[June 4, 2021] During World War I, 103 years ago, a U.S. Marine said one of the most audacious things ever. Retreat? Hell! We just got here!
Leading up to June 6, this is the kind of subject matter on which I like to write. I’m convinced that all of us can learn lessons from combat, regardless whether we were actually there or not. It requires a bit of thought and trying to put our minds into those who were present during some major event.
The phrase ‘Retreat Hell’ is the motto of the 2nd Battalion, 5th U.S. Marines – the most decorated Infantry unit in the Marine Corps. Other military formations have taken this motivational quote to inspire those who would find themselves on the battlefield. It works!
On June 2, 1918, a captain named Lloyd Williams thought to say these iconic words in the heat of battle and in doing so cemented himself in Marine lore.1,2
Background: In late May 1918, there was a massive German offensive that caused tremendous destruction and confusion in the Entente (or Allied) lines. Commanders expected a major thrust through the 5th Marines area of operations. But, shortly after arriving in the area, Captain Williams received word from a French commander that all American and French forces were to pull back into a better protective position.
Williams reportedly said, ‘Retreat? Hell! We just got here.”
As the Marine Corps historical bulletin Fortitude put it, “German forces began their advance towards American positions at dawn on 2 June, and quickly received a lesson in rifle marksmanship from the entrenched Marines.” Machine guns and infantry fire pounded the German advance. Eventually the Germans could not break the Marine line.
By June 6, Marines were attacking another objective. At first the directly assaulted German positions but were met by a barrage of fire that drove them off. Hill 142 was eventually taken but at a high cost – two companies had been decimated and only two officers remained.
Moving again toward woods occupied by over a thousand Germans, the battle was a “bare-knuckle brawl” but battle-tested Marine NCOs keep their troops moving forward. Sergeant Dan Daly was known to have said, “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” And yet, another iconic Marine Corps quote to emerge from that battle.
By the end of the day, German defenders were overrun and their positions taken. This battle was to be the bloodiest day in Marine Corps history up to that point. More Marines had fallen on June 6, 1918, than in the entire 143-year history of the Marine Corps.
- There is some dispute that Captain Williams actually said those words. Some attribute the quote to Colonel W3endell Neville, commander of the 5th Regardless, the underlying message was passed to other Marine units – stand your ground.