Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, September 26, 2014

Western Front Virtual Tour — Stop 37: Belleau Wood

Visiting Belleau Wood

By Narayan Sengupta

[Editor's Note:
We have varied our Virtual Western Front feature over the past two weeks because we received an excellent article on the two locales we are featuring from our friend Narayan Sengupta. Château-Thierry was featured last week and Belleau Wood today. MH]

Read Part I of Narayan's article covering Château-Thierry at:

After visiting Château-Thierry, we went to Belleau.  Getting there was easy.  Head back out of Chateau-Thierry on D1003 to go back to the Hill 204 American Monument.  Just across from the entrance to the monument is the junction of D1003 and D9.  D9 leads straight to Belleau, four miles away.

Belleau Wood Museum Exterior and a Friendly “Soldier” in 1914 Garb (Narayan Sengupta)

First stop was the little Hotel de la Mairie (City Hall), which is also the museum that commemorates the Battle of Belleau Wood.  The battle was fought by French, British and American troops against the Germans from June 1 to June 26, 1918.  The Americans suffered 1,811 KIA and 8,000 other casualties.   German figures are inexact, but they were frequently losing numbers similar to their opponents.  By the time the battle ended, the maniacal US Marine defense had earned them the sobriquet Teufelhunden (meaning Devil Dogs).

The museum is tiny, but still worth visiting with its small collection of uniforms, weapons, shaving kits, mess kits, medals, grenades, gas masks, prayer books and other memorabilia.  It also had an “original” (nicely restored) red and black Renault taxi (of WWI’s First Battle of the Marne legend) on display.  

The Rebuilt Church of Belleau Village (Narayan Sengupta)

The distance from the Hotel de la Mairie and the Belleau Wood cemetery (officially the Aisne-Marne Cemetery)/battlefield is just 300 yards.  Between the two is a church.  Apparently the American officer in charge knew that when he gave the order to attack the Germans that the church would get destroyed.  He vowed he would rebuild it after the war.  The story is that he did, thanks to a day's pay very touchingly volunteered by all the American soldiers.

The Entrance to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery.  Belleau Wood Is on the Plateau Behind the Chapel. (Narayan Sengupta)

Next we went to the cemetery and walked around.   The 49-acre cemetery sits at the base of a plateau.  The battlefield is a small one-mile patch of forest atop that plateau.  The cemetery is laid out in the shape of a crescent with two wings and a giant thousand foot long promenade in between.  The promenade leads back to the street on one hand and up to a tall Romanesque tower on the other.  Behind that is the plateau.  The crescent is actually about 12 rows of crosses interspersed with an occasional Star of David.  Each row seems to number in the hundreds.  In total, there are 2,289 dead American World War I soldiers buried here.  They represent all 48 American states of that time; 251 are unknown.

One Wing of the Crescent Layout of the Cemetery 
(Narayan Sengupta)

Details of Grave Markers (Narayan Sengupta)

Inside the Chapel and the Many Inscribed Names of the Missing (Narayan Sengupta)

The Romanesque tower is actually the memorial chapel.  Inside the limestone masonry is engraved the names of another 1,060 missing dead.  Not all are soldiers, as there are the names of airmen too.

There are two big American flags atop giant flagpoles at the Belleau Wood Cemetery.  We helped lower the flags as the place closed, and then we made a two-minute drive up to the small plateau that is above/behind the cemetery.  That is the actual Belleau Wood battlefield.

The plateau has many things to see.  But we are short on time and only had time to see the little artillery park of captured German artillery and unexploded shells by the parking lot.  If the trees weren’t there, then we would be able to overlook the cemetery.  After the battle, with the trees gone, that would have been the case. 

A Portion of the Artillery Park (Narayan Sengupta)

We saw little other than the little artillery park.  But there is more.  From previous trips I still remember the scared landscape: craters, trenches and the ruins of a small octagonal dovecote (dove tower), once used for raising doves.  They are all still there, but now they’ve been filled in a bit by the passage of time, dirt, moss and mushrooms and obscured by shadows of regrown trees.   Walking on the little battlefield, with its lush tree canopy, thick woods and utter silence makes it a great place for introspection and contemplation.  But the same isolation permits one to vividly imagine the sounds and smells of battle that went on in 1918.

It’s hard to believe that so many men were wounded or killed in the little forest, which the grateful nation of France has since renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marine (The Marine Brigade Woods).

Soon we were on our way back home.  What a great day trip! 

If you have questions about trip planning to explore the World War I battlefields of France, then email me at  Bon voyage, Narayan Sengupta.

Narayan Sengupta is the author of books such as “American Eagles”, “Lafayette Escadrille”, “POW Stories” and “Disaster at Dieppe”.  To order them or to read more of his writing, see .


  1. STAR OF DAVID....If the dead is unknown how do we know he was Jewish?????????????

    1. Pershing, who was responsible for the burials in Europe, took the decision that the unknown dead would reflect the percentage of jewish soldiers in the AEF ( I believe 10%). Every tenth man got a star of David, thus the percentage was right even in positive identity, including religion, was not.

  2. A map showing the location of each of these stops would be helpful. While most have a general knowledge of the area, it's like WWII in the Pacific- one damn island after another

  3. I believe that it was assumed that the proportion of unknown dead that were Jewish was the same as the proportion of all soldiers that were Jewish. Thus if, for example, it was 10 % then one out of every ten unknown graves would have the Star of David marker.

  4. Someone who is an artillery expert might be able to comment on this, but in the artillery collection at Belleau Wood there are some 19th century cannon and, I think, a couple of Russian guns. Were the Germans short on artillery by June 1918 thus using museum pieces and captured guns from the Eastern Front?

    1. James;
      I have noticed this too. I think the Germans were short of just about everything by mid 1918, and , as in WW2, used captured artillery, particularly Russian, on a considerable scale. I suspect that what you see is just old and/or damaged guns abandoned in the retreat while the up to date artillery was more important to secure and remove.

      I have a translation of a captured German Divisional Op Order from this period
      ( Guards Ersatz Div.) dated 31st July 1918 which is of interest referring to artillery:

      " The OC Artillery will give a detailed order so that the first batteries can begin to move at night fall. The time table must be arranged in precise detail so that the batteries can follow one another at very short intervals. Experienced and energetic officers must be detailed to superintend the movement of the columns.

      In order to veil the departures the artillery will fire until the last moment. Several batteries must be left in position after midnight."

      This shows the care which the Germans took to preserve their artillery while withdrawing. The Allied advance was by no means fast while the Germans were withdrawing in an orderly and controlled fashion. This view is supported by my recollection that the pieces at Belleau wood are either obsolete (pre QF) or too badly damaged to be repairable.

  5. Sorry James, I put my answer in without reading the whole thread. David.

  6. The omission of maps is my fault. I didn't get them to Michael in time. But there are some here: Thanks for having read this far and for the feedback.