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Was Belleau Wood "Magnificent But Not War"?  

A NEEDLESS SACRIFICE, glorious as it was — such now that it can be told, is the military judgment of Maj. Gen. Joseph T. Dickman, who commanded the Third Army in France. A veteran of many campaigns and a highly decorated alumnus of the World War, General Dickman has written a book, “The Great Crusade” (Appleton): and as General Pershing has furnished a friendly and approving foreword for it, one may conclude that what the author has to say about Belleau Wood, and other war matters, will be generally interpreted as an expression of prevailing military opinion in America. It was a French commander in Crimea who witnessing the British “Charge of the Light Brigade” which was to inspire Tennyson’s poem of that title, exclaimed: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”; and General Dickman amplifies that phrase as the most fitting comment on the famous capture of Belleau Wood by American troops, at the insistence of the French command. This is the way he puts it — and the italicized emphasis is his own:

“It was magnificent fighting, but not war.”

And a little later he declares — again in italics:

“Belleau Wood was glorious, but an unnecessary sacrifice.”

Reviewing the military situation which paved the way for that feat of American arms, General Dickman reminds us that on May 31, 1918, our Second Division, which had been in reserve northwest of Paris, was shifted by two hurried stages to Montreuil-aux-Lions, which it reached on the following day. There, about ten miles west of Chateau-Thierry, it found itself attached to the 26th Corps of the Sixth French Army; and the General remarks that the arrival of the division was “most opportune”, inasmuch as it “stopped the disorganized retreat of the French troops”. Here General Dickman quotes the Corps Commander as having stated on June 2:

“Thanks to the arrival of the Second Division, U.S., it has been possible to support the entire front of the Corps with a solid line, occupied from now on by American regiments.”

Continuing his historical record the author sets it down that, on the evening of the day after the above words were written, the German drove forward, taking Belleau Wood and contiguous points; and three days later their line stretched “from Essomes on the Marne, along the … southern edge of Belleau Wood, and over Hill 142, south of Torey.” Extended along the section of the front were the American troops under General Bundy, and “the French troops when forced back passed through the American lines. reorganized, and for a time acted as a reserve”.

And here General Dickman explains:

The German drive being pretty well spent, the lines ordinarily would have become stabilized in these positions; but the French Generals, whose troops had just been rescued from a disastrous retreat, were not satisfied with the stopping of the enemy’s advance on Paris, but immediately pushed the American troops, who had never been in battle before,  into a series of offensive operations in a difficult and unfamiliar country, against a victorious enemy — this in spite of instructions from higher authority to be saving with their infantry forces.

General Michael, whose command, the Forty-Third French Division, had been forced out of Belleau Wood on the third of June, had a plan for the immediate recapture of the ground lost; but he was induced to forego this honour, and by orders of the Corps Commander the job was turned over to the Second Division, to be undertaken after the preliminary capture of Hill 142 to the west.

Here General Dickman pauses to tell us what Belleau Wood is like, and of what small importance it was in military sense. He depicts it as hill country, wooded and very rough, not commanding any vital communications, not especially desirable as part of the Allied line; but, on the other hand, strongly defended by the Germans — in fact, “one huge machine-gun nest”. Such was the hornet’s nest, three miles in extent and “of no strategical importance whatever”, into which the green American troops were now sent — with what sanguinary sacrifice and with what splendid accomplishment, during three weeks of intermittent fighting, history is not backward in acknowledging. The irony of warfare is indicated by General Dickman’s argument that, without that sacrifice, Belleau Wood would undoubtedly have been abandoned by the enemy a few weeks later, without a struggle, when the vast Allied counter-offensive at Soissons made it impossible for them to maintain the tip of the Chateau-Thierry salient. Culminating on June 26, when the Brigade of Marines under General James G. Harbord furnished the finishing stroke to the taking of Belleau Wood, that exploit is credited by the author with having demonstrated certain things which needed no demonstration — to wit, “that American Regulars would obey orders, no matter how difficult the undertaking, and that they were sturdy fighters who did not shrink from sacrifices.” But such sacrifices as they made for “these minor successes” he brands as “excessive”. Thus:

There were 9,412 casualties, of whom 1,862 were killed. The losses of the marines were considerably more than one-half of what they suffered during the rest of the entire war — and they took a prominent part in every major operation. The severity of the fighting may be judged by the fact that one American brigade had to be withdrawn for about a week for recuperation and incorporation of replacements.

After formulating his “magnificent fighting but not modern war” apothem, general Dickman sums up the case in these terms:

To persist in an unnecessary attack simply because it is difficult, and to pile up reserves in repeated assaults, is very erroneous tactics. The French generals, with more than three years of war experience, must have known better; it was, in fact, contrary to the instructions of Generals Foch and Petain on the use of troops in battle … To quote from General Hunter Liggett, page 37 of his book:

“The attack made by the First American Corps on July 18 was successful, moving in accordance with the general plan, keeping an alignment with the advance made further north and pivoting on Bouresches. From the very beginning of the fighting all commanders were warned about the futility of making the front lines too heavy, and all were enjoined to attack machine-gun by envelopment, and never directly.”

The Literary Digest, May 14, 1927

Taken from War History Online, December 2013.

January, 2014.