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

From the Log of a Battalion Surgeon attached to the Marine Brigade at Belleau Wood


6 June, 1918:  The battalion was ordered to make the attack. At 1900 the companies moved out of the ravine and proceeded to the town of Champillon where they went into line northeast of the town at 0345. The battalion immediately attacked, and, soon after, wounded started coming into the battalion station, on the outskirts of the town of Champillon. Champillon has been under continuous heavy bombardment. As soon as the station was established, liaison between the regimental and First Battalion aid stations was made. Ambulances of the French sanitary unit came up bringing litters and supplies. Despite heavy shelling ambulances have been able to make the aid station. This simplifies evacuation of wounded. Hospital corpsmen went “over” with their companies and performed their duties admirably.

Advance dressing stations established just behind first line where wounded were collected and ambulatory sent to the battalion station. Litter cases transported a distance of about 500 yards. At the battalion station examinations and sorting done. Evacuated from battalion go through regimental aid station where a check on each case is made. Returning ambulances bring fresh supplies, litters and blankets, so at no time have we been short of these necessities. Some cases of diarrhea developing. Only a few evacuations because of sickness made. The Second Battalion station located in Lucy le Bocage. Their position enabled them to care for all casualties of their battalion in line. Lucy likewise was under heavy shellfire and gas. A direct hit made on this station set the building on fire, necessitating evacuation. A new station soon established in a cellar, and evacuations continued from this point. The Third Battalion, acting as brigade reserve, dug in in the nearby woods. During this engagement regiment suffered heavily from shellfire and gas, but forced enemy to give ground. Enemy losses obviously heavier. Enemy wounded and prisoners came through all stations in greater numbers than our own. Everything practicable was done for them.

The character of the wounds encountered here fall chiefly into the tearing, lacerating, crushing, and amputating types, accompanied by all degrees of fractures, hemorrhage, and destruction of soft tissue. Injuries of the extremities were most common, followed by those of the abdomen and chest. Despite massive injury, shock has not been common. This is probably due to early treatment, given by company hospital corpsmen, and undelayed evacuation through the regiment to field hospitals.

Great attempts have been made to control hemorrhage, immobilize fractures, secure adequate dressings on all wounds, give morphine, antitetanic serum, hot coffee, cover patients with blankets, and promptly evacuate them from the area. Prisoners recently captured were temporarily employed as litter bearers, facilitating treatment and evacuation which otherwise would have been delayed.

Arrangements were made by the battalion supply officers to get one cooked meal to the first line every night. This meal, with coffee, is brought up under heavy shellfire and rationed out to the men. In addition to this cooked meal, the men receive two iron rations. Water details supply the lines with fresh water (chlorinated) as frequently as possible, under the most difficult circumstances. As a whole, the men are standing up under these conditions well.

2–6 June: Repeated attacks by the enemy repulsed. Our men had seen little of active fighting until this time and had not realized the horrors of war. They have played with death during these first days of June. ––(They could not have realized the seriousness of the situation. It was not until later that they understood that during these days the fate of Paris and the Allied cause depended on them and that a second Marne, although less bloody but as momentous as that of 1914, was being fought. It was the turning point of the war. From this time until the Armistice, the Germans never went ahead again).

All medical personnel have been superb in meeting and disposing of the unprecedented tasks with which they have been confronted. Without thought of rest, relief, or restoration, devote themselves wholly to their gruesome labor.

The Marine brigade has undergone its first real baptism of fire.

The heroic acts that numerous hospital corpsmen have performed during furious assaults in the open and in the most advanced positions have thrilled the entire command, and, in no small way, contributed to the effort that has so far led to our military success.

A seriously wounded patient who came through this station told the story of a pharmacist’s mate, second class, Frank C. Welte, who died today.

Welte was attached to the Twentieth Company which was holding the first line lying between Le Bois de la Château and the town of Lucy le Bocage. His company, with the Forty-fifth and Forty-seventh, was ordered to attack the advancing German forces at 1500 today. The objective lay in a northerly direction, across a wheat field, and involved the southern section of the strongly fortified Bois de Belleau.

Bois de Belleau is an almost inpenetrable tangled forest with rock formations admirably adapted for defense. The surrounding country is dotted with woods and fields of ripening wheat, with red patches of wild poppy. The terrain, which favored the enemy, is generally level except for a few wooded hills. These afforded commanding positions for the enemy to sweep the roads and open country with shell and machine-gun fire.

The attacking troops, moying across the open wheat field, were subjected to murderous flanking fire from machine guns, and many men went down.

Welte was swamped with many wounded while in this open field, about 130 yards short of the woods.

He had dressed four wounded marines, calmly writing their tags, and had started on the fifth man when he was struck in the back and right heel, while kneeling over his patient. Fragments of a bursting high-explosive shell painfully wounded him. He continued dressing his patient and filled in the diagnosis tag when his head was pierced by a machine-gun bullet. He gave his book of diagnosis tags to his patient, asking him to “turn them over to the chief” when he arrived at the battalion station. With the delivery of the tags to the patient, Welte died. To the moment of death he thus carried out the last and most important detail of his duty, with coolness, deliberation, and devotion.

Hospital corpsmen have helped maintain the high morale of the troops. When a man’s mind is weakened by physical and nervous exhaustion, frequently it is the hospital corpsman who talks it over and boosts the weary one up, so that he can take new hold and continue his unpleasant task. A platoon was charging a machine-gun nest in Belleau Wood. Several unsuccessful attempts to take it had been made, with heavy losses. The handful of men left had drawn back prior to making another charge. The company hospital corpsman, with considerable blunt emphasis to add to the forcefulness of his demand, yelled out in the thick of the hand-to-hand fighting, “Get that gun! I’m here to take care of you!” The gun was captured shortly afterward in a deadly grapple.

A gallant Marine officer, with only a handful of his original platoon, captured the town of Bouresches—a key position of our front. He cited the hospital corpsman attached to his force, and pointing out the effect the hospital corpsman’s presence had on the morale of the men during the assault: “At a time when the losses threatened to prevent the success of the operations, the heroic conduct of this man steadied the lines and spurred the attacking platoons on through the barrage.”

In an aid station located in a little stone farmhouse, about midnight, there were a number of wounded lying about on straw or propped up against the walls waiting their turn for dressing and evacuation. The Boche was laying down a barrage between the station and the woods while attempting a counterattack. The orchard in the rear of the building and the courtyard in front were being plowed up by the raining shells. The old structure was swaying, and those laboring unceasingly within over the wounded had a secret conviction that their work would be suddenly concluded at any moment. The medical officer and several hospital corpsmen were setting a compound fracture in a Thomas splint and dressing other multiple wounds. No word was spoken; the closer the shells fell to the building the faster the group toiled under candlelight.

When morning broke the barrage had lifted. The station was untouched. The night’s grist of wounded had been cared for and sent back to field hospitals. Subsequently, the regimental chief pharmacist’s mate asked the medical officer if he had been aware of the proximity of the bursting shells during the night and the threatening death to those in the station. The medical officer replied that he had been acutely conscious of all that had occurred, but more important, he had realized that each hospital corpsman, although he knew the nearness of death, never showed the slightest sign of fear. He had observed them carrying on without hesitation, comforting and quieting the nerve. worn wounded, and the sight had filled him with pride and confidence in their ability.

~~~~~Lt. George G. Strott, Hospital Corps, USN.  The Medical Department of the United States Navy with the Army and Marine Corps in France in World War I.  (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy Department, June 1947), pages 46-8.

A Small Circle of Chums~~ some Marines of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion at Belleau Wood: how each of them came to be there, and what followed after . . .

Frank Dunham's caption for this photo reads: "The crack Machine Gun Section of the world, after 28 days in Belleau Woods". Individual Marines remain unidentified.

Frank Dunham’s caption for this photo reads: “The crack Machine Gun Section of the world, after 28 days in Belleau Woods”. Individual Marines remain unidentified.


Cpl Frank Dunham

A modest cache of letters, photos and medals originally belonging to Cpl. Frank Dunham, USMC (1917-19) offers an evocative glimpse into the wartime experiences of several members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, during the summer of 1918 at Belleau Wood near the River Marne.

There is not enough here for a cohesive narrative, but only isolated clues, such as might emerge from an archaeological dig– or, as in this case, from a soldier’s trunk.

The full story of Frank Dunham and his friends in 15th Company is lost to time.  But his handful of photos & medals, and a couple of letters, open small windows on a place called Belleau Wood and, together with what is preserved in the official histories, at least a small part of that story can be pieced together.

For the Marines of 15th Company, as for much of the 4th Brigade, the decisive date was June 6, 1918, when the Marine Corps suffered more casualties in one day than during their entire history up to that time.

At 3:45 a.m. on the 6th, the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines under Major Julius Turrill (of which only two companies were available, the 49th under Capt. George Hamilton, and the 67th under 1stLt Orlando Crowther) attacked from Hill 142 north to the Lucy-Torcy road.  Ten machine guns from 15th Company, including Dunham and his friends, supported the attack with direct overhead fire on German assembly points and reserve positions.  As a result of this firing, they drew fire upon themselves.  While their objectives were attained, both companies had suffered such heavy casualties among officers and men that by mid-morning Capt Hamilton had to step in and merge the remnants of both companies into a single company under his command.

Dunham, Croix de Guerre

Dunham’s Croix de Guerre

Meanwhile, the machine gunners of 15th Company suffered several casualties during the attack, though no fatalities.  Cpl Frank Dunham was awarded the Silver Star Certificate and Croix de Guerre for his actions on this date.  His citation reads: “He displayed coolness and leadership  in conducting his guns throughout the day, under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.”

Also decorated for courage under fire in this attack was one of Dunham’s friends, Pvt. Russell D. Smith, who received the Silver Star Certificate.  His citation reads: “He maintained the fire of his machine gun throughout the day while subjected to enemy fire which was so intense that parts of his gun were destroyed.”  Pvt Smith would later be awarded another Silver Star and two Croix de Guerres for his actions at Soissons.

Among Dunham‘s possessions is a photograph of Smith and himself standing in the wheat field where the attack of the 6th had taken place.  The photograph is undated, but it was so soon after the battle that bodies of dead Marines are still lying unburied on the ground.

Dunham & Smith, with unidentified dead Marines. Taken sometime shortly after June 6.

Dunham & Smith, with unidentified dead Marines. Taken sometime shortly after June 6.

Also taken at this time is another photograph showing Dunham standng by himself, with unidentified dead Marines.

click to enlarge

Dunham standing near dead Marines at Belleau Wood

And this photo of another chum, Irving Bigelow . . .

Irving Bigelow sitting near dead Marine, Belleau Wood

Irving Bigelow sitting near dead Marine, Belleau Wood

But the story and Frank Dunham, Russell Smith and Irving Bigelow, as well as their other chums, Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer, Edward Duda, Emanuel Smolik and Victor Bleasdale— all members of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, and all present at Belleau Wood– for all of them the story of their military service began earlier.  For most, it began with the declaration of war by the United States in April, 1917.  But for two of them, Frank Dunham and Victor Bleasdale, the story began two years earlier, in 1915, and involved an earlier conflict, an insurrection in Haiti— while for Irving Bigelow it began earlier yet, in 1914, in yet another conflict —  in Mexico, at Vera Cruz.

Irving Bigelow

Vera Cruz, Apr-Nov 1914

Irving Bigelow enlisted in Lansing, Michigan in January 1914 and was stationed at Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk, Virginia for the next three and a half months.

On April 22nd, Pvt Bigelow joined 20th Company in LtCol A.W. Caitlin’s 3rd Regiment and participated in the landing at Vera Cruz, taking part in the house-to-house fighting that took place in that city later the same day.

On the 29th, Bigelow joined 15th Company of  LtCol Wendell Neville’s 2nd Regiment and remained in Vera Cruz for the duration of the American occupation, until late November of that year.

Pvt Victor Bleasdale, in Haiti

Pvt Victor Bleasdale, in Haiti

Haiti, Aug 1915 — Dec 1916

Next among the future friends to enlist was Frank Dunham, who joined up in Akron, Ohio on October 19, 1914.  He trained as a member of Company F, Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, in the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia until mid-January when he was transferred to 15th Company, 2nd Regiment, 1st Brigade which by this time had returned from Vera Cruz and was stationed at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia. 

The third friend to enlist was Victor Bleasdale  from Janesville, Wisconsin, who joined up in Milwaukee on May 10th, 1915.  He trained in Company D at the Recruit Depot, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, in Norfolk until mid-July, when he travelled by train to Wintrop, Massachusetts, where he underwent marksmanship training on the Army rifle course.

At the end of July, Bleasdale was transferred to 15th Company in Philadelphia, just in time to join the company on board the USS Connecticut, which steamed out to sea on July 31st— carrying 344 Marines (five companies) of the 2nd Regiment, under Colonel E.K. Cole— and bound for Haiti, where a bloody revolution was underway.

At this point, on board ship, the three future friends, Bigelow, Dunham & Bleasdale, were all together for the first time in the same company, though at what point they became acquainted and struck up friendships is unknown.

Marines boarding the USS Connecticut at Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 31 July 1915, destination Haiti.

Marines boarding the USS Connecticut at Navy Yard, Philadelphia, 31 July 1915, destination Haiti.

The Connecticut steamed into harbor at Port au Prince on August 4, after a record run from Philadelphia. The capitol was in chaos. Two Presidents had been murdered within thirty-six hours— one of them dismembered with body parts displayed on poles; hundreds executed, many by machete; two foreign legations violated, and the government non-existant. Mobs stormed through the streets.

On August 15, Colonel L.W.T. Waller arrived on board the armored cruiser Tennessee with eight companies from the 1st Regiment of Marines and estabished the 1st Brigade (just over 2000 men) on shore, with the long-term purpose of pacifying the country and permitting the reconstitution of the Haitian government.   The native insurgents, known as cacos, controlled much of the island, and driving them out of their strongholds became the main objective of the Marines.

The first job was to drive the cacos out of the capital of Port au Prince, and this was accomplished in the first few days by Col Waller’s 2nd Regiment, followed by the clearing of nearby town of Gonaives.

The next main trouble spot was in the north around Cap-Haitian.  Colonel Cole’s 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, including 15th Company. was stationed in Cap-Haitian.  The cacos, controlling the countryside, set up a blockade around the town, blocking all movement in or out, cutting off all supplies to the surrounded Marines.  On September 20th, a Marine patrol, attempting to cut through the blockade, was ambushed.   Cole called in a landing force from the USS Connecticut to hold the town, while he and most of his regiment went to the rescue of the surrounded patrol.  In the ensuing conflict, forty cacos were killed at the expense of 10 Marines wounded.  It is unknown if  Bigelow, Bleasdale or Dunham took part in this fight, as no mention of it is found in their roster records.

The following week Cole attacked a caco stronghold at Quartier Morin, taking it on the 27th.   At this point Waller turned his full attention to taking possession of the northern region of the island.  He set up a three-town triangle of garrisons at Ouanaminthe, on the Dominican border, Grand Riviere du Nord, and Fort Liberte, leaving a company in each town.  15th Company was responsible for Fort Liberte. 

15th Company, 2nd Regiment --  3 pm Guard Relief, Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916.

15th Company, 2nd Regiment — 3 pm Guard Relief, Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916.

The next objective in Waller‘s plan was the caco stronghold at Fort CapoisWaller sent Major Smedley Butler and Captain “Deacon” Upshur and forty enlisted Marines, including the legendary Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly (both Butler & Daly would end their military careers with two Medals of Honor apiece).  Also present on this six-day, 120-mile expedition was Pvt Irving Bigelow.  For an assault force, the Marines were lightly armed, their heaviest weapon being a single machine gun.

Unfortunately for the patrol, their guide was in cahoots with the cacos and led the Marines into an ambush.  That night (Oct 24-25), as the Marines were attempting to cross a mountain river of whitewater, the forty-odd Marines were surrounded and attacked by some 400 cacos from Fort Capois and Fort Dipitie.  The cacos kept them pinned down and under fire throughout the night.  The Marines did not even have the benefit of their one machine gun, as the horse carrying it had been killed by gunfire while crossing the river.  In the dark, while still under attack, GSgt Daly stole back to the river, hoisted the machine gun on his back and made his way back to camp (an action which earned him his second Medal of Honor).

At daylight, knowing the cacos would attack and overwhelm them by sheer numbers, Butler audaciously attacked the cacos, in three directions!  The cacos were so dumbfounded and caught off guard that they panicked and ran.  Captain Upshur and 1st Lt Ostermann (who was wounded), with just 13 Marines (one of whom was Bigelow) pursued the cacos back to Fort Dipitie, then stormed the fort and burned it to the ground (an action for which both officers received Medals of Honor).  Bigelow, as one of the thirteen, would later receive a Letter of Commendation, signed by the Secretary of the Navy, for his participation in this attack.

After their long and sleepless night, Butler led the patrol back to Grande Riviere du Nord.  Almost immediately Captain Chandler Campbell organized a column and set out to attack Fort Capois.  This time the Marine column was far larger, composed of two companies of sailors from the Connecticut and five companies of Marines, including 15th CompanyBigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were all present on this expedition.  Le Trou was captured on Nov 2, and Fort Capois on Nov 5.  Forts Selon and Berthol were captured on the  7th and 8th.

"Hunting bandits near Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916".  Photograph by Victor Bleasdale.

“Hunting bandits near Fort Liberte, Haiti, 1916”. Photo by V. Bleasdale.

According to their muster roll records, Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham only participated in Butler‘s expedition through the 15th, but this is probably in error since the expedition lasted at least through the 18th, culminating in the major assault of Fort Riviere on that date.  As none of the three Marines was wounded, or was reported sick, or AWOL, it seems unlikely that any of them would have been removed from the expedition while it was in progress.

15th Company was one of several units assigned to the initial assault on the fort on the night of the 17th-18th.  The company, accompanied by Major Butler, attacked the south side of the fortification, and penetrated the fort through an opening so constricted that only one man could go through at a time.  The first two Marines to enter were Sgt Ross Iams and Private Sam Gross, both of whom were awared Medals of Honor.  A few more squads from the company squeezed through right after them, and were immediately attacked from within by the cacos.  The hand-to-hand fighting which ensued was extremely brutal— involving firearms, bayonets, machetes, clubs and rocks.  By the time it was over, all the cacos were killed (about fifty in all), while all the Marines were left standing.  Major Smedley Butler earned his second Medal of Honor on this day.

15th Company, as part of the 2nd Regiment of Marines, remained in Haiti through the rest of 1916.

Irving Bigelow served on detached duty with the Haitian Gendarmerie at La Valliere throughout June and July, then returned to Port au Prince in August where, till the end of the year, he drove an “auto truck” for the regiment.  Sometime in September, 1915, Pvt Bigelow was promoted to corporal.  On Dec 27, Cpl Bigelow was promoted to sergeant.

Through most of his time in Haiti, when he was not participating in expeditions against the cacos, Victor Bleasdale served as payroll and muster roll clerk for the company.  On June 25th, 1916, Pvt Bleasdale was promoted to corporal.

From September 1 to 26, 1916, Frank Dunham participated in a mounted expedition from Port au Prince, Haiti, over mountainous jungle, to Azua, in the Dominican Republic.  Through much of November and December he was hospitalized in Port au Prince with an unspecified ailment.

Stateside, Jan-Apr 1917

Sometime in January, 1917, the 2nd Regiment, including 15th Company, returned to the United States and took up their station in Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Philadelphia.  Bigelow and Bleasdale returned with the company.  Dunham‘s movements are less clear, as his roster record for January is missing.  Probably he remained in hospital in Port au Prince for a time after the regiment had returned to the States.  By February, 1917, all three Marines were at Marine Barracks, Philadelphia Navy Yard on League Island.

Sometime in late February, 1917, 15th Company was transferred to the Marine Aviation Section, US Navy Aeronautic Station in Pensacola, Florida, and all three friends were included in the move.  It was at this time that another future member of the Dunham “circle of chums” joined the Company:  Russell Smith, who had enlisted the previous November.

War is Declared, April 2

While Bigelow, Bleasdale and Dunham were still at Pensacola with 15th Companythe United States declared war on Germany on April 2nd.   In mid-May, the Secretary of War made a formal request to President Wilson that a regiment of Marines be included in the first contingent of troops being sent to France.  Wilson issued an order to that effect on the 27th.  Accordingly, Marine units with expeditionary experience in Haiti, Santo Domingo and Cuba, including 15th Company, as well as a number of shipboard detachments, were formally organized into the 5th Marine Regiment, commanded by Col Charles Doyen, and composed of three battalions.  15th Company was called up from Pensacola to Quantico and assigned to 1st Battalion under Major Julius Turrill.

It was at about this time that the rest of the Marines in Dunham’s “circle of chums” joined the company.  Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Emanuel Smolik enlisted just days after the declaration of war, underwent basic training together at Paris* Island as members of the same “Company H”  and joined 15th Company at Quantico on June 1st.  Edward Duda also joined on this date from Paris Island, where he had trained in “Company I”.

Crossing the Pond

The Marines of 15th Company left Quantico on June 12, traveling by train to their old homebase at the Navy Yard on League Island, Philadelphia, and immediately boarded the USS DeKalb (formerly the German ship Prinz Eitel, seized at the outbreak of war), joining the rest of the Col Julius Turrill’s 1st Battalion.

Marines boarding the USS Dekalb, June 12, 1917, Navy Yard, Philadelphia

Marines boarding the USS Dekalb, June 12, 1917, Navy Yard, Philadelphia

Together with the USS Hancock (which held Headquarters & Supply Companies), the Dekalb weighed anchor and steamed out to sea on the same day, to a sustained cacaphony of every bell and whistle on the waterfront.  Their journey up the Jersey coast was slowed by a heavy fog in Delaware Bay, but soon enough they made it into New York Harbor and anchored within sight of the Statue of Liberty.   The two ships were  joined by a third, the USS Henderson, which carried the 2nd and 3rd Battalions and the regimental band.  On the 14th, together with other ships carrying the remainder of the 1st Division, they set sail for France.

A pair of encounters with German U-boats notwithstanding, the Dekalb arrived in St Nazaire harbor, on the coast of France in good order on June 26.  The 1st Battalion disembarked with little fanfare on the same day and marched five miles to the western outskirts of the city, to a British campground known as Base Camp #1.  This was to be their home for the next couple of weeks.    They set up tents, and within a few hours were nicely settled in, making coffee and frying bacon over open fires.  For the next couple of weeks, the Marines primarily busied themselves with marches and close order drills, sometimes marching back to the docks to spend a day unloading ships.

Prvates Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Duda at Base Camp #1, St. Nazaire, in early July 1917.

Prvates Harvey Hagan, Nicholas Meyer and Edward Duda at Base Camp #1, St. Nazaire, in early July 1917.

 To be continued . . .


* “Parris Island” was not spelled with two “r”s until after the war.

Original photographs in this article courtesy of Paul Higgins.  All other photos are in the Public Domain.

Last updated in the early hours of 11 Feb 2013.   Additions, questions & corrections by readers are welcome.

BJ Omanson

An artist’s memoir of Belleau Wood, Soissons and St Mihiel

I received a parcel from McFarland Publishers today, containing a memoir of an enlisted US Marine, Louis C. Linn, who served at Belleau Wood, Soissons and St Mihiel. At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchpad. I wrote the chapter introductions and footnotes for the book.

I also wrote the following summary and assessment of Linn’s memoir, only part of which appears in the book.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Louis Linn wrote his memoir of service with the Marine Brigade in France in 1918 about ten years after the end of the war. This is just when the great majority of memoirs, novels and books of poems about the First World War began to appear, in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. For nearly all the participants of the war, from whatever country, it took at least a decade before combat veterans could “come to terms” with the trauma of the war, and gain the perspective necessary to write about it with some clarity and dispassion.

Linn’s memoir is rough-hewn. It reads like a rough draft written straight through and never revised, with passages of lyric force and clarity interspersed with passages which are much less certain, where Linn is clearly struggling to capture experiences that are not easily rendered into language.

Memoirs are difficult to write at best, for a host of reasons, and memoirs dealing with trauma are the most difficult of all. Yet unlike many memoirists from the war, Linn never resorts to easy shortcuts with the language. There are no euphemisms or clichés, or any of the easy formulaic phrases heard so often during the war itself. There is no talk of “dash” or “valor” or “elan”. There is not the slightest whiff of patriotism, esprit de corps, or demonization of the enemy. He never even refers to himself as a Marine, but just as a plain infantry soldier.

Linn’s perspective is personal and ground-level. There is no sense of larger issues, strategic objectives, or being part of a Great Crusade. What he writes about is getting through each day. If there is a moral compass in Linn’s account, it too is personal and ground-level. What Linn describes again and again are relations between individuals, and their rank and nationality scarcely figure into it. He observes numerous instances of callousness, cruelty and injustice, and these become a part of his record. Some of those he meets elicit his sympathy, or pity, even occasionally his admiration, but many more provoke his ridicule and contempt, especially if they are officers.

What strikes the reader most of all is Linn’s uncompromising frankness, whether about human flaws, including his own, or the sordid particulars of life in the trenches. He never fudges, or makes excuses, or offers explanations. He just puts it down as he remembers it, in detail, and with no apparent concern for the impression he makes, either of himself, or on the reader. This is what gives Linn’s memoir its great value as a document of core human experience. If his phrasing is not always polished, his forthrightness never falters.

Louis Linn was a member of 77th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, 4th Brigade of Marines, Second Division (Regular), A.E.F. Of all the American divisions participating in the Great War, the Second Division suffered the most casualties, captured the second most territory, captured the most enemy prisoners and equipment, and won the most decorations for valor.

The Second Division was the only Army division in the history of the United States to contain a brigade of Marines, and the only Army division ever to be commanded by a Marine. It was due to the participation of this single Marine brigade that the Marine Corps, in six months time, went from being a minor expeditionary fighting force attached to the Navy, to being considered a first-rate force of shock troops by the German Army. It was this single Marine brigade which made the Marine Corps a participant on the world stage, and prepared it for playing a major role in the next world war, and which provided the crucial core of experienced field officers for that war.

Of three major battles, all of which were devastating for the Marine Brigade, Linn participated in two, Belleau Wood and Soissons, and in those two he participated in the very worst of the fighting. He came through Belleau Wood unscathed, was badly wounded at Soissons, and then, at St. Mihiel, during an attack when only seven Marines were wounded by a concealed grenade, Linn was one of the seven, and he was wounded badly enough that he remained hospitalized until after the Armistice.

Regarding his experiences in the war, Linn’s daughter, Laura Jane Linn Wright writes that ” . . . [he] always carried a sketchbook and a stub of a pencil in his pocket. He carried them all through the war. He drew, whenever he could, to try to maintain his sanity in a terrible situation. Drawing gave him a measure of mental peace. He was tormented by nightmares. He wrote his memoir several years after the war, partly as a catharsis, using his sketches as illustrations. Or perhaps the sketches brought back his experiences. He made woodcuts from some of the sketches to more vividly convey the bleakness and horror of the war . . . ”

BJ Omanson

For more about this book, go here.


BJ Omanson

Published in: on January 17, 2012 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Some unusual documents awarded to a Marine officer of the Second Division, AEF

click to enlarge

2ndLt Wilbur T. Love, USMC

Quartermaster Sergeant Wilbur T. Love joined Headquarters Detachment, 6th Machine Gun Battalion at its formation at Quantico in September, 1917, and served with the battalion throughout the war.  

For his actions at Belleau Wood on June 7-8, 1918, Quartermaster Sgt Love was awarded the Silver Star Citation.  His commendation read:  “He carried supplies and ammunition into the town of Bouresches, on horse-back while the enemy was counter attacking the town.  During this trip he not only ran the gauntlet of raking machine-gun fire from the southern edge of Bois de Belleau, but went through places where bursting shells and gas made passage almost impossible”.

GSgt Love was promoted to 2dLt on September 26, after St. Mihiel and on the eve of the Battle of Blanc Mont.

Several of his citations are shown below.  The US Army Citation is well-known to all students of the AEF, but the others are much less common.  I would be grateful to anyone who could enlighten us regarding the history of these documents.

BJ Omanson


BJ Omanson

Published in: on June 8, 2011 at 12:47 am  Comments (1)  

Burial detail, Belleau Wood: an old-timer is laid to rest

Among the wartime effects of Cpl. Frank W. Dunham of 15th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, are several photographs which were taken during the fighting at Belleau Wood in June, 1918.  One of the photos shows four Marines carrying a body toward a stand of trees.  On the back of the photograph, the scrawled caption in pencil reads: “1st Sgt Hunter carted to the grave.  Belleau Wood.”

First Sergeant Daniel Amos Hunter, USMC, known to his men as “Pop”, was a crusty old-timer who had served four enlistments in the regular Army, fought in the Spanish American War, and was on his third hitch with the Marines.  He had served in Santo Domingo, Mexico, Cuba, aboard various ships and, as a seasoned veteran of four courts martial, had seen the inside of more than his share of brigs

At shortly after 3 a.m. on June 6th, Marines of the 49th and 67th Companies, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, lay hidden in position on either side of Hill 142 southwest of Belleau Wood.  According to the original plan, two additional companies, the  17th and 66th, should have been in position to join the assault, but had not yet been relieved by the French and so were still deployed near Les Mares Farm.  The assault was also to have been supported by barrage fire from two companies of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion, but one of their companies was tied up elsewhere, also awaiting relief from the French, which meant that the two companies of the 1st Battalion were supported by just ten guns of 15th Company dug in behind them, between Champillon and Bois St. Martin.  Among these ten machine gun crews was Cpl. Dunham.

At first light, 0345, 1st Sgt Hunter– as described by George Clark–  “… strode out before his line, checked right and left, then, with a whistle to his mouth, blew it once.  Forward, over his head, and downward went his cane, pointing toward the company’s objective, straight ahead…”  The two companies set off down the slopes of Hill 142 and out into the open, moving northward across wheatfields still softened with nighttime mist toward the village of Torcy.  According to Lt. John W. Thomason of 49th Company, the wheat was wet with dew and festooned with poppies and the immense red sun was just a handsbreadth above the horizon.  It was pleasantly cool and the blue woods ahead looked inviting…, and it was just then that hell fell out of the heavens, with artillery and machine gun fire hitting the Marines simultaneously.

Much of the devastating fire was from Maxim machine guns manned by three companies of the German 460th Infantry Regiment, barricaded in a wooded copse just to the northwest, with a clear view of the advancing Marines.  The Germans were taking barrage fire from the guns of 15th Company, but it was not enough to silence them.  67th Company, advancing through the wheat, was completely cut to pieces.  “Pop” Hunter was hit, got back on his feet, was hit again and again rose– all the while shouting to his men to keep moving– and then was hit a third time, in the head, and this time he lay where he fell.

1st Sgt Hunter being carted to his grave

Some days later the dead were gathered up and laid to a proper rest by burial parties of Marines.  Much of the grisly work was done by new replacements, led by a few seasoned veterans.  One of the newcomers to 67th Company, detailed to burial duty that day, was Pvt. Elton E. Mackin, who had only been with the company about a week.  A trench had been dug by a squad of Engineers and a corporal of the 67th, “Tugboat” Wilson, was working down in the trench, taking the bodies one at a time, laying them out in position and covering them with earth.  As the bodies were being handed down, an “old-timer” stopped to observe the proceedings.  Occasionally, when one of the bodies was an officer, the old-timer would silently flick off a salute.  What happened then is best described in Mackin’s own words:

“After a time, as the work progressed, a body was handed down dressed in forest greens with a top-cutter’s chevrons above hashmarks denoting seven enlistments.  A whistle dangled loosely from a cord about the sergeant’s neck, and the flap of his holster flopped about untidily.  The old-timer, still watching, made a sharp salute.  Turning to a boot he said, “Get a blanket, soldier.  Wrap him up proper.  That’s ‘Pop’ Hunter.”

 1st Sergeant Hunter would posthumously be awarded both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Navy Cross for his actions that morning.  His citation would read:  “For extraordinary heroism in action. He fearlessly exposed himself and encouraged all men near him, although he himself was wounded three times.”   1st Sgt. Hunter was also a recipient of the Silver Star Citation.

I would like to express my gratitude to Paul Higgins, whose wife is the great-grandneice of Frank W. Dunham, for permission to use this remarkable photograph of 1st Sgt Hunter’s burial detail.

BJ Omanson



Asprey, Robert B.  At Belleau Wood (NY: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1965), p 151.

Clark, George B.  Devil Dogs: Fighting Marines of World War I.  (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1999), pp 102-4.

Clark, George B.  Decorated Marines of the Fourth Brigade in World War I.  (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007), p. 58.

Curtis, Captain T.J. and Captain L.R. Long.  History of the Sixth Machine Gun Battalion, Fourth Brigade, U.S. Marines, Second Division, and Its Participation in the Great War.  (Neuwied on the Rhine, Germany: March, 1919), p. 15.

Mackin, Elton E.  Suddenly We Didn’t Want to Die: Memoirs of a World War I Marine.  With an introduction and annotation by George B. Clark.  (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1999), pp 43-4.

Muster Rolls of the U.S. Marine Corps, 1798-1892; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T1118, 123 rolls); Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, Record Group 127; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington, D.C.; Returns from U.S. Military Posts, 1800-1916; Microfilm Serial: M617; Microfilm Roll: 1107

Register of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M233, 81 rolls); Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s-1917, Record Group 94; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Thomason, John W., Jr.  Fix Bayonets!  (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1926), pp 9-10.

Thomason, John W., Jr.  The United States Army Second Division Northwest of Chateau Thierry in World War I.  Edited by George B. Clark.  (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007), pp. 82-5.

BJ Omanson

The earliest war museum at Belleau Wood

This early war museum at Belleau Wood, with its collection of gathered and excavated artifacts, was brought together sometime after the war by a farmer from the nearby village of Bussiares, located to the north of Hill 142. Very little is known about him, or his museum. He filled it with artifacts which he collected himself from Belleau Wood and the surrounding fields. He was considered somewhat strange by his neighbors at that time, because of his interest in the detritus of the battlefields.

The museum did not survive the second invasion by the German Army through this region in June of 1940.

Information & photographs courtesy of Gilles Lagin.

BJ Omanson

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

In Chateau Thierry after the war, a house of perpetual memory and service

This pamphlet from 1925, onto which are pressed poppies from the surrounding wheatfields, tells the story of what might be described as “a house of perpetual memory and service” built and maintained by American Methodists in Chateau Thierry in the first years after the war.  It is difficult in a phrase or two to describe what such a house was, so the full description contained in the pamphlet is included here, together with attendent photographs. 

Unlike the work toward healing and recovery performed by medical institutions, about which a great deal has been written over the years, comparable work by smaller, charitable organizations devoted to repairing damage to the social fabric of war-torn France, is much less known. 

The idea behind such houses was to put into place local centers that would persist for years afterwards, serving not only practical physical needs, but working to restore psychological and spiritual deficits as well.  Such houses as this were both a refuge and a place of healing from the lingering corrosion of war, and training ground of preparation for the trials that were to come.

BJ Omanson

The Vision is now a beautiful reality.  It came first to Dr. Bysshe, soon after the Germans had left their fearful trail of death in the Valley of the Marne in 1914.  He was standing in the pitiful little American graveyard at Belleau Woods.  It was all so soon after the terrible battle and the hasty burial of those brave boys, that in itself it was like a newly-made grave, with nothing as yet to mark the spot.

“Those American Soldiers who gave their lives in France should have one of the finest monuments in the world” was the thought of this Superintendant of France Mission.

Already the French Government had asked the Methodists to aid with relief for the refugees who were returning to the devastated homes.  Thirty-two villages were assigned to them.

It was while thinking of the aid which the Board of Foreign Missions in New York had offered for the devastated areas of France that the thought came of enlarging this temporary material assistance and making a more enduring monument which would a Memorial worthy of the soldiers whose graves are in France.  The gift of the Methodist Episcopal Church to Chateau-Thierry should be more than a passing gift of material relief.  It should be an enduring monument of happiness, built out of the desolation of war.  It must be a loving service for those who are still living in the war-scarred villages of the Valley of the Marne.

The first year after the war gave abundant opportunity for relieving need in the thirty-two villages.  It was decided after the first year that the emergency need for material help was no longer so great, and that our energy should be turned toward the development of a service in Chateau-Thierry which would be permanent, which would not only hold the affection of the villages but which could continue to minister to the needs of the growing youth of Chateau-Thierry and be an abiding Memorial to the American Soldier dead.  The old Hotel de l’Elephant was purchased.  It is within a stone’s throw of the famous Stone Bridge, which was destroyed, to prevent the Germans getting over the Marne, on the day after the arrival of the American Army.  The building was a ruin at the time of its purchase.  It had been used as a hotel since 1789, witnessing the scenes of the French Revolution.  One of Napoleon’s cannon balls is still lodged in a building nearby, bearing the date “1814”.  It witnessed the evacuation of the place in 1870, and suffered terribly from the two bombardments in 1914 and 1918.

Its ruin was such that it seemed hopeless to think of ever making it an attractive place for children’s work.  Wit broken roof, rain-soaked walls, without a pane of glass, and the accumulation of the filth of years, it was impossible to occupy the building for months.  Two German bodies were in the cellar when the Americans took over the building.  Forty-six sticks of dynamite were found in it after we had lived in it five months.

From the shell-torn carcass of the “Elephant” was resurrected the beautiful “Methodist Memorial”.  A local Physician, Dr. Prieur, said, “If the Methodists will render the best service to Chateau-Thierry, let them help children to take the places of those who were killed in the War.  France lost one million five hundred thousand of her men, beside seven hundred thousand others who were wounded.  The places of these must be filled”.

The program was definitely made to include the following activities:

1.  A Trained Nurse for visiting in the homes of expectant mothers.  A weekly clinic to be held in the building, under the supervision of local physicians for the babies and mothers.

2.  A Creche (Day Nursery) for the daily care of babies, three months to two years of age, from destitute and devasted homes.  The mothers of these must work to support their families.  Already the babies show the effects of the daily bath, regular habits of sleep, with good nourishment.  Every sanitary precaution is taken for the health of these precious future citizens of France.

3.  Educational Classes.  Popular classes in English are held four evenings in the week.  Instruction is given in Shorthand, Typewriting, Millinery, Sewing, Drawing, Modeling, Domestic science and Gymnastics.  A Casse de garde is held each afternoon after school hours.  During the summer vacation months more than seventy children from three to twelve years of age attend the morning and afternoon classes.  Material is furnished to the sewing classes with instruction for making the trousseaux of the future mothers of France.

4.  An Installation of Wireless Telegraphy and Radio-Telephone, affords instruction for the youth and entertainment for the inhabitants of the Community.

5.  A Free Circulating Library and Reading Room.  Owing to the destruction of books during the war there is a keen appreciation of the magazines and journals.  Nearly one thousand carefully selected and catalogued volumes are in circulation.  Gifts from Dana Hall, Wellesley, have aided in founding a Children’s Library which is becoming more and more popular, and is especially attractive at the Story-telling Hour.

6.  The Boy Scouts and Camp-fire Girls are organized.  They have made their own tents and have camped on the battlefields.  Marked improvement is seen in the conduct of these young-people whose morals suffered greatly during the war, when their fathers and older brothers were at the front and their mothers were in the fields and munition factories.  Our Boy Scouts took second place at a National encampment, bringing home five 1st medals and the Gold Medal for second highest place in the Camp.

7.  The Girls’ Social Club.  Young women meet weekly for self improvement, with music, games and uplifting conferences.

8.  War Museum.  A valuable collection of souvenirs of the war has been made.  German cannons and French mortars, together with parts of aeroplanes, including the motor of Quentin Roosevelt’s plane which fell at Chamery, are in the museum.  Autographed photographs and letters have been received from nearly all of the commanding officers who were here in 1918.  More than 8,000 persons visited the building in the summer of 1925.

9.  The Rooms  have been made attractive and home-like.  these are open every evening in the week.  English classes, music, games, coversation in English and French, afford an ideal opportunity for closer acquaintance and the making of abiding friendship between the American, English and French peoples.  Such gatherings had not been known before.  Conferences and soirees have been held with speakers or artists from Paris.  Dramatic performances are staged and Concerts given.

There is no charge made for the services rendered in the Methodist Memorial.  It has been the joy of Methodism to offer this in loving appreciation of the people of Chateau-Thierry, and in tender memory of the brave boys who sleep at Belleau Woods.

While the Board of Foreign Missions has founded and financed the Memorial, special gifts are necessary for maintaining the present program.

This is only one of the social activities of the France Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church in France, others being in Paris, Poissy, Charvieu, Lyon and Toulon.  The Paris Office is at 89a Boulevard Haussmann.

Julian S. Wadsworth, Director.


3000-12-10-12  —  Herbert Clarke, Printer, 338 Rue St-Honore, Paris.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 8:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

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.