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, in June 1918, was one of the first engagements of the First World War in which American troops participated. The arrival of US troops on European soil marked the culmination of a journey from American neutrality to combat readiness and participation in a war far from home. The experience had a marked effect on the men who fought and the nation as a whole.
A battle that looms large in the American memory
Three factors combine to make the Battle of Belleau Wood a significant event in the American memory.
Even though we historians know today that the Germans did not actually have Paris as a goal of their Spring Offensive, it’s easy to look at a map and see that they were progressively getting closer and closer. The point that they come the closest to Paris is Château-Thierry, and just about five miles away is Belleau Wood. So one interpretation would be to say that the Americans were on the road that blocked their advance to Paris.
The second factor is, the notion of American courage and American bravery, which is undoubtedly there at Belleau Wood. Americans are fighting a tenacious battle inside a forest, which is a very, very difficult thing to do.
And then the third, and I think maybe the most important, is the media coverage that the battle received, both afterwards and during the event by a couple of very famous war correspondents who were there. The battle appeared on the front pages of newspapers across America, with articles highlighting the pivotal role it played. Crucial to the widespread coverage was the Marine Corps’ decision not to censor battle reports that were coming out of the Western Front in the same way that the Army did. So the battle represents a perfect storm of history, not quite a mythology, but a story that the Marine Corps wanted to tell.
Lessons learned for the American military
On the battlefield, Belleau Wood marked the beginning of a scientific approach to warfare for the Americans. From the beginning of the battle to the end of the battle, the Americans moved from an infantry-centric approach to a much more technological and scientific focus, which is the way the American military thinks of warfare today and what American doctrine is about today.
At a higher level, the battle marked the beginning of an understanding that separating out the political dimension to be done by politicians and the military dimension to be done by soldiers, is too neat a division. This is absolutely critical. The politicians have to be better informed about military matters, and the military has to be better informed about political matters.
By the time you get to the Second World War, there are senior officers like George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower who are very much thinking about what we call here the strategic level, which is where politics and the military intersect. Admiral Leahy begins during World War II the job of what we would now call the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, somebody whose job is to coordinate that flow of information up and down.
Another important story that is not particularly well covered is that of industrial resourcing. In the lead up to the First World War, the United States actually did a pretty poor job of preparing its industrial base in the event that the United States should get involved in the war. There are difficulties in the 1930s with this as well. However, in the 1930s, the ideas and the planning are all in place. So when the Second World War begins, the United States can begin this process much more quickly.
The Americans also learn important lessons about working with other nations in wartime. They are the uncomfortable junior partner in the First World War. President Wilson hesitated to use the term alliance, he described the United States as an Associated Power to the European Alliance. During the Second World War the Americans were able to form a better inter-allied partnership.
A turning point in the history of Europe
Belleau Wood was the beginning of American involvement in European affairs on the battlefield. The real debate about this time period is, once America wins the war, what then do they do? And that’s a question that the Americans don’t have a consensus answer on. But there is a sense that they are embarking on something extraordinary. This is the first time American combat troops fight in Europe. When President Wilson comes to Paris in January of 1919, it’s the first time an American president has left the United States during his term of office.
Something is clearly beginning to shift. What exactly this means, what the Americans are going to do, is an open question. Coupled with what’s happening on the other side of Europe with the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, with hindsight, it’s easy to see 1917, 1918, as a real turning point in the history of Europe.