The Battle of Belleau Wood was part of the Allied counterattack that came at the end of the Third Battle of the Aisne, 27 May-3 June 1918 (First World War). By the end of that battle, the leading elements of the German army had reached Vaux, on the Paris to Metz road, and were dangerously close to the road to Rheims. Four German divisions were located in Belleau Wood, a small wood one square mile in area.
The Battle of Belleau Wood demonstrates the danger of judging the size of opposing forces by counting divisions. The US 2nd Division was a fresh unit, at full strength. American divisions contained upwards of 20,000 men, with some as large as 28,000. The Marine Brigade that fought at Belleau Wood was 10,000 strong. At full strength a German Division of 1918 contained 13,000 men. After the fighting on the Aisne offensive some German divisions contained as few as 2,000 men.
The American 2nd Division was commanded by General Omar Bundy. It was made up of a Marine Brigade under General James Harbord and the 3rd Infantry Brigade under Brigadier-General Lewis.
On 6 June the Marine Brigade launched a counterattack with the intention of pushing the Germans out of Belleau Wood. This involved an advance across open fields towards the German machine guns, and was as costly as one would expect. On 6 June the Marines suffered more casualties than on any other day in their history, a record that was not beaten until the attack on Tarawa.
The battle is perhaps best known for a quote from Captain Lloyd Williams of the Marines. Early in the battle, when French soldiers were still retreated across the battlefield, one suggested that the Marines should join the retreat. Williams responded “Retreat? Hell we just got here”.
It would take the 2nd Division twenty days and six attacks to finally push the Germans out of Belleau Wood. The area was finally secured on 26 June 1918. The Americans suffered 9,777 casualties during the battle for Belleau Wood, including 1,811 dead. German casualties are unknown, but around 1,600 prisoners were taken during the fighting. At the time the Battle of Belleau Wood was the most costly battle fought by American troops against a foreign foe. Sadly that record would only last until September 1918 and the fighting in the Argonne Forest.