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Saturday, June 29, 2013

18+ Days in AEF's Footsteps, Day 6: Belleau Wood battleground, Retreat? Hell, we just got here!

Memorial Plaque in center of Belleau Wood display of captured German armaments
"Retreat? Hell, we just got here!"

This famous American  response to an order to fall back was offered up at Belleau Wood by a Marine leading his men through this dense forest. Defended by combat-hardened Germans armed with machine guns, the terrain rolls and pitches.

While it is never my intent to recount military battles as I leave that to the experts on strategy, I will tell you that to go to Belleau Wood is to once again see landscape that clarifies a battle's necessity and to understand why so many soldiers...or in this case, Marines and Germans died in this particular battle.

We entered the woods through the entrance to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, often called Belleau Wood Cemetery. (The Aisne-Marne Campaign, so named for the rivers the AEF sought to capture control of, comprises a number of battles including that for Chateau-Thierry, a town a few miles away.)

Captured armaments
Here in this clearing with this memorial are a number of armaments, all German, all captured by the Americans, Marines and Army soldiers. The array of cannon and more is impressive. Other elements of the woods explain much of the battle.

The woods, I will tell you, are very dense. Even on the sunny and humid spring day that we were there, we could not see through the foliage. To fight here must have been an enormously difficult task for both armies.

We walked the pathways into the forest and at every step, you see foxholes, machine gun dugouts and trenches. One hundred years later it is and you marvel that men fought in these conditions.

Bullets remain in the trees.

Today, flowers bloom in the forest. They did before the battle, too. Many men note that in their memoirs. So do nurses. All contrast the beauty of the flowers with the devastation that occurred among the blossoms.

Along this hillside beneath the blue wild lilies, you see the remains of a trench.
At the edge of the forest, you come to a large wheat field. Here, in knee-high growth, the Marines and the Army soldiers advanced with only barrage for cover. The enormous courage a man must have summoned to to charge this field is much beyond my ability to imagine.
Looking toward Lucy Bocage from where the Americans advanced into the wood where this picture was taken.
Do return for the next post, a look at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery in Belleau Wood.

Finally, for those of you who prefer a video with solid historical synopsis and terrific original film footage, I recommend you go here to the Military Channel: There are quite a few short films here, but one on the Battle for Belleau Wood.

(I will say one element of this monologue I did take issue with: The moderator claims this is the first battle of which the Germans remarked on Americans' tenacity. Hence the German name for the Marines who captured this wood: Teufel Hunden. Devil Dogs. Actually, it was the battle of Cantigny in which the First Division took that village where the Germans realized that the Americans might truly have the right stuff to wage significant warfare.)

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