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 Battle of Belleau Wood took place in June 1918, during the German Spring Offensive. The Allied contingent was made up of the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions and included a brigade of the Marine Corps.
An elite fighting force
The United States Marine Corps will tell you that the Battle of Belleau Wood was the beginning of what the Marine Corps would become. That was the battle that defined the Marines as something independent from the U.S. Army, as an elite fighting force. The kind of fighting spirit that the Marines are now so well-known for in the United States was established there.
Retreat, Hell. We just got here!
Central to the Marines’ telling of the battle is one very famous quote. The story goes that the Americans arrived on the battlefield just as a French unit was withdrawing. An American captain named Lloyd Williams of the 5th Marine Regiment, is supposed to have screamed, “Retreat, Hell. We just got here.”
This encapsulates the fighting spirit of the Americans in 1918, that to the American eyes was utterly lacking in the French troops on their right and on their left. It is important to state that the French soldiers were not attacking in the same gung-ho fashion as the Americans because they had seen the human cost. And indeed, the Marines suffered heavy casualties during the battle. Williams himself was later injured and then killed in a shell blast while being evacuated.
We have no way of knowing if the story is true. But with the Marines that I’ve worked with and the Marines that I’ve known, I don’t want to doubt it. It’s one of those stories I want to believe is true, along with a Marine Corps sergeant, who is supposed to have screamed, “You sons of bitches want to live forever.”
These expressions capture that fighting ethos of the United States Marine Corps, that desire to identify themselves as different from the Army to which they were subordinated at this battle. It completely encapsulates the spirit, the zeitgeist of a moment.
Eleanor Roosevelt, said of the Marines:
“The Marines are the most ill-mannered, ill-behaved people on earth. Thank God they’re on our side.”
And that’s certainly how I feel about them.