172: The Hundred Days Offensive Pt. 6 - The Lost Battalion


Amidst our very large story, we zoom in to talk about the events of a single battalion that ends up getting lost.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episoe 172. Talk about the Symposium in Kansas City November 1-3, if anybody else is attending let me know, first beer on me, etc. This week the American attacks in the Meuse-Argonne offensive continue, but we also take a bit of a break from the larger story to focus on a much smaller one. When the attacks would continue in the first week of October there would once again be many failures, but there would also be a few small successes. One of these successes would be the attack of a battalion of American troops, they would be so successful that they would eventually be surrounded by German forces. Over the next 6 days the battalion would beat off repeated German counter-attacks until they were relieved on October 8th. AFter the war the battalion’s commander, Major Whittlesey would receive the Medal of Honor and the story of the surrounded troops would become famous. I was first introduced to this story way back in 2001 when A&E released a TV movie about the story, back in A&E made movies I liked to watch. Before we get to the story of the Lost Battalion though, we need to discuss the planning done by Pershing and Foch that would chart the course for the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

Pershing and the Americans had pulled back on their attacks at the end of September, buy they hoped to continue attack in October, and the French wanted to help. There were two big problems that would have to be solved if the American and French troops wanted to make progress in October. The first would be finding a way to take care of the German artillery fire that was falling on them from German artillery positions on the east side of the River Meuse and the second was the general lack of progress made on the American left in the Argonne. For both of these problems the French General Weygand, Foch’s chief of staff, believed he had a solution. The first problem, the artillery fire from the height was easiest, Weygan proposed that the attack be expanded onto the east bank of the river. This attack would be executed by the French XVII Corps, which would need to be augmented by a few American divisions, with both groups placed under Pershing’s command. Pershing was definitely on bard with this expansion, he could see the problems that the artillery was causing and agreed with the solution to fix it. For the problem on the American left Weygand then proposed that the French Second Army be placed in between the French Fourth Army and the Americans. This would place it right in the Argonne and ready to try to continue the advance there. Once again it would require a few American divisions, probably the 77th and 28th which were already in the line. The key difference here was that these troops would be taken out of Pershing’s control and put under French control. It was with this point that Foch and Weygand lost Pershing’s support. As always Pershing was very touchy about losing control over any American troops, and he believed that this plan meant the “dismemberment of the American First Army at a moment when its elements are striving for success under the direction of American command.” Foch, having been down this road with Pershing before was quick to relinquish the point, however he did insist of Pershing “that your attacks start without delay and that, once begun, they be continued without any interruptions such as those which have just arisen.”Pershing took this advice to heart and planned to launch a renewed attack along his entire 12 mile front. He would fall back on a very simplistic model for these operations saying that “The thing to do, was to drive forward with all possible force.” While this was all well and good, it did not resolve the problems that the Americans were still going to have in trying to push through the heart of the German defenses. The Kriemhilde Stellung still stood before them, and Gallwitz had heavily reinforced these defenses. American intelligence believed that there were up to 26 German and an Austrian division in these defenses, with many more in reserve. The Germans also knew that the Americans were going to try again, multiple prisoners were captured on October 3rd and they reported that the General offensive would begin the next day, they even outlined their unit’s objectives. The defenders would be fully prepared. But before the general attack was to begin there would be smaller efforts throughout the first two days of October. These were generally smaller attacks designed to slightly alter the line and given better positions for that larger attack. One of these would be launched by the American 77th Division, and that is where our story of the Lost Battalion begins.

On October 2nd the commander of the 77th Division, Major General Alexander, would inform Brigadier General Evan Johnson that he was to launch an attack. Johson was to take his 154th Brigade and attack the German positions in front of him in support of a French attack on his left and the attack of another American unit on his right. Alexander was adamant that Johnson launch these attacks on the specified date, saying that if he could not then Alexander would find somebody who could. The goal of the 154 Brigade was a ridge to the north of the Charleveaux Mill road. There had been previous attempts to reach this position, and the 307th regiment had actually reached it the day before and then had been pushed back. The first battalion of the 308th regiment, part of the 154th Brigade, was commanded by Major Whittlesey. His unit was reponsible for taking a set of German positions on a hill on the way to Charleveaux Mill road. Previous attacks had shown that these positions would be a tough nut to crack but some scouts had reported that there might be a better way, a ravine to the east side of the hill that would allow the American troops to slip past the worst of the German defenses. This would be the path that Whittlesey would take when the attack went forward.

The men of the 77th division had been in action since September 26th, during that time they had taken serious casualties. Many regiments had been reduced to the size of battalions, and battalions to companies. There had been many reinforcements brought in, which resulted in something of a cultural classh. Originally many of the units had been made up of troops from New York City, primarily from Brooklyn. The replacements that had arrived were from Wyoming, and many had just arrived at the front. It would be said that many “had not fired a rifle, and had never seen a grenade. They had no idea of target designation, and had to be told how, where, and when to shoot.” Regardless of how well the units meshed together, they were about to attack, and so they got ready. Ration parties arrived right before the attack on October 2nd and quickly passed out a days worth of food. Not all of the units received these supplies, and part of the eventually lost battalion would go forward with no additional rations at all. Ammunition was in a reasonable state, with many troops having their alloted 200 rounds of ammunition, although grenades and machine gun ammunition was in short supply. Most importantly, these troops had not been fully off the line for over a week, and therefore rest had been hard to come by, it would not be any easier after the attack began.

When Whittlesey and his men attack they found that they were not facing as much German resistance as they expected. There were a few German troops, especially shipers, but the Americans were still able to advance quite quickly. By mid afternoon they had moved up the ravine and were on the western side of the ridge, Ridge 198 approaching the Charleveaux Mill road. Whittlesey ordered his men up the ridge and then to dig in on its Western slope. The hope was that being on this side of the ridge would provide good protection from German artillery fire. There was also good cover here, with plenty of trees and a thick undergrowth. The American troops were deployed in an oval shaped formation about 300 yards wide and 60 deep. The Americans dug in with rigle and machine gun pits. Up to this point all of this was very standard procedure, and the Americans were now ready to hold their positions until more troops arrived. While moving foward Whittlesey had left runners every 200 yards to allow for contact to be maintained to the rear. Everything was going according to plan. Sure there were some reports of German troops to the left and right, especially on the left where sniper activity was the heaviest, but there were supposed to be French troops advancing there soon. But as time went on, and no contact was made with those French troops in the left, or the American troops on the right for that matter, Whittlesey and the Americans became concerned.

What Whittlesey could not have known at this time was that the French attack on the left had completely failed, instead of advancing the French had withdrawn in a poor state. Then on the right the American division that was supposed to advance had quickly bogged down. Whittlesey’s advance was the only thing that was really going according to plan and when Johnson found out about it he decided to push forward with this success. He moved a battalion of the 207th regiment over to then advance up the same ravine that Whittlesey had used, but this move took time. By the time that it started to get dark only the first company of this battalion, Company K under the commander of Captain Nelson Holderman had arrived. Holderman would bring with him 79 men, adding to Whittleseys 475, these 79 men would be the last reinforcements before the battalion was surrounded.

The Germans would lose in and cut off Whittlesey’s unit early on October 3rd by moving in behind it from the left and right, they would then close off the end of the ravine that they had used to advance. There would be 554 men trapped inside. It was soon apparent to the men within the pocket that they were surrounded, and in the afternoon the German harrassment began in earnest. Grenades were a constant nuisance, they were thrown down on the American positions from German positions in every direction. One of the soldiers would say that “There were long periods of time, when all one did was lie there and hope nothing made a direct hit in your own particular funkhole.” In the evening the Germans made their first assault on the American positions, with attacks on both the left and right. Fortunately this is exactly where Whittlesey had positioned his machine guns and these were able to beat back the German attack with ease. By the time that the German attacks were over the Americans had used up all of their grenades and were very short of machine-gun ammunition. During the day Whittlesey had released three carrier pigions to try and get information about about his situation, it was his only method of communication but he only had so many birds. In just this one day of fighting 25t of the American troops had become casualties, and they were soon out of water. There were two areas where water coudl be found, a small brook and a larger stream, but of course the Germans were watching these areas closely. Every peson who tried to get water from these sources was wounded, and so Whittlesey had to post guards to make sure that nobody else tried it during the day, even at night there would be heavy German fire preventing water from being retrieved.

Reports of the situation within the pocket slowly filtered back up the chain of command. There were concerns that if the troops surrendered there would be a serious morale penalty to pay and plans began to circulate about how to try and launch relief efforts. IN the pocket on the morning of October 4th the situation continued to deteriorate. The men were now out of food, and water was but a forgotten dream. The wounded, as always, suffered the worst from these shortages. Whittlesey used two of his last three pigeons during the late morning and early afternoon. He honestly had no idea of these bits of information were getting through, but he hoped that somebody on the outside knew what was happening. Throughout all of this the Germans were constantly harassing the trapped Americans with small attacks being launched and constant grenade and trench mortar fire.

A bit before 3PM in the afternoon artillery fire started dropping near the American positions. It started to the south of the trapped troops but it began to close in, Whittlesey would say that “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 position.” This was not German artillery fire, but instead American, and it was dropping right on the American positions. With no other recourse, Whittlesey attached a message to his last carrier pigeon, named Cher Ami. It read “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.” When the bird was released it did not immediately fly away, instead it perched itself on a nearby tree. With artillery fire landing all around the officers threw things at the bird to try and get it to fly away, and eventually a private had to climb the tree and shake the branches. When the bird arrived behind the lines it had been shot, blinded one eye, and it would lose a leg, but it had delivered its message and fire would stop at 4:20PM. Cher Ami would survive and would become a hero of the 77th division, Cher Ami is currently displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

News about the battalion started to spread around the American units on October 4th, with it being a prime topic of conversation all along the line. In the grand scheme of the American war effort one battalion really did not matter, 500 men was a tiny fraction of the total attacking force, but due to its symbolism it could not be ignored. This conern rose even to the height of Pershing, and it would play a role in the planning for future attacks in the coming days. UP to this point the attacks in October had been failures, with October 4th having been another day of disappointment. Along the length of the front German morale was still flying high though, with Gallwitz reporing that “The men related with pride how tank attacks had been resisted, reporting that many tanks were destroyed by artillery and machine guns. One lieutenant blew up with his guns not less than three of those monstrous tanks, if current rumors meant anything. Our flyers, too, gave a very good account of themselves. They not only brought in important information in regard to the development of the fighting, but also succeeded in preventing the enemy from observing movements in our rear…. The whole Fifth Army felt in the best of humour, on account of having completely repulsed a superior opponent.”

Early on the 5th American artillery fire began to once again fall near the trapped Amerian troops. It started behind them, then slowly moved foward, and just as it looked like it might be a repeat of the day before the American fire jumped the trapped troops and began falling on German positions above them by the road. This would signal the first major American attempt to reach the cut off troops. The men of the Lost battalion could hear firing and fighting happening behind them, with German machine guns firing heavily. However, the firing never seemed to get any closer, and instead by the middle of the afternoon it seemed to be getting further away. The attack ahd failed, and the troops were in for another lonely night. On that evening the temperature dropped, adding cold and rain to the misery of the trapped troops. With the first relief attempt defeated the Germans decided to make another effort to destroy the pocket of American troops. In this attack they would bring forward flamethrowers and they would make more more attempt to push the Americans out. There was becoming some time pressure on the Germans as well, the Americans were finally starting to advance on other areas of the front, and soon the units around the trapped Americans might have to pull out.

Before the flamethrowers could arrive a few Americans could be captured. They were what was left of 8 soldiers that had moved down to a spring near the American positions, where they waited and watched. There goal was to find the Germans, and hopefully kill some to get their food. They had just gotten ready to move when they were hit with German machine gun fire, 5 of the 8 were killed and the rest were wounded. One of the prisoners could still walk, and so the Germans asked him to carry a message back to the trapped American troops, this would be Private Hollingshead. He was given bread, cigarettes, a cane, and a white flag on stick, and most importantly a message to give to his commanding officer.

The message was delivered to Whittlesey and it read “The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions. Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead [the bearer] as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer. " The note was passed around among the officers, and when everyone had read it Captain McMurty would later say that “there was a good smile all around among the crowd of us, because, first we knew that the Germans felt that they could not take us and secondly … the fact that they had tried to wipe us out every day since we had been in the position and then had written us a note stating that they would like to have us surrender in the name of humanity.” With the failure of the Americans to answer, the Germans moved their attack into position. The attack would be smaller than the Germans had hoped, and there were only a few flamethrowers available. When they did go foward, while the fighting was intense, the Americans were able to hit the slow moving flamethrower troops before they were able to cause too much damage. Once again another German attack was thrown back, just barely, and it would prove to be the last one.

The reason that these were the final attacks is that the Germans were forced to abandon their positions and fall back. This meant that soon the Americans were advancing towards the trapped troops. At 7PM on October 7th Whittlesey and McMurty were sitting in a foxhole when a runner appeared from the right. He reported that there were American troops and they wanted to speak with the commanding officer. The lost battalion had been relieved. When the relieving troops arrived they found men that were starving, thirsty, and barely able to stay awake. As much food as possible was passed around to the men and then they slept while the new arrival took over the positions. It would not be until the next day that medical officers and more supplies arrived and the began to move to the rear. 194 men would walk out, 144 would be taken out on stretches, the rest 216, had been killed. One of the soldiers that would take over this part of the front would see those that were evacuating and say “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 fight.”

It had been a harrowing experience for the troops, but they were also somewhat famous, along with Cher Ami the pigeon. Whittlesey, McMurty, and Holderman would all receive the Congressional Medal of Honor frm their actions during the first week of October. Whittlesey’s Medal of Honor citation would read “Although cut off for five days from the remainder of his division, Major Whittlesey maintained his position, which he had reached under orders received for an advance, and held his command, consisting originally of 46 officers and men of the 308th Infantry and of Company K of the 307th Infantry, together in the face of superior numbers of the enemy during the five days. Major Whittlesey and his command were thus cut off, and no rations or other supplies reached him, in spite of determined efforts which were made by his division. On the 4th day Major Whittlesey received from the enemy a written proposition to surrender, which he treated with contempt, although he was at the time out of rations and had suffered a loss of about 50 percent in killed and wounded of his command and was surrounded by the enemy.”