THE 308th INFANTRY
L. Wardlaw Miles
The Lost Battalion
The Lost Battalion
FULL responsibility for sending the detachment, which is
known as the Lost Battalion, forward into the position
where they were surrounded by the enemy for five days, is
acknowledged by Major General Robert Alexander in his
official record of the Argonne-Meuse operations of the
77th Division. In The History of the 77th Division, pages
149-152, he writes:
The daily and periodical press has seen fit to refer to
Major Whittlesey's Command as "The Lost
Battalion," and to speak of its "rescue."
In the opinion of the 77th Division neither of these
terms is apposite. Major Whittlesey conducted his command
to the objective designated for him by the Division
Commander, occupied the position assigned to him, and
held that position until the remainder of the Division
was able to move up to him. He held it with the
indomitable determination, which has characterized the
work of the American soldier, wherever he has been called
to perform a task.
This command was
neither "lost" nor "rescued." It
suffered heavy losses; it was subjected to fire from both
enemy and supposedly friendly artillery; notwithstanding
all this, Major Whittlesey and his command held the
position to which they had proceeded under my order and
were found by me, when I visited them on the very early
morning of October 8th, an organized command, in good
order and excellent spirits.
The situation on
the left of the Division on the morning of the 2nd of
October was about as follows: The 1st Battalion, 38th
Infantry, under Major Charles W. Whittlesey, was the
advance battalion on the left of the Division. The 2nd
Battalion, 308th Infantry, commanded by Captain George
McMurtry, was in support. The front line of these two
battalions was at approximately 294-90-275-95," the
leading battalion having been checked by heavy machine
gun and trench mortar fire and the support battalion
having closed up on it. With these two battalions were
sections of machine guns from Companies C and D of the
306th Machine Gun Battalion. The most stubborn resistance
of the advance had been encountered on the west of the
north and south ravine where a portion of the command
(Companies D and F, 308th Infantry) was in position.
Attention is invited to the extremely difficult character
of the terrain in front of this command. The north and
south ravine running from the Depot des Machines past the
Moulin de L'Homme Mort cuts the regimental sub-sector in
two. The sides of this ravine are decidedly precipitous
and densely covered with brush; in other words, an almost
impassable obstacle was interposed between the right and
left flanks of the Brigade line-an obstacle which offered
perfect cover to machine gun nests and trench mortar
emplacements. Furthermore, at this time and in fact at
all times during the operations in the forest, the left
flank of this Division was completely exposed, there
being no friendly troops anywhere near us. Consequently
the left flank was obliged to look after its own safety
as best it might. This was equally true of the right
flank of the Division. But our immediate interest here is
with the left flank.
This being the situation, I, early on the morning of the
2nd of October, gave orders for a general advance of the
entire Divisional line, giving as the objective the east
and west La Viergette-Moulin de Charlevaux road and the
railroad paralleling it as shown on the map.
My orders were
quite positive and precise- the objective was to be
gained without regard to losses and without regard to the
exposed condition of the flanks. I considered it most
important that this advance should be made and accepted
the responsibility and the risk involved in the
execution of the orders given.
At 10 A.M. on October 2nd, then, we find the 1st and 2nd
Battalion., of the 308th Infantry consolidated under the
command f Major Whittlesey in the ravine one kilometer
due east of the battered piles of mortar and stone that
had once been the town of Binarville. Their advance was
held up by machine gun opposition. The chief difficulty
was in trying to manage both sides of the ravine at the
same time. Companies B and C were supported by Company E
on the east side of the ravine; Companies D and F,
supported by Companies A, G, and H were on the west side
where the principal opposition had been encountered. For
the success of the operation, the German line of cleverly
concealed machine gun and trench mortar emplacements had
to be broken.
The following order was received at 11:35 A.M. from the
The advance of the infantry will commence at 12:30. The
infantry action will be pushed forward until it reaches
the line of the road and the railroad generally along
276.5 where the command will halt, reorganize, establish
liaison to the left and right and be ready for orders for
a further advance. This does not change the plan as given
you by (code word for name of the Regimental Commander).
You still leave two companies on your left as a
containing force, that is the remainder of the 1st and
2nd Battalions. The general says you are to advance
behind the barrage regardless of losses. He states that
there will be a general advance all along the line.
The plan referred to in this message contemplated a
vigorous attack up on the east side of the ravine,
leaving two companies as a containing force on the
supposedly more difficult western side-one company to be
detached from the force on the east when it reached its
objective to return and assist from the rear in an attack
on the western side.
As soon as these
plans had been explained to the Company Commanders,
details were sent immediately to collect rations, one
day's supply of hard tack and corned beef having just
been sent up from the rear. At this time the command had
no reserve rations-these having been consumed in the
earlier days of the advance. Owing to the lack of roads
for the transport it had been impossible to carry forward
new supplies in large quantities.
Lieutenant Paul Knight was placed in command of Companies
D and F, the force to remain in position on the west side
of the ravine. Promptly at 12:30 the remaining units,
that is Companies A, B, C, E, G, and H accompanied by
sections of machine guns, from Companies C and D of the
306th Machine Gun Battalion, moved out in pursuit of the
barrage of the 75's, which were whistling over the top of
the ravine. A thin line of scouts constituted the advance
guard with the companies creeping along in platoon
columns, the only formation which permitted keeping touch
through the dense underbrush. Machine gun, rifle and
grenade fire were encountered and there was considerable
sniping by the enemy from the left side of the ravine.
Runner posts of two men were established every two
hundred yards so that communication might be maintained
with the rear.
A patrol from B
Company, sent out to investigate sniping on the right
flank, captured an entire company of German Hessians,
including 2 officers and 28 privates who made no attempt
to fight. Progress of the advance was necessarily slow.
By 5.15 P.m. the advance elements of the command arrived
at the edge of the southern slope which looked down on
the La Viergettes-Moulin de Charlevaux road. Major
Whittlesey found that his companies had suffered go
casualties from flanking machine gun and sniper fire.
The command was
halted while Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry made a
reconnaissance. To the north across the valley a narrow
road could be seen plainly, running east and west about
half way up the hillside. A steep quarry-like edge cut
into the densely covered slope on the north of the road,
and above the edge the hill rose sharply. According to
the attack order the day's objective was this road
beginning at a point about four hundred yards east of
Moulin de Charlevaux.
As soon as the disposition by companies was decided upon,
the word to advance was given and the command, including
the machine gunners, filed down the slope, through the
morass at the bottom of the ravine, and crossed the
diminutive Charlevaux brook on a narrow plank bridge. As
they crossed the brook, the men noticed that the view
along the valley was open to the right and to the left of
them. They took up a position just below the road
covering ground 300 yards long and 60 yards deep. The
slope was found to be steep, thickly wooded, and covered
with underbrush. It was supposed that this position on a
reverse slope would offer protection against hostile
artillery fire. Although the hard and rocky ground
opposed stiff resistance to entrenching tools wielded by
tired arms, the command dug itself in for the night
within an hour.
The plan of disposition marked an oblong formation, its long sides
running parallel with the southern edge of the Charlevaux road. The left
flank was somewhat refused to guard against attack from that supposedly
more dangerous quarter. Beginning at the left flank, the order of units
was as follows: Companies H, B, C, 1st and 2nd Battalion Headquarters,
Companies A, G, and E. Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry occupied
the same funk hole, which was situated approximately in the center of
the position. A machine gun section was placed on each flank. When the
order to have mess was issued, it was discovered that two companies had moved out in such a hurry that they had
not been able to pick up their rations. The difficulty
was solved quickly those who had food volunteered readily
-to share it with those who had none. Guards were posted
at the flanks, lookouts were established at the north and
west, and a patrol was placed over the crest of the hill
above the road to watch for signs of the enemy. Then the
command turned in for the night, which passed quietly. It
was bitter cold, however, and the men suffered acutely
from the lack of blankets and overcoats, equipment, which
had been discarded by Regimental Order on the morning of
September 26th when the Argonne attack had started.
A message reporting the position was sent by the runner
posts to Regimental Headquarters. It was assumed that
these runner posts, scattered every two hundred yards for
more than a kilometer would act as outposts to the south.
At 6 A.M. on October 3rd, Company E under command of
Lieutenant Karl Wilhelm was sent back to attack on the
west of the ravine running north and south, the plan
being to assist from the rear in bringing Companies D and
F forward to take their place on the left of the
objective. Company E filed out of the position, crossed
the slope to the south and were soon lost from sight in
Within an hour after this detachment disappeared, Company
K of the 307th Infantry with 79 men under the command of
Captain Nelson M. Holderman-the liaison company between
the 307th and the 308th Infantry Regiments-came through
the marsh below the position and reported to Major
Whittlesey. They had worked their way forward by way of
the runner posts and their arrival was taken as an
indication that the system of communication to the rear
was in working order. The 307th men were placed in the
position vacated by Company E on the right flank.
Messages were started back through the runner posts
notifying the Regimental Commander of the position and
condition of the command; informing him that E Company
had already left to perform the mission agreed upon in
the plan of attack adopted the previous day, and
requesting that rations be sent forward by details from
the 3rd Battalion, 308th Infantry, which was acting as
reserve for the 154th Infantry Brigade. The forward
companies, expecting attack orders momentarily, did not
wish to spare details for carrying rations.
German artillery began to shell the position at 8:30, but
without serious effect, owing to the protection afforded
by the reverse slope. Captain William J. Cullen,
commanding H Company on the left flank, sent out a patrol
at 9 A.M. to size up the situation to the west, and
Captain Holderman sent a patrol to make a similar
reconnaissance on the right flank. Both patrols returned
in half an hour to report that small numbers of the enemy
had been seen scurrying through the woods off our right
and left flanks. It had been impossible to establish
liaison in either direction.
Lieutenant Leake with about 18 men returned at 10 A.M.
with the news that E Company, as soon as it had advanced
a short distance along the top of the west side of the
ravine, had encountered a powerful force of Germans. In
the lively fighting which followed, Lieutenant Wilhelm
ordered Lieutenant Leake to take his platoon and make
every effort to get back to Major Whittlesey with the
information that the enemy in considerable numbers had
taken up a position in the rear of the advance line. E
Company had been scattered-one platoon under Lieutenant
Wilhelm subsequently fighting its way back to the
position in the large ravine where the attack of the
previous day had started.
One of the men on the runner post nearest to the for-ward
post of command brought a report that the Germans had
fired on two of our posts, killing or capturing several
runners. It was feared that the runner lane had been
Captain Holderman with Company K of the 307th Infantry
and a detachment Of 20 scouts from 2nd Battalion
Headquarters were sent across the southern slope with
instructions to clear the Germans from the ridge and
reestablish the runner posts. At noon Captain Holderman
returned. He reported that he had met severe opposition
from enemy machine guns and rifle fire in working his way
up the ridge to the south. He said that there was no
doubt that the enemy, in considerable numbers, had
filtered through around the left flank during the night
and had taken possession of the high ground in the rear.
After a hard fight Captain Holderman had made his way
back across the marsh with the survivors in his
At noon on October 3rd, Major Whittlesey and Captain
McMurtry knew that their forces were cut off from
communication with the rear, and that the Germans were
both in front of and behind the objective, which our
troops had been ordered to occupy.
The following message was at once communicated personally
by Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry to all Company
"OUR MISSION IS TO HOLD THIS POSITION AT ALL COSTS.
NO FALLING BACK., HAVE THIS UNDERSTOOD BY EVERY MAN IN
From this time until reinforcements arrived on October
7th there was no communication between Regimental
Headquarters and the forward troops except by seven
carrier pigeons, the last one being sent on October 4th.
Major Whittlesey released the first pigeon at 8:50 A.M.
when enemy artillery began to shell the Charlevaux road,
sending this message:
"We are being shelled by German artillery. Can we
not have artillery support? Fire is coming from
Again at 10:45 A.m. he sent the following pigeon message:
our runner posts are broken. One runner captured. Germans
in small numbers are working to our left rear about
294.6-276.2. Have sent K Company, 307th, to occupy this
hill and open the line.
"Patrols to east ran into Germans at 295.1-276.3 (6
"Have located German mortar at 294.05-276-30 and
have sent platoon to get it.
" Have taken
prisoner who says his company Of 70 men were brought in
here last night to 294.4-276.2 from rear by motor trucks.
He says only a few infantrymen here when he came in.
machine gun constantly firing on valley in our rear from
"E Company (sent to meet D and F) met heavy
resistance, at least 20 casualties. Two squads under
Lieutenant Leake have just fallen back here."
Although these pigeon messages were directed to
Regimental Headquarters, the birds flew to the loft at
the 77th Division message center, and the message was
telephoned from Division Headquarters to the Commanding
Officer of the 308th Infantry at his forward P. C.
Definite assignments for the defense of the position were
given to all units and a strong patrol was sent to the
upper ridge to size up the situation to the north. It
returned with a report that a large number of Germans
could be seen moving in from the northwest.
The presence of the surrounding enemy began to make
itself felt in various ways. First a heavy trench mortar
suddenly opened fire from a position 600 yards to the
northwest, hurling many shells right in to our position.
Scouts sent to the crest of the ridge reported that the
mortar was strongly protected. A platoon failed to get
through machine gun fire to make an attack on the mortar
emplacement. Machine gun fire was placed on the Position
from the west and the southwest and sniping began from
At 3 P.M. there came the first organized enemy attack
from the ridge above the command. A shower of
potato-masher grenades fell through the trees to explode
at the edge of the roadway where the defending companies
rushed forward their firing lines. When rifle and
chauchat fire was poured into the bushes above the road,
the attack ceased as suddenly as it had begun.
In their excitement
to storm the position and capture the entire American
force, the Germans neglected to maintain the silence
usually associated with surprise attacks. One of our
officers on the left flank, who understood the Teuton
tongue, heard enemy officers discussing preparations for
the next attack, which was launched shortly before 5 P.m.
They seemed to be calling the roll.
a guttural voice would call.
"Hier." The answer came from the bushes above
the outposts on the extreme left.
"Heinrich," the same voice called.
"Ich bin hier," was the answer.
More commands in German followed and then, after a shout
of "Nun, alle zusammen " the attack was
started. It combined rushes against the left and right
flanks with a second grenade attack from the ridge. The
ravine rang with the echoes of machine guns, chauchats
and rifles. Our machine guns worked splendidly and the
enemy must have suffered heavy losses from this source
This attack, the most severe attempted by the enemy while
the Americans were surrounded, was repulsed on all sides.
Quiet stole over the closely huddled funk holes as
darkness settled down.
At 4:05 P.M. while
the attack was in progress, Major Whittlesey had
dispatched his third pigeon to Regimental Headquarters
with this report:
"Germans are on cliff north of us in small numbers
and have tried to envelope both flanks. Situation on left
"Broke two of our runner posts today near 294.7-2 7
5.7. We have not been able to reestablish posts today.
"Need 8000 rounds rifle ammunition, 7500 chauchat,
23 boxes M. G. and 250 offensive grenades.
yesterday in companies here (A, B, C, E, G, H) 8 killed,
80 wounded. In same companies today, 1 killed, 60
effective strength of companies here, 245.
From this brief summary of the situation at the end of
the first twenty-four hours of the isolation of the
command, it is shown that twenty-five per cent of the
original effective strength of approximately 554 officers
and men were killed or wounded the first day. No medical
officer was present. In an attempt to apply only first
aid dressings to the wounded, three enlisted Medical
Corpsmen with the surrounded companies soon exhausted
their supply of bandages.
Hunger added its pangs to suffering from the cold. The
last bit of food was consumed at noon on October 3rd.
This absolute shortage was due in a large measure to the
generosity of officers and men in sharing their precious
one day's ration with their less fortunate comrades who
had not been able to get food before the advance started.
Water was discovered in a spring at the bottom of the
ravine south of the position. But the Germans knew of the
location and had a machine gun trained on the spring. The
approach of a water carrying detail by daylight was sure
to draw savage bursts of fire and even during the night
the enemy occasionally sent machine gun bullets swishing
through the marsh in the hope of accidentally catching a
few thirsty Americans at the spring. It became necessary
as the suffering increased, to establish a guard to
prevent men from going down to the spring by daylight.
The wounded suffered pitifully in the bitter cold of the
second night. They were possessed of heroic fortitude,
the wounded men in the Lost Battalion, and they strove to
grit the little devils of pain and anguish between their
teeth, but there were moans and half-suppressed cries in
the dark along the hillside every night.
A private who had been shot through the stomach tried to
smile at Captain McMurtry who had stopped over to ask how
he was getting along.
"It pains like
hell, Captain," he said, "but I'll keep as
quiet as I can. " All knew the importance of not
making any noise which would draw the enemy's fire.
The night of October 3rd passed quietly. Several scouts
were sent out with orders to work their way through the
German lines and bring a first-hand report of the
situation to the Regimental Commander. These scouts
either returned wounded or did not return at all.
At daylight on October 4th patrols were sent out from
each flank and a detachment of scouts crawled away
through the marsh to the south in an attempt to cut
through to Regimental Headquarters. Before they had gone
500 yards, they were dispersed and driven back by heavy
machine gun and rifle fire from the high ground behind
the position. The patrols returned, however, to raise
false hopes by reporting that the enemy did not seem to
be active in any considerable numbers.
message was started back by pigeon at 7:25 A.M.:
"All quiet during the night.
"Our patrols indicate Germans withdrew during the
night. Sending further patrols now to verify this report.
"At 12:30 and 1:10 A.M. six shells from our own
light artillery fell on us.
" Many wounded here whom we can't evacuate.
"Need rations badly.
"No word from D or F Companies.
Whittlesey, Major, 308th Inf."
The dead were buried with great difficulty. Digging
graves in the rocky ground called for desperate effort on
the part of men well nigh exhausted from fatigue and
To make matters
worse, the German trench mortar on the northwest began to
lob over shells, which interrupted the work of the burial
parties. A strong patrol succeeded in climbing to the
ridge just in time to drive off several grenade throwers
who were getting into position to deliver an attack on
our troops. Scouts brought reports of Germans in large
numbers on the slope in the rear.
One of the two
remaining pigeons was released at 10:55 A.M. with this
message to appraise the Regimental Commander of the
growing seriousness of the situation in which the
detachment found itself:
" Germans are still around us, though in smaller
numbers. We have been heavily shelled by mortar this
"Present effective strength (A, B, C, E, G, H
COS.)-175; K CO. 307-45; Machine Gun detachment-17; Total
here about 235.
wounded: Lt. Harrington, Co. A; Captain Stromme, Company
C; Lts. Peabody and Revnes, M. G. Battalion; Lt. Wilhelm,
E. Co., missing.
"Cover bad if
we advance up the hill and very difficult to move the
wounded if we change position.
"Situation is cutting into our strength rapidly.
"Men-are suffering from hunger and exposure; the
wounded are in very bad condition.
"Cannot support be sent at once?"
During a lull on the afternoon of this day the men were
surprised by a friendly artillery barrage which began to
fall on the ridge to the southeast. Increasing in
intensity, the barrage crept down the slope, crossed the
marshy bottom of the ravine where it hurled mud and brush
into the air, and settled directly on our own position.
That our shells intended for the enemy's destruction were
tearing huge chunks from the one bit of earth, which
sheltered the beleaguered battalion, seemed unbelievable.
Funk holes crashed in, burying their wounded occupants.
As the underbrush and branches of the trees were uprooted
and slashed, the position was more plainly exposed to
observation and sniper fire from the Germans.
The men pressed
themselves flat into funk holes all along the slope,
hoping to escape the flying shrapnel and shell fragments.
Out of the inferno
of noise, dust and confusion flew Whittlesey's last pigeon-the last link
with reinforcements that had been
expected hourly for days-with this message:
" We are along the road parallel 276.4
"Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on
"For heaven's sake, stop it."
For an hour and thirty-five minutes there was no
indication that the bird had reached the Division pigeon
loft. It was a severe test for men to see 30 of their
comrades killed and wounded by their own artillery fire.
A number of the wounded who were able to walk, were
assisted to a position at the extreme right of the
position where the shelling was less severe and a few
logs afforded extra protection to the funk holes.
The German trench mortar threw in a few shells to add to
the fury of the friendly barrage. As soon as the shell
began to fall less frequently, a small force of Germans
armed with potato masher grenades launched an attack from
the ridge above the position. They were driven back,
although several patrols succeeded in penetrating the
line of our outposts.
So much cover had been ripped away from the slope by the
barrage that Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry had to
move their P. C. to another funk hole further towards the
left flank. In this connection the question of a shift in
position for the entire command was considered by Major
Whittlesey, but such an idea seemed inadvisable. To the
west the Germans held a strong position protected by
machine guns; the hills to the south, in addition to
being patrolled by the enemy, presented the further
objection that they were exposed to German artillery fire
which fell there at some time each day. The Americans
feared to move to the north and east because they might
encounter another friendly artillery barrage. Exact
coordinates of the present position had been reported to
the Regimental Commander in the successive pigeon
messages; there remained no method of getting additional
information back to Headquarters. Furthermore the present
position, although exposed to sniper fire, was well
protected from enemy artillery and offered fair
protection against the trench mortar to the west which
fired twice daily for a period of one hour-not more than
ten per cent of its shells falling on our troops, the
remainder passing over to burst at the base of the hill
in the rear.
An aeroplane from the American forces flew high over the
position and the battalion signalers reported that they
believed they had succeeded in attracting its attention
by placing the two white battalion panels in open spaces
between the trees. A rocket signal accepted as an
acknowledgment from the 'plane was here observed.
Whenever our machines approached over the forest as they
did on the afternoons of October 4th, 5th, and 6th -they
were greeted by heavy fire from the enemy. Twice lookouts
on the ridge above the Charlevaux road reported that they
had seen message containers with long streamers dropped
from the aeroplanes, but they were lost in the dense
swamp grass and brush. As a matter of fact, the aviators
sent up by order of Division Headquarters did not have a
clear idea of the location of the Pocket. They worked
tirelessly and with great danger to themselves to drop
baskets of food to the half starved troops, but in each
attempt the supplies fell nearer the enemy and supporting
troops at the rear than to the men who had had nothing to
eat for days.
Hunger and cold caused intense suffering among the
command on the night of the 4th-the third night of their
isolation. A chilly rain added to the discomfort.
But there was one source of encouragement that gave hope
to the weariest of spirits-after 8:30 P.M. that night the
sound of American Chauchat rifles could be heard from the
ridge to the south.
"They're going to cut their way through to us,
sure," the non-coms whispered to their men. A couple
of scouts were sent out to meet the reinforcements. They
did not return. The rain seemed to get more chilly and
more penetrating after midnight. There was no further
firing from the direction in which the last pigeon had
Dawn of October 5th brought the routine of sending out
patrols on either flank and the melancholy duty of
burying the new dead. Weakness from lack of food and
sleep made it almost impossible for the men to excavate
graves in the hard ground. Yet that their comrades might
have this- last earthly tribute they dug cheerfully, if
with frequent rests, into the flint-like surface.
Outposts on the north reported that they had sighted 2oo
Germans moving south to the hills in the rear of the
position. Trench mortar, machine gun and sniper fire was
directed at our troops at intervals during the morning.
Encouragement came at 10 A.M. when a friendly artillery
barrage began, as on the day previous, to creep down the
slope to the south and cross over the marsh-land at the
bottom of the ravine, tearing out great wads of bushes
and undergrowth. Suddenly the barrage lifted and,
clearing the anxious funk hole community clinging to the
ground below Charlevaux road, it landed directly on the
top of the ridge to the north where the enemy formed for
his daily attacks,
This was proof that the position of the command was
understood by the troops fighting forward to make the
relief. The last pigeon message had got through to its
Late in the afternoon a few ranging bursts of fire were
directed against the position from enemy machine guns to
the south and southwest. Then suddenly for twenty minutes
the Germans laid down an intense machine gun barrage
covering every part of the small piece of ground occupied
by our troops. The hillside fairly crackled with bullets,
which whistled and moaned to the accompaniment of what
sounded like a thousand riveting machines on the
surrounding high ground to the rear. Although one of the
most unpleasant experiences of the entire isolation, this
barrage did not cause many casualties because, warned by
the ranging shots, the men had flattened themselves in
their funk holes before the barrage began.
It was followed almost immediately by a potato masher
attack from the north, which was, as usual, quickly
repulsed. Exhaustion, hunger, and the strain of
twenty-four-hour days of anxiety were forgotten at the
first alarm for a " stand-to " and repeatedly
our men double-timed from their funk holes up to the edge
of the Charlevaux road where their grenade, chauchat, and
rifle fire put to rout attacking forces made up of fresh,
As darkness came on, ears were strained to catch the
echoes of firing beyond the ridge to the south. The
slower throb of the American chauchat rifle could still
be distinguished from the rapid tack-tack-tack-tack of
enemy machine guns, but it was clear that the firing
sounded much farther away than on the previous night..
One of the officers suggested that if the sound of
chauchat rifles with supporting troops could carry to the
neighborhood of the Charlevaux road why would it not be a
good plan to have the surrounded troops send the chauchat
signal back to encourage the forces which were attacking
nightly to bring aid? This suggestion was accepted. At
quiet intervals during the night of the 5th, outposts on
the flanks were ordered to fire bursts of ten shots from
their chauchat rifles.
But hope of being relieved immediately had sunk to a low
level with the fading away of the sound of firing to the
south. The night was bitter cold with a drizzling rain
which added to the suffering of the wounded. Their
suppressed moans and the impending danger of attack at
any moment united to keep many heavy-lidded eyes wide
open. And in the solemn watches of the night, these eyes
could see only a vision of despair. Where was the help
that every one had expected long before things had come
to such a terrible state?
Had one of the several aeroplane message containers
tossed to the Lost Battalion reached its destination,
then the weary command would have learned that two entire
battalions had been reduced to practically negligible
strength in repeated assaults to cut through the wire and
advance up the ravine to Charlevaux brook. Another
narrative of fortitude and remarkable endurance under the
strain of attack, centers around the chauchat firing
which was heard, faintly, to the south. Our concern here,
however, is with the surrounded troops.
The position of
the Lost Battalion was along the slope just below the
On October 6th the
men were found to be too weak from hunger to attempt to
bury their dead. Some bodies were covered with brush and
leaves, but most remained lying in the positions in which
they had been struck down. The few first aid men took
bandages, often stiff with blood, from the dead to bind
the wounds of the living. Conditions were growing hourly
more serious. The indescribable suffering of the wounded
and the seeming failure of troops in the rear to come
forward with reinforcements threatened to shake the
morale of the command.
An exceedingly determined effort was made to get patrols
through the German lines, several groups being sent out
from different parts of the position. It was learned
afterwards that of all the patrols and scouts ordered to
try their skill at working their way back to Regimental
Headquarters, only three men succeeded in reaching the
American lines. They were Privates Clifford R. Brown and
Stanislaw Kosikowski of Company C, 308th, and Private
Abraham Kretoshinski of Company K, 307th Infantry.
Another day dragged out its weary length of trench
mortar, machine guns and sniper fire with a heavy grenade
attack at 5 P.m. This was repulsed after twenty minutes
of vigorous fire from the American rifles. Two officers
with the machine gun detachments were killed. With
darkness came the cold, bringing renewed suffering to the
wounded and the dying. Faint sounds of firing over the
ridge to the south were heard this night but they were so
faint and far away that they spoke of despair rather than
On the morning of October 7th, the fifth day of the
command's fight against the surrounding enemy, it was
almost impossible to find men who had strength enough to
go out for the usual early patrols to size up the
situation on either flank. There was no change-the
patrols and two scouts who sought to creep through the
marsh to the south were driven back by enemy rifle fire.
On account of the extreme weakness of the men, no attempt
was made to bury the bodies of the men who had fallen on
the previous day. To dig a grave required as much effort
as to scoop out a funk hole. Every bit of strength
remaining in the survivors had to be conserved to repel
daily attacks from the ridge above the position. A
grenade attack was driven back shortly before noon.
At 4 P.M., while the enemy firing ceased temporarily, a
private of Company H was noticed limping along the slope
off the left flank and carrying a cane on which was tied
a white handkerchief. He was passed through the firing
line on the left flank and worked his way along the slope
until he stood at attention in front of the Battalion
Commander's funk hole. He reported that he had been sent
in by the Germans with a message for the commanding
officer. A bandage on the calf of his leg showed that he
had been wounded.
He was asked to explain why he had left the position.
With nine of his comrades in H Company, he said he had
crawled in the woods to the rear in an effort to locate a
basket of food which they believed they had seen fall
from an American aeroplane on the previous day. They
encountered the German line. Five of the nine were
killed, the rest wounded and captured. Of the four taken
to the German Headquarters to be questioned, this soldier
had been selected to be the bearer of a note from the
German commander to the Americans. He was blindfolded and
led to a point near the American position and then the
bandage removed from his eyes.
He gave the message to Captain McMurtry, who handed it to
Major Whittlesey. It was a letter, dictated in English
and neatly typewritten on a sheet of good quality paper,
and addressed to "Commanding Officer, Second
Battalion, 308th Infantry." It said:
The bearer of the present, Private_________ has been
taken Prisoner on October _____. He refused to the German
intelligence officer any answer to his questions and is
quite an honorable fellow, doing honor to his Fatherland
in the strictest sense of the word. He has been charged
against his will, believing it doing wrong to his country
in carrying forward this Present to the officer in charge
of the Second Battalion, 308th Infantry with the purpose
to recommend this commander to surrender with his forces,
as it would be quite useless to resist any more in view
of the present situation.
The sufferings of
your wounded can be heard in the German lines and we are
appealing to your humane sentiments.
A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that
you agree with these conditions. Please treat - as an
honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you.
(Signed) The German Commanding Officer
Legend had made famous the reply, "Go to Hell which
Whittlesey is reported to have hurled at the Germans.
For the purpose of history, the following recital of
facts will suffice; Whittlesey read the note and handed
it to Captain McMurtry. He read it and handed it to
Captain Holderman who had just come from the right flank.
The three officers looked at one another and smiled. For
there was humor, both sardonic and typically Teutonic, in
those words: "We are appealing to your humane
sentiments. " A strange appeal it seemed from the
enemy who for five days bad killed or wounded more than
fifty percent of the besieged command!
No answer whatever, written or verbal, was made to the
German commander's letter. The bearer of it was directed
to report back to H Company. Major Whittlesey ordered the
two white aeroplane panels to be taken in at once. There
was to be nothing white showing in the American position.
A private expressed, in one exclamation, the answer of
the entire command to the German letter. He asked one of
the officers if it was true that they had been called
upon to surrender. He was told that the rumor was
"Why, the sons of__________! he said as he pushed
back his helmet.
But the German commander evidently understood the fact
that his note was ignored, for within thirty minutes a
furious grenade attack was made from the ridge above and
many potato mashers exploded about our firing line. They
came whirling through the trees, sometimes falling in
clusters of two or three and making an infernal noise as
they exploded. It required twenty minutes of steady rifle
fire directed against the slope above the road to
frustrate this final attempt of the enemy to overcome the
resistance of men who had nothing to eat for four days
and four nights. In spite of the pitiful exhaustion of
our men, their rifle fire was effective, as occasional
yells from the bushes above testified. Gradually the
Germans with-drew and silence settled down on the
Darkness soon came, and the men were preparing listlessly
to suffer another cold night of hunger and thirst, not to
mention the horror of enduring the moans of the severely
wounded. The hopeless seriousness of the situation was
beginning to penetrate even the stoutest hearts. Only two
of the original nine machine guns remained in action, and
there was no gunners left to feed the last five boxes of
machine gun ammunition to the guns. Rifle ammunition was
practically gone; grenades were all gone. No firing was
heard to the south. No aeroplane
had come over that
afternoon. It began to look as if the Battalion was
abandoned to its fate.
A few minutes after 7 P.m., while Major Whittlesey and
Captain McMurtry were seated in their funk hole talking
in a low voice, a runner scrambled breathlessly down the
slope from the right flank and reported to Major
Whittlesey that an American officer with a few men had
just come in on the right of the position.
"He says that he wants to see the commanding
officer," the runner whispered.
followed the runner over to the right flank and there
found the relief for which his men had been waiting since
the morning they found their runner posts broken. First
Lieutenant Tillman of the 307th Infantry, with a patrol,
reported that three companies of that regiment were
located in the forest a short distance to the right.
After a brief talk with Major Whittlesey this officer
made his way back to his command and shortly afterwards
guided Companies A, B, and M of the 307th Infantry to our
position. The long expected relief had at last come.
The news spread rapidly along the hillside. There was no
wild demonstration, no cheering. In the grim darkness of
the shadows above Charlevaux brook, haggard men with
bleary eyes and muddy stubble on their chins rose from
the holes they had expected would be their graves, and
grasped one another's hand silently. They crawled to the
side of those heroic wounded and whispered the news that
relief had come, that food was on the way to the position
at that very moment, and that it was all over but the
shouting which would have to be deferred until later. If
tears flowed, the darkness concealed them. The battalion
that had been lost was found.
Within an hour the rations brought by the 307th Infantry
companies had been distributed to the starving survivors.
Medical attention was directed to the most severely
wounded. Not a shot disturbed the slumber of the troops
that night. The enemy knew before dark that
reinforcements were arriving, and filtered out from our
flanks and rear, retreating to the north.
At daybreak on October 8th the relieving companies of the
307th Infantry left the position and advanced over the
ridge in pursuit of the Germans. Fresh rations arrived.
The dead were buried by the incoming troops under the
direction of Chaplain Halligan. Many ambulances arrived
on the Charlevaux road above the position and the wounded
who were unable to walk were carried up the slope on
stretchers to them. One of the first visitors to reach
the position was Major General Alexander, Division
Commander, who extended to the command his warmest
congratulations and appreciation for their gallant work
in successfully carrying out the mission which he had
assigned to them.
At 3 P.M. Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry assembled all officers
and men able to walk, at the foot of the hill. This number totaled
exactly 194. The number who
had been cut off in the position was 554.
The command was then marched slowly down the valley to
An observer who saw
them march slowly down the ravine that afternoon on their
way to Headquarters for a rest said: "I couldn't say
anything to them. There was nothing to say anyway. It
made your heart lump up in your throat just to look at
them. Their faces told the whole story of their
The foregoing is the account of the Lost Battalion as it
was prepared by Colonel Whittlesey and Major McMurtry,
and by them turned over to the present writer. In the
Appendix will be found both General Alexander's account
of the matter and a list of the names of most of those
concerned in the action. It is greatly to be regretted
that this list is not complete, but when it was compiled
many were still in the hospital. In the Appendix also is
given an extract from a letter written immediately after
the episode by Captain Cullen, which furnishes some
If the preceding chapter deserves any criticism, it is
for the modesty with which it has been prepared. Perhaps,
however, the authors are right. Secretary of War Newton
Baker well said of the episode, "The bare facts are
more eloquent than any praise."
The bare facts may be recapitulated thus: approximately
550 men and officers were cut off. Of the 17 officers, 4
were killed and 9 wounded. There were in all 107 killed
and 19o wounded. These figures are approximate, but
substantially correct. Of the 9 machine guns taken into
the position, only 2 were left with only 5 boxes of
machine gun ammunition. For 104 hours the troops were
without food, during which time they were under constant
Captain McMurtry was twice wounded, but continued
throughout the entire period to encourage his officers
and men. Whittlesey constantly exposed himself and was
perfectly indifferent to the constant warnings of the
danger he incurred. One of those present has described
him: " Strolling up and down and saying, 'We'll get
out tonight!"' In the significant words of this
authority: "He held the men up." Captain Cullen
in his funk hole on the constantly exposed and harassed
left flank only some, thirty feet from the German
outposts, tells of a visit from the commanding officer.
When asked the nature of the message from the Germans,
"he produced it from a pocket of his gas mask and
handed it to me to read. I read it and asked what message
he had returned. He said, You gave them our message last
night,"' meaning Cullen's fire against the enemy
attack. Similarly Sergeant Tuite of C Company, who
commanded both B and C Companies after Lieutenants Rogers
and Schenck had been killed, reports in what is perhaps
the best commentary on the silly, " Go to Hell!
" story: "What he really told us was to fix
bayonets and set ourselves!"
I cannot forbear adding one incident, which seems to me
to afford a striking example of the practical working of
religion in the face of death. Lieutenant Schenck and
Sergeant Tuite were sitting together in their funk hole,
where the former was subsequently killed by a direct hit
from a shell. " That's like a tonic to me, "
said Schenck, holding up the Christian Science Manual
which he was reading. To which Tuite, lifting his beads,
replied: "That's my tonic!"
Herewith is appended-
THE CITATION OF "THE LOST BATTALION"
HEADQUARTERS, 77TH DIVISION, AMERICAN E. F.
April 15, 1919. General Orders NO. 30:
I desire to publish to the command an official
recognition of the valor and extraordinary heroism in
action of the officers and enlisted men of the following
Company A, 308th Infantry Company B, 308th Infantry
Company C, 308th Infantry Company E, 308th Infantry
Company G, 308th Infantry Company H, 308th Infantry
Company K, 307th Infantry Company C, 306th Machine Gun
Battalion Company D, 306th Machine Gun Battalion
These organizations or detachments there from, comprised
the approximate force of 550 men under command of Major
Charles W. Whittlesey, which was cut off from the
remainder of the 77th Division and surrounded by a
superior number of the enemy near Charlevaux, in the
Forest d' Argonne, from the morning of October 3, 1918,
to the night of October 7, 1918, Without food for more
than one hundred hours, harassed continuously by machine
gun, rifle, trench mortar, and grenade fire, Major
Whittlesey's command, with undaunted spirit and
magnificent courage successfully met and repulsed daily
violent attacks by the enemy. They held the position
which had been reached by supreme efforts, under orders
received for an advance, until communication was
reestablished with friendly troops. When relief finally
came, approximately 194 officers and men were able to
walk out of the position. Officers and men killed
On the fourth day a
written proposition to surrender received from the
Germans was treated with the contempt which it deserved.
The officers and
men of these organizations during these five (5) days of
isolation continually gave unquestionable proof of
extraordinary heroism and demonstrated the high standard
and ideals of the United States Army. ROBERT ALEXANDER,
Major General, U. S. A.
Louis B. GEROW,
An artillery observation post at Abri du Crochet, October
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