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German Myth 13: Teufelshunde - Devil Dogs

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 Höllenschlund.“ ("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 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. 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?

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