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Finding the Lost Battalion: 'Galloping Charlie', Hero of the Charlevaux Ravine

whittleseyA Brief Biography of Charles White Whittlesey

Charles Whittlesey's biography will be loaded up soon!

An Appraisal of Major Whittlesey’s Actions Against Military Doctrine of the Time

It goes without saying that Charles Whittlesey believed he was right concerning the decisions he made during the advance through the Argonne. (This, despite any doubt that may have been brought to his mind by the jealous whisperings that went on around him afterwards.) After all, he was a man who carefully considered the consequences likely to be brought about by actions he set into motion and he would have been unlikely to wantonly jeopardize either his men or his own high standards through haste. That said, it is nevertheless also true that he did made mistakes, albeit ones that he seemed to have little control over or that, to him at least, did not seem mistakes at the time but instead good, sound decisions, backed by firm reasons. And these, as we have seen, were mostly due to a general lack of leadership experience in warfare, but there were also several as well that he might not have made if his own, rigid personal value system and moral code had not been as unbending as it was. Case in point: on the morning of October 4th, when it still might have been possible to evacuate the ravine with relatively fewer casualties than at any later time after, he stayed put on the premise that they lacked any formal orders to draw back – even though it would have, by then, been virtually impossible to receive any such orders. Without his strict adherence to the last orders he received – which he continued to believe stood, right up until the end (and rightly so, it might be argued) – he might have made a deliberate move that could have relieved the situation and thus prevented four more days of suffering. Theorists might also argue however that by that time the Germans had enough machine-guns emplaced on Hill 198 and along the south side of the Charlevaux Ravine, and that the new wire up there was by then so thick, that Major Whittlesey’s men would never have gotten through. Under those circumstances, such movement then would probably have resulted in either a horrible blood bath, or a necessary mass surrender of what remained of his troops to prevent such. Perhaps. In either case, we shall never know.

Major Whittlesey can also be accused of committing the same ‘fatal’ mistake twice of not making a strong link back on a flank as he probably should have. First, to the right rear with the remainder of Major Budd’s battalion behind on the main line from up on l’Homme Mort, and second to the left rear in order to link back with Lt. Knight’s forces from up in the Charlevaux Ravine. Both times he hesitated to do so in an apparent effort to insure the safety of the lives of men he felt sure would be placed in undo harm’s way by the necessary night movement - a situation that, as had already been demonstrated, would not have sat well on Major Whittlesey’s careful moral sense. Yet on the other hand, just a short while later, he continued to send patrols out into the Charlevaux Ravine, even when many of them were simply not coming back; a strategy that seems, on the surface at least, both incredibly callous and shamefully wasteful of precious man power. The results are a dangerous contradiction.

Basically then, although it can clearly be said that Major Whittlesey had the courage, determination, drive and reasoning of a true soldier, he was also frequently ‘saddled’ with a fragile emotional, and all-too tender, conscientiousness that sometimes prevented him from being as ‘unfeeling’ as he needed to be in modern combat. While he fully realized that his command was a command at war, and as such that some of his soldiers would necessarily be expected to die, he nevertheless apparently had a very hard time coming to grips with that fact and accepting that it truly needed to be. Yet all the while we must continue to bear in mind the tremendously unusual circumstances that involved his command right from the get-go that would weigh additionally heavy on his mind, i.e.: the mostly untrained replacements. The conundrum is well demonstrated in the arguments he made with Colonel Stacey concerning the advance into the Charlevaux Ravine. The advance obviously needed to happen in order to break the Giselher line. And the right oblique movement that Brigadier General Johnson had come up with, Major Whittlesey indeed recognized

as representing a very real possibility of accomplishing that task. Yet he still rejected the plan, mainly because of the obvious ‘danger factor’ to his (then already decimated) command, if not simply on principle. ‘Ruthless’ then, was not a word to describe Charles Whittlesey in any way, shape, or form.

Yet Major Whittlesey was a successful leader of men, if not a tactician, as the results of his battalion prove. His was virtually the only battalion in the 77th during the initial period (September 26th to October 2nd) to reach its objectives nearly every day; something of a demonstration in efficiency of command and inter-battalion cooperation that reflected well on his command, as well as himself. And his command also – for the most part anyway – held on in the Charlevaux Ravine despite almost overwhelming pressure and circumstances bearing down on them not to, due largely to the example of his strong leadership skills and intense determination to uphold both honor and orders. Obviously then he did well by most standards.

But how does Major Whittlesey stack up against the army’s cold, calculating eye of the time in terms of leadership? True, he was a successful leader of men; but was he a successful commander under the parameters set by the military? To answer this as accurately and fairly as possible we must make our judgment based solely on the same guidelines that Major Whittlesey would have been reckoned against at the time. To this end I have compared his known actions against 14 summery combat principals considered then (1918) to be the ‘acme’ from which to wage war successfully. I culled these principals from a Naval Landing Force manual of the period (36) - selected only because of the thoroughness of the directives themselves - but all good combat-oriented training manuals of the time have some form of list concerning these principals and the doctrines behind them. Additionally, these principals (or at least ones very similar to them) would have been drilled into Major Whittlesey at Plattsburg. How well then does the head of the Captain’s list of his graduating section there stack up against them? See for yourself...

1) Avoid combats that offer no chance of victory or other valuable results.

Major Whittlesey was definitely not one to send men in where there would likely be no clear and meaningful result (nor pull them out once that result had been obtained either). Case in point: he resisted sending a large force back on his flanks at night twice, primarily in order to prevent them from the unnecessary danger of night ambush. He also twice settled for positions just short of, and in better defendable positions than, his actual objectives when moving on to them would likely lead to more, largely unnecessary combat. Adding to the evidence are his arguments with Colonel Stacey concerning the advance into the Charlevaux, which he believed was a truly bad idea – to say the least.

On the other hand, of course, is the value of the Charlevaux position itself, which was indeed valuable when you figure that taking up the position would necessarily mean breaking the Giselher Stellung line to do so. That single reason alone made the whole operation an absolute necessity. And his chances of victory (i.e.: breaking the line and thus reaching the objective position) were made better than average by the right oblique movement; all points which Major Whittlesey was not only aware of, but in action carried out, despite any duress it may have caused his conscience.

2) Make every effort for the success of the general plan and avoid spectacular plays that have no bearing on the general result.

Obviously Major Whittlesey made every effort, every time, to reach his objectives, which were equally obviously geared toward the success of the ‘general plan’ - the ‘big picture’ if you will - which he understood quite well. The achievements of his command throughout the entire battle plainly bear this out. In fact all too well, for had he not been so driven toward successful completion and maintenance of his orders, his command might not have remained in the Charlevaux for so long, or gotten there in the first place for that matter (note Captain Rainsford’s actions on the afternoon of the 2nd). Again, his use of the right oblique movement, despite his tepidity as to the likely final outcome, is a perfect example. And as far as ‘spectacular plays’, there were of course none, as we have seen, for that was never Major Whittlesey’s intention – although that is exactly what he was so often wrongly accused of so many times afterward.

3) Have a definite plan and carry it out vigorously. Do not vacillate.

Ever the calculating lawyer, Major Whittlesey made no plan of his own without thinking it through completely and so then he would have no reason to hesitate, which he never did. Even in the case of his orders, particularly, again, the right oblique order executed the afternoon of the 2nd, even though he did not like the ‘definite plan’, he still carried it out ‘vigorously’ to its successful conclusion. Note also his decision to send Company K back on the mid morning of the 3rd, despite the reservations of Lt. Pool.

4) Do not attempt complicated maneuvers.

Perhaps the only complicated maneuver Major Whittlesey attempted was the move against Ravin de Depot des Machines/l’Homme Mort on the afternoon of September 28th. The splitting of his and Major Budd’s battalions away from each other, moving each along either side of the Ravin Moulin de l’Homme Mort connected only by runners, to then link on the objective beyond was poorly thought out. After that fiasco failed, he again took up a simple consolidated line and rarely deviated from it – until ordered to perform the right oblique. Overall the ground favored general simplicity in any case, giving way to intricacy only on a very local level, and then only for specific purposes.

5) Keep the command in hand; avoid undue extension and dispersion.

As we have seen, this was an extremely difficult task in the tangle of the Argonne Forest, especially concerning dispersion, and one which was obviously at times impossible to maintain. It is safe to say then that Major Whittlesey performed this task about as well as anyone could under the same circumstances. Indeed he managed to follow this particular axiom very well in the Charlevaux Ravine, where he insisted (and perhaps wrongly so) in keeping everyone in tight, close formation on the hillside. This offered very little chance for wild dispersion, while providing only the most orderly extension as well as fantastic local control – his local control.

Yet he seemingly had lost some of that control during the advance to the top of Hill 198 on the afternoon of the 2nd. This is evidenced by his message back to Colonel Stacey late that afternoon just before entering the Charlevaux, in which he states he must wait to gather more troops before moving on because he “got to much in front by mistake.” Admittedly it was a difficult job to maintain good control in the denseness of the Argonne using the limited communications of the time, but that would serve as no excuse in the intensity of the battle, when all that mattered were results.

6) Study the ground and direct the advance in such a way as to take advantage of all available cover and thereby diminish losses.

As best as he could, Major Whittlesey moved his men through the Argonne and down the Ravin d’Argonne, though this principal was mostly in the hands of his company commanders following initial directions given based on orders the Major had received from 77th Division command. His placement of the command along the reverse slope of the Mont d’Charlevaux in fine use of available cover is a good study on this principal. These are lessons learned from the first, ‘Small Pocket’ though, where Major Whittlesey had dug his command in on the front slope of the hill, wide open to German shellfire save for the tree and brush cover. In all fairness, had his flanks kept up with the command however, the problem might not have been as serious, as they likely could have delved farther into the Ravin d’Argonne where the flat surface would have rendered them less obvious and thus offered a small modicum of further protection.

On the other hand, the mistake might have proved all the more disastrous had the German’s not been in the midst of a retirement...

7) Never deploy until the purpose and proper direction are known.

This, of course, could hardly be avoided. Orders came through daily and in sufficient detail to enable this. All Major Whittlesey had to do then was implement them and... well, you know how Major Whittlesey was with orders. The purpose on the 2nd was clear; break the Giselher Stellung. The direction was equally so, as it was dictated by the order for the right oblique movement. Platoon commanders or squad leaders would benefit from adherence to this dictum more so than would a battalion commander.

8) Deploy enough men only for the immediate task in hand; hold out the rest and avoid undue haste in committing them to the action.

The principal for which Major Whittlesey has drawn endless heat. Why, his detractors have asked, did he draw the 2nd battalion – which was supposed to be in support and used frontally only under the direst of circumstances – up into the main line with the 1st, thus depriving himself of immediate reserves? The answer is simple, as we have seen – he had no choice. Only men, and lots of them, was the thing that was going to push that German line. Thus he was deploying what were the amounts needed to complete the ‘task at hand’. Did he do so prematurely? Obviously he thought not, and neither did both Major Budd and Captain McMurtry, as far as is known. Only those who had never been there to experience the hell of moving through that forest against a well organized, well supported and well entrenched enemy, among his own works, thought so.

Another point, most often overlooked, are the casualty totals by that time in the battle. By the morning of October 2nd many of the companies that were out on the line had already fallen down to the 50% mark as far as effectives went. There were even men being dragged in from the ‘mop up’ battalion (the 3rd) to fill some of the more important gaps in the company, and even battalion, headquarters structures. However there was no resupply available for basic riflemen on the line, so the obvious source to replete the decimated advance battalion ranks was to simply close up the support battalion into the line as well. This was a sound solution to a difficult situation that enabled the advance to continue. I would venture a guess that many of Major Whittlesey’s detractors would have agreed, had they all the facts to hand that we do here.

9) Flanks must be protected either by reserves, fortifications, or the terrain.

Again, another sore spot in the story in regard to the Major’s actions considering his failure to complete the links back at the two critical junctures already mentioned, but most especially the second from the Charlevaux, which was part of his advance orders from General Johnson. When one considers Major Whittlesey’s extreme adherence to his orders most of the time, this seems a very strange course indeed for him to take, and one very out of character. True, it appears that he neglected these movements for what he probably believed to be good, sound military reasons, but wrong is wrong and not making the links back on his flanks was the wrong move.

Yet if we are to accept the premise that the whole advance was based on, according to the orders the advance went forward under as the battle ground on, then what choice did Major Whittlesey actually have? Not much, for according to orders, all should have been well in hand on the flanks:

“Flanks will be well cared for by our own people...”

“You are to advance, without regard to flanks or losses...”

Need I say more?

10) In a decisive action gain and maintain fire superiority.

Major Whittlesey’s command certainly did this to the best of their ability, even to the extent that the Major himself apparently had showed a replacement how to load his weapon. Therein lay perhaps the only bogie to this dictum and one that was initially out of the Major’s hands – he had been saddled with a number of replacement troops that had had no combat training. However, by the time the Charlevaux incident came about, those replacements that had managed to survive that far into the battle had by then gained what experience they needed ‘on the job’, so to speak, and could mostly be counted on to get the work done, thus easing the problem greatly. And even a simple glance at the disposition of the companies in the Pocket will show that the Major used his resources to best advantage in order to maintain fire superiority there, where the weaker companies were sandwiched in between the stronger companies, and machine-guns positioned to best effect, as were the auto-rifles. Even at the end, with little to no ammunition left, the Major still maintained a strong stance, manning efficacious outposts and interior lines, which managed to keep the enemy at bay, even during the terrifying flame-thrower attacks. Not at all a bad showing, considering the steadily deteriorating condition of his command.

11) Keep up reconnaissance.

There is no question but that Major Whittlesey kept up recon all through the Argonne advance in order to avoid surprises. (Remember that even Colonel Stacey had told General Johnson that recon - meaning Major Whittlesey’s men - had it that the Charlevaux position was “untenable”, even before the main body had advanced anywhere near up the Ravin d’Argonne far enough to know that.) In fact Major Whittlesey lost large amounts of men dead, wounded and ‘missing’ in the Charlevaux Ravine keeping up recon, even when prudence might dictate he slack off on the activity some. A double-edged sword, to be sure, yet one used out of necessity, for without recon they were operating blind. The Major was also in the habit of picking up ‘stray’ men, or groups of men (as evidenced by the inclusion of several company D and F men in the Pocket) and using them as scouts for his advance attack companies throughout the battle. While this habit did its share in adding to dispersion, it was the Major’s prerogative to employ these men in such a way if he felt the situation warranted, which he obviously did.

12) Use the reserves, but not until needed or a very favorable opportunity for its use presents itself. Keep some reserves as long as practicable.

Again, Major Whittlesey held out 2nd battalion as long as was practicable, committing them only when he was sure that nothing else but sheer numbers would be enough to achieve the objective. (Please review premise No. 8 above at this point.) By the time they reached the point that they were at on the afternoon of October 2nd, his only ‘reserves’, and these created internally between the two battalions, might be considered to be companies ‘D’ and ‘F’, which he then used as his containing force to follow up the advance of the main body. In any case, both 1st and 2nd battalion’s together by that time hardly added up to one, so what choice had he?

13) Do not hesitate to sacrifice the command if the result is worth the cost.

Perhaps the most controversial of all the principals, for not only does it well follow General Alexander’s G.O. #27 concerning no pulling back from ground taken, but it is arguably also the one principal that Major Whittlesey carried out virtually to the bitter end, and in a very literal sense. That said, in order to answer any question about this particular edict, we can again examine a question I posed at one point in Finding the Lost Battalion: “Did the order (G.O. #27) then mean that a unit was to be slaughtered, or nearly so, in compliance with the order?” Judging by this principal one must answer ‘yes’, but only if the result was deemed worth the cost. That said, whether the recipient of the order personally believed it was or not was definitely beside the point – orders said it was, and that was supposed to be enough. I would hesitate to say that Major Whittlesey personally thought the result worth the likely cost. Militarily however, there can be no doubt but that breaking the Giselher Stellung was deemed worth the cost, especially when one considers that it should have been done before the third day in the Argonne was up, let alone after seven days.

Major Whittlesey’s command was very nearly annihilated in the Charlevaux Ravine by the late evening of the 7th; one more strong German attack would have eradicated that great thorn in the Germans’ side. And a great thorn it was to the German high command too, as we have seen. Considering then that Major Whittlesey was attuned to the ‘big picture’ and what it thus meant that his command was thrust forward into the enemy’s territory, he obviously thought the sacrifice of his command worth the cost, at least in the military sense. Not that he ever fully realized the extent of damage to the enemy his remaining in that ravine eventually led to (i.e. his breaching of the enemy line, followed by other units doing so as well in order to ‘rescue’ his command, eventually leading, in part, to the complete collapse of the whole German line on the stalled left flank of the 1st Army front.) No one could have visualized what his predicament meant. Major Whittlesey then did what he did simply because those were his orders. And while we might argue that General Alexander based his controversial order in part on this particular principal, little room for argument exists over whether Major Whittlesey meant to adhere to it or not.

14) Spare the command all unnecessary hardships and exertion.

Obviously, life in the Argonne Forest during the attack was rough - rougher than anyone had imagined it would be in fact. Mostly this was due to the time frame for the first phase of the attack collapsing by, at the latest, noon of the third day, and probably as soon as the morning of the second. (The night attack of the 26th-27th should have been brought off, though only in hindsight can this be said.) Therefore food, water, and any kind of creature comforts at all were vehemently sought after, and Major Whittlesey certainly did his best to provide what he could and keep his men as rested as conditions would allow. Cases in point: his arguments with Colonel Prescott early on over whether his men would be driven beyond their reasonable limits while being used as runners; his apparent penchant for ending any given day’s heavy combat activities at sundown; and his seemingly endless search for rations. Most of all however, we see him adhering to this principal - again - when he argues with Colonel Stacey on the night of October 1st, and then again around noon of October 2nd, over whether his command should push forward into the “untenable position” within the Charlevaux Ravine in the first place, which he felt sure would lead to a repeat of the near disaster that had occurred on l’Homme Mort. A final bit of evidence is how he personally helped out with the sick and wounded all day long of the 8th. 

All in all, I think that it is plain to see that when judged by these principals Charles Whittlesey, Major, U.S. Army Reserve Corps, can be deemed to have ‘passed’ in most respects. Yes, he made mistakes, some of which, it might be argued, lead to dire consequences. Yet for a man that was not an experienced combat leader, and who had had no chance to ‘apprentice’ himself into a battalion commander under fire while serving as second in command to someone else, he administered his affairs well. One might even say better than average in some respects, for it might also be argued that even an experienced battalion commander could have done only marginally better in some aspects of the episode in the Charlevaux. Further, when one considers that only slightly over a year before the events in the Charlevaux, Whittlesey had still been just a lawyer back in New York, and less than a month before the episode he had been nothing more than a regimental staff officer, it is little short of amazing that he handled his affairs as well as he did. That he did so was a testament to both the Plattsburg system and his own fantastic personal resolve.

But what then of Charles Whittlesey, civilian lawyer and fierce pacifist, who afterwards was unable to adequately deal with the results which that success as a soldier had brought him? In considering such a question, Charles Whittlesey becomes a classic paradox. A strict taskmaster, who obeyed his received orders almost to the letter, this made him a crowning success as a soldier, the plaudits of which he had obviously earned. Yet in gaining that success, he was torn internally by having been forced to ask his men to lay their lives on the line at his command in compliance with those orders - watching them die for it and then having to live with the memory of what ‘he had done’ and be applauded for it, when internally he had not agreed with the orders based on his own beliefs and principles. Seen in that light the question then becomes could the two diametrically opposed, yet equally ardent men survive in the same conscience? In light of his eventual end, obviously not. 

Be that as it may, his record as a soldier, when left to stand on its own, more than warrants the honors he received. And yet it becomes almost impossible to separate Whittlesey the civilian from Whittlesey the soldier when one looks, as he did, at the ‘big picture’. His upbringing, social and moral conscience, political views, lack of any real solid military experience or training... all these things figured into what kind of commander he was to be, and were then reflected in the activities of the command he held sway over. In other words, paradox or not, one cannot help but see that he was the caliber of commander for whom the words “devotion to duty” were more than just words, they were a way of life – both in and out of uniform. It was a life later reflected in the men he led that had survived the Charlevaux Ravine, and then remained devoted to him long after he died. Or, in Charles Whittlesey’s own words, “the chaps you do not hear about...”