Lost Battalion (World War I)

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Meuse-Argonne Offensive – Lost Battalion
Part of the Western Front (World War I)
Date 2–8 October 1918
Location Argonne Forest, France
Result AEF rescued, Allies break through German lines
Belligerents
 United States  German Empire
Commanders and leaders
Charles White Whittlesey
George G. McMurtry
Strength
554–575 unknown
Casualties and losses
197 killed
150 Missing/captured
194 rescued
unknown

The Lost Battalion is the name given to nine companies of the United States 77th Division, roughly 554 men, isolated by German forces during World War I after an American attack in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. Roughly 197 were killed in action and approximately 150 missing or taken prisoner before 194 remaining men were rescued. They were led by Major Charles White Whittlesey. On 2 October, the division quickly advanced into the Argonne, under the belief that French forces were supporting the left flank and two American units were supporting the right flank. Unknown to Whittlesey's unit, the French advance had been stalled. Without this knowledge, the Americans had moved beyond the rest of the allied line and found themselves completely cut off and surrounded by German forces. For the next six days, suffering heavy losses, the men of the division were forced to fight off several attacks by the Germans, who saw the small American units as a threat to their whole line.

The battalion suffered many hardships. Food was short, and water was available only by crawling under fire to a nearby stream. Ammunition ran low. Communications were also a problem, and at times they would be bombarded by shells from their own artillery. As every runner dispatched by Whittlesey either became lost or ran into German patrols, carrier pigeons became the only method of communicating with headquarters. In a famous incident on 4 October, inaccurate coordinates were delivered by one of the pigeons and the unit was subjected to "friendly fire". The unit was saved by another pigeon, Cher Ami,[1] delivering the following message:

WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT.[2]

Despite this, they held their ground and caused enough of a distraction for other allied units to break through the German lines, which forced the Germans to retreat.

77th Division[edit]

The men of the 77th Division, who held the Charlevaux ravine, were mostly from New York City. The 77th Division is also known by other nicknames such as the "liberty" division which was due to the Statue of Liberty emblem the group picked out for themselves. However, they were mostly referred to as the "Metropolitan" division because of where most of the men hailed from. "… but it was first known as the Metropolitan Division and under that moniker, it was to gain fame."[3] Most of the men had grown up on the streets of New York City fighting from a young age for food. These attributes acquired on the streets are seen by many historians as one of the reasons that this group survived in the Argonne.

The 77th Division was trained at what became a prestigious camp located just outside the city called camp Upton. Furthermore, this would be where Charles Whittlesey would be assigned upon completion of his officers training. This camp was located a half mile from the town Yaphank, New York which was located on Long Island in Suffolk County. "Yaphank? Where the hell is Yaphank?"[4] was common expression heard amongst the new recruits of Camp Upton.

Units involved[edit]

308th Infantry Regiment:

A,B,C,E,G,H Companies

307th Infantry Regiment:

K Company

306th Machinegun Battalion:

C, D Companies

Argonne Forest before the attack[edit]

The Argonne Forest was taken by the Germans at the early stages of the war. They had set up defensive positions all over the forest, using a string of networked trenches. These defences started with a roughly 550-yard (500 m) deep front line which "served as not much more than an advanced warning system".[5] Behind the first line, which consisted of trenches, shell holes and listening posts, the allies would have to push through the dense forest to the main battle lines. The next battle line, which was about 1 mile (2 km) in depth, had turned back all Allied attacks over the last four years. This battle line, which consisted of wired trenches that were firmly held, was referred by the Germans as "Hagen Stellung". The Next German battle line, referred to as the "Hagen Stellung-Nord", was "basically a machine-gun-covered, pre-sighted artillery target."[6] This was a very well entrenched location utilizing both natural and man-made barriers. Together, these two battle lines formed what was known as "Etzel Stellungen". However, the Hagen Stellung-Nord was where one of the problems was. If the Hagen Stellung-Nord was taken by the enemy, then they would be annihilated by German artillery. Over the years, the Germans had every inch of the area pre-sighted in case of a hostile takeover. So, upon taking the position the occupier could not stay for long, or they would risk being blown apart. The Germans also spread barbed wire for hundreds of miles. At some point[where?], it was higher than a man’s head and several yards deep. The Germans also placed it at the bottom of rivers and small streams to prevent any troop movement across these areas.

Action in the Argonne[edit]

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive began on the morning of 26 September 1918. General Johnson, the commander in charge of the Argonne part of the offensive, had a "no retreat" command for his divisions:

It is again impressed upon every officer and man of this command that ground once captured must under no circumstances be given up in the absence of direct, positive, and formal orders to do so emanating from these headquarters. Troops occupying ground must be supported against counterattack and all gains held. It is a favorite trick of the Boche to spread confusion…by calling out “retire” or “fall back.” If, in action, any such command is heard officers and men may be sure that it is given by the enemy. Whoever gives such a command is a traitor and it is the duty of any officer or man who is loyal to his country and who hears such an order given to shoot the offender upon the spot. WE ARE NOT GOING BACK BUT FORWARD! –General Alexander.[7]

On 1 October, Whittlesey was given his orders: first, he was to advance north up the Ravine d’Argonne until it ended, at the Ravin de Charlevaux. Upon reaching it they were to continue across the brook and take the Charlevaux Mill. Behind this mill was the Binarville-La Viergette road. The securing of the mill was imperative to capture control of the road and a rail line that ran parallel to the north of it. This road was crucial to take control of because it allowed for the advancement of supplies to the allied soldiers. The railway was crucial because it would cut off one of the Germans’ major supply routes. However, this was no small task. The plan was to have the first battalion lead the assault, led personally by Whittlesey. They would be supported by the second battalion, led by Captain McMurtry. Just after 5:00 pm on that evening the attack came to a halt and the men dug in for the night.

On the morning of 2 October, the final orders came at around 05:00. The main objective was still Binarville-La Viergette road. The attack was to start at 07:00, to give time for the fog to lift and the men to eat. Whittlesey and McMurtry ordered Companies D and F to remain along the western ridge to become a containing force. The rest of the first and second battalions would continue along a hill known as "hill 198" to complete a flanking manoeuvre on the enemy. The problem was that on the hill was a double trench line of German soldiers. The plan was once the two battalions took the hill that they would then send back companies E and H to create a line to Companies D and F.

By the night of 2 October, after a long day of battling, Major Whittlesey received information that the men found a way up the right of Hill 198. At around this same moment the French experienced a massive counterattack by the Germans and were forced to fall back exposing the left flank of the 308th. The same occurred on the right flanks with the other American Division, causing the 308th to be surrounded. However, they did not discover this until shortly after they reached the peak of Hill 198. The hill was now in their control; however, it was too quiet for Whittlesey. He realized that he could hear nothing of the 307th that was supposed to be on their flank. "Either they had broken through the line as well and reached their objective over there, or they had been licked and fallen back. The former would be good news for the 308th … The latter, however, was unthinkable; orders forbade it…"[8]

The men dug in on Hill 198 and created what is known as "the pocket" which was a fairly good defensive position. The two best companies were on the flanks, with support from the weaker companies. A single company took up the front of the pocket. The rear was the least protected from attack. The rear consisted of only a few riflemen and several machine guns. The hill sloped steeply from the front of the pocket, making it difficult for Germans to bomb the battalion from that direction. The biggest flaw to their positioning was that their holes were dug too close together, and too many men were occupying the holes at the same time. This created easy targets for mortars and snipers. By about 22:30, Whittlesey realized that Hill 205 was still occupied by the Germans on the left, and the ravine to the right was also crawling with the enemy.

The morning of 3 October was spent trying to re-establish connection with the other flanks and companies that were left behind. Whittlesey sent out runners to the French flank and the American flank that were supposed to be there. None of the runners returned, nor had they returned from trying to connect with the companies that Whittlesey left behind. All were killed or captured by the enemy. The more time that passed without any messages the more Whittlesey was coming to the notion that they were actually surrounded. However, the Germans were not attacking. The German military forces within the ravine believed that they were outnumbered by the Americans.

That afternoon, the Germans attacked from all sides. "A single one up front might not have been so bad, but there were others on the flanks, and sniper fire ringing out as well."[9] At this time, Captain Holderman, an officer working with Whittlesey, realized the predicament that the men were in. The German forces had nearly doubled and were closing in on them. Their communication line was cut and they had no supplies. Holderman tried to lead an assault out through the back of the pocket, but failed to break out, incurring heavy casualties in the process. This infuriated Whittlesey, but seeing that there was nothing he could do he simply sent them back to formation. Next came a grenade assault followed by mortars raining in on them, but the Americans did not stagger. Another attack came a little after 17:00, and it lasted for about 45 minutes. After this attack was over, the Germans began to settle down for the day. The Americans took heavy casualties, but also caused heavy casualties on the attacking Germans.

"On the morning of 4 October, patrols were sent out on their morning routes, and Whittlesey was unsure that any of the carrier pigeons had actually made it through. He was unsure if the command actually knew of the desperate situation that was unfolding. Whittlesey believed that his orders to hold this position still applied, because the position was the key to breaking through the German lines. It was the worst day that the battalion would have. There has been much controversy among different historians regarding how it occurred, but Whittlesey and his men were shelled by their own artillery. Some believe that Whittlesey had relayed the wrong coordinates, while others believe that Whittlesey had gotten the coordinates right and the artillery's aim was off. Whittlesey released his final carrier pigeon, named Cher Ami to call off the barrage. A shell explode directly below the bird, killing five of our men and stunning the pigeon so that it fluttered to the ground midway between the spring… and the bridge we crossed to get into the Pocket."[10]

As soon as the Allied shelling had stopped, the Germans launched an attack. After many losses and much hand to hand combat, the German forces were driven back once again. Although many were captured and killed the unit still remained intact, but morale was low and sickness was setting in. Many men only had a few bullets left and no food. Bandages were being taken off of the dead and reused on the wounded. A package was reported to have been dropped in for the men to resupply, but all reports point to it falling into German territory. Water was accessible, but getting to it required exposing oneself to German fire.

From 5-8 October, the Germans continued to attack. They also sent messengers asking for the 308th to surrender. Whittlesey did not respond. There were many controversies at the time as to what he had done, but records indicate that he said and did nothing. For the next few days, the Pocket held firm and continued to be a thorn in the side of the Germans. Around 15:00 on 8 October, an Allied relief force broke through, and the men of the Lost Battalion were relieved of duty. Immediately upon their relief, Whittlesey was promoted to Lieutenant colonel.

Aftermath[edit]

Monument to the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest, France.

Of the over 500 soldiers who entered the Argonne Forest, only 194 walked out unscathed. The rest were killed, missing, captured, or wounded. Major Charles White Whittlesey, Captain George G. McMurtry, and Captain Nelson M. Holderman received the Medal of Honor for their valiant actions. Whittlesey was also recognized by being a pallbearer at the ceremony interring the remains of the Unknown Soldier. However, it appears that the experience weighed heavily on him. Whittlesey disappeared from a ship, in what is believed to have been (and was reported as) a suicide, in 1921.

Former Major League Baseball player, and Captain of the 77th Infantry Division, Eddie Grant, was killed in one of the subsequent missions in search of the battalion. A large plaque was placed in center field of the Polo Grounds New York in his honor.

Brigadier General Billy Mitchell wrote after the rescue that the Germans had managed to prevent supplies being air-dropped to the battalion. He ordered:[11]

...chocolate and concentrated food and ammunition dropped.... Our pilots thought they had located it from the panel that it showed, and dropped off considerable supplies, but later I found out they had received none of the supplies we had dropped off. The Germans had made up a panel like theirs and our men had calmly dropped off the nice food to the Germans who undoubtedly ate it with great thanksgiving....

Citations[edit]

Medal of Honor:

Distinguished Service Cross:

  • Pvt. William Begley, Sgt. Raymond Blackburn, Pvt. George W. Botelle, Pvt. James W. Bragg, Pvt. Clifford R. Brown, Pvt. Philip "Zip" Cepaglia, 1Lt. William J. Cullen, Cpl. James Dolan, Cpl. Carmine Felitto, Pvt. Joseph Friel, Pfc. Jack D. Gehris, Sgt. Jeremiah Healey, Cpl. Irving Klein, Pvt. Stanislaw Kosikowski, Pvt. Abraham Krotoshinsky, Pvt. Irving Louis Liner, Pvt. Henry Miller, Cpl. James J. Murphy, Cpl. Holger Petersen, Pvt. Frank J. Pollinger, 2Lt. Harry Rogers, Cpl. Haakon A. Rossum, Cpl. Joseph C. Sauer, 2Lt. Gordon L. Schenck, Pfc. Irving Sirota, Pvt. Sidney Smith, Pvt. Albert E. Summers and 1Lt. Charles W. Turner

Fictional portrayal[edit]

An account of the Lost Battalion was given in a 1919 film The Lost Battalion, directed by Burton L. King. A&E made a 2001 television movie based on the exploits of the battalion during the Battle of the Argonne in 1918, directed by Russell Mulcahy, also entitled The Lost Battalion. Major Whittlesey was played by Rick Schroder.

Also, the character of Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel The Great Gatsby appears to have been a member of the "Lost Battalion," based on statements he makes to the narrator, Nick Carraway.

In the pilot episode of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Al Capone claims that he had been a member of the "Lost Battalion." Later in the series it is suspected that this is not true. The actual Capone did not participate in the war and never served in the U.S. military at all. The only member of the Capone family to serve was Richard Hart (born Vincenzo Capone).

See also[edit]

Cher Ami was not the only pigeon used but is by far the most famous. Her stuffed body is still displayed today at the Smithsonian. In her last mission, she delivered a message despite having been shot through the breast. The bird was awarded the Croix de Guerre, for heroic service delivering 12 important messages in Verdun.
  • George W. Quinn[12] was a runner who was killed attempting to reach Major Whittlesey with a message from the front lines.

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Charles Whittlesey – Commander of the Lost Battalion". Great War Society. Retrieved 15 January 2010. . The bulk of this is credited to the Williams College Library.
  2. ^ "Letters of Note". Retrieved 25 May 2010. 
  3. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 31. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  4. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 37. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  5. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 72. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  6. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 73. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  7. ^ Slotkin, Richard (2005). Lost Battalions. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. p. 309. ISBN 978-0805081381. 
  8. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 258. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  9. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 452. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  10. ^ Laplander, Robert (2007). Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu. p. 354. ISBN 978-1-4116-7656-5. 
  11. ^ Longstreet, S: "The Canvas Falcons", page 243. Leo Cooper, 1995.
  12. ^ [1]

References[edit]

  • Laplander, Robert. Finding the Lost Battalion. Wisconsin: Lulu, 2007

Robertson, Nathaniel. The California State Military Museum, "Californian and First World War California and the Lost Battalion." http://www.militarymuseum.org/LostBn.html.

  • Slotkin, Richard. Lost Battalions. New York: Henery Holt and Company, LLC, 2005.