This article is an edited transcript of The Battle of Belleau Wood – Michael Neiberg on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 9 June 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
The United States entered the First World War in 1917. When the war began, President Wilson declared the country’s neutrality. But Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic and the aggressive intent contained within the Zimmermann Telegram turned public and political opinion in the US around. After their declaration of war, it was then a race against time to get the armed forces, and the country, ready.
The American Army’s first large-scale action came at the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918.
How prepared were the first US troops arriving in France?
American soldiers were not battle prepared at all. Most American troops had very little military experience at all. They had volunteered or had been drafted since April 1917 with the American declaration of war. There was a very small core of professional regulars who were there to teach troops new tactics and new ways of thinking. But John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, wanted American troops doing fire and manoeuvre tactics. He wanted infantrymen moving, he didn’t want them in trenches. He wanted them moving with their rifles, he wanted them shooting from the hip, he wanted them constantly attacking. Yet these were tactics that had failed on the Western Front from 1914 to 1917. French, British and German forces had moved to a much more scientific, much more industrial approach. The Americans have to adapt to this new way of fighting. They’ll do it at Belleau Wood. They’ll do it at Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battles that follow. But in the early stages, they’re very much following a very reckless, very courageous, very offensive-minded way of fighting war.
How did the fighting style of the Americans differ from the Allies?
The American forces fought in a more aggressive style. You can use the adjective courageous or you can use the adjective reckless, depending on one’s point of view. Americans, in this early phase of their participation in the First World War, didn’t fight the way that the French did. The French were fighting a much more methodical, much more industrial war with the heavy use of artillery and heavy use of gas. American battle tactics at this early stage were much more centred around individual riflemen and infantry tactics.
How was the American Army equipped?
In the spring of 1918, when the German Spring Offensive began and it looked like the Allies could potentially lose the war, an agreement was made between the Allies called the Abbeville Agreement. The Americans agree that their contribution will be primarily to ship infantry. The British agree to provide the ships to get the Americans over, and French industry does a remarkable job of supplying not only its own army but supplying the Americans as well. That is why, when you look at photographs of American soldiers in the First World War, they’re very often wearing French helmets. They’re using French telephones, they’re firing French machine guns. They’re using French artillery pieces. Aeroplanes are interesting because they are American engines and French air frames. That is an interesting and not well told part of this story. This situation will change as the Americans begin to ramp up their own production. But at the time of Belleau Wood and for a time after too, the Americans are shipping almost exclusively infantry. They’re doing it at the rate of tens of thousands of men a week, which makes it very difficult now for the Germans to win the war.
What lessons did the Americans learn from the Battle of Belleau Wood?
Belleau Wood is largely an infantryman’s fight. It’s largely a small unit fight in a forest, which means that liaison between units is very difficult to accomplish. It’s hard to do what is called a combined arms or a set piece battle, where all of the various weapons are being used in concert. At Belleau Wood, there are French units on the right and left. In the middle of July, at the battle of the Marne, the Allies are coordinating an army that is part British, part French, part American, part Italian, with Senegalese and colonial troops in the French army, Indo Chinese labourers. It is an unbelievably difficult thing to orchestrate.
The Americans learn from watching the French that it doesn’t really matter whether you take a piece of territory in one day, two days, three days, four days. What really matters is that you take that piece of ground at an acceptable cost to yourself, while inflicting a heavy cost on the enemy. That’s really the essence of what set piece battles are designed to do.
One of the unusual consequences of this is that from about July 1918 to the end of the war, we don’t see large decisive battles like Verdun and the Somme. The Allies have decided they’re just not worth fighting anymore. That’s a lesson that the Americans eventually come to learn as well.