers themselves: alone or in pairs
or, ever more frequently through the years,
together with wives. For months afterward,
Grandfather talked of a long journey back,
of showing my grandmother what had occured ~~
of trying to show what he couldn’t tell.
But he gave it up ~~ with too many rows
of his own to walk, too much acreage, stock,
and too little savings, too little time. 

When, long after that, I asked him whether
he might still return, he said, with a frown,
“That was decades ago. Your grandmother’s gone.
Nothing would be the same.” I remember
the way he looked out at the evening sky
as though he might peer through miles and years
to those far-off events, and how I arose
from the sofa and silently left the room.
And now, what a strange, ironic turn
that it should be I and not he who has come,
and my wife rather than his who should see
this place of all places. ~~  She takes my arm
and, almost touching her lips to my ear,
quietly whispers, the circle is closed

We proceed along the avenue, dazed
by the sheer translucency of the air,
by all the surrounding acres of wheat
and myriad poppies, by wheeling arcs
of swallows suffused in light . . .  everywhere
we turn it is almost as though we gaze
upon the first morning before there fell
the least intimation of closing night.
My wife, knowing little of what has passed
in this sorrowful wood, sees it most of all
as a beautiful and mysterious place
and, venturing off on her own to where
a stair rises dimly into the dark
of the trees, she slowly climbs out of sight. 

And now for the first time I am alone,
alone in that locus of legends to which
my grandfather always longed to return,
a place of apocalyptic fury,
of carnage and devastation…   a place
of villages and reclusive pastures
and rivers that haunted him all his days.
At the close of this wrathful century
which he, as a boy, observed at its dawn,
I have come in his place to stand and watch
at post, as a cloud moves over the sun,
as a shadow moves slowly across the face
of the tower that stands like an ancient cairn,
marking the derelict bones of warriors. 

I cross a rectangular swath of lawn
to the base of the hill where, step by step,
I mount an austere and gradual stair
to the terrace that foots the tower and stop
to face the imposing arch of a doorway.
Passing beneath an medieval warrior
surrounded by archivolts like the dawn,
I find myself standing within a small,
obscurely-lit chapel where sunlight glows
through a deeply-set and faceted window
of tinctured and leaded glass, muted rays
of spectral radiance slanting through air
to hallow, in auras of blue and rose,
names of the missing incised on the wall. 

Since before the last war these ghostly rays,
pivoting on axes of window-glass,
have cloven the cloistered air of this place,
their indiscernable movement across
the walls precisely in opposition
to the arc of the sun across the sky.
In shadow, a Gothic altar of brass
and marble stands recessed in an apse,
presenting a stark, solitary cross.
I turn from its presence and wander out
into warmly showering light, a vision
of uninterrupted tranquility
rising above me: a sky without cloud,
a single swallow that soars and dips. 

I watch, completely absorbed in its flight
till it skirls into aether, and then I turn
and follow the terrace around the wall
of the tower from where I can see, above,
the stairway vanishing into the wood.
The air is less cordial here, with the sun
eclipsed by a circuit of conifers
closing on every side. A residual
atmosphere, haunted and unresolved,
hovers about their boughs and they brood
like portals opening into the night,
into a purgatory of craters,
of trenches and dugouts clouded with fern,
of corroded cartridges, buckles, spoons. 

But there are are darker ravines in this wood
where more survives than detritus of war,
where memory stains the air and where cries
of huddled and immaterial forms
are like shuddering leaves… ~~ She catches my eye
from the stairway, suddenly stepping forth
from out of the shadows, a strange, uncertain
regard on her face that makes me afraid.
I rush up to meet her. She grasps my arm
and urges me rapidly down the stair
toward the waiting taxi. I pull her near
and ask her to whisper what she has seen ~
she turns with a look that is oddly removed ~
her eyes are unaccountably grieved.