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The Lost Battalion
The doughboys numbered only 550 men -- the remnants of four battalions -- and were surrounded by Germans. Then they were given the order to attack.
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
While they waited for support, with darkness falling, Whittlesey and McMurtry arranged their riflemen and machine gunners to form a pocket of resistance in an oval about three hundred yards wide and sixty yards deep. Machine guns were placed on both flanks, and teams equipped with Chauchat guns, a light French version of the Browning Automatic Rifle, dug in around the perimeter of the position. Overcoats and blankets had been left behind when the offensive started, and food and cigarettes were scarce; the officers learned that two of the infantry companies had brought no rations with them. After the defense lines were arranged, ration details were sent out. They never returned, but water was discovered in a spring south of the position.
The Germans in the Argonne Forest had lines of telephone communication, but Whittlesey’s unit did not. To get a message back to his regimental command post, Whittlesey used a relay team of runners, posted at intervals in the woods behind him. Assigning riflemen to duty as runners seriously depleted the fire power of his infantry companies, but the major considered human messengers more reliable than the carrier pigeons that were his only other means of communication. Omer Richards, a French Canadian private from upstate New York who was the caretaker of the First Battalion’s pigeons, had carried a cage with eight birds during the advance through the enemy line. The pigeons were trained to fly back to a loft at division headquarters, each carrying a message written on a slip of rice paper in a metal capsule attached to one of its legs. Whittlesey’s unit had also brought a heavy roll of white cotton sheeting, which was spread on the ground inside the perimeter of their defensive pocket to display the location of their position to any Allied plane that might fly over it.
When the news of Whittlesey’s breakthrough reached the Seventy-seventh Division’s headquarters, Major General Alexander immediately ordered a battalion of infantry from another regiment, then being held in reserve, to move forward that night as a reinforcement. Alexander was eagerly planning to capitalize on the opening in the German line by building up an offensive force in that narrow corridor strong enough to make an attack on the Giselher-Stellung, the main chain of enemy fortifications in the Argonne a few miles farther to the north. But only one of the four rifle companies sent into the pitch-dark woods to help Whittlesey managed to find him early the next morning—Captain Nelson Holderman’s Company K from the 307th Infantry’s Third Battalion. The arrival of this contingent of ninety-seven officers and enlisted men added little numerical strength to the band of survivors in the pocket. At about the time that Whittlesey and McMurtry welcomed Holderman, they sent Lieutenant Karl Wilhelm and fifty men from McMurtry’s rifle companies off into the woods on the left in an attempt to find the two companies, D and F, that had been lost on that side of the ravine during the previous day’s fighting. Wilhelm ran into a strong force of Germans who pinned his men down under heavy machine gun and grenade fire, killing or wounding most of them. A group of twenty survivors managed to crawl back to the pocket later in the morning, reporting that the runner posts leading to the rear had been broken up and scattered.
Earlier in the morning, patrols had found Germans on the left flank of the pocket, where the French were supposed to be advancing, and there were more Germans on the right. Whittlesey realized that his small pocket was being surrounded. He asked Holderman, a cheerful and willing Californian, to take his company and some scouts who knew the terrain back toward Hill 198 to clear out the enemy machine gun positions he suspected were being set up, and thus re-establish his line of runner posts to regimental headquarters.
Holderman found that Hill 198, almost deserted when Whittlesey had taken it the day before, had not only been reoccupied and heavily armed with machine guns by the Germans during the night, it was also surrounded by new barbed wire. When Holderman tried to advance on the hill, his men were hit by machine gun fire on their flanks and sniper fire from the woods behind them. Realizing that his company was about to be cut off from the rear, Holderman turned around and fought his way back across Charlevaux Brook to the shelter of the pocket, with several wounded men staggering beside him.
When the German commanders had first heard, early the previous evening, that Whittlesey’s small force had broken through their defense line, it never occurred to them that his detachment was an isolated group with no support behind it. They assumed that Whittlesey’s men were an advance scouting party that would immediately be followed by a big American attacking force. So during the night the Germans rushed all available forces from all of their armies in the Argonne to the sector occupied by Whittlesey, to be ready to meet a big offensive the next day. When morning came, they had no trouble surrounding the circle of vastly outnumbered Americans and cutting off their line of communication.
By noon on October 3, Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Holderman realized that they were completely surrounded. A head count showed that after the casualties of the morning there were only 550 men left in the pocket, including some who had been severely wounded. McMurtry took a pad of message paper from his pocket, wrote on it, and showed the message to Whittlesey, who nodded. McMurtry called Corporal Walter Baldwin, the First Battalion message clerk, and told him to deliver the message to each of the company commanders. It read: “Our mission is to hold this position at all costs. No falling back. Have this understood by every man in your command.”