The exhausted, grime-streaked faces on the outer edges of Belleau Wood, as they had often done before, looked to 1st Sgt. Daniel Daly.

U.S. Marines under Daly were pinned down under fire and running short on ammunition. German soldiers in June 1918 had seized the initiative in a summer blitz toward Paris, and in the ledger of what can be counted, the enemy had it in spades: the guns and the numbers.

Daly, already a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor in other wars, ground his boot heels into the French-countryside mud and ordered his men to attack.

“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” he walloped, instantly inscribing the words into Marine Corps legend.

The nearly month-long battle for Belleau Wood, at first obscured in a flurry of fierce campaigns to close World War I before becoming a touchstone in U.S. military lore, is at the center of President Trump’s comments during a 2018 visit to France, when he allegedly called soldiers and Marines buried in an American cemetery there “losers” and “suckers,” according to the Atlantic.

Trump and the White House fiercely denied the reporting. A former senior administration official, however, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly, confirmed to The Washington Post that the president frequently made disparaging comments about veterans and soldiers missing in action, referring to them at times as “losers.”

The rolling verdant hills of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery are striped with the gentle arcs of 2,289 U.S. headstones over the men buried there, mostly from the battle and larger campaign in the bloody Marne Valley.

The cemetery there was the expected site of a Trump visit on Nov. 10, 2018, to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice to end World War I, which also coincided with the 243rd birthday of the Marine Corps.

Inclement weather grounded Trump’s helicopter, the White House said, preempting his visit. Other U.S. officials did attend.

A century and a few months before then, Belleau Wood was a living nightmare of muddy and rocky terrain, bristling with lurking enemies.

“The frowning wood, with its splintered trunks and shell-shattered branches [and] the jungle of undergrowth at the edge [was] filled with threat and menace,” Col. Albertus W. Catlin wrote in a 1919 memoir.

The German army, replenished with men after its success on the Eastern Front, sent waves of battalions westward to drive back the Allied lines, emboldened by French and British losses. Their offense bulldozed toward Paris, coming within about 50 miles of the French capital — close to where they reached in 1914, according to an Army history of the campaign.

In response, U.S. commanders moved up two Army divisions to counterattack, including the 2nd Division — which had an unusual element of an attached brigade of U.S. Marines.

The soldiers and Marines settled along the wood and braced for the onslaught of several German divisions heading straight toward their line. Friendly troops evacuated, confusing the Marines, who were told by a French commander that they should retreat.

“Retreat, hell! We just got here!” said Capt. Lloyd W. Williams, according to some accounts, also becoming lore among Marines.

The battle began June 6, and a swirling mass of rifle butts, bayonets and artillery rounds churned through the wood for weeks as the Americans repulsed waves of German soldiers clawing for any foothold.

Part of the strategy, Lt. Clifton B. Cates, 24, would later write his mother, was to dislodge U.S. positions with chemical weapons.

“We were shelled all night with shrapnel and gas shells,” wrote Cates, a future Marine Corps commandant. “It was mustard gas and a lot of the men were burned.”

The battle afforded Daly and others moments of heroism amid the brutality. He captured an enemy machine gun single-handedly with a machine pistol and grenades, and earlier extinguished a fire at an ammunition dump. He also helped evacuate wounded men under heavy fire, the Marine Corps has said.

One Marine, Gunnery Sgt. Fred W. Stockham, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for giving his gas mask to a wounded comrade whose mask had been shot off. Stockham died of gas poisoning.

All Germans had been driven from Belleau Wood by June 26. Four days later, the 6th French Army issued an order renaming Belleau Wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine.”

The force “must be considered a very good one and may even be reckoned as storm troops,” one German commander said.

In the context of the war, Belleau Wood was smaller than some battles, but the losses were steep on both sides. The U.S. forces and Germans both had about 10,000 casualties, mostly wounded, but including 1,811 American dead. And it transformed the Marine Corps into a force that stepped into grander battles after fighting smaller skirmishes for years.

Every Marine recruit learns Daly’s name and what he bellowed, and units that trace their lineage back to the fight still wear a fourragère, a braided green cord on their dress uniform that was originally bestowed by the French military.

And those who visit the cemetery and battlefield are drawn to one particular place in the nearby town of Belleau, where a moss-flecked bulldog fountain spurts water from its mouth. It is customary for Marines to drink straight from it.

On the day of Trump’s canceled visit, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., paced through the cemetery and visited the chapel.

Then, on a stop in Belleau, he gripped the bulldog statue in his right hand and, joining a long line of Marines, bent over and sipped the cool water.

Josh Dawsey, Anne Gearan, Colby Itkowitz, Carol D. Leonnig and Greg Miller contributed to this report.

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