ith the collapse of the Russian front in 1917, German troops moved against Paris in a massive, last-ditch spring offensive intended to break French and British resistance before newly arrived American troops could fully respond — the U.S. had entered World War I in April of that year. The Germans methodically swept aside the British 5th Army until reaching a forest outside Belleau in Champagne, near the Marne River.
There, on June 6, 1918, newly arrived troops of the American Second and Third Army, which had swung north, attacked the Germans at Hill 142. The ensuing engagement left thousands dead but ended the “Boche” thrust — boche was disparaging French slang for Germans — a mere 59 miles from Paris. The battles of Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry presaged the end of the war and also served as a prophetic taste of combat between U.S. and German troops.
Belleau Wood was also among the most horrifying battles in a war that appeared to have already reached the nadir of human and military tragedy. Marine machine gun battalions, who earned the nickname “Devil Dogs” in the fighting, crossed wheat fields under heavy German fire, only to be lured deep into a wood crisscrossed by ravines and undergrowth ideal for hiding German machine gun nests. Gunfire on both sides was a constant.
My great uncle Lothar R. Long, known to his family as “Squib,” received several U.S. citations and a French Croix de Guerre for his role at Hill 142. His contribution was to crawl along the battlefield on his stomach and map German positions for the Marines’ 6th Machine Gun Battalion. When Long wrote this battle narrative to his brother Al, a letter republished in its entirety below, he’d already been on the front for 35 days. During his only leave from the Belleau front, he learned of his father’s death at home.
The battle, as Long notes, undid conventional notions of nationality in war, which impressed him deeply. “I fought side by side with Moroccans and French and British,” he writes. “How [French commander Ferdinand] Foch got all those divisions of myriad troops together so suddenly, and quietly and through them against the enemy so like a tidal wave I don’t see.”
Long was a new breed of American soldier. He was among the first graduates of the Marine Officer Training School at Quantico, Maryland, which opened in 1917 with the mission of training a more modern kind of soldier. The Marines sought college-educated recruits, especially athletic heroes who were both smart and strong. Lothar was just the type. Born in 1892, he graduated from Northwestern, where his scientist father John Harper Long was a chemistry professor.
“Squib” loved reading and poetry as well as the rough life. He spent summers canoeing in the northern Wisconsin wilderness with his father and brothers. After college he “bummed” around the country on freight trains, eventually reaching Seattle, where he put aside his idea of becoming a newspaperman. He then traveled to China, where he enlisted in the Marines — as he also mentions in the letter (Marine garrisons were stationed in Peking to prevent violence against foreigners during the 1911-1912 revolution that ended the Qing Dynasty).
Lothar Long loved the Marines, and even on the worst days at Belleau Woods he remained convinced he was leading the finest life he could. After a brief stay in the U.S., he returned to France in 1920 to map a battle that would soon became a staple of Marine Corps and American military mythology. It was at Belleau Wood that Sergeant Daly, Long’s fellow machine gunner shouted, “Come on, you sons-o’-bitches! Do you want to live forever?”
Though Long survived the war, he was found dead of a “gunshot wound” in forestland near Belleau Wood on Sept. 23, 1920. His death was never explained.
Long’s frequent idiosyncratic phrasings, including the letter’s opening line, “Ixcus papur plees” (“Excuse paper please”) — he typed it on small slivers — remain unabridged.
France, July 29th, 1918.
Ixcus papur plees. I borrowed a Corona, but aint got no paper, none whatsoever.
Well, out again at last, and still kicking. Summing up now I’ve got “in” two months at Verdun, thirty-five days at Chateau Thierry, and a couple of weeks in this last big push just south of Soissons. Been over the top, “jumped, off”, we call it, three times now, and gotten away with murder each time, and crowded mv luck pretty hard. I haven’t reaped a scratch yet, but am serving under my third battalion commander, and have seen every one of the original captains in the battalion fall by the wayside and a couple of later ones. I have also lost all my own non-coms. It has been rather tough going. We all had reached the stage of utter exhaustion when they took the brigade out of the Bois de Belleau and put it behind the line in support, and yet almost right away they shot us suddenly north in lorries for the big push on Soissons. And yet in the first day’s fighting we waded through the Boches for ten kilometers — incidently getting the whole brigade almost wiped out. I tell you a big offensive is a gigantic appalling wasteful business. We were in a shock division, which was relieved after the first two days. Some two days tho. I got out of it with nothing worse than sore eyes and throat burn from mustard gas, pretty slight at that.
It sure does make you feel like a hard boiled veteran, but gee, it has been a long hard pull from that first night about twenty years ago when we went in [editor’s note: “Twenty years ago” is used here as a figure of speech]. I’ll never forget that night either. I wish I could describe it well. We were some green and fearsome those days. Our troop train arrived at the railhead about midnight, twelve miles back of the line. As it came to a halt we heard real American locomotives whistling; and sliding by — those wonderful, great, black Baldwin monsters that make the French engines with their piping little screech appear so ridiculous [editor’s note: Baldwin was an American builder of train locomotives.] They seemed awfully good somehow — a sort of reprieve from great loneliness and an encouraging reassurance that people were behind us, if you know what I mean. It was all so sort of epic and portentous and ominous for us, with the incessant flashes and thunder of guns to the east a little ways.
But Verdun was actually so soft, so sedentary. As I look back at those trench days (a lifetime ago it seems) I think that with little vacations off and on I’d be willing to take a job there for life. There were the easy days in reserve at Sommedieue, where I was under shellfire for the first time (I have still a piece from one of the shells that came whistling down on us on that great occasion), and the jolly nights in our dugout in the front line opposite the mysterious Boche-occupied Demi-Lune, Mardi Gras hill at our backs, the remains of Fort Vaux back behind that — jolly nights, with wine and champagne, actually, and lovable never failing, careless, happy “Dinty” Moore playing on his guitar and singing “Gentlemen Rankers” and “When the Rain goes Pitter Patter”. I can see that dugout so plainly right now, with its paper La Vie Parisienne ladies pasted on the mahogany framed mirror that had been salvaged from the wreck of some house ridiculous [editor’s note: La Vie Parisienne was a French gossip and celebrity weekly.] Good old Dinty. He fell in the Bois de Belleau two months ago. Then there was the night the Boches raided us, and we had one entrance of the dugout caved in on us and Captain Jolie’s grave in the hill just above our heads desecrated so that one of his feet stuck out and the Croix du Bois splintered, when we waited with chattering teeth and hands that trembled when we tried to light a cigarette, until the barrage would lift so we could get out and have a fighting chance for our lives.
Then after nine weeks we came out, marched three days west and rode a day on the choo choo, through St. Denis (with Paree the unattainable visible by its Eiffel Tower from the car window) to an area where we started to train in open warfare for an intended drive up north. Then the sudden change of program, the news on May 31st that the Germans had broken through at Soissons, officers running hither and thither and tither and yon and every which way, machine gun equipment being overhauled and hastily gotten together, the division entraining in the darkness and chill of early morning, a jolting mad heart-breaking springless ride east across France in camions — hurrying, hurrying, hurrying — two hours’ grudging respite of a halt late that night up near the new front with the booming of guns every moment, and the angry light of burning villages to the eastward, where the Huns were advancing as fast as they could march (this haint no sentence, Al; don’t look for no periods or semi-colons or nothin’), and a German plane flying low over our back areas dropping two or three bombs right among us as we slept in the field beside the camions on the road — us pore geezers too doggone tired and all to give a damn whether they hit us or not, and nobody moved an inch, nor bothered to do more than cuss hell out of the Boche son of a blanket-blank-blank. That retreat from Soissons! A road cluttered with disorganized pitiful units of French troops beating it, wounded men, refugees with their farm wagons loaded to high heaven, whacking at oxen and cows and goats that wouldn’t hurry, old ladies, homeless and dazed, birdcage and umbrella in hand, plodding dully and stoically along the roadside, or riding with the wounded on artillery caissons, buxom farm girls and young mothers sitting atop the carts that contained all they were trying to salvage in the panic, and smiling and laughing through their tears — Oh, Al, the women of France are the bravest people in the wide world. That picture is burned into my memory so deep a million years couldn’t even dim it.
To add to the confusion long lines of French cavalry were pressing forward, racing with our endless streams of camions. Such a mix up! Such a tangle!
At daylight we continued on. The battle up in front, still invisible, drew nearer and nearer. The Huns were yet beyond a low range of hills to the east, but you could feel them coming. The very air was charged with the ominous news that they were sweeping down hellbent upon us. It reminded me so much of the uncanny way one could feel the impending trouble in the Peking streets, just before Yua-shi-kai died; do you remember my writing you of that? [Editor’s note: U.S. Marines were stationed in China in 1912, when riots broke out.]
Finally we came to a halt in the road, marines piled out, camions scooted back, and the machine gun battalion, my machine gun battalion deployed across the “brigade” front, which was designated roughly on the map — I stlll have that map, with the hasty pencil line General Harbord drew down across from Hill 142 to Bois Clerembouts. A little later the infantry deployed into position.
Gee, Al, you oughtta seen it! Open warfare! The German advance cavalry and infantry skirmishers and then larger bodies of troops in plain view and coming like hell, sweep down on us through at pass in the wooded hil1s to the east, with 75 shells busting right among ’em as they came. It didn’t stop them for a moment. But they sure did stop when they hit our line of Hotchkiss guns [editor’s note: a revolving barrel machine gun.]. We piled up the dead, by the hundred. It was too easy! We shot right square in to them in mass formation. They halted dead in their tracks — after coming thirty-five kilometers like a tornado, from Soissons.
The next morning we were engaged along our entire front, mass attacks again, and more troops this time. Same thing again. Never gained an inch. The French artillery at our backs was magnificent. Dozens of batteries lay right out in the open fields, and fired hour after hour into the advancing Boches. Time and time again I saw German shells burst square among our batteries, blowing men and guns all to pieces, and, the guns and gun crews not disabled kept right on firing. Horses drawing limbers galloped wildly across the fields. Mounted.messengers, carrying their lives in their hands, raced up to the front lines. Cattle, dazed and wondering what it was all about, wandered across the shell swept fields. No chow got up to us those first days, and we killed cows; hogs, and chickens for food, cooking and eating when we got the chance. We even had fresh milk, slipping out at night and relieving the agony of poor Mrs. Cow, mooing with the weight of her bursting udder. I tell you we lived off the fat of the land for a few days.
I remember one night I nearly got swallowed up. I was deliriously tired, and flopped for a couple of hours in an old farmhouse and like a darn fool took off not only all my equipment, but my shoes to sleep. Suddenly I felt someone grab and punch hell out of me, and Major Cole was yelling “Long, Long! Get up quick! a German patrol is headed right this-way'” Say, you oughtta seen Squib R. Long trying to put on his tin 1id, pistol, dispatch case and shoes all at once. And Gord amighty, when you get bounced out of a dead, dog tired sleep that hour of night your morale is way down in the bottom of your shoes. We grabbed up what men of mine were around and beat it out of that farmyard like hell (it was right down in what was the front line at that particular moment — the line sort of see sawed around getting itself adjusted to topographical features those first few days) and ducked into the wheat. It was so darn dark our guns couldn’t see where to fire on the patrol, and I guess the Germans didn’t know how far ahead of their lines they were. There were a beaucoup bunch of ’em, tho, and they prowled around the farm for awhile while we lay in the grain just a little ways off, with grenades and pistols ready. And then the first thing we knew they were gone — and the opportunity to wipe out a gang of Dutchmen lost. That sort of thing could never happen in trench warfare, tho.
Well, we held them, a few days later drove them out of Bouresches, and gradually out of the Bois de Belleau, where the bloodiest fighting of the War, according to many Frenchmen, took place. Major Cole was killed here, Francis Locy gassed, Sandy Sellers shot through the stomach (not fatally I think however), Croke wounded, — but I don’t recall any more of the officers you knew.
I went over with the first line in a couple of tres mauvais scraps, the saddest part of which was the way the German light machine guns (size and shape of the Lewis, but water cooled) cut us up in the dense woods. Imagine trying to go through a thick wood, cut and criss-crossed with rocky ravines, which had been made a total splintered wreck of by our guns. And yet it was almost impossible to blast out those machine gun nests among the rocks and caves with artillery. We might as well have sprinkled foo foo powder on them. The bravery and absolute, utter recklessness of the marines was unutterably soul stirring and magnificent. Time and time again they charged right into machine gun fire, when there wasn’t a chance in the world of coming out alive — and they themselves knew it too. Al, I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a marine, to serve with men like that, what an inspiration it is.
However, we were relieved by another division at last after 5 weeks of hard fighting as I ever hope to put in again, and Major Waller and I were the last two marines out of the front line. 35 days before Major Cole and I had been among the first in. I am some proud of that month, but the strain of it knocked about fifty years off my natural life, I guess.
Then there were a few days in support, with battalion headquarters way back in a pretty chateau on the Marne, which seemed like the twentieth floor of heaven to muh. It was ten miles back of the front line, but the Boches shelled us almost every day with a long range gun. They were trying for a bridge which crossed the river there in the course of their ranging dropped one almost on the chateau, a piece of shell going through our roof. That was nothing tho, after what we had been through, and nobody minded it in the least.
Then another day’s journey in lorries, and the big push from the Aisne to the Marne. There is no use trying to tell much about this. It is all too staggering in my mind yet, and I saw so many people die that I can’t tell about it for awhile. I fought side by side with Moroccans and French and British. How Foch got all those divisions of myriad troops together so suddenly, and quietly and through them against the enemy so like a tidal wave I don’t see. The poor Boches wilted absolutely. The marines alone took several thousand prisoners the first day. Our American artill1ery was fine. The guns followed us so quickly that when we attacked and took Vierzy at 7:00 o’clock the evening of the first day our 75’s [editor’s note: 75 mm artillery cannons], laying down the barrage for us to advance under, tho a couple of kilometers behind us, were seven kilometers east of what had been the German first line at 4:30 that morning.
We were relieved the second night, and by slow stages reached a point now where only on very fair days can one, looking northeast, see the French observation balloons. We are somewhat all in and way under strength in personnel, and put great hope and credence in the rumor that we are going way south toward Switzerland, to what the jaded French like to call a “Tres bon secteur; tres tranquil”. Well, peutetyr, I hope so. That will be soft.
We have not had a day of leave since corning over, and, of late the desire to relax, forget war, and raise a little hell has’ become almost irresistible. So last night the battalion surgeon and I jumped ship and sneaked off in his motor side car. It took beaucoup manouvring and lying to get away with it, but where there’s a will there sure is a way. We ran the fifty kilometers to Paris, over a perfect dream of a road, in an hour and a half and had you been at the Casino last evening you might have seen us with the two classiest demi-mondanes in Paree occupying a box. There was decidedly some swank to us, believe muh. We left early this morning and got home before the rest of the battalion staff was up for breakfast. We came so fast that the early morning mist, condensing on our coats and evaporating nearly froze us to death, but we made it in an hour and twenty minutes. They can take me out and put me up against a wall and shoot me now. I’ve had my spree and don’t care. We sure did slip it over on ’em. I kind of had to pinch myself once in a while last night tho — it seemed so unreal, after Bois de Belleau, Lucy Le Bocage, Longpont and Vierzy. While in Paris I looked up a lot of Beta’s addresses at the University Union. Lots of Northwestern men are over here.