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German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs

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

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Dog Devils Poster

U.S. Marine "Dog Devils" Poster - 1918

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 CBSNews.com!) 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.

Château-Thierry and Belleau Wood
Here is a version of the legend's creation found at a Marine recruiting Web site: "...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)."

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 Marine.com 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?

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