THE DEVIL DOGS AT BELLEAU WOOD: U.S. Marines in World War I.
Not one World War I Marine veteran remains; they have all passed into history. But Dick Camp does his part to honor those men and their fearless fighting spirit in “The Devil Dogs at Belleau Wood: U.S. Marines in World War I,” an account of the Marine Corps’ first test of fierce combat in a protracted, foreign war.
The stories that have been retold over the decades regarding the Marines at Belleau Wood are legendary. But it is important that the lessons and the importance of World War I be made clear, for it was then that a very young Marine Corps entered the world stage and was considered not only a viable, but an indispensable fighting force.
Camp’s approach to the Belleau Wood chapter in history is sound in research and electrifying in its portrayal. His background as a retired Marine colonel and as the author of other well-acclaimed books on the Marine Corps’ history provide him with the perspective to retell, and in some cases, disclose, a great deal about one of the more storied campaigns in Marine Corps lore.
Belleau Wood has always encapsulated the resolve of Marines in combat, but now, thanks to Camp, the story is a bit more focused, slightly more intense, and certainly more respected. Belleau Wood is synonymous with Iwo Jima, Tarawa, the Chosin Reservoir, the Battle of Hue City, and now Fallujah, among many other battles in leatherneck history. But Belleau Wood is arguably the most important, not merely because it was the first demonstration of tenacity in combat, but because this was a Marine Corps that had yet to be tested, that could have followed the lead of European forces in the face of destruction and literally retreated.
Camp does an excellent job of depicting the sheer brutality of combat. His descriptive language allows the reader to fully comprehend the macabre face of death. While other WW I classics like Erich Maria Remarque’s fictional novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” have depicted combat at its worst, Camp’s work does so, but in a tightly packaged and spirited portrayal that benefits from numerous photographs, maps and quotes from the men who were there.
In Camp’s work one witnesses a young Lemuel Shepherd in action, a youthful Colonel Wendell “Buck” Neville, along with Captain Lloyd Williams (posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and who, Camp confirms, was the Marine who uttered the now legendary phrase: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” when he was ordered to retreat by a French officer in the face of incoming fire), Major Berton W. Sibley and Second Lieutenant Clifton B. Cates, all of whom are remembered by future generations as exemplary warfighting Marines.
The recently unearthed photographs and sketches used by the author make this an unparalleled resource. Camp also includes a number of secondary sources to supplement his findings. In addition, his inclusion of letters, of firsthand sources portraying the vernacular of the day, are subtle additions to the book.
In all, the book reaffirms the tradition of the Marine Corps set some nine decades ago. The Germans are quoted: “The Marines [do] not understand this ‘live and let live’ attitude exuded by the French, they simply wanted to ‘kill Germans.’ ” Said a frustrated French officer at the time, “They were irrepressible! They climbed like cats into the highest trees ‘to kill the Boche’ … and began to fire on the enemy sentries or on the German platoons running between the first and second line of trenches.”
Dick Camp’s work on Belleau Wood serves as a blueprint for the Marine spirit, still active today in fields of combat in different parts of the world. The Belleau Wood experience encompasses what was one of the worst experiences of war known to man, but in such tragedy shines an example of valor and of a spirit of survival. The will to defend, to protect, to fight for the good things in life is what the Marines who survived learned in 1918.
Indeed, as Camp states, Belleau Wood became “synonymous with self-sacrifice and a reference point by which to judge all events,” not only in the lives of the surviving Marines, but in all our lives.