On Oct. 8, 1918, 100 years ago during the First World War, the “Lost Battalion” was found.
According to an early news report, it was thought to be lost to the enemy in battle. Thus its nickname stuck in the public psyche as well as in history.
On Oct. 2, the 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry, 77th Division, joined the forward movement in the massive Meuse-Argonne offensive.
The Lost Battalion’s commander, Harvard Law School graduate Major Charles Whittlesey, age 34, lived up to his sobriquet “Galloping Charlie,” by briskly leading his men 1,000 yards deep unopposed into enemy territory.
Idyllically, it was so far a perfect textbook advance. Due to an enemy snafu, a dangerous gap had been left in the German defensive line.
Whittlesey’s 1st Battalion pushed forward, occupying a ravine at the end of a narrow salient it had created. By early morning Oct. 3, voices in German could be heard on both of its flanks and rear. Exceedingly far advanced, 1st Battalion had outrun its flank supporting units, which retreated on the left and became stymied on the right.
Assuming that orders to “retire” or to “fall back,” were faked by the enemy or uttered by a turncoat officer, the troops were ordered to ignore them. The 77ths overbearing general of division, Robert Anderson, had so issued General Order No. 27 on Sept. 28, 1918. It included his caveat that any American officer ordering a retreat was a “traitor” to be “shot on the spot.” Only to go forward was thinkable.
Whittlesey’s 1st Battalion wore the 77th Division’s Statue of Liberty shoulder patches. Culturally diverse, its men—mainly from New York City’s Lower East Side, spoke 42 languages or dialects, such as Greek, Italian, Yiddish, Russian, and Mandarin.
Its nickname was the “Melting Pot Division” or the “Metropolitan Division.” (By battle’s end it had its 2nd Battalion, with parts of the 306th and 307th, with Whittlesey the CO.)
The Lost Battalion’s initially comforting pocket instead became a depressed trap, ringed by Germans upon the heights 200 feet high. In carrying few accouterments, since it was light infantry. The Lost Battalion was hungry, thirsty, wet, cold, and on low ammo.
Outwardly solemn and imperturbable, “Count” Whittlesey ably held his command together during the crisis. Tall, erect, slender, wearing round metal eyeglasses, and maintaining a soldierly bearing, he was characterized a “young Woodrow Wilson.”
Intensive machine gun and Minenwerfer (a shrapnel-firing mortar) fire poured down upon Whittlesey’s stricken command. Potato masher grenades were rolled down the slopes. There was a flame-thrower assault and waves of infantry attacks fell upon the Lost Battalion. The assaulting Germans hoped for a spoiling massacre. Runners would be cut down, almost as they started out. Carrier pigeons were sent aloft to rear area headquarters bearing messages requesting a relieving force in order to evacuate the many wounded and also to alleviate the suffering. Some were shot down by German rifle-fire. Artillery support was also sought.
Unfortunately, the wrong coordinates were sent, making Whittlesey and his men the target. The Lost Battalion was now potential cannon fodder for its own friendly artillery.
Only two pigeons remained in their coop. When opened, the first pigeon became— with the aid of the reverberating ground, due to the friendly bombardment — an escape artist, squirming out of the hands of its trainer. The last pigeon remaining named Cher Ami (“Dear Friend”) was released carrying a desperation plea note.
First fluttering up to the safety of a nearby tree branch, Cher Ami either did not want to leave behind her buddies of the Lost Battalion or perhaps she had a natural trepidation in regard to navigating the bullet-ridden air space back to headquarters.
Cursing at her, one of her handlers threw rocks, then, climbed up a branch of the tree, causing Cher Ami, initially to fly to a higher branch, finally to attempt flight.
An exploding artillery shell, however, knocked Cher Ami to the earth. Rising again through the air back to 77th Division HQ, a distance of 25 miles, she made it in 25 minutes. Landing there at about 4 p.m., the message was removed from its canister, which read: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
This note was then taken on motorcycle at 4:15 p.m. to the 154th Brigade’s artillery unit, by which time the lethal barrage had coincidentally ended. Mercifully, due to the note, fire was not resumed, helping to spare the Lost Battalion.
Cher Ami, shot through her breast, losing an eye, with a badly torn leg, received a replacement wooden leg. She was now a war hero.
By the fifth day of the siege of the Lost Battalion, on Oct. 7, a demand note of surrender was given to Whittlesey. It praised the Lost Battalion’s noble yet futile resistance, anticipating its “honorable” surrender. Whittlesey declined to capitulate.
In early afternoon, three Doughboys began to crawl “by inches” through the thick underbrush. They met with K Company of the 307th Battalion, which was guided to back the pocket holding the remnants of the isolated Lost Battalion that rainy night.
Welcome relief arrived on Oct. 8, as rations and medical personnel heralded the Lost Battalion’s deliverance. From its original 554 officers and men, 144 were removed by stretchers and 194 walked out on their own. The rest were later to be buried in the American section of the huge Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
Falling back to the final barrier of the Meuse River, besieging German casualties were about 600.
Major Whittlesey received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel. Awarded the Medal of Honor on Dec. 6, 1918, he may eventually have felt it a dishonor. Rigidly, he had un-proudly obeyed his orders. A legendary hero, he was a celebrity.
Whittlesey went home to practice law and try to forget the war, which he came to feel was an unnecessary waste of lives. Almost daily, he was contacted by his last surviving men from the Lost Battalion, either seeking postwar help finding jobs or imploring medical or other aid. Impecunious surviving widows asked his succor.
A “mother hen,” Whittlesey hurried about, trying to nurture the lives connected to his former unit. Depressed over their plight, he was unable to escape the Great War.
His brother, Elisha Whittlesey, a “gentleman volunteer” in the ambulance field service Over There, had contracted a lung disease, which disabled him. Whittlesey, possessed a loud “racking cough” due to having been gassed while in the pocket with his trapped battalion. The war had claimed his health physically and mentally.
He felt he was merely a flashy ornament to be shown off at official ceremonies for the public. At the ceremony for the original Unknown Soldier in Washington, D. C., on Nov. 11, 1921, he wondered if the Unknown might have been one of his own men.
President Warren Harding’s misstatement that it was as an “impersonal tribute,” perhaps isolated Whittlesey, as much as had been his Lost Battalion.
On Nov. 20, he stood with Marshal Foch at a New York ceremony to the Red Cross Roll Call to appeal for charity, wounded veterans, present, “some armless or legless.”
Next day, Whittlesey booked passage on the Toloa, a United Fruit Co. ship to Cuba. Disappearing en route on the 26th, he sought the sea’s embrace to escape the war.