The Lost Battalion

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Whittlesey was not a field officer who could accept what seemed to him a dangerously illogical combat order without complaint. He was a stern and upright New England Yankee from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a graduate of Williams College, a tall, slim man who wore glasses and looked rather like President Woodrow Wilson. He was also a precise Wall Street lawyer who had given up his practice to take the reserve officers’ refresher course at Plattsburg when the war broke out. George McMurtry, his fellow battalion commander, was a Wall Street attorney, too, but their resemblance ended there. McMurtry, a husky and cheerful New Yorker who later made a million dollars in the stock market, had served with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War battle of San Juan Hill. But he agreed with Whittlesey that carrying out the order seemed impossible.

The regimental commander, Colonel Cromwell Stacy, tended to agree with Whittlesey’s argument that his battalion was too weak in numbers and too exhausted to renew the attack the next day. The colonel also saw the danger of an outflanking movement by the Germans. He passed along Whittlesey’s complaints to the brigade commander, Brigadier General Evan M. Johnson, who thought enough of them to ask his division commander, Major General Robert Alexander, if the attack could at least be postponed to give the troops a little more rest. Alexander was the type of ramrod general who had urged his Seventy-seventh Division before the start of the September 26 offensive to “Fight hard, keep your spirits high and your bayonets bright!” He sent word back to Stacy that the attack would start the next morning as scheduled.

When Stacy passed the order on to Whittlesey, the major saluted and said, “All right. I’ll attack, but whether you’ll hear from me again I don’t know.”

The morning of the attack, October 2, was foggy and wet. Field kitchens that were supposed to serve a hot breakfast to the 308th Battalion never appeared, and the shivering riflemen chewed hardtack and canned corned beef while they listened to the half-hour artillery barrage that was supposed to clear the route of their advance. At 6:30 rockets flashed in the gray sky, signaling the time to move forward along the twenty-mile Argonne front, and the infantrymen and machine gunners stood up and filed into the thick underbrush. Whittlesey himself led the way, close behind the forward scouts, his pistol in one hand and a pair of barbed-wire cutters in the other. It was unusual for a battalion commander to be in front of advancing infantry troops, but Whittlesey wanted to make sure that his forward squads were heading in the right direction and keeping in contact with each other in the confusing tangle of trees and foliage.

The orders of the day called for Whittlesey and McMurtry to lead their battalions almost straight north, through a sector of the German line that ran across a long ravine with steep slopes on both sides. For starters, this seemed impossible. On the high ground above both sides of the ravine there were enemy machine gun and mortar shelling emplacements that could pour heavy fire on the slopes below. If they could get through the ravine, the two battalions were to keep moving north and up a slope to a point on high ground beyond Charlevaux Brook where an ancient Roman road ran eastward from Charlevaux Mill. There they were to dig in, establish liaison with the French troops on their left and another brigade of their own Seventy-seventh Division on the right, and await further orders.

Whittlesey advanced during the morning into the ravine, with three of his rifle companies and three of McMurtry’s companies deployed on its right slope. Much to his unease, two other companies, one of his and one from McMurtry’s battalion, had to be placed on the left slope of the ravine, far from their commanders. By 10 o’clock the whole force was pinned down and its advance stopped by heavy fire from La Palette, the German fortification on the high ground at the left side of the ravine.

The Americans noticed to their surprise, however, that they were not getting much fire from the enemy gun emplacement above the east side of the ravine, named on the maps Hill 198. After lunch, when division headquarters ordered its troops to resume the attack, Whittlesey decided to switch the direction of his advance, staying away from La Palette’s heavy gunfire on his left and taking a chance on hitting Hill 198 on the right. There, to his gratification, his battalion broke through the German line with McMurtry’s men close behind, taking two German officers and twenty-eight enlisted men as prisoners and killing and wounding many others. The Americans learned later that the fortifications on Hill 198 had been manned by older enemy soldiers, men in their late forties and early fifties, who had been without food for two days. Most of them had deserted their posts during the morning’s bombardment.

Whittlesey had little trouble pushing on to his objective, the high ground beyond Charlevaux Brook, where he was to dig in for the night. He sent runners back to regimental headquarters to announce his position and ask for reinforcements. His small force had lost another ninety men in the afternoon’s fighting, and the two rifle companies on the opposite side of the ravine were missing. The news of Whittlesey’s drive through the German line was greeted with happy excitement at the Seventy-seventh Division’s headquarters; it was the one and only successful attack of the day along the Argonne front. The French on Whittlesey’s left flank had been stopped cold and, on his right, the Seventy-seventh’s 153rd Brigade and the Twenty-eighth Pennsylvanian Division had been unable to move.