The history of 1/6 Hard is closely tied with the history of the United States Marine Corps. The Corps was a small and underappreciated force before the eruption of World War I. Its mission was limited to providing ships detachments and was considered by many as an anachronism of the days of sail. When WWI began the Marine Corps was expanded in order to support the American Expeditionary Force being sent to support the Allied Powers under General Pershing. The First Battalion Sixth Marines was formed 11 July 1917 and was quickly deployed to France between September and October of that year. The Battalion participated in numerous battles, but the one that is most remembered was the battle of Belleau Wood. The conduct of the Sixth and Fifth Marines here made the Corps legendary.
Taking place in June of 1918, the Battle of Belleau Wood was strategically important. Russia had the Bolshevik revolution and left the war, freeing fifty German divisions to move from the Eastern Front and turn against France. After years of deadlock, Germany launched their last desperate spring offensive, annihilating the British 5th Army and getting within 40 miles of Paris.
The battle lasted a month and was fought often times with bayonets. Advancing against well-emplaced German machine gun positions and suffering heavy losses, the Marines managed to push the Germans back and take their objectives.
The battle was such a hard-won success it led General Pershing to say, "The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle!" and that "the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy."
In all the history of the Marine Corps there is no such battle as that one in Belleau Wood. Fighting day and night without relief, without sleep, often without water, and for days without hot rations, the Marines met and defeated the best divisions that Germany could throw into the line.
The heroism and doggedness of that battle are unparalleled. Time after time officers seeing their lines cut to pieces, seeing their men so dog tired that they even fell asleep under shellfire, hearing their wounded calling for the water they were unable to supply, seeing men fight on after they had been wounded and until they dropped unconscious; time after time officers seeing these things, believing that the very limit of human endurance had been reached, would send back messages to their post command that their men were exhausted.
But in answer to this would come the word that the line must hold, and, if possible, those lines must attack. And the lines obeyed. Without water, without food, without rest, they went forward - and forward every time to victory.
Companies had been so torn and lacerated by losses that they were hardly platoons, but they held their lines and advanced them. In more than one case companies lost every officer, leaving a Sergeant and sometimes a Corporal to command, and the advance continued.
After thirteen days in this inferno of fire a captured German officer told with his dying breath of a fresh division of Germans that was about to be thrown into the battle to attempt to wrest from the Marines that part of the wood they had gained.
The Marines, who for days had been fighting only on their sheer nerve, who had been worn out from nights of sleeplessness, from lack of rations, from terrific shell and machine-gun fire, straightened their lines and prepared for the attack. It came - as the dying German officer had predicted.
At 2 o'clock on the morning of June 13th it was launched by the Germans along the whole front. Without regard for men, the enemy hurled his forces against Bouresches and the Bois de Belleau, and sought to win back what had been taken from Germany by the Americans.
The orders were that these positions must be taken at all costs; that the utmost losses in men must be endured that the Bois de Belleau and Bouresches might fall again into German hands.
But the depleted lines of the Marines held; the men who had fought on their nerve alone for days once more showed the mettle of which they were made.
With their backs to the trees and boulders of the Bois de Belleau, with their sole shelter the scattered ruins of Bouresches, the thinning lines of the Marines repelled the attack and crashed hack the new division which had sought to wrest the position from them.
And so it went. Day after day, night after night, while time after time messages like the following travelled to the post command: 'Losses heavy. Difficult to get runners through. Some have never returned. Morale excellent, but troops about all in. Men exhausted.'
Exhausted, but holding on.'And they continued to hold on in spite of every difficulty. Advancing their lines slowly day by day, the Marines finally prepared their positions to such an extent that the last rush for the possession of the wood could be made.
Then, on June 24th, following a tremendous barrage, the struggle began.
The barrage literally tore the woods to pieces, but even its immensity could not wipe out all the nests that remained, the emplacements that were behind almost every clump of bushes, every jagged, rough group of boulders.
But those that remained were wiped out by the American method of the rush and the bayonet, and in the days that followed every foot of Belleau Wood was cleared of the enemy and held by the frayed lines of the Americans.
It was, therefore, with the feeling of work well done that the depleted lines of the Marines were relieved in July, that they might be filled with replacements and made ready for a grand offensive in the vicinity of Soissons, July 18th.
We got our nickname Devil Dogs from official German reports which called the Marines at Belleau Wood Teufel Hunden. It has been said that this nickname came about from Marines being ordered to take a hill occupied by German forces while wearing gas masks as a precaution against German mustard gas. While the Marines fought their way up the hill, the heat caused them to sweat profusely, foam at the mouth and turned their eyes bloodshot, and at some points the hill was so steep it caused the Marines to climb up it on all fours. From the Germans' vantage point, they witnessed a pack of tenacious, growling figures wearing gas masks, with bloodshot eyes and mouth foam seeping from the sides, advancing up the hill, sometimes on all fours, killing everything in their way. As the legend goes, the German soldiers, upon seeing this spectacle, began to yell that they were being attacked by "dogs from hell."
The Battalion got its name, 1/6 Hard, from its commander at Belleau Wood, at the time Major John Arthur Hughes, known by then as “Johnny the Hard.”
Colonel Hughes joined the Marine Corps as an enlisted man in 1900, but was made a second lieutenant the next year. He served in the Philippines, Cuba, and Panama his first decade in the Corps, and in 1914, as a captain, he distinguished himself at Vera Cruz and was awarded the Medal of Honor. In 1916 he commanded the Marine ships detachment on board USS Delaware and was then sent to the Dominican Republic, in command of the Marine Barracks, San Francisco de Macoris. The Corps was there to keep the peace and to keep guerilla forces, called insurrectos, from undermining the Dominican government. On December 3, 1916, he earned his nickname. Apparently not satisfied with staying in the barracks, Major Hughes was out with his Marines hunting for insurrectos when he was shot in the leg, breaking a bone in his shin. Undaunted by the image of his own shin bone jutting out of his leg, he is said to have asked for some wire cutters. He cut the protruding bone off, wrapped the leg, and continued the fight. Word got around about this from his men, and he was called “Johnny the Hard” from then on.
In 1917, still recovering from his wound, he sailed to France. He was battalion commander of First Battalion, Sixth Marines, at Belleau Wood. The battle of Belleau Wood was hard fought and at one point 1/6 was down to only 100 men, from a starting strength of around 1,000. Major Hughes rose to the occasion, his courage under fire inspired his Marines, earned him the Navy Cross, and most importantly, led his Marines to victory. Before the end of the war, “Johnny the Hard” Hughes was personally awarded the Croix de Guerre, twice, and promoted to lieutenant colonel.
The battalion gained its nickname “Hard” in part from its famous commanding officer, but largely from the courageous actions of the battalion’s Marines at Belleau Wood and ever since. The name would have died if 1/6 did not continue to stay “hard.