Retreat, Hell!

I've long been fascinated by military quotes, feeling that there's usually a life lesson in there somewhere. Could there be anything better than a good maxim from George Patton or Chesty Puller? One of my favorites is from Napoleon: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." Another classic comes from General Anthony McAuliffe, as he declined the German offer to surrender at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge: "Nuts."
Several books have been written on military quotes and someday I may add another. But today marks the 100th anniversary of one of my favorites, one of the most famous of all time. This quote was by a man who was soon killed after his utterance, and never achieved the success that I believe he would otherwise have accomplished.

The German army had launched their spring offensive on the Western Front in March of 1918, in an attempt to break the stalemate of the Great War. This aggressive movement utilized seasoned German soldiers which had previously been fighting against Russia (just surrendered) on the Eastern Front, and was an attempt to settle the war before the Americans could become fully engaged.

Courtesy USMC archives
U.S. Marines were sent to assist the French at the Battle of Belleau Wood, and among those was Captain Lloyd Williams commanding the 51st Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines. As the Marines began plugging holes and establishing positions, they met French troops falling back. The French, conditioned over the past four years to the bitter fight, were more accepting of the general rules of warfare. In this environment, a French officer - unsure of his English -  wrote a note that was passed to Captain Williams. Williams read the note, which advised immediate retreat. In typical American fashion, especially in those first days of the U.S. intervention, Williams stood bravely and incredulously stated, "Retreat, Hell! We just got here."
To this day the United States Marines hold the Battle of Belleau Wood as a testament to their fortitude. The exclamation of Captain Williams fell into legend, and "Retreat, Hell!" became the motto of the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. I admire the audacity of Captain Williams; it was pure and genuine, and it cost him his life.

Nine days later, Captain Williams was killed in battle. Realizing that he was dying, he asked the medics and orderlies, "Don't bother with me. Take care of my brave men."

Five months later the war would be over. Captain Williams was posthumously promoted to Major and is generally recognized as the first Virginian to be killed during WWI. Make no mistake, plenty more would die before the armistice. Later in the war the attitudes of the Doughboys had changed, but I will never cease to admire that quote, that audacity, that courage. Retreat, Hell! We just got here.

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