October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
The doughboys numbered only 550 men -- the remnants of four battalions -- and were surrounded by Germans. Then they were given the order to attack.
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.
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.
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.”
Whittlesey sent a carrier pigeon to his division’s headquarters with a message stating his exact position and his isolation, and asking for reinforcements and artillery support. The pigeon delivered the message, but Major General Alexander, who already knew that Whittlesey had been cut off, could do nothing for him. All of the division’s reserve troops were in combat on the front line, some of them supporting the embattled French on Whittlesey’s left and others with the hard-pressed Seventy-seventh Division’s 153rd Brigade on his right. The general’s big hopes of the night before for using Whittlesey’s gap as the doorway for a smashing drive against the Giselher-Stellung line had dissolved during the discouraging morning.
That afternoon, after the men in the pocket had eaten their last scraps of food, the Germans blasted them with mortar fire and grenades and made the first of many attempts to send riflemen crawling into the enclosure. The attackers were turned back by machine gun and automatic rifle fire, but at nightfall Whittlesey reported by carrier pigeon that one third of the men in his force had been killed or seriously wounded and all of his bandages and medical supplies had been used up. He asked for food and ammunition to be dropped from the air and again pleaded for artillery support.
During that night’s darkness, any sound of movement or a groan of pain from a wounded man would draw a burst of machine gun fire from the Germans. The men in the pocket tried to be as quiet as possible while they struggled to dig burial holes for their dead. The burly George McMurtry crawled from one company to another, whispering the words of encouragement that he repeated over and over again that week, “Everything is practically okay.” He pleaded with one soldier, who had been shot through his stomach, to be silent. “It pains like hell, Captain,” the man said, “but I’ll keep as quiet as I can.” He died a half hour later without uttering another sound.
The next morning, Friday, October 4, one of Holderman’s patrols reported a gap in the German line on the pocket’s rear right flank. Whittlesey and McMurtry debated about retreating through that opening, but quickly decided against it when they realized that they would have to leave their wounded men behind. During the morning, Whittlesey used two of his remaining four carrier pigeons to remind the division headquarters that he needed medical supplies and food and to report that his D and F companies were still missing on the left side of the ravine behind him. He did not know that about one hundred men from the two companies still in action had made an attempt to reach him the previous day but had been beaten back under fire from La Palette and Hill 198.
Early that afternoon an Allied plane swooped low over the pocket, turned, and flew back to the rear. The officers felt encouraged; it was the first plane they had seen since they had been trapped. Now maybe supplies would be dropped to them. A few minutes later a barrage of artillery fire exploded behind the pocket to the southeast. “It’s ours!” somebody yelled.
A few men stood up and cheered. Then the exploding bursts of fire moved slowly toward the pocket and into the middle of the American position, knocking down trees and throwing up showers of turf and foliage. The officers, assuming that the barrage would soon move on to the German lines, tried to quiet their panic-stricken men. Whittlesey left his command post hole to walk around in the open, trying to put on a show of calm. McMurtry shouted, “Take it easy! This won’t last long!”
But the heavy downpour of American shellfire kept on smashing and roaring all over the pocket. Walter Baldwin, trying to lead a wounded friend to cover, was joined by Private Robert Manson, Whittlesey’s orderly, and the First Battalion’s sergeant major, Ben Gaedeke. A shell exploded on them, tearing out the wounded man’s chest. Gaedeke’s body disappeared completely. “We could only find his helmet and his pistol,” Manson said later. Baldwin was picked up and hurled away, deafened and half unconscious.
There were only two pigeons left in Omer Richards’ cage. Whittlesey wrote a message and handed it to Richards: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
While Richards was nervously taking one of the pigeons out of the cage, the bird fluttered out of his hands and flew away. That left only one pigeon, a favorite named Cher Ami, or Dear Friend. Richards clipped the message to Cher Ami’s leg, cupped the bird in his hands, and tossed it up into the sky. The pigeon flew in a circle or two, them calmly came to rest on a branch of a nearby tree.
Whittlesey and Richards shouted at Cher Ami, clapped their hands, and waved their helmets. The bird eyed them and refused to move. They picked up stones and threw them at the pigeon. Richards shinnied up the trunk of the tree and shook the branch where the bird was sitting. At last, Cher Ami fluttered his wings and flew away through a storm of German rifle fire and a shower of shrapnel from the distant American guns.
The barrage thundered on for another two hours, until Cher Ami reached the pigeon loft and a telephone message from the division headquarters finally put a stop to it.
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.
As darkness fell that night, Whittlesey and McMurtry wondered how they could survive through another day. Ammunition had almost run out, and the men in the pocket were too weak and tired to dig any more graves.
Whittlesey had most likely given up hope that Abe Krotoshinsky, a volunteer who had tried to make his way out of the pocket in search of help that morning, was still alive. Two other men who had gone off with Krotoshinsky came back reporting that they had been spotted and pinned down by enemy machine gun fire. Both thought Krotoshinsky had been killed.
But shortly after 7 o’clock that evening Lieutenant Richard Tillman and a patrol of riflemen from the Seventy-seventh Division’s nearby 307th Infantry walked into the pocket without firing a shot.
After Whittlesey’s small force had been trapped, Pershing had rushed the experienced veterans of the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One,” into action in the Aire River valley on the east side of the forest. There they scored a major break-through in the German line of defense. That staggering blow weakened the enemy’s hold on the Argonne sector and finally enabled the Americans behind Whittlesey and the French on his left to move forward. Now the Germans who had asked Whittlesey to surrender a few hours earlier found themselves in danger of being surrounded. Unknown to Whittlesey and McMurtry, their besiegers had silently pulled back and retreated to the north shortly after sundown.
Some reports say that Tillman’s patrol was guided to the pocket by Abe Krotoshinsky, who was in fact awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. Other survivors recalled that Tillman’s men were already handing out cans of corned beef by the time Krotoshinsky returned with another patrol of Americans. Anyway, by then the Germans were gone and the five-day siege had ended with no surrender.
The next morning 190 of the 500 Americans who had been trapped in the pocket earlier in the week were able to walk back through the valley to their regimental headquarters. Another 190 were seriously wounded, 107 were dead, and 63 were missing. Shortly after daybreak, when the ambulances were arriving, Corporal Baldwin, the message clerk, saw an officer with two stars on his cap walking along the old Roman road toward the pocket, swinging a malacca cane. It was Major General Alexander, the Seventy-seventh Division’s commander.
“Where’s Whittlesey?” he wanted to know.
“Down at the foot of the hill, sir,” said Baldwin, pointing toward where the major was personally passing out food to his men. “Shall I get him for you?”
“By no means,” said the general. “I’ll go to him.”
Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Holderman were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In later years, the jovial McMurtry enjoyed attending the Lost Battalion’s reunion dinners and picked up the check for most of them until he died in 1958 at the age of eighty-two. Whittlesey came home tense and uncomfortable as an acclaimed war hero, besieged by invitations to civic and charitable banquets that he found almost as strenuous as the Argonne siege. A bachelor, engrossed in his work as a lawyer on Wall Street, he wanted to forget the war. A friend remembered him complaining, “Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit, usually about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear much more. I want to be left in peace.”
On Armistice Day in 1921, Whittlesey, McMurtry, and other Medal of Honor winners attended the dedication of the new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Whittlesey had little to say to anybody and seemed ill at ease. Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, he boarded a ship that was sailing on a holiday cruise to Havana. That evening, when liquor was served outside the three-mile limit, he sat up late in the saloon drinking with another passenger. Then, announcing that he was going to bed, he went on deck and jumped overboard.