Devil Dogs?

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 new recruit is instructed about how Marines came to be called “Devil Dogs.” The Marine’s recruiting web site repeats the story, “…in World War I during the 1918 Château-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).”

The web site, Marine.com, adds to the story, “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.”

There’s even an old recruiting poster emblazoned with the words “Teufel Hunden” that was created by artist Charles B. Falls around 1918. In fact, the poster is one of the earliest known references to the legend.

And while no one questions the valor of the Marines who fought in WWI, there are some severe grammatical errors that causes one to wonder about the origin of the nickname.

The poster commits the same error that almost all versions of the legend do: It gets the German wrong. Any good student of German will notice that the poster and other sources misspells the German word for “Devil Dogs.” First of all, the expression in German is just one word, not two. Furthermore, the plural of Hund is Hunde, not “Hunden.” The term, in German, would be Teufelshunde—notice the “s” between “Teufel” and “hunde.” This denotes the possessive nature of the noun. In simpler terms, it literally translates as “The Devil’s dogs” or “the dogs belonging to the Devil.”

Teufelhunden is not a German word or expression. And yet, it seems to have gained acceptance during WWI. In The American Language (1921), the American writer, H.L. Mencken, comments on the 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 Engländer, 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.”

The correspondent to whom Mencken referred was journalist Floyd Phillips Gibbons (1887-1939) of the Chicago Tribune. Gibbons, was a war correspondent with the Marines in Europe. In fact, he lost an eye while covering the battle at Belleau Wood.

Not all the American versions of who first used the German word (in its correct grammatical form) agree with each other. One account claims that the term “originated from a statement attributed to the German High Command, who, in remarking on the determinedness of the Marines, asked, Wer sind diese Teufelshunde?” (Who are these Dogs of the Devil?). Another version claims that it was a German pilot who cursed the Marines with the word “Teufelshunde.”

Whatever the origin, the legend has been established: Marines call themselves, “Devil Dogs”—despite any grammatical misstep the expression might represent.

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