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What was the first major battle fought by Americans in World War I?

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In early 1918, the German Army, freed from fighting a two-front war decided to launch a massive Spring Offensive on the Western Front. The first major battle fought by American troops in World War I took place in June 1918 at Belleau Wood - a 200-acre forest near the commune of Château-Thierry, France, approximately 53 miles northeast of Paris. The Battle of Belleau Wood occurred from 1 to 26 June 1918 during the final German advance on Paris. It marked the first engagement of the American Expeditionary Force, as well as the beginning of the Great Allied counter-offensive that ended on 11 November 1918. Beginning on 27 May, German storm troopers broke through the French lines along the Chemin des Dames and seized Soissons. On 31 May, the German army was marching on Paris advancing to the Marne river. American troops blocked their stride at Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood located between Belleau and Bouresches. After twenty-six days of combat and a series of heroic actions, the 2nd and 3rd Divisions, with half of the 2nd Division made up of units of the U.S. Marines, stopped the German offensive and began a counterattack in the area. Fighting in the woods was fierce, with the Marines clearing the woods six times before it was finally secured on 25 June at 11:30 p.m.  American forces suffered 1,811 killed - the deadliest in one battle until World War II, and 7,966 wounded and missing. German casualties are unknown though 1,600 were captured. The battle had a great psychological impact on the Allies. Belleau has since been forever attached to the history of the U.S. Marine Corps, to be considered as its first feat of arms since its creation in 1775 and to become a key component of the lore of the Corps. Following the battle, the Germans referred to the Marines as "Teufel Hunden", or "Devil Dogs" recognizing their ferocity and tenacity during this battle. General John J. Pershing (1860 - 1948) commented after the battle that "the deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle" and considered Belleau as the most important battle fought by U.S. forces since the Civil War. General Jean-Marie Degoutte (1866 - 1938), the Commanding General of the French 6th Army officially renamed the Belleau Wood to "Bois de la Brigade de Marine" – Wood of the Marines Brigade, on 30 June 1918 and awarded the Croix de Guerre to the 4th Brigade.

Belleau Wood is a site of pilgrimage for members of the U.S. Marines and each Memorial Day weekend, U.S. Marines, French service members, family members and locals gather at Belleau Wood to honour their fallen. Among the relic sites is the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery - located at the foot of the hill on which stands Belleau Wood where many of those buried in the cemetery lost their lives - include 2,289 burials, 250 of whom are Unknowns. On the walls of the memorial chapel erected over front line trenches are inscribed the names of the 1,060 Missing in the region whose remains were never found or identified. Bronze rosettes mark the names of those who have since been recovered or identified. Behind the cemetery and located among spoils of war stands a bronze memorial designed by Austrian-born American sculptor Felix de Weldon (1907 - 2003) – known for his Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington, Virginia – that depicts 'Iron Mike', an attacking Marine who symbolizes their ferocity during frequent bayonet and hand-to-hand combats in the wood. There is also a brass commemorative plaque that pays tribute to Gunnery Sergeant E.A. Janson, Lieutenant (junior grade) W. E. Osbourne, Lieutenant O.H. Petty, and Gunnery Sergeant F.W. Stockham who were awarded a Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle of Belleau Wood. During the offensive, ninety percent of the village of Belleau was destroyed. The 12th century church was rebuilt and completed in 1929 as a memorial opposite the American cemetery. This feat was accomplished due to soldiers of the 26th U.S. Division, who helped clear the village, after the battle gave a portion of their pay to reconstruct the church.

One of the most famous Marine customs is the pilgrimage to the bulldog fountain located in the old stables' courtyard of the Château de Belleau and drink the "beautiful water" or "belle eau", for which the village itself was named. The myth exist that any Marine who drinks from this water will receive strength and protection in battles to come and will extend anywhere from ten to twenty years to their lives. After the battle of Belleau, the Marines created a very symbolic link with this old pre-war bronze spout in the image of a bull mastiff head that bears a suspicious resemblance to the apocryphal "Teufel Hunden" or "Devil Dogs" that the Germans nicknamed the Marines in 1918. Shown in the photograph is General Robert B. Neller, 37th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps (from 24 September 2015 to 11 July 2019), who undertook a pilgrimage in May 2016 to visit the famed 'Devil Dog' fountain that symbolizes the Marines' fighting spirit in the village of Belleau. Athough the grounds are closed to the public, the Count and Countess of Belleau graciously allow U.S. Marines onto their property to drink from their mascot's mouth.

On this day, 1 June 2022 we commemorate the 104th anniversary of the commencement of the battle of Belleau Wood and according to the Marine Corps History Division, remember the Devil Dogs' sacrifice of more than 9,000 casualties, including 1,062 killed in action and 7,253 wounded.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy and André M. Levesque

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