To the northwest of Château-Thierry, along the edges of the great German drive on Paris, was Belleau Wood, a forest in which the Germans had established nest after nest of machine guns in a jungle of matted underbrush of vines and heavy foliage. They had placed themselves in positions which they did not believe could be captured. But unless they could be driven from Belleau Wood the success of Château-Thierry would be unavailing. There would come another drive and another from this wood protecting the German flank. Once in Allied hands, the Germans would be forced to retreat from Château-Thierry. On June 6, therefore, the marines began a tremendous assault upon the wood and the towns near it. The method was a rush, a halt, and a rush again by four lines of men some distance apart, the men in the rear lines taking the places of those who fell in the front ranks.
"Men fell like flies," wrote an officer from the field; companies dwindled away; but the attack did not falter. The fighting was literally of the sort for which the Americans first became famous in the American Revolution. It was fighting from tree to tree, from bowlder to bowlder. The, wood was so thick and so strewn with rocks behind each of which was a German machine gun that it was impossible for the artillery to wipe out all those nests. It could be done only by the bayonet, by a desperate charge, and the marines, bare chested, shouting their battle cry, "E-yah-yip," charged straight into the murderous fight—and won. In more than one case only one man reached the machine gun, but with his bayonet as his only weapon he killed or captured the defenders, swung about the gun and turned it upon the German positions. In some cases, some Westerner accustomed to a six-shooter at close quarters killed half a dozen Germans while they were thinking about getting out their revolvers. Such feats are not uncommon in the United States but were not understood by the Germans or provided for in Kultur.
German machine gun nest of concrete concealed by trees and underbrush from aeroplane observation.
Day and night the fighting went on without relief, without sleep, often without water. For six days they were without hot food, but still the marines hung on. Their doggedness was extraordinary. Time after time the officers thought the limit had been reached. They saw their men falling asleep under shell fire, saw them fight on after they had been wounded, and until they had dropped unconscious. But the word kept coming that the lines must hold, and, if possible, that the lines must attack. So without water, without food, without rest they went forward. Regiments were reduced to the size of companies, companies became platoons, sometimes with no more than a sergeant or a corporal to lead them. After thirteen days of this extraordinary attack, a captured German officer told of a fresh advance of Germany's finest troops who were to be thrown into the struggle.
There was no help coming for the Americans and men who had fought on their nerve alone for days fought on it still, with their backs to trees and bowlders or their sole shelter the ruins of villages. Time after time the officers sent back such messages as this: "Loss heavy; difficult to get runners through; morale excellent but troops about all in; men exhausted." Exhausted, but holding on! And they continued to hold on in spite of all the Germans could do. Day by day their lines slowly advanced and then on June 24 began the final struggle. The artillery barrage literally tore the woods to pieces, but even its intensity could not clear them. With the bayonet it was finally done and on July 6 the marines were relieved and handed over the hard-won position to British troops.
Once more the Americans had proved the extraordinary quality of their work. They had demonstrated themselves the equals of the best French and British troops, the superiors of the Kaiser's crack regiments who had been pitted against them. We know now that some of the finest troops of the German army had been sent against the Americans in order to make it impossible that they should win their first action. The Germans well knew that the moral effect upon the French and British oft an American failure might be of real importance to them, but the Americans again proved themselves the better men.