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Did Marines, not German soldiers, coin the phrase ‘Devil Dogs’?

In the Marine Corps, there is tradition and there is truth, and the two do not always intersect. Such is the case with term “Devil Dogs,” which the German troops in World War I supposedly called Marines at Belleau Wood, leading the Corps to adopt it as a term of endearment.

But The Rumor Doctor got a tip that the term “Devil Dogs” might not come from the Germans after all, so The Doctor decided to get to the bottom of the matter, even at the risk of being accused of hating all things Marine Corps and American.

After The Doc debunked the legend of the “Blood Stripe” — the scarlet stripe on dress blue uniform pants supposedly commemorating a battle in the Mexican-American War — a commenter on Stripes.com wrote: “Schogol’s self-portrait shows him with long hair and a beard, so of course he can’t be trusted tampering with sacred Marine traditions. Every Marine NCO knows in his heart (and arms and legs after getting promoted to Cpl) what the REAL truth is. What’s next, Schogol, Mom and Apple Pie?!”

Shortly after Belleau Wood, a Marine Corps recruiting poster said the Germans had nicknamed Marines “Teufel Hunden” and showed a bulldog wearing a helmet with an eagle, globe and anchor chasing a German dachshund wearing a spiked helmet, according to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

But Bob Aquilina of the Marine Corps History Division says there is no credible evidence that German troops dubbed their Marine adversaries “Devil Dogs.”

“The term very likely was first used by Marines themselves and appeared in print before the Battle for Belleau Wood,” Aquilina said in an e-mail. “It gained notoriety in the decades following World War I and has since become a part of Marine Corps tradition.”

Indeed, a Marine Corps magazine, reported in April 1918 that Germans referred to Marines as “teufel hunden,” two months before Belleau Wood, according to Aquilina. The word “Teufelhunden” is a combination of the German words for “devil” and “dogs,” or “Teufel” and “Hunde.” But the possessive form of “Teufel” is “Teufels,” and the plural of “Hund” is “Hunde,” not “Hunden,” suggesting that whoever came up with the word wasn’t a native German speaker.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps refers to the origin of the term “Devil Dogs” as tradition, which is not the same as truth, said Patrick Mooney, visitor services chief at the museum.

“We have no proof that it came from German troops though tradition says it came from German troops referring to Marines,” he said. “There is no written document in German that says that the Marines are Devil Dogs or any correct spelling or language component of ‘Devil Dog’ in German.”

The Rumor Doctor also reached out to the German army’s Military History Research Institute to talk about old times.

“I never heard anyone using the word ‘Teufelshund’ or ‘Teufelshunde’ in Germany,” said institute spokesman Lt. Col. Heiner Bröckermann in an e-mail. “Using Google in Germany I found to my surprise that ‘Teufelshund’ (in the mention of the devils pet) is used today by German witchcraft gamers and role players, but I think this is a rather new wording of the computer gamers and role player communities.”

THE RUMOR DOCTOR’S DIAGNOSIS: Like the story of the fabled “Blood Stripe,” the legend surrounding the origin of the term “Devil Dogs” is not supported by the facts. But the bravery of the Marines at Belleau Wood is not in doubt. They helped blunt the German offensive, ultimately paving the way to victory.

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