German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs

Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

June 23rd, 2006, 2:21 pm #1

German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs

Did German soldiers give the U.S. Marines the nickname "Teufelshunde"?

Do the Marines Have It Right?

No one can question the bravery and valor of the U.S. Marines. But is the legend about their "Devil Dogs" nickname based on fact? Every Leatherneck is indocrinated with the tale of how Marines came to be called "Devil Dogs." If you visit Marine recruiting sites on the Web you'll find this World War I legend also used as a tool to encourage young people to join the Marine Corps today. There's even an old recruiting poster (see photo) that was created by artist Charles B. Falls around 1918. Emblazoned with the words "Teufel Hunden, German Nickname for U.S. Marines - Devil Dog Recruiting Station," the poster is one of the earliest known references to the legend, said to have come about as the result of fierce fighting in 1918 by the Marines in France's Belleau Wood (Bois Belleau in French, "woods of beautful water"). But the poster commits the same error that almost all versions of the legend do: it gets the German wrong.

The first thing any good student of German should notice about the poster is that the German word for "Devil Dogs" is misspelled. In German the term would not be two words, but one. The plural of Hund is Hunde, not "Hunden." So the poster and any Marine references to the German nickname should read Teufelshunde�one word with a connecting s. Most of the references I have found on the Web have the German incorrect in one way or another. Even the Marine Corps' own Parris Island Museum has it wrong. Since the museum's founding in 1975, the sign on display there has read "Teuelhunden" rather than the correct "Teufelshunde."

Facts like these make you wonder if the story itself is true. Like many things on the Web and in history, this legend gets repeated over and over by many different people. But like many other things on the Web and in history, that doesn't mean it's true. One thing we can state with certainty is that very few accounts of this German "Devil Dogs" legend get the German right. Almost always the German in the legend fails to follow the rules of German (capitalized nouns, compounds written as one word), so the writers are not even bothering to check if the German is accurate. (This includes!) Sometimes the German word is written "Teufelhunden" or "Teufelhunde"�closer but still not quite right.

Pronunciation: der Teufel dare TOY-fel (devil), der Hund dare HOONT (dog),
die Teufelshunde dee TOY-fels-HOON-duh

But the Devil Dogs legend is very specific in some ways. It is related to a particular battle, a particular regiment, and a particular place.

Ch�teau-Thierry and Belleau Wood
Here is a version of the legend's creation found at a Marine recruiting Web site: " World War I during the 1918 Ch�teau-Thierry campaign near the French village of Bouresches, Marines assaulted a line of German machine-gun nests on an old hunting preserve known as Belleau Wood. The fighting was terrible. Those Marines who weren't cut down by the enemy guns captured the nests in a grisly close-quarters battle. The shocked Germans nicknamed their foes, teufelhunden [sic] (devil dogs)."

Another site mentions the regiments: "...the Fifth and Sixth Regiments of Marines earned the nickname of Teufel Hund [sic], or Devil Dog, by the Germans who respected them for their bulldog tenacity and fighting spirit..."

The site adds this: "The tradition was believed to have its roots during World War I when German soldiers referred to the Marines as "devil dogs," comparing their fierce fighting ability to that of wild mountain dogs of Bavarian folklore." No one questions the valor of the Marines in the First World War, but are the stories of how the legend came about based on fact?

NEXT > Is there a Bavarian "Teufelshunde" legend?

The Devil Dogs Legend - Part 2

A Bavarian Teufelshunde Legend?
Most German Web references to "Teufelshunde" are for computer games with a kind of hellhound beast called a Teufelshund in German, but it seems to be closer to Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek mythology who guarded the gates to Hades. I also found a German rock group called "Teufelshunde" and at least one lyric reference to a Teufelshund that ends with these lines: "Drum Mensch tu' recht und sei nicht schlecht; sonst holt der Teufelshund Dich in den H�llenschlund.� ("So do right and don't be bad; otherwise the Devil Dog will drag you into the jaws of hell.") And the poem seems to be related to Bavaria's Chiemgau region around Bavaria's Chiemsee. Another Sage is called "Der Teufelshund in der Sandwiese." But did the Devil Dogs legend actually came about because German soldiers compared the Marines to "wild mountain dogs of Bavarian folklore"?

H.L. Mencken & Floyd Gibbons
The American writer H.L. Mencken didn't think so. In The American Language (1921) Mencken commments on the Teufelshunde term in a footnote: "This is army slang, but promises to survive. The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes. The French were usually simply die Franzosen, the English were die Engl�nder, and so on, even when most violently abused. Even der Yankee was rare. Teufelhunde (devil-dogs), for the American marines, was invented by an American correspondent; the Germans never used it. Cf. Wie der Feldgraue spricht, by Karl Borgmann [sic, actually Bergmann]; Giessen, 1916, p. 23." The correspondent that Mencken referred to was journalist Floyd Phillips Gibbons (1887-1939) of the Chicago Tribune. Gibbons, a war correspondent "imbedded" with the Marines (as we would say today), had his eye shot out while covering the battle at Belleau Wood and lived to tell the tale. He also wrote several books about World War I, including And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight (1918, George H. Doran Company, New York) and a biography of the flying Red Baron.

So did Gibbons embellish his reporting with a made-up Devil Dogs legend, or was he reporting actual facts? Did the Germans truly come up with the term Teufelshunde for the Marines? Not all the American versions of who first used the German word agree with each other. One account claims that the term "originated from a statement attributed to the German High Command, in remarking on the determinedness of the Marines, to the effect of 'Wer sind diese Teufelshunde?', which means 'Who are these Devil Dogs?'" Another version claims that it was a German pilot (perhaps the Red Baron?) who cursed the Marines with the word "Teufelshunde." Was Gibbons aware of this? If so, how? Or did he invent the tale and put it into one of his dispatches from the front in France? So far I have been unable to find any German reference to Teufelshunde in connection with the Marines. Not a single one. I also have not been able to look at the archives of the Chicago Tribune to see the actual news article in which Gibbons is alleged to have first mentioned the "Teufelshunde" tale. (The 1918 editions do not seem to be available online. Can someone in Chicago help?)

Floyd Gibbons was known to be a flamboyant character. We also know that his biography of Baron von Richthofen, the so-called Red Baron, was not entirely accurate, making him appear to be a totally reprehensible, blood-thirsty aviator, rather than the more complex person portrayed in more recent biographies. That's to be expected, as Gibbons was no doubt influenced by the anti-German sentiments of the time, his own brutal war experiences, and his well-known "friendship and admiration for the U.S. Marines." But did such considerations also lead him to put words in the Germans' mouths and "create" a legend about his beloved Marines? There is certainly no proof that he did, but there is also no record from any German source (that I know of) indicating the use of the German word Teufelshunde as a sobriquet for the U.S. Marines.

There's yet another factor that could cast doubt on the origin of the Devil Dogs legend. The Marines were not the only troops involved in combat in France's Belleau Wood in 1918. In fact there was an intense rivalry between the regular U.S. Army troops and the Marines stationed in France during the War to End All Wars. From the interesting "Belleau Fountain Legend" page at the equally fascinating Scuttlebutt & Small Chow site comes this information: "Though the Marines took Belleau Wood in late June 1918, Belleau itself was captured not by the Marine Brigade, but by the [Army's] 26th Division some three weeks later, by which time the Marines were fighting and dying at Soissons. How and when the 'bulldog fountain' [in Belleau] actually entered into the mythology of the Corps remains something of a mystery." And how would the Germans have known it was the Marines in particular who deserved the "Devil Dogs" nickname rather than the many other Army troops who were fighting in the same area?

NEXT > Black Jack Pershing

Part 3

General John ("Black Jack") Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, was known to be upset about the Marines getting all the publicity�mostly from Gibbons' dispatches�during the battle of Belleau Wood. (Pershing's counterpart was the German General Erich Ludendorff.) Pershing had a strict policy that no specific units were to be mentioned in reporting on the war. But Gibbons' dispatches glorifying the Marines had been released without any of the usual Army censorship. This may have happened because of sympathy for the reporter who was thought to be fatally wounded at the time his reports were to be sent off. Gibbons "had handed his earlier dispatches to a friend prior to his jumping off in the attack." ("Floyd Gibbons in the Belleau Woods" by Dick Culver)

Another account at adds this: "Fiercely defended by the Germans, the wood was first taken by the Marines (and Third Infantry Brigade), then ceded back to the Germans�and again taken by the U.S. forces a total of six times before the Germans were finally expelled." Another source mentions this key fact: "After Belleau Wood... there were even more vicious battles between the Army and the Marine Corps over the sometime outlandish media coverage the Marines received concerning the great victories in Europe." (from a review of At Belleau Wood by Robert B. Asprey, University of North Texas Press, 1996) The Marines certainly did play a vital role in this battle�part of the offensive known as the Kaiserschlacht or "Kaiser's Battle" in German�but not the only one. The fighting in the Bois Belleau lasted from 6-26 June 1918. The Marines' role was essential enough that the woods were later renamed Bois de la Brigade de Marine, in honour of the Marine Corps' tenacity in its re-taking. The campaign at Ch�teau-Thierry and Belleau Wood is considered a key turning point that ended the German effort to take Paris, but the war would drag on until November 1918.

To prove that Gibbons did not just invent a good story, we need to find some record of the German term actually being used in Europe, either in a German newspaper (unlikely for homefront morale reasons) or in official documents, the "written reports" in which some accounts claim the German commanders referred to the "Devil Dogs." (It would also be important to see Gibbons' Chicago Tribune reports.) Or did any of the German soldiers use the term in the pages of a diary? It would also be helpful to find a copy of Karl Bergmann's Wie der Feldgraue spricht. Scherz und Ernst in der neuesten Soldatensprache (How the Soldier Talks. The Light and the Serious in the Most Current Soldiers' Language), which covers the topic of German soldier slang in the Great War. (I have ordered a copy; it is not an easy book to find.) However, there is a good article on WWI soldier slang at that refers to the Bergmann book and another by Otto Mauser (Deutsche Soldatensprache: Ihre Aufbau und ihre Probleme, 1917, Strassburg.)

Let me stress that there can be no doubt about how valiantly the Marines fought at Belleau Wood or anywhere else during WWI. That isn't in question. The question is only about the authenticity of how the Devil Dog legend arose. It may be that the Germans actually did label the Marines Teufelshunde. But if they did, we need to find some German reference to it in some primary sources. Otherwise this almost 100-year-old legend will continue to fall into the category of tales that people keep repeating without any research to back them up. So the "Teufelshunde" legend remains in limbo for now, neither proved to be true nor untrue. If any reader can add any helpful information, please contact me.

�Personnel must be called excellent. Spirit of troops is high. Moral effect of our fire does not materially check the advance of the infantry. Nerves of the Americans are still unshaken.� - German General Erich Ludendorff, about the American Expeditionary Forces in 1918 (quoted in World War I by S.L.A. Marshall)

PREV > German Myth 12

MORE > German Misnomers, Myths, and Mistakes
The Belleau Fallen
In the German cemetery in Belleau, France 8,630 German soldiers from the First World War rest in peace. In the neighboring American cemetery there are 2,288 American soldiers. These figures are misleading for two reasons: (1) the Americans came late to the fight (after May 27, 1918) and (2) out of the estimated 7,000 Americans who fell in France, about 4,500 were sent back to the U.S. to be buried in military cemeteries there. The German cemetery was created in 1922 by gathering together the remains of German soldiers from several scattered gravesites. WEB > Amerikanische Friedh�fe (in German, with photos)

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R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GnySgt USMC (Ret.)
1952 (Plt #437)--'72
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