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.
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.
Marine Captain Lloyd Williams
Captain Lloyd Williams was born on January 5, 1887, in Berryville, VA. Before joining the Marine Corps, Capt. Williams had attended the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Captain Williams yearbook page from Virginia Polytechnic Institute said he held the following titles while in college:
- Captain Company A
- Assistant Treasurer Athletic Association
- Secretary Senior Class
- President of the Mechanical Engineering Club
- Vice-President L.F.C. Club
The yearbook page also described Capt. Williams as, “Calm and unruffled as a summer sea, when not a breath of wind flies o’er its surface.”
Clearly, Capt. Williams was a motivated, level-headed, and brilliant young man well prior to enlisting into the United States Marine Corps. These attributes are what would later serve him and help fuel his courageous actions during the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The Marines Dug-in
“The heat of the early June sun parched the throats of the Marines as they waited for the enemy to appear. Finally, in the early afternoon, movement was seen at the southern edge of the forest, and the distinct shapes of German soldiers in their feldgrau began to emerge. Long line after long line of soldiers, slightly crouched and weapons low, began trotting through the ripening wheat.”
The Germans no doubt thought they were advancing on a troop of French soldiers who were weary and unprepared to put up a significant defense.
The accepted combat range of rifles during World War I was a maximum of 250 yards. But the Marines had the newly issued Springfield M1903 .30-06 rifle with an effective range of 600 yards.
The Marines rained volleys of lead hell onto — and into — their German foes. The Germans were shocked to be hit with effective gunfire at such a distance. It would’ve been similar to the first people who saw someone killed by a drone in the Global War on Terror. If you didn’t know the technology existed, the scene would be terrifying. To think someone can reach out and kill you without you even having a chance to fight back or get to cover and with a technology you’d never seen would throw you into a huge mental OODA-loop.
The Marines continued methodically mowing down German troops as they trampled through the previously unspoiled wheat fields. The Germans who weren’t quickly killed retreated into the woods.
The German Retreat
It was then that the Germans realized that they weren’t fighting war-weary French soldiers, but fresh U.S. Marines. In light of this, the commander of the German 28th Division told his men, “We are not fighting for ground – for this ridge or that hill. It will be decided here whether or not the American Army will be equal to our own troops.” He soon got his answer.
As the battle raged, Capt. Williams continued to lead his men from the front. On June 11, 1918, Capt. Williams led an assault in which only 17 of 260 men involved weren’t either injured or killed. In a statement he wrote after the battle, a French major, who was present for what would ultimately be Capt. Williams’s last push, said he ordered him to withdraw. Captain Williams told him to, “Go to Hell!”
Williams continued fighting and was ultimately gravely injured by mustard gas and enemy shrapnel. As he lay wounded on the battlefield, Lt. Orlando H. Petty (USN), a young medic, attempted to render him aid even though under great personal risk. In response, Capt. Williams said, “Don’t bother with me. Take care of my good men.”
Heroic Actions at Belleau Woods
Although seriously wounded himself, Lt. Petty carried Capt. Williams through the German’s artillery barrage and back to safety. Despite his daring rescue, on June 12, 1918, Capt. Williams succumbed to his injuries.
Lt. Petty was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Belleau Wood. His Medal of Honor citation reads,
“The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant (MC) Orlando Henderson Petty, United States Navy (Reserve Force), for extraordinary heroism while serving with the Fifth Regiment, U.S. Marines, in France during the attack in the Bois-de-Belleau, 11 June 1918. While under heavy fire of high explosive and gas shells in the town of Lucy, where his dressing station was located, Lieutenant Petty attended to and evacuated the wounded under most trying conditions. Having been knocked to the ground by an exploding gas shell which tore his mask, Lieutenant Petty discarded the mask and courageously continued his work. His dressing station being hit and demolished, he personally helped carry Captain Williams, wounded, through the shellfire to a place of safety.”
Following the combat at Belleau Wood, the 461st Imperial German Infantry famously gave the Marines the nickname “Teufelhunden,” or “Devil Dogs.” The nickname stuck and even on a present-day Marine Corps base you can hear Marines respectfully refer to one another by this title. According to another report provided after the war ended, “A German general wrote to his chain of command in August 1918 that the Marines had taken Belleau Wood ‘with incomparable bravery’ and earned the right to be considered ‘opponents worthy of respect.'”
In the end, Captain Williams received three Silver Stars and a Purple Heart for his actions in Belleau Wood. He was posthumously promoted to major for his courageous battlefield actions.
As is stated on Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s page honoring Major Lloyd Williams:
“Major Lloyd Williams is not only the first Virginian to die in World War I, he is also the first Virginia Tech alumnus to die in the war. Since then Williams has been remembered by the Marine Corps’ 2nd Battalion, 5th Regiment through their adopted motto: ‘Retreat Hell.’ He has also been remembered at Virginia Tech through Major Williams Hall (aka: Major Bill), which was named by Virginia Tech in his honor in 1957.”
Captain Williams’s actions during the Battle of Belleau Wood, and those of other Marine Corps heroes such as Sgt. Dan Daly (who received two Medals of Honor for his actions), are what helped lay the foundation for the Marine Corps to be known as one of the most feared fighting forces on the planet.
Williams’s actions also remind us that every military member we put into harm’s way has a personal story. Some stories are richer than others, but each man or woman who dies in war leaves behind family, friends, and the life they’d wanted for themselves prior to enlisting. We must never forget the sacrifice that these men and women have made over the last 250 years and the life they left behind to make a difference.