The Lost Battalion

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That was a night of agonized suffering and hunger in the pocket. Even many of the unwounded men were too weak to join in the work of digging graves. The next day, Saturday, October 5, Allied planes flew overhead and dropped food and ammunition, but the supplies landed beyond the German lines, which were only a few yards away. By now, the trapped Americans and the German troops surrounding them were shouting insults at each other. Sometimes when a German officer called the roll of the names in his company, the Americans would yell back in reply. At one point in the siege, a German yelled to the Yanks in a voice with an apparently British accent, “I say, you chaps! You haven’t a chance! Why not surrender while there’s still time?”

One American shouted back, “Who’s that? The Prince of Wales?” And another added, “I thought the Limeys were on our side!”

Whittlesey’s plight was now well known not only in Pershing’s First Army Headquarters but all over the United States. A United Press correspondent, Fred S. Ferguson, had filed a dramatic report on the trapped force of Americans that was headlined at home as the story of “the Lost Battalion.” Pershing was embarrassed by the widely publicized account of his army’s failure to save the small band of brave survivors. He sent a stern order that Saturday morning to General Alexander at the Seventy-seventh Division that said, “I direct that a vigorous effort be made this afternoon to relieve the companies on the left of the Seventy-seventh Division that are cut off.”

Whittlesey’s regimental commander, the same Colonel Stacy who had relayed the major’s complaints about the order to attack earlier in the week, was then leading a hard-pressed force in the ravine behind the pocket. Stacy flatly refused to lead an assault on the Germans between his position and Whittlesey’s pocket unless he was reinforced by fresh troops.

When the brigade commander, General Johnson, passed on this message to General Alexander, the division commander blew up, and ordered Johnson to relieve Stacy and see that the assault went forward.

Johnson, a 57-year-old brigadier with thirty-six years in the Regular Army, gave Stacy’s regimental command to a captain—he had no lieutenant colonels or majors left—and then personally led a company of eighty-five riflemen up the ravine toward Whittlesey’s position. After ninety minutes of hard fighting, and receiving a leg wound from a machine gun bullet, the one-star general was forced to halt his advance and turn back, leaving twenty of his men dead or wounded behind him.

Whittlesey’s dwindling survivors in the isolated pocket endured the most frightening ordeal of the week the next day, Sunday, October 6, when Germans carrying flame throwers advanced into their lines of defense. Some of the Americans backed off in terror from the jets of flame that flashed a hundred feet in front of the crouching attackers. Holderman, now severely wounded, with a grenade fragment imbedded in his back, and leaning on two rifles for support, directed a barrage of automatic rifle fire that dropped all of the flame operators, setting some ablaze in their own spilled fuel. But during the German assault, which went on for more than two hours, a few Americans and two of their machine guns were captured and several more of Whittlesey’s men were killed and seriously wounded.

 

At dawn the next day, October 7, a group of nine famished enlisted men from one of McMurtry’s companies crawled through the German lines searching for packages of food that had been dropped from American planes the day before. They were trapped by an enemy patrol. Five were killed and the other four were wounded and taken prisoner. A German lieutenant who had spent six years as a tungsten salesman in Seattle, Washington, before the war questioned the prisoners and suggested to his commanding officer that one of them, a private named Lowell R. Hollingshead, be sent back to the American position with a surrender proposal. That afternoon Hollingshead approached the pocket’s outposts, carrying a white flag and a note addressed to “The Commanding Officer of the 2nd Batl,” which said, in part:

“The suffering of your wounded man can be heared over here in the German lines and we are appealing to your human sentiments. A withe Flag shown by one of your man will tell us that you agree with these conditions.

“Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead as an honourable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you.”

Whittlesey and McMurtry read the note and showed it to Holderman. Walter Baldwin, who was there, recalled later that the three officers smiled at each other and McMurtry said, “They’re begging us to quit. They’re more worried than we are.”

Whittlesey did not bother to send a reply but immediately ordered that the white sheeting spread on the ground as a marker for Allied aircraft be rolled up and put under cover. The major did not want it mistaken as a surrender signal by the Germans.

When word of the surrender offer spread through the pocket, it lifted the spirits of the exhausted survivors. The unusual quiet of the late afternoon was broken by one American who sat up and shouted, “You Heinie bastards, come and get us!” followed by a chorus of loud obscenities from his comrades. The Germans replied with a heavy attack that was beaten back as Holderman, leaning on his rifle crutches and firing his Colt .45, called orders to the one remaining machine gunner. The captain already had four wounds, including the grenade fragment in his back, when the day’s fighting began; he later recalled that he had received his fifth wound about the same time that he shot his fifth German.