SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- One of World War I’s most heroic battlefield story features a bookish lawyer, a millionaire who charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, a carrier pigeon that’s now in the Smithsonian, and draftee Soldiers from New York City who served in the 77th Division.
One hundred years later, the story of the 550 men of the “Lost Battalion” –American Soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in the Argonne forest– still resonates.
It’s been the subject of countless books, a 2001 TV movie, and a 2016 song by the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton.
But the “Lost Battalion” wasn’t actually lost, nor was it even a battalion.
Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander, knew right where his men were located. It was their higher headquarters who weren’t sure where they were.
And Whittlesey was only the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry Regiment. The regiment’s 2nd Battalion was also present, along with a company from the 307th Infantry Regiment. But as senior officer, Whittlesey took charge.
The regiments were part of the 77th Division. The division was a “National Army” division made up of drafted men who were not in the Regular Army and not part of the National Guard.
77th Division Soldiers were mostly from New York City, and the division was nicknamed the “Metropolitan Division” or “Times Square Division” because of that.
By October of 1918 the 77th Division had seen its share of action and taken casualties. A lot of casualties. New Yorkers had been replaced by Soldiers from Midwestern farms who had little training.
The American First Army had kicked off its offensive in France’s Meuse-Argonne region with a goal of reaching the city of Sedan and cutting the railroad which supplied German armies in France.
The American offensive—the largest battle in American history—involved 1.2 million Soldiers and kicked off on Sept. 26, 1918.
On October 2, 1918, Whittlesey and his battalion were to attack north into the dense Argonne Forest with the 2nd Battalion of the 308th in support. Both units should have had about 800 men each at full strength, but now they barely had 800 men together.
They were to attack regardless of whether or not they lost contact with units on their left or right.
The 2nd Battalion was led by Capt. George McMurtry. McMurtry, a Harvard graduate was a Wall Street lawyer like Whittlesey as well. But McMurtry had combat experience. He’d served in the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry – known more familiarly as the Rough Riders—during the Spanish American War and had fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill.
Both men thought the mission was too much for two understrength battalions. But they were told to attack no matter what.
“All right. I’ll attack, but whether you’ll hear from me again I don’t know,” Whittlesey told his regimental commander.
The attack commenced at 6:30 a.m. in foggy and wet weather of that cool October morning.
Whittlesey and McMurtry—with Whittlesey just behind the lead Soldiers -- led their men north. They encountered enemy fire and went to ground.
But a position called Hill 198 on their maps appeared to be undermanned. The two battalion’s—three companies each—overran the German defenders.
They drove north to their objective on high ground beyond the Charlevaux. Whittlesey sent back word that they had broken through the German lines.
In 1918 communicating meant laying a telephone line behind advancing troops—not practical in heavy woods like the Argonne—or sending back a Soldier with a message.
Troops were also equipped with carrier pigeons to fly back to headquarters with a message wrapped on their leg. Whittlesey’s command had eight pigeons.
Whittlesey sent a runner back to let his commander know he had reached his objective and needed reinforcements. Two of the eight understrength companies that had begun the attack had gotten separated from the 1st and 2nd battalions.
The French unit on their right flank had been stopped and the 77th Division regiment on their left had also been stopped.
At nightfall on October 2, the two battalions of the 308th – about 450 men—were set up in an oval position three hundred yards long and 60 yards wide. They had no additional ammunition, and no extra food and water.
A battalion from the 307th Infantry Regiment was ordered forward to reinforce Whittlesey’s position, but only Company K from the 3rd Battalion managed to find the 308th Infantry battalions.
Throughout the following day, October 3rd, the men waited for reinforcements. A platoon sent to find the missing two companies of the 308th got ambushed. Germans reoccupied Hill 198 taken the previous day.
The 77th Division men were now surrounded. With German fire pouring in from all four sides of their perimeter, men were shot, wounded and killed in greater numbers each passing hour.
Whittlesey sent a carrier pigeon with his position and asked for help. 77th Division troops were attacking to reach the men but made no progress. More carrier pigeons were sent.
On Friday, October 4, an American plane flew over their position. The officers hoped that supplies would be airdropped to them. But the pilot thought he was looking at German troops. American artillery began landing on Whittlesey’s men. Americans were now being killed by American fire.
Pvt. Omar Richards, the pigeon handler of the unit, was down to two birds. He took one, a pigeon he had nicknamed “Cher Ami” –French for Dear Friend– and prepared to release it.
Whittlesey wrote a note — “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it” — to be attached to the pigeon’s leg.
Richards released the bird. It flew around and landed on a tree opposite Richards and Whittlesey. The two men yelled and screamed at it. Finally the bird flew away. Twenty-five minutes later the pigeon landed at headquarters. The firing stopped.
Along the way, Cher Ami had been hit by German fire. She had been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and her right leg was hanging by a tendon.
On October 5, American Airmen began dropping supplies to Whittlesey’s men. DH-4 two seater planes from the 50th Aero Squadron flew four missions over the lines dropping rations and ammunition in what the Air Force now lists as the first American aerial resupply mission.
Unfortunately, most of the supplies missed.
On October 6 the 50th Aero Squadron flew 13 more missions to drop supplies. More importantly, one crew determined a way to pin down the location of Whittlesey’s command.
Pilot 1st Lieutenant Harold Goettler and 2nd Lt. Erwin Bleckley, his backseat observer; flew over the area at 300 feet. They came back to base shot up, but convinced they could pinpoint the location of Whittlesey’s men by drawing enemy fire.
The two men flew back over the area at treetop level. The Germans started shooting. Then they turned around and made another pass.
German machine guns on the high ridges were actually shooting down at the American plane. Goettler was hit, but before he died he turned toward allied lines. The plane crashed and Bleckley was thrown out and died.
But a French patrol found the plane and found the map on which Bleckley noted the American positions. Now American guns could hit the Germans without hitting Whittlesey’s men.
Also that day, the Germans attacked with flame throwers. The Americans fought them off, exploding some of the flame throwers on the backs of the Germans carrying them.
On October 7 a team of Americans searching for supplies were ambushed by the Germans. One man, Pvt. Lowell R. Hollingshead was sent back into the pocket with a message urging the Americans to surrender.
The American commanders read the note and looked at each. “They’re begging us to quit. They’re more worried than we are,” McMurtry said.
But the Americans were almost out of ammunition and the men were so weak they could no longer bury the dead.
At 7 p.m. on the night of October 7, 1918 a patrol from the 77th Division’s 307th Infantry Regiment walked into the pocket without meeting any Germans. The attacks against the German lines by the American Army had forced them to fall back.
On October 8, the 190 remaining men of the “Lost Battalion” walked back to American lines. Another 260 were carried out. 107 men were dead and 63 missing.
They had become heroes. American newspapers had coined the term “Lost Battalion” and men and women across the country had followed the battle in their local papers.
Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon, became the mascot of the 77th Division. She was treated for her wounds and a little wooden leg was carved to replace the one she lost in battle. She died in 1919 and her body was stuffed and today is on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute.
Major Charles Whittlesey was promoted and awarded the Medal of Honor. He was asked to speak at various patriotic events and chair events after the war.
He was part of the select group who escorted the body of America’s World War I Unknown Soldier back to Arlington National Cemetery in 1921.
He headed the Red Cross Roll Call in New York City and as a result, continually met Soldiers suffering and dying from their wounds along with their families. But this work made things worse for Whittlesey.
“Raking over the ashes like this revives all the horrific memories. I’ll hear the wounded screaming again. I have nightmares about them. I can’t remember when I’ve had a good nights sleep,” he told a fellow diner after a Red Cross Dinner.
On Nov. 24, 1921, the 37-year old Whittlesey boarded the passenger ship S.S. Toloa heading for Cuba. After dinner on Nov. 26 he stayed up late before returning to his cabin. He was never seen again. Inside on the cabin bunk he left nine letters for friends and family.
George McMurtry, on the other hand, lived until age 82. The volunteer Soldier turned lawyer turned Soldier again made millions in the stock market and paid for “Lost Battalion” reunion events out of his own pocket until he died on Nov. 22, 1958.
During the World War I centennial observance the Division of Military and Naval Affairs will be issuing press releases noting key dates which impacted New Yorkers based on information provided by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. More than 400,000 New Yorkers served in the military during World War I, more than any other state.