By 1918, World War I had been raging across Europe for four years. Large land battles, such as the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun, had been sorted out and massive naval engagements, such as the Battle of Jutland, had concluded. Hundreds of thousands of men had already died and some units seemed to be losing any original desire they had to continue fighting. But the Battle of Belleau Wood and the offensive on the Western Front were just beginning.

Both Battle-hardened and “Boots” at Belleau Wood

To help shore up defenses and assume a blocking position north of the important east-west Paris-Metz highway, the United States Marine Corps sent men of the 4th Marine Brigade. Marines who were veterans of the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China, and the Veracruz Expedition were sitting in foxholes with “kids” that only months prior had been in school or on their family farm. Men of all experience levels and ranks dug foxholes and helped secure their position readying themselves for the looming German assault.

French soldiers in WWI.
French soldiers stand in a relaxed group wearing medals during a lull in combat. (National Library of Scotland)

War-weary French

As the Marines readied their position, they were met by exhausted and demoralized French soldiers on the retreat. As he passed through the Marine Brigade one French officer advised the Marines to join their retreat. Many of the French soldiers were heard saying to the Marines “it’s too late” while others commented as they retreated “the war is over.”

The Marines, though, fresh-faced and ready for battle were looking to participate in no such activity. Marine Corps Capt. Lloyd Williams responded to one dejected French officer, “Retreat, hell! We just got here!” As always, the Marines had come to fight. This time would prove to be no different.