Dismissed as unprofessional and ineffective by the German high command, the American Army prevailed against German forces, halting their advance toward Paris. U.S. Soldiers and Marines showed competence, sacrifice, stubbornness, and courage here at the battle of Belleau Wood as they repulsed the enemy, spelling a turning point in the protracted world conflict.
Prior to the 1918 battles in the local area, trench warfare had dragged on for 3½ years after the First Battle of the Marne. Until May 1918, victories were measured in mere meters, with the Allies often losing ground in the war of attrition.
Two significant events then accelerated the war. After Russia withdrew from the war in 1917, in order to deal with their internal Revolution, German forces were able to leave the Eastern Front and send additional troops to Belgium and France. The technology of warfare continued to advance, but the war was still being fought in the trenches.
When Americans began to arrive in the summer of 1917, Allied hopes of a war of movement were raised. As American soldiers began to arrive in larger numbers, they learned from their allies how to make use of French machine guns, trench mortars, Artillery, and tactics.
The Marne River Valley would be the scene of a major conflict, a battle that was decisive in ending the war. The race was on: Would the German military defeat the embattled British and French forces before American troops could participate?
Fortified by numbers and technology, 40 German divisions attacked the Allied lines along the Chemin des Dames on May 27, 1918. Their strength of attack, storm troopers, and infiltration tactics forced the Allies to retreat back the Marne River, leaving breaks in their front. General-in-Chief of the Allied Armies, Ferdinand Foch declared, “…stop the enemy's advance on Paris at all costs, especially in the region north of the Marne.” The newly arrived American 2nd and 3rd Divisions were sent to close the gaps.
The combat was often at close range, even hand-to-hand. The battle lasted almost two months, involving eight American Divisions and other separate American regiments, all suffering heavy casualties. The 3rd Division earned the nickname “Rock of the Marne” for its stalwart defense of the river east of Chateau-Thierry. The German advance was stopped at Chateau-Thierry and here, at Belleau Wood, and marked the furthest advance of the German Army towards Paris in 1918.
By helping block the German advance in June 1918, the 2nd and 3rd American Divisions not only saved Paris from being captured but also changed the opinion of the allies regarding the fighting ability of the American Expeditionary Forces. Lessons learned here by the American command were used successfully in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne campaigns.
Ralph Adams Cram submitted drawings to the ABMC for this chapel in 1926, it was completed in 1932. The French Romanesque chapel and memorial exists on the front line that was occupied by American Forces during the Aisne-Marne Offensive. The woodland uphill from the memorial is where the battle of Belleau Wood was fought. It saw hand-to-hand combat, poison gas attacks, and onslaughts against machine gun nests for 20 consecutive days. It is one of the few World War I battlegrounds that have not fallen victim to development. Note the small hole to the right of the door; it is damage from a projectile the chapel suffered during the Second World War.
A carved figure of a crusader in armor, flanked by the shields of the United States and France, guards the door of the chapel. The exterior is decorated with carvings depicting scenes of fighting in the trenches. Atop the building are stone images that reproduce the distinctive patches created at the end of the war for American uniforms for those divisions who participated in the Aisne-Marne Offensive.
Entering the chapel, you find a gilded altar with three stained-glass windows above it. The images depict St. Michael triumphing over evil, St. Louis the crusader, and St. Denis the patron saint of France. Lining the walls are the names of 1,060 soldiers and Marines lost in this area.