Valor Friday

| May 14, 2021

Monument to the Lost Battalion

October 1918, the Great War is raging in Europe. The Americans have joined the fight and the bitter, brutal trench warfare of the past four years is finally coming to an end. Behind the scenes, the Germans knew their end was near. The Kaiser was aware of the impending demise of his empire and had his emissaries negotiating peace.

While the peace negotiations were on-going, and would ultimately culminate in the guns of war finally going silent at exactly 1100 hours on 11 Nov, 1918, the war was still being fought and hard. The Allies were determined to push the Central Powers back as much as possible. At the end of the war, they wanted to have taken as much ground from the Germans and Austro-Hungarians as they could.

The American Expeditionary Force (AEF), participating in the Continental European War, and without the fatigue of their battleworn allies, were at the forefront of this renewed push. We’ve talked in the past about many of these men. Daniel Daly  and his “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” or “Retreat hell! We just got here!”

Part of the AEF was the 77th Infantry Division (77th ID). Known as the “Liberty Division” in honor of their shoulder patch which bore solely the Statue of Liberty or the “Metropolitan Division”, the division was made of predominantly men from New York. So many men came from New York City and its immigrant background that the men of the division spoke 42 different languages or dialects. That many of them had experienced hardship and suffering in earlier life would help them in their coming war.

The division fought with distinction during World War I and again do so in World War II. In the latter conflict they fought in the Pacific Theater at Guam alongside US Marines. The Marines would give the men of the 77th ID a sign of their utmost respect when they took to calling them the “77th Marine Division.”

One officer of the 77th Infantry Division was Charles Whittlesey. Born to a logger in the Green Bay Wisconsin area in 1884, the family moved to Massachusetts when he was 10. He’d go on to complete collegiate Williams College and law school at Harvard. He then settled in New York City where he opened his own practice. While in New York he was a member of the American Socialist Party, but eventually outgrew their increasingly extremist ways and left the group.

When the US entered World War I in 1917 Whittlesey left his law partnership to enlist in the Army and join the fight. As a 33 year-old professional, he could have probably secured a relatively “safe” staff officer position, but he shipped for France as a captain of infantry in early 1918.

The 77th Infantry Division was the seventh of 42 American divisions to make it to the Western Front in France and Belgium. They were the first American unit with draftees to arrive. The division first saw combat at the Battle of Château-Thierry in July.

Whittlesey was a major and in command of an infantry battalion in the 308th Infantry Regiment by October. He received orders on 2 October to advance on the German lines. The push was coordinated. French units were to cover the 77th ID’s left flank while two American units, including the 92nd Infantry Division were on their right.

The division’s orders were to advance in the Argonne as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and to “push forward without regard to flanks.” The Argonne had been seized by the Germans early in the war. The Argonne Forest, described as a thick, jungle-like bit of country was on the French border with Belgium. Argonne would be the site of many of America’s most storied heroes of the war, some we’ve talked about here, including Sergeant Alvin York and the Harlem Hellfighter Henry “Black Death” Johnson. The Allies were keen to return it to French hands before war’s end.

Evan Johnson, the US general in charge of the Argonne part of the offensive reminded the men under his command of the no retreat order. Before the battle started on 2 October, he wrote to them;

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

The Germans, having held Argonne for years, had well prepared defenses. The forest was criss-crossed with interconnected trenches, there were hundreds of miles of barbed wire, and they even coated the bottoms of streams and river beds with barbed wire to slow any infantry advance. They also had pre-sighted every inch of the land, so as to call in incredibly accurate artillery should any ground be given up to the enemy.

The morning of 2 October at 0700, the attack began. Whittlesey had command of three companies of his 1/308th Infantry, three companies of 2/308th Infantry, one company of the 1/307th Infantry and two companies of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion. They were to move forward through enemy lines, fighting their way to a mill at a strategically important point. Meanwhile the rest of the regiment was to meet them at Hill 198 after the other companies of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 308th Infantry flanked the enemy.

Whittlesey and his men made excellent headway, arriving at the mill by nightfall after a hard day’s fighting. Elements of his command had even arrived at HIll 198.

Coming to HIll 198, Whittlesey realized that it was far too quiet for there to have been similarly speedy advances on his flanks as there should be. If the other formations in the assault had moved up, even if not as fast as Whittlesey had, they’d be able to see or at least hear the battle.

Whittlesey later recalled, “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…”

What Major Whittlesey and his men didn’t know was that on their far left flank, which was supposed to be covered by the French, the Germans conducted a massive counterattack. This stalled their advance and ultimately made them fall back, exposing the left flank of Hill 198.

On their right, the same thing occurred. The American forces had been stopped and pushed back by the Germans. This left Whittlesey’s battalion-sized force well ahead of the front lines and at immediate risk for being surrounded and destroyed, but he hadn’t pieced any of this together yet.

For all the technological advances that occurred in World War I, wireless radios were not yet man-portable. Field phones weren’t something that were able to be run with a unit as they advanced. This leaves the time-honored and battle tested (though prone to failure) system of sending a runner with a message. Failing that, carrier pigeons were used.

Whittlesey had sent his adjutant Lieutenant Arthur McKeogh with 15 men and machine guns to silence some German machine gun positions behind them that were cutting off the 308th Infantry’s lines of communication during the night.

McKeogh was facing fierce enemy action and sent a runner forward with a message asking Whittlesey for a mortar before the whole battalion was cut off and surrounded. The runner, Private George Quinn, would never make it with his urgent request. He’d fallen to enemy fire while in the dense woods. Months later American burial teams discovered his body. In his final moments, Private Quinn had killed three Germans before he succumbed to their fire.

Whittlesey had his men dig in on Hill 198 as night set in. By about 2230 Whittlesey realized that the enemy still held Hill 205 on his left flank and also held the ravine to his right.

As morning dawned on 3 October, Whittlesey sent out numerous runners to attempt to make contact with the French and American units on his flanks or the companies left behind him as rear guard. None of those men returned. All were either killed or captured. Yet the Germans weren’t yet attacking Hill 198.

The Germans initially believed they were outnumbered by the Americans on the hill, but by the afternoon realized they in fact had several American companies surrounded.

The Germans attacked from all sides. The defenders on Hill 198 were dug into hasty foxholes. These were too shallow, too close together, and occupied by too many men to each hole. This made them prime targets for enemy shelling and snipers, both of which were used against them when the massive attack began.

Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening hours, the Americans held fast against three major assaults on their position. Whittlesey had sent pigeons out, but was unsure if any of them had arrived. One of his captains had attempted to counter assault the Germans and create a breakthrough the rest of the men could retreat through, but was unsuccessful.

On 4 October, Whittlesey knew the hill he occupied was key to pushing through the German front and thought his orders to hold and not retreat still stood. During this day, at least one of the messages had gotten through to American lines. Either the coordinates they received were wrong or the artillery was off target, because the Americans started shelling Whittlesey and his men.

He had one final pigeon to send back to call off the barrage. Cher Ami was the intrepid young bird’s name. As she took off, a shell exploded nearby. Killing five Americans, the bird too was taken down. Though seriously wounded, Cher Ami took flight only to draw German rifle fire. Knocked down a second time, the bird again limped skyward.

Shot through the breast, blind in one eye, and with one leg hanging on by only a tendon, Cher Ami delivered her message;” We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.” She was considered a hero to the men of the 77th ID and the medics worked to save her. She was nursed back to a semblance of health but died in 1919 from her war injuries. The French awarded her a Croix de Guerre with Palm for her bravery and in 2019 was one of the eight inaugural recipients of the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery, which we talked about here.

As soon as the American shelling stopped, the Germans again attacked. Once more, Whittlesey and his men repulsed the enemy assault.

After that, from the 5th of October, conditions on the hill worsened. Not only were many men wounded, killed, or captured, but supplies were exhausted. Many of the men were down to a handful of bullets. Food was nonexistent, and potable water was scarce. The only drinking water was a stream that you had to low crawl to get to and only at that by exposing yourself to enemy fire. At one point a soldier had made the perilous trek to discover that the water was being spoiled by the corpses of their fallen brethren upstream. Exposed to the elements, cold rain fell on the men. Medical supplies also exhausted, they stripped bandages from the dead to be used on the wounded.

For the next three days the Germans sent messages to the American commander appealing to him to surrender. Whittlesey ignored them. When the Germans sent a captured soldier back to them with another demand to surrender. Whittlesey is said to have replied, “You go to hell!” He denied it, but it’s very much the American attitude to being outnumbered, surrounded, and hopelessly outgunned. He even ordered the white panels being used to signal friendly aircraft of their location to be furled so that the enemy wouldn’t see them and think they were waving the white flag.

Twenty-six years later, and less than 100km away, another American commanding officer would be cut off and surrounded by a better supplied, better armed, and numerically superior German force. That officer, General McAuliffe, would reply simply with “Nuts!” to a similar plea for surrender from the Germans. When the German officer asked the messenger what “Nuts!” meant, the man replied, “In plain English? Go to hell.” Echoes of Whittlesey’s sentiment exactly.

Whittlesey is said to have written in his after actions report the much more officer-like “No reply to the demand to surrender seemed necessary.”

Despite the dire conditions on the hill and the unrelenting enemy attacks, the battalion, which had come to be known as “The Lost Battalion”, held the hill.

Efforts to free the Lost Battalion continued. General Billy Mitchell, commanding the US Army Air Service in France, ordered a resupply to be air-dropped. Unfortunately, the Germans were the recipients of the drop. As Mitchell retold it, he ordered;

…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….

This effort is claimed to be the first combat airlift in military history. The first attempts to land supplies resulted in three planes shot down and one of the returning aircraft’s observer coming in with a bullet wound through his neck. They did, however, verify that the location of the supply drop was in enemy-held hands.

One aircraft crew volunteered to make a lower level pass to more accurately drop supplies to the Lost Battalion. Pilot 1st Lieutenant Harold Goettler and his observer 2nd Lieutenant Erwin Bleckley flew over the Lost Battalion. It was their second flight of the day to attempt the resupply.

As they came into the area of Hill 198, they took heavy enemy fire. Despite amazing flying and airmanship on the behalf of Goettler, the accurate and concentrated fire, as the airmen attempted to drop the supplies into a box 50 yards by 350 yards, was too much for the pilot and aircraft. Goettler was struck in the head by a bullet and killed. When the plane crashed over Allied-held land Bleckley was tossed from the cockpit. Unconscious, Bleckley survived the crash but died after the French troops they’d crashed near were rushing him to hospital by vehicle.

Both Goettler and Bleckley would receive the Medal of Honor for their heroism in attempting to help the Lost Battalion.

On 8 October, the Lost Battalion, who had been shelled by their own artillery and had their emergency supplies given to the enemy, were finally relieved. Private Abraham Krotoshinsky volunteered to sneak across German lines to make contact with the relief force and guide them in. As he crawled through enemy lines he once played dead and had a German officer step on his hand.

Krotoshinsky was a Polish immigrant to the US who had fled his native land (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1912 to avoid military service in an empire he didn’t believe in. He apparently believed in the American cause though. For his heroism on 8 October, 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

A relief force made up of the remaining contingent of the 77th ID was able to finally break through and rescue the Lost Battalion after a siege of nearly a week. About 554 men went into the woods and to Hill 198. Only 194 walked out unscathed. The killed in action counted 107, 63 men were missing or captured, and 190 were wounded.

WW1-era US Army MoH

In the aftermath of the valiant last stand of the Lost Battalion, Whittlesey was hailed a hero. He was immediately promoted to lieutenant colonel and would receive the Medal of Honor for his leadership through such harrowing circumstances. His was one of the first three presented for service in The War to End All Wars, one of the other two was to his executive officer (see below).

The battalion’s executive officer, Captain George McMurtry also received the Medal of Honor for his leadership during the battle. McMurtry, who had served during the Spanish-American War as part of Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, continued to lead his men despite repeatedly being injured. Standing in the open, he would refuse to seek cover until all his men had been directed and guided into cover themselves. Once the relief force broke through, the twice injured officer personally led his men off the hill and refused medical treatment until the others had been tended to first.

Captain Nelson Holderman was a company commander in the Lost Battalion. He earned the Medal of Honor as well. He was wounded on the 4th and 5th of October (and later again on the 7th). Despite serious wounds, he continued to lead his men and provide inspiration for them to continue. On the 6th, even though wounded, Holderman rushed through enemy machine gun and shell fire to come to the aid of two wounded men, carrying them to a place of safety.

Private Archie Peck was on patrol during the battle with two other soldiers on the 6th of October. Taking fire from an enemy machine gun, his two comrades were wounded. Peck returned to the company line, recruited another soldier to go effect a rescue, and returned to the enemy machine gun position. Even though his help was shot and killed along the way, Peck continued on. He made two trips through heavy enemy machine gun fire to pull the two wounded soldiers to safety. He earned the Medal of Honor for this.

First Sergeant Benjamin Kaufman on 4 October took out a patrol to silence a German machine gun position. During the patrol he got separated from the rest of his men and then stumbled across the enemy machine gun himself. The gun opened fire, shattering Kaufman’s right arm. Despite this, he fearlessly charged the enemy position. Throwing grenades with his one good arm, he leapt into the machine gun position with an empty pistol. He took one prisoner, scattered the rest of the enemy, and returned both the prisoner and the machine gun back to the company air station where he was finally treated for his wounds. His would be the final Medal of Honor earned by the Lost Battalion.

After the war Colonel Whittlesey attempted to return to his law practice. The Lost Battalion was one of the most talked about and well-known events of the war at the time. They even made a movie about it, which featured Whittlesey and many men from the Lost Battalion appearing as themselves.

His former division commander, Major General Robert Alexander said that Whittlesey displayed “extraordinary heroism” during his service and “conducted his command to the objective designated for him by the division commander he held that position with indomitable determination.”

Whittlesey was unable to effectively return to a normal, boring civilian life. Bookish, reserved, and scholarly by nature, the pressures of fame took their toll on him. He was constantly in demand for speeches, parades, and honorary degrees. He remarked, “Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit, usually about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear it much more.”

With the benefit of hindsight it’s now obvious that Whittlesey and many others who suffered from “shell shock” were suffering PTSD. Whittlesey’s burden of command, in which he’d led so many men who died or were seriously wounded, was something he carried with him back into civilian life.

In 1921, he served as one of the pallbearers for the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery with other Medal of Honor recipients from the war, including Samuel Woodfill and Alvin York.

Days after attending the burial of the Unknown, Whittlesey booked passage from New York to Havana on a United Fruit Company ship. The first night out of port, he dined with the captain and retired to his room (specially selected for its seclusion).

In his room, Whittlesey laid out nine letters he’d written to family and friends (including McMurtry). He also made a note to the captain regarding the disposition of his belongings on the ship. He then went on deck.

Once on deck, Whittlesey slipped over the rail and into the icy waters of the Atlantic to his eternal reward. I’d like to think he found his peace and sits in Heaven or Valhalla, reunited with his men once more, with none of the pain or scars from the horrors of the war. He was only 37 years old.

His family kept the colonel’s letters from getting to the hungry press, but they did release a statement that made clear the cause of his death. “His was a war casualty.” Whittlesey’s war wasn’t able to be left in France.

He was eulogized at the State Armory in Pittsfield, Massachusetts by Judge Charles Hibbard. He said, when Whittlesey returned, he could not simply be “Charlie.” Hibbard continued;

None of us can even imagine the horror of those days of ceaseless fighting.

Try as he may, he cannot get away from it. Wherever he turns, he is Col. Whittlesey, not the Charlie Whittlesey of old days.

Then begins that never ceasing and most exhausting drain upon his sympathy. From every hand come appeals for help. There are funerals and hospital visits and the impact of all such experiences upon his sensitive nature are terrific. The mainspring of his life is wound ever tighter and tighter and then comes the burial of the unknown soldier.

He had plumbed the depth of tragic suffering; he had heard the world’s applause; he had seen and touched the great realities of life; and what remained was of little consequence. He craved rest, peace and sweet forgetfulness.

Category: Army, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

Comments (6)

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  1. USAFRetired says:

    Thanks much for this. For a minute I thought I recognized the unit as being my maternal grandfather’s and had to go find my notes. Missed by this much… as he had served in the 76th Liberty Bell Division, specifically as a mule drawn ambulance driver in the sanitary Train as it was called.

    He died when I was in third grade and I remembered him as a big tall guy. My mother inherited his WWI Victory medal and his dog tags and they got passed down to me. Later when my mother’s older sister had to go into an Alzheimers facility and family was going through her stuff, she had his uniform blouse and it was passed on to me. I had it preserved by one of those heirloom clothing preservation services, but not before trying it on. This was before I retired from the Air Force and still met height/weight and PT Standards.

    It didn’t fit. This larger than life individual from my youth was not the giant I remembered. To me what he and others like him did a hundred years ago is now even more impressive. Thanks for these weekly posts.

  2. KoB says:

    “That such men lived…” Dusty as all Hell in here. Guess it’s from planing all of these 185 year old boards I’m using on this project.

    Thanks Mason.

  3. Sparks says:

    I agree with KoB. It’s dusty in here this morning. Thank you Mason for writing about this great and brave man.

  4. ninja says:

    Thank You again, Mason for sharing another story of Valor.

    If anyone is interested, one can watch FREE the 2001 Movie about the Lost Battalion starring Ricky Schroder as Major Whittlesey.

    Have seen this movie…very well done…highly recommended:

    • ninja says:

      Information about the movie:

      https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0287535/

      “Storyline”:

      “In 1918 in World War I, in the Meuse-Argonne Sector in France, the former New York lawyer and Major Charles White Whittlesey is assigned by Gen. Robert Alexander to a massive suicidal attack against the German forces in the Argonne Forest with his five-hundred-man battalion. However, the forces supposed to be giving support through the flanks retreat and the communications with the headquarter of the 77th American Division are cut. Major Wittlesey holds his position with his men, mostly Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants from New York, surrounded by the German army. Without food, water, ammunition and medical supplies, only two hundred men survive after five days of siege.”

  5. President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neanderthal B Woodman Domestic Violent Extremist SuperStraight says:

    What is this wet trailing down my face? And it’s not even raining. Damned Dust Fairy!

    HOOAH!