Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force
Woodrow Wilson passed over several senior Army officers to appoint General John “Blackjack” Pershing commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Characterized by a ramrod bearing, steely eyes, and a trim mustache, Pershing served with distinction in the Spanish-American War at San Juan Hill and later at the Philippines. He was a courageous leader and a tireless organizer, but he could also be cold and distant, a trait that grew more pronounced after the death of his wife and three of his four children in a San Francisco fire in 1915. In the European theater, Pershing proved to be an excellent commander, playing his part without peer, and by July 1918 he had more than one million American “doughboys” in France.
Pershing refused to integrate his armies with those of France and England, instead demanding his own sector on the front, and in September the AEF launched a stunning one-day offensive against the Germans at St. Mihiel. Later, American forces participated in a much larger Allied offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region of northern France, the last major assault of the war and one of the most costly and fiercely fought battles in American history. Read the following first-hand account of American actions in that offensive and proceed to the exercise.
Colonel Frederick Wise, Description of Battle for Belleau Wood
Credit: National Archives and Records Administration
Just past noon, a runner came up the road with orders from Colonel Neville. We were to proceed to the northeast edge of the woods, which were northwest of Lucy-le-Bocage, and await orders.
By two o’clock that afternoon we were under way, going across open fields. High in the air I saw several German sausages (observation balloons). I knew those woods were going to catch hell shortly. In about an hour we were newly established on their edge. This time I had the men scatter well among the trees. I warned them especially against bunching up. We settled down again to wait for orders.
Along toward ten o’clock that night the German shelling started. They gave those woods hell. The Germans were pouring everything they had into that ridge. It didn’t take any urging for the Marines to get into fox holes the minute they knew we were going to hold it. But though the Germans didn’t launch any infantry attack, they kept up a continuous shelling with all the artillery in range, and poured an unceasing stream of machine-gun and rifle fire against that ridge. Everywhere up and down the line, masses of earth, chunks of rock, splinters of trees, leaped into the air as the shells exploded. Machine-gun and rifle bullets thudded into the earth unendingly. That place was getting warm.
Clinging to the crest of that ridge, we found the German shells bad enough. But there was worse to come. They had trench mortars in the Bois de Belleau, and presently they began to cut loose on us with them. Those aerial torpedoes, nearly four feet long, packed with T.N.T., would come sailing through the air and land on the ridge. That whole ridge literally shook every time one of them exploded.
Credit: National Archives and Records Administration
All that day the bombardment kept up. It was the most terrific fire I had ever experienced. At night it slackened somewhat, only to resume the next morning. It kept up all next day. Some gas shells fell, too, but the gas wasn’t bad enough to make us put on our masks. Why the Germans didn’t attack and break through that line of ours I never will be able to understand. All that second day we took the shelling in our faces and held the line. That night, thank God, it slackened again.
From where we sat we could see the ground where the attack was to be formed, and they’d have plenty of time to explain to the junior officers and men exactly what was to be done. The whole thing depended on getting across the Lucy-Torcy road before daybreak and making a rapid advance to the northern edge of the woods. The First Battalion was to relieve us at midnight. I had seen Major Turrill about it personally, so that the relief would be made rapidly and without noise.
Late that afternoon . . . I also went over and saw Major John A. Hughes, commanding the First Battalion of the Sixth Marines, who had made the last attack on the southern edge of Bois de Belleau and was still holding it. Major Hughes confirmed my idea that it was almost an impossible task to take that position by frontal attack. He told me a lot, too, about what the German defenses were. In that clump of woods covering a knoll a mile long and a half mile wide, rising sharply from the fields that surrounded it, was an outcrop of huge boulders cut with gullies and ravines, and with underbrush so thick in it that men could pass a few feet from each other, unseen. In that tangle were machine-guns camouflaged behind brush heaps and woodpiles, in back of boulders and in shell proof pits under boulders. Snipers on the ground and in the tree tops. Picked German veterans who were fighting desperately.
I went back to the ridge after my talk with him, thankful that I had a free hand and could hit them from the rear instead of having to make a frontal attack.” “Night came on. I sat there under the trees, going over all the details in my mind, waiting for four A.M. to come.
Through the dark a runner showed up, asking for me. “A message, sir,” he said, when I called to him. I looked at my wrist watch. Midnight. Four hours more to wait. I unfolded the message he handed me, crouched down, and turned the light of my electric torch on the paper. I read those typewritten lines. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was an attack order.
My battalion was ordered to attack the Bois de Belleau from the Southern Edge at four o’clock that morning, behind a rolling barrage. It was signed “Harbord.” I was dumfounded. All my plans were up in the air. I knew that piece of paper I held in my hand meant the needless death of most of my battalion. “The plans have been changed,” I [had to tell my subordinates].
[Later] I stood there under some trees by a ditch on the southern edge of the Bois de Belleau, and in the growing light watched my battalion march into position. It was getting lighter every minute. Suddenly the barrage dropped, several hundred yards in front of our lines. . . Amid the explosions of the bursting shells we could hear the German machine guns in the woods come to life. They couldn’t see us yet, but they knew from the barrage that the attack was coming.”
“The barrage lifted and crawled ahead. The whistles of our platoon leaders sounded up and down the line. The battalion rose to its feet. Bayonets fixed, rifles at the ready, the men started their slow advance.
I stood there watching them go forward. The Germans could see us now. They had the range. Here and there men were dropping. But the line went steadily on. The Germans couldn’t have had better targets if they had ordered the attack themselves. The barrage kept crawling on. About two hundred and fifty yards behind it the battalion went on, men dropping, men dropping, men dropping. Yard by yard they advanced. Minutes after, I saw them disappear into the woods. Those woods seemed to have swallowed up the barrage without an effort. Now they swallowed up the battalion.
As the Marines vanished into the undergrowth beneath the trees, the German machine-gun fire slackened. The detonations of the barrage had ceased. Across those fields from the woods I could distinguish machine-gun fire, rifle fire. A sudden ripping burst of machine-gun fire would break out. That meant the Marines were advancing on a nest. It would die down. That meant the nest was taken. Back across that open field wounded men began crawling to the rear. There was a dressing station at Lucy, about a mile away.
Company runners began to come back out of the woods with reports. Messages hastily scrawled in pencil. This objective attained. That objective attained. Heavy casualties. Prisoners commenced to come back. Convoys of twenty, thirty, fifty Germans, herded along by some single Marine – generally a wounded one at that.
From time to time company runners kept coming out of the woods with reports of objectives gained and held, about mid-afternoon I figured it was time for me to go and take a look-see. I left Legendre at the P.C., took Coutra with me, and went over to the edge of the woods. There were paths I could follow through the undergrowth.
Just inside the edge of the woods I came upon one of those German machine-guns camouflaged behind a brush pile. Dead Marines lay in front of it. Dead Germans lay about it. A strange silence held in the woods. The youngster in command told me of the terrific fighting they’d had. Foot by foot they had pushed their way through the underbrush in the face of a continuous machine-gun and rifle fire. Snipers had shot them from brush piles on the ground; from perches high in the trees. Germans they had left sprawled on the ground for dead as they went on, had risen and shot them in the back.
I went on down the line. Lieutenant Cook was unwounded, but he had lost several of his juniors and a lot of his men. . . “Whenever we took a machine-gun nest,” he said, “another one opened up on their flank. That happened many times. The second one would never fire a shot until we had taken the first. Then they opened up on us.” His outfit, too, were in fox holes and waiting for the expected German counterattack. . .Captain Dunbeck told me how Lieutenant Heiser had died. Leading an attack on a German machine-gun nest, Heiser had been literally decapitated. His head had been cut clean from his body by a stream of machine-gun bullets that caught him in the throat.
Capt. Wass told me of. . . the difficulties they had in orienting themselves in that heavy underbrush. There were no landmarks, once you got into those woods. If you turned around twice you lost all sense of direction and only your compass could straighten you out. “The German machine-gunners are braver than the infantry,” Wass said. “But when you once get within bayonet reach of any of them, they’re eager enough to surrender.”
Nothing in all our training had foreseen fighting like this. If there was any strategy in it, it was the strategy of the Red Indian. The only thing that drove those Marines through those woods in the face of such resistance as they met was their individual, elemental guts, plus the hardening of the training through which they had gone. I passed nest after nest of German machine-guns. Out in front of every gun lay Marines where they had fallen. Around the guns themselves there weren’t so very many dead Germans. They had worked their guns up to the moment the Marines got among them with the bayonet — and then they had surrendered. Most of my wounded had been worked out. Here and there through the woods stretcher bearers were searching for more. There was some little evidence of that rolling barrage under which we had advanced, in a few shell holes and splintered trees. But not much. It hadn’t hurt the Germans enough to mention. But it had given them plenty of notice that we were coming.
Though everywhere I could see Marines who had been killed by machine guns and snipers, though there were plenty of dead Germans, killed by rifle fire, nowhere was there any sign that the Germans had stood face to face with Marines at close quarters and fought it out. Always when it got hot and hand to hand, they had surrendered. But now the German artillery stepped in. They had a pretty thorough idea of our position in those woods. About ten o’clock that night they sounded off. They gave us an awful pounding. It lasted for about two hours.
. . . The Bois de Belleau was an unforgettable sight that night. I had dozed off in the dark during a lull. The explosions of renewed shelling woke me to see the blackness rent and torn everywhere with those terrific flashes of bluish flame from the bursting shells. Silhouetted in that ghastly light I could see splintered tree trunks and twisted limbs and the black mass of the forest stretching off on both sides. Then for minutes those flashes would come so fast that it looked as if a great ragged searchlight was playing up and down in the dark, so continuous would be the illumination. And all the time the shattering impact of the bursts would hammer on your ears.
By daybreak next morning I was out on inspection again. The woods were strangely silent. I found to my amazement that the terrific barrage of the night before had done comparatively little damage to our front line. It had torn the woods just behind the line to pieces. If we’d had supports in those woods, they would have been annihilated.
At the battle’s end. . .I lined the men up and looked them over. It was enough to break your heart. I had left Courcelles May 31st with nine hundred and sixty-five men and twenty six officers — the best battalion I ever saw anywhere. I had taken them, raw recruits for the most. Ten months I had trained them. I had seen them grow into Marines. Now before me stood three hundred and fifty men and six officers. Six hundred and fifteen men and nineteen officers were gone.
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