The Lost Battalion

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In the early fall of 1918 five hundred American infantrymen were cut off from their regiment and surrounded by Germans during five days of fighting in the Argonne Forest. Though they would be forever remembered as the Lost Battalion, they were not really a battalion and they were never lost. “We knew exactly where we were,” one of them said later. “So did the Germans.” The only nearby Americans uncertain about the location of the trapped band of riflemen and machine gunners were their own division’s artillery officers, who bombarded them with heavy shellfire for two terrifying hours during the second day of the siege.

The encircled group of doughboys, about 550 men, were survivors from four battalions of the New York Seventy-seventh Division’s infantry that had been hard hit during the previous week’s opening drive of the big American offensive against the fortified German lines between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River. This was to be General John J. Pershing’s all-out effort to show the world that his United States First Army could win the war before Christmas by breaking through a sector of the Western Front that the enemy had held firmly for four years. Pershing had warned his corps and division commanders that he wanted no alibis, no slowdowns in the planned advance.

The big push started on the morning of September 26 after a 24-hour artillery bombardment dropped forty thousand tons of explosives on the German lines—more shells than all of the cannon ammunition fired by the Union Army in the Civil War. The Seventy-seventh Division, in the thickest section of the Argonne Forest on the far left flank of Pershing’s forces, moved ahead rapidly during the first day’s advance, assaulting one enemy pavilion after another. The German pavilions, built in depth throughout the forest, were elaborately equipped blockhouses with ground-level concrete roofs twenty feet thick. Breaking into some of these hurriedly deserted fortifications, the astonished Americans found bathtubs with hot and cold running water, bowling alleys and billiard tables, pantries well stocked with wine and meat, electric power plants, and underground dormitories with comfortable bunks for fifty enlisted men. The Germans, undisturbed in the securely protected Argonne Forest for four years, had been living well.

After the encouraging first day’s advance of about four to six miles—a considerable distance in the almost stationary combat of World War I—the American attack stalled, not only in the Argonne, but all along the First Army’s front eastward to the Meuse. “The assault of 26 September,” Pershing wrote later, “surprised the Germans and disrupted their defense, but this situation was only momentary. From that day on the fighting was probably unsurpassed during the World War for dogged determination on both sides.” That was Pershing looking back calmly on the situation long after the war. At the time that his opening drive was stopped on October 1, however, he was too furious to praise the determination of his tired troops. He ordered them to get moving forward again the next day “without regard of losses and without regard to the exposed conditions of the flanks. …”

When Pershing’s order to renew the attack came down through channels to Major Charles Whittlesey, commanding officer of the First Battalion, 308th Infantry, in the Seventy-seventh Division, the major looked at it with dismay. He talked it over glumly with Captain George McMurtry, the acting commander of the 308th’s Second Battalion, which was to advance in close support of Whittlesey’s men the next morning.

Heavy casualties had already cut their battalions down to half strength; between them, they had only about eight hundred men instead of the regulation sixteen hundred. Moreover, their troops were exhausted. They had been moved into the Argonne sector from combat on the Aisne River with no rest and had experienced little sleep during the past month. The Seventy-seventh Division was a New York outfit, known as “The Times Square Division,” with a Statue of Liberty emblem on its shoulder patches. But many of its original troops from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx had recently been replaced by draftees from the Middle West who had had little or no basic training. A few days earlier one of them had been found calmly smoking behind some shrubbery during a battle. By way of explanation he gestured toward his rifle, saying, “I can’t make the bullets go into this thing.”

Along with his other worries, Whittlesey was particularly annoyed by the stipulation in Pershing’s attack order that his battalion had to keep going forward even if its flanks were left exposed to the Germans. As Whittlesey’s riflemen advanced along the extreme west side of the Argonne Forest, chronically laggard French troops moved through the open fields of the Aisne River Valley on their left flank. Only two days before, in the same area, German infiltrators had slipped around behind Whittlesey’s left and had surrounded two of his companies for several hours. He was sure that it could happen again.