First to Fight

Lessons from the Battle of Belleau Wood
>Maj King is an Infantry Officer and currently serves as Commanding Officer, Recruiting Station Salt Lake City.

“And, waking or sleeping, I can still see before me the dark threat of Belleau Wood, as full of menace as a tiger’s foot, dangerous as a live wire, poisonous with gas, bristling with machine guns, alive with snipers, scornfully beckoning us to come on and be slain, waiting for us like a dragon in its den. Our brains told us to fear it, but our wills heard but one command, to clean it out, and I can still see before my very eyes those waves in the poppy-spattered wheat-field as the steady lines of our Marines went in.” (1)

Albertus Catlin,
With the Help of God and a Few Marines

Col Albertus Catlin, commander of 6th Mar at Belleau Wood, recorded these words a year after the Marine Corps’ performance in that small crop of woods east of Paris in the summer of 1918. Catlin’s first line poetically describes the overwhelming odds Marines faced in the battle: mustard gas from German artillery shells, Maxim machineguns dug in ready to fire, and enemy snipers scanning the battlefield for targets. It is his second line that reveals those intangible traits Marines exhibited during the almost month-long battle—virtues that have set the Corps apart since its inception: discipline, gallantry, grit, sacrifice, esprit de corps, and mission accomplishment among others. Outgunned and outmanned, a brigade of Marines fought for nearly 26 days against multiple divisions of battle-hardened German infantry and ultimately won.

Although the battle has long passed, we Marines have an obligation to look back at this storied engagement and extract from it applicable lessons for today. This article is just that, a simple recap and analysis of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the leadership fundamentals and virtues exhibited that remain timeless in war. Under the severest of conditions, Marines overcame their tactical and operational missteps, equipment shortfalls, and an overwhelming enemy force. These are the reasons every new generation of Marines must know the story of Belleau Wood.

America Goes to War
To fully appreciate the battle, we need to go back further to 1917, the year the United States entered World War I. The war had been raging in Europe since 1914 with President Woodrow Wilson pledging to keep America out. When Great Britain intercepted the Zimmerman Note (Germany’s request for an alliance with Mexico) in January 1917 and turned it over to the United States, it was enough for President Wilson to petition Congress for war.

Beleaguered French and British allies needed the Americans immediately. The United States responded by assembling roughly 14,000 troops and sent them to France in June 1917. Named the American Expeditionary Force and commanded by Army GEN John J. Pershing, the force included 5th Mar. In February of 1918, the 6th Mar arrived in France and joined with the 5th Mar to form the Fourth Marine Brigade, attached to the Army’s U.S. Second Infantry Division. (2)

American action in the war was minor throughout the winter of 1918 until the Germans launched a series of offenses with fresh troops freed from the now-silent Eastern Front. British and French forces repulsed the first two German offensives, but the third, known as the Aisne Offensive, struck at French forces in the Chateau-Thierry region of France, only 39 miles east of Paris. The force and momentum of this German offensive smashed the French army and dashed most Frenchmen’s hopes of keeping the Germans out of Paris. The Allies suddenly threw American forces into the line to blunt the invasion. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was ordered to Chateau-Thierry, and the Marine Brigade’s mission was to take back Belleau Wood, an ancient hunting ground half the size of New York’s Central Park.(3)

Baptism by Fire
Departing their camp near Paris and traveling by foot and truck for over 36 hours, the Marines arrived filthy and exhausted, falling in along the front near the villages of Champillon and Lucy-le-Bocage only a few kilometers north of the Metz-Paris Highway and the city of Chateau-Thierry. By the morning of 2 June 1918, despite poorly designed French maps issued in minimal quantities, most of the Marine Brigade reorganized along a northwest-running defensive line.(4) French troops were tied in on the brigade’s western flank and the Army’s 9th Infantry Regiment was tied in to their east. When oncoming Germans repulsed a French counter-offensive forward of Marine lines, retreating Frenchmen demanded the Marines withdraw with them. Capt Lloyd Williams, a company commander with 2/5 Mar, replied to a dispirited French major, “Retreat, Hell! We just got here.” The brigade, although untested in battle, was ready for action.(5)

On the afternoon of 3 June, the woods across from the Marines’ line finally came alive. Waves of German soldiers emerged from the tree lines and advanced through waist-high wheat fields toward the Marines. Some reports list 500 yards away, others say 300 yards away, but at some distance the Germans were not expecting, the Marines of 1/5 Mar and 2/5 Mar, lying prone with their 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles, began pouring precision rifle fire into the advancing enemy. While watching the onslaught, Col Catlin recalled, “The Boches fell by the score there among the wheat and the poppies … they didn’t break, they were broken.”(6) Marines and their rifles alone won the day in their first encounter with the enemy. Even nearby French units praised the Marines for their unmatched marksmanship. After three failed attacks on 3 June, the Germans limped back into Belleau Wood and began fortifying their front. The Marines rested and re-organized their lines over the next two days, preparing to clear out the woods when orders came.

At 2225 on 5 June, brigade headquarters issued orders for an assault, with zero hour set for 0345 on 6 June. Commanders now had only five hours to deliver the order to their men dispersed along the line, coordinate supporting arms, and ready their men. Despite the impossibility of the task word passed through the darkness, troops checked their equipment and readied their weapons, and platoons moved to their rendezvous points. The first objective would be Hill 142, a prominent terrain feature that commanded high ground a few hundred meters west of Belleau Wood. 1/5 Mar would spearhead the attack.

At 0345 only the 49th and 67th Companies were in position to begin the assault, and at 0350 whistle blasts signaled the weary yet eager Marines to begin the attack. Many veterans remember the initial waves moving toward Hill 142 as a textbook performance of an attack formation. The platoons attacked in lines of four, maintaining proper intervals, with French-made Chauchat light machineguns interspersed for suppressive fire. The parade-like formations, however, fell apart when German machineguns sprang to life. Withering fire from German Maxims and Mausers raked the approaching Marines, killing scores. Platoon formations quickly morphed into individual struggles for survival. Momentum stalled. Then small-unit leaders took charge. Only meters from machinegun emplacements, junior officers and noncommissioned officers rushed forward, inspiring their men to keep moving. One Marine lost a hand grabbing an enemy machinegun barrel. The enemy gun crew, however, suffered a worse fate at the hands of Marines with bayonets.

By noon on 6 June, 1/5 Mar had secured Hill 142 but at a cost of 16 officers and 544 Marines killed or wounded.(7) The Germans suffered far greater with an estimated 2,000 casualties. With the high ground overlooking Belleau Wood in American hands, the assault on the woods could begin.(8)

From just the first few days of the battle, we can take away several lessons:

  1. Forced Marches: When not enough vehicles were available for transportation, 1/5 Mar, and the 5th Machine Gun Battalion were forced to march with weapons and equipment to the front line.9 Rigorous training both stateside and in France prior to the battle prepared Marines to undergo these strenuous conditions and perform superbly. Although vehicles and aircraft are the norms for transportation today, commanders must still ensure that their units can move themselves and their equipment to distant objectives without those luxuries and still complete the mission.
  2. Marksmanship: During the initial encounter with the enemy on 3 June, marksmanship displayed by the Marines engaging targets out to 500 meters was far superior to French and German marksmanship during the war. Although mission sets change, the Marine Corps must continue to imbue marksmanship fundamentals to all Marines in both recruit training and the FMF, and commanders must make every effort to increase the accuracy and lethality of Marines under their charge. Get your Marines trigger time, that is always a good investment.
  3. Aggressive Execution: Poorly planned orders to secure Hill 142 gave subordinate commanders minimal time to plan and execute. Regardless, at zero hour, NCOs and junior officers were moving amongst the troops, getting them in order and inspiring them with their command presence and leadership. When chaos ensued, well-trained small-unit leaders made the difference in securing the objective. That legacy of sacrifice, determination, and leading from the front must continue to be instilled in all junior leaders throughout the Corps through rigorous training, effective promotion screening, and character development by their commanders and senior enlisted leaders.

Into the Woods
Brigade headquarters issued orders to clear out the entirety of Belleau Wood while the engagement on Hill 142 raged back and forth. Setting zero hour for 1700 that same day, 6 June, Gen Harbord, commander of the Marine Brigade and a career Army officer, issued Field Order Number Two, calling for a multi-pronged attack on the woods. 3/5 Mar would execute the main attack by striking the woods on its western front while 3/6 Mar would penetrate the woods at its southwest tip and clear the woods northward. Rotating on 3/6 Mar’s right flank, 2/6 Mar would protect 3/6 Mar’s flank and secure the village of Bouresches east of the woods.

Intelligence on enemy activity in Belleau Wood during the days leading up to the attack was limited. Various French air scouts reported observing enemy activity inside the woods, and division intelligence believed that the Germans were consolidating positions in the woods. Gen Harbord, however, believed the woods were either empty or occupied by only a small force to be easily captured. As a result, the brigade scheduled minimal artillery support for the attack, a decision that would prove disastrous.(10)

At 1700 on 6 June 1918, the attack on Belleau Wood commenced. Leaving the safety of their lines, the attacking battalions proceeded through waist-high wheat fields toward their objectives in the dark, looming tree line. 3/5 Mar, the northernmost unit, had the most exposed approach to the woods.(11) 3/6 Mar, to the south, fared somewhat better with trees and terrain shielding their approach.

Spread out on-line in four different waves, 3/5 Mar’s Marines were several hundred yards from the woods when German machineguns ripped into their front and flanks. Marines fell by the dozens. Casualties mounted. Lieutenants abruptly found themselves in command of rifle companies, sergeants suddenly commanded platoons, and privates now led squads. Col Catlin, commander of 6th Mar, was observing his regiment’s progress when a German bullet smashed into his chest, rendering him unable to continue command. Maj Benjamin Berry, 3/5 Mar’s battalion commander, lost most of his right arm in the attack but remained with the battalion until forced to evacuate. 3/6 Mar, fighting to the south, gained a foothold on the southern edge of the woods but not before sustaining heavy casualties from devastating enemy machinegun and rifle fire.

Around 2100 on 6 June, Berry’s battered Marines of 3/5 Mar, having failed to gain a foothold in the woods, withdrew back to their lines. 3/6 Mar, also decimated by machinegun fire and low on ammunition, held only a sliver of Belleau Wood’s southwestern leg. 2/6 Mar, east of the woods, fared the best. Having gained a foothold in the village of Bouresches, 2/6 Mar would hold the village to the battle’s end.

The fighting on 6 June proved to be one of the costliest days for the Marine Corps in all its history. That day alone, the Marine Brigade lost 31 officers and 1,056 enlisted men.(12) Although the fighting spirit among the Marines was strong, valor and aggressiveness could go only so far against machineguns and artillery. The Marines would need the next few days to filter in replacements, resupply ammunition and equipment, and better coordinate their supporting arms.

The Brigade’s actions on 6 June reveal countless lessons worthy of review:

  1. Reconnaissance/Intelligence: Division intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were fortifying the woods. Any legitimate reconnaissance mission into the woods would have revealed significant enemy troop activity and the numerous machinegun emplacements. With these obstacles identified, the brigade could have ordered attacks at weaker points or utilized greater supporting arms to suppress enemy strong points. Commanders have a responsibility to get eyes on the objective whenever possible.
  2. Synchronization and the Use of Supporting Arms: Gen Harbord’s belief that the woods were lightly occupied caused him to forgo the extensive use of integrated artillery fire to soften enemy strong points. Further, the use and positioning of machineguns by the 5th and 6th Machine Gun Battalions failed to effectively suppress enemy machineguns and strong points in support of maneuver elements. Although speed and tempo are always factors in an operation, commanders must make every effort to fight the enemy using combined arms.
  3. Commander’s Intent and Mission Accomplishment: The capture of the village Bouresches east of Belleau Wood is a superb example of small-unit leaders understanding the commander’s intent and utilizing their own initiative, ingenuity, and resourcefulness to seize the objective. The first unit to enter the village was a platoon of Marines led by 2ndLt Clifton Cates, the future Commandant, whose report to higher, “I have no one on my left and only a few on my right. I will hold,” reflected the grit of those junior leaders committed to accomplishing the mission. Commander’s intent means something; it gives subordinates clarity in chaos and decision-making ease in situations of strained communication.

Hard Fought Victory
On 8 June, only two days after the bloody lessons of the 6th, Maj Berton Sibley’s 3/6 Mar continued its assault into the southern leg of the woods until casualties and overwhelming enemy fire checked their advance. Gen Harbord, realizing the full strength of the German presence in the woods, finally made complete use of his artillery. Throughout the night of 9 June and into the morning of 10 June, allied batteries fired over 34,000 shells into the square-mile patch of woods.(13)

Attacking northward behind the rolling artillery barrage, 1/6 Mar relieved 3/6 Mar and finally captured the southern edge of the woods. On 11 June, 2/5 Mar braved devastating machinegun fire and crossed the same wheat field where 3/5 Mar was bloodied and repulsed four days earlier. Harbord’s artillery preparation had reduced German strong points, allowing 2/5 Mar to penetrate the woods on its western front. After four grueling days fighting inside the woods, LtCol Frederick Wise and the Marines of 2/5 Mar had captured over 300 German prisoners, dozens of machineguns, and the southern half of the Belleau Wood.(14)

German resistance was far from over, however. As the Marine Brigade consolidated its gains in the southern half of the woods, the Germans responded with precise artillery fire, wreaking havoc with high explosive and mustard gas shells. Yet, in the chaos heroes emerged. GySgt Fred Stockham, of 2/6 Mar’s 96th Company, seeing a wounded Marine in need of a gas mask, removed his own and gave it to the man. Saving the Marine’s life, GySgt Stockham eventually succumbed to exposure and died several days later. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

After 10 days of intense combat, near constant artillery barrages, machinegun fire/and poison gas, Gen Harbord pulled the crippled Marine Brigade off the line. On 18 June, the Army’s 7th Infantry Regiment replaced the beleaguered Marines and spent a week trying to take the northern sector of Belleau Wood. Poorly trained and untried, the Doughboys fared terribly, and by 23 June the Marine Brigade was sent back in to finish the job. On 26 June elements of 3/5 Mar cleared the northern edge of the woods of all German resistance. Maj Maurice Shearer, 3/5 Mar’s battalion commander, passed up to brigade the famous message “Woods now United States Marine Corps entirely.”(15) The Battle for Belleau Wood was over, but the legend had just begun.

Final lessons drawn from the Battle of Belleau Wood:

  1. Quality over Quantity: The quality of officers and enlistees in the Marine Corps during World War I was far above average for the Services with 60 percent of enlisted men having completed some college.16 While the Army’s standards were lowered, the Marine Corps accepted only 60,000 out of almost 240,000 applicants, looking for candidates with high moral character, athletic abilities, and patriotism. Despite today’s recruiting challenges, the Marine Corps must keep the standard high. As 21st-century missions become more complex only the best and the brightest will allow our units to adapt, improvise and overcome, like our forefathers at Belleau Wood.
  2. Combat Arms: In 1918, the Marine Corps consisted predominantly of infantrymen, engineers, artillerymen, and machinegunners. Mission requirements today have changed those ratios, but the Corps should be careful in trimming its combat-arms element. Future conflicts have highlighted the need for increased numbers of cyber specialists, intelligence analysts, and other enablers, but near-peer threats will require troops on the ground using direct and indirect fire weapons to secure physical objectives. That will never change. Should we be worried about having enough Marines to staff the finance center or enough of the right Marines to hold the line when the enemy presses an attack? The Corps cannot lose its fighting edge.
  3. Recruit Training: Col Catlin claimed tactics employed by Marines were no different from the Army’s during World War I. What made the Marine Corps stand apart, he said, was the esprit and pride imbued in all Marines during recruit training.17 From that pride flowed discipline, gallantry, grit, self-sacrifice, esprit de corps, and determination to accomplish the mission, all of which were poured out in that small patch of woods. Leaders have an obligation to sustain in their Marines those same ideals instilled at Parris Island, San Diego, or Quantico by use of challenging and purposeful training, exemplary leadership, professional education, and historical study and emphasis. Leaders often fail to challenge their Marines after their completion of entry-level training or formal schools. They joined for a challenge; it is our job to deliver it.
  4. Service Above Self: Army GEN Matthew Ridgeway later cited Belleau Wood as a “prize example of men’s lives being thrown away against objectives not worth the cost.”18 We now know that the battle had a significant effect on halting the German’s advance, yet poor tactics and misuse of combined arms did cost excess lives. What carried much of the battle was individual and unit discipline, the ability of each Marine to subjugate their own personal interests and desires for the good of the unit and the mission. Ever present at Belleau Wood, the concept of service above oneself has almost all but escaped our society and is inching its way out of our Corps. Our Nation’s trending obsession over personal liberties and social movements in place of service to a greater good is eroding the patriotism and selfless service that have long been hallmarks of the American experience. Leaders at every level must curb this overt narcissism by fostering cohesion and esprit in their units. We are Marines first. The Marine Brigade was ordered to attack and, drawing on the discipline and selflessness of Marines at every level, unhesitatingly carried out the mission and captured Belleau Wood.


1. Albertus W. Catlin, With the Help of God and a Few Marines (Nashville: The Battery Press, 2004).

2. George B. Clark, The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I: Battalion Histories Based on Official Documents (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2015).

3. Robert Coram, Brute (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010).

4. Alan Axelrod, Miracle at Belleau Wood (Guilford, CT: Lyon Press, 2007).

5. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

6. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

7. With the Help of God and a Few Marines.

8. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

9. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

10. With the Help of God and a Few Marines.

11. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

12. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

13. Michael A. Eggleston, The 5th Marine Regiment Devil Dogs in World War I: A History and Roster (Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2016).

14. Miracle at Belleau Wood.

15. The 5th Marine Regiment Devil Dogs in World War I.

16. The Fourth Marine Brigade in World War I.

17. With the Help of God and a Few Marines.

18. Ibid.