THE LOST BATTALION of WORLD WAR ONE
HOW AMERICAN VALOR ENDED THE WAR EARLY
Jim “ski” Schiaffino
I grew up near a road called Argonne Drive in Baltimore, MD. I often wondered how it got it’s name. My father told me it was named after a World War One battle. I did look it up but I didn’t learn very much. To my disappointment I found that most history books, when dealing with the subject of World War One, refer only to a naval battle, tanks, ‘aeroplanes’ and more about how it started. Sadly precious little is written about the soldiers engaged in it. All I found was cursory references that the Meuse-Argonne offensive was pivotal in ending the war.
It was not until much later in life that I was able to locate more information, especially about the Argonne Forest theater. Then I had a new and deeper appreciation of the sacrifice, courage and heroism of our soldiers. One event in particular that caught my attention was the reference to ‘The Lost Battalion’.
When The American Expeditionary Force arrived in early 1918, the Allied planners were anticipating that the Americans would assist in the next big Spring Offensive and drive the Germans back, eventually forcing them to surrender, hopefully by late 1919 or early 1920. The doughboys of the AEF were instrumental in stopping the 1918 German Spring Offensive and the Germans then retreated to their Hindenburg Line in the north and into the Argonne Forest in the south. There they intended to spend the winter and continue the war in warmer weather, when their soldiers from the Eastern front arrived.
It was the AEF, specifically one unit erroneously referred to as ‘The Lost Battalion’, that actually turned the tide of the war and ended the war much earlier than expected. The term ‘Lost Battalion’ was coined by a wire service editor to describe the situation in which the Americans found themselves. The ‘Lost Battalion’ was not lost in the sense that they didn’t know where they were. They knew exactly where they were as did their headquarters. The word lost refers to the idea that they were lost as in “done for... in a hopeless situation.” This latter definition was all too close to the truth of the matter since HQ had failed miserably in rescuing them.
In late September an Allied attack was launched; a small counter offensive against the Defensive Line in the Argonne Forest. To begin with, the term ‘forest’ is a bit of a misnomer. The Argonne was a tangle of trees, bracken and forbidding hills and ravines that resembled more of a jungle than anything else. In addition, the Germans laced the forest with camouflaged machine gun nests made of timber and concrete. Also the valleys and ravines were strewn with barbed wire, logs, and other man-made obstacles. This made the Argonne Forest a particularly difficult fortress into which only a foolish enemy would dare to advance.
The American “doughboy” unit charged with assaulting
this virtually impregnable area wasn’t actually a battalion. The famous ‘Lost Battalion’ was composed of six companies of the 308th Infantry Regiment, one company from the 307th Infantry Regiment and two companies from the 306th Machine Gun Battalion. These 554 men were commanded by Major Charles W. Whittlesey, and were actually a part of the 77th “Liberty” Division.
The ‘Lost Battalion’ was supported on their right by the rest of the 77th Division and the bulk of Pershing’s 1st Army. On the left flank was the 38th French Corps and the 368th Infantry of the 92nd (Rainbow) Division. To facilitate the advance into the Argonne, the infantrymen had been ordered to travel light, leaving behind their raincoats, winter garments and wool coats and carry only two days worth of rations and ammunition. Major Whittlesey was given his orders. In General Alexander’s own words;
“My orders were quite positive and precise. The objective was to be gained without regard to losses and without regard to the exposed condition of the flanks. I considered it most important that this advance should be made and accepted the responsibility and the risk involved in the execution of the orders given.” Major Whittlesey’s reply was simply; “Well, I don’t know if you’ll hear from us again.”
On 26 September the attack proceeded as ordered. Initially the ‘Lost Battalion’ met light opposition. But the attack on their left flank held by the French stalled and the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) on the right met heavy resistance and their advance slowed to a crawl. As a result the ‘Lost Battalion’ found itself several miles behind the German lines, flanked on both left and right by enemy forces and cut off from the rest of the attacking force. The ‘Lost Battalion’ settled into what was called ‘The First Pocket’ until they could communicate with HQ and be resupplied. The Germans had them more or less surrounded and they were unable to contact their HQ.
Major Whittlesey sent four carrier pigeons with messages to headquarters. One of them summed up the situation;
“Our line of communication with the rear still cut at 12:30 p.m. by machine guns. We are going to clean out one of these guns now. From a wounded German officer prisoner, we learned that there is a German Company of 70 men operating in our rear, to close up the gap we made yesterday. We can of course clean up this country to the rear, by working our companies over the ground we charged. But we understand our mission is to advance, and to maintain our strength here. It is very slow trying to clean up this rear area from here by small details when this trickling back of machine guns can be used by the enemy. Can a line of communication not be kept open from the rear? We have been