Epic in the Argonne : The Story of the Lost Battalion
On the evening of 2 October 1918, Major Charles W. Whittlesey led nearly 700 men under his command into the narrow, muddy, Charlevaux Ravine, deep in the heart of the Argonne Forest of Northeastern France. That night, the Germans surrounded the ravine; cutting off the force ensconced there nearly a kilometer ahead of their main line. Five days later, 194 survivors walked out of the ravine and into history...
Few events of the U.S. participation in the First World War have captured the popular imagination quite as strongly as that of the episode of the "Lost Battalion." Arguably the most over-reported story of the war, the legend of that epic event lives on to this day as a tale of valor and torment, courage and terror, determination and death. Few, however, know the true story of what really happened to those men during those five terrible days in early October 1918, and fewer still are aware that the forces concerned were actually trapped twice, or that the U.S. Army Air Service played a part in the event as well.
When the AEF launched its massive offensive into the Meuse-Argonne on 26 September 1918, holding the far left flank of that enormous drive was the 77th Division, originally raised from the streets of New York City but by then peppered with inexperienced replacements from the Midwest after a summer of brutal combat. Charged with attacking through the dense Foret d'Argonne, the 77th slammed forward that morning into a fog shrouded, broken battlefield – and fragmented. The atrocious attack conditions fractured the individual units of the division, and it was two days before commanders were able to begin to tie the loose ends of their commands together again. Fortunately for the doughboys, the Germans in the forest were not prepared for an attack on the scale launched by the AEF, and their lack of readiness proved to be the one saving grace for the 77th. By day two of the offensive, orders had been issued by the German High Command for all units in the Argonne to fall back into pre-prepared positions along the Gieselher Stellung (the first of three successive German main lines in the area) and maintain their defense there.
The unit holding the far left of the 77th's battle line was the 308th Infantry Regiment, which had its 1st Battalion forward in the attack, with its 2nd Battalion in support 500 meters behind. We join the battle there...
The "Small Pocket"
By the evening of the second day of the offensive into the Meuse-Argonne district, the attack into the Argonne Forest itself was slowing considerably under a blanket of exhaustion, bad weather, and combat stress. There, the 77th Division faced stiff resistance from a successive series of German emplacements, entrenchments, and thick barbed wire belts buried within the forest brush; in addition, they were being hammered almost continuously by heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. Nevertheless, as the doughboys pressed their attacks relentlessly forward, the Germans began an ordered retreat back to the prepared positions of the Giselher Stellung main line deep in the forest, leaving small rear guard units behind armed mainly with light machine-guns to cover the withdrawal of the main body.
During the course of the drive forward, on the afternoon of 28 September 1918, Major Charles W. Whittlesey, the Commanding Officer of 1st Battalion/308th Infantry Regiment/154th Infantry Brigade/77th Division, and the 2nd Battalion/308th Infantry Commander, Major Kenneth P. Budd, broke through that German rear guard line and advanced, under competent and direct orders, across a wide hill known as "l'Homme Mort." (1) Battling over the top by the late afternoon, the little force of around 400 men took up a squared position along the wooded northern slope of the hill, dug in, and settled down in the rain swept, dark forest for the night. The position measured no more than 300 meters square but was well outposted. Liaison parties sent out on the flanks discovered that the majority of the 2nd Battalion/308th Infantry had failed to keep up on the right and that the liaison unit meant to connect the 77th with the French on the left, the 368th Infantry Regiment, had also failed to keep up – as had been the case since the beginning of the battle. (2) With no flank support for at least 400 meters in either direction, and only a thin line of runner posts connecting them with the main line behind, the little force was an island of khaki in a sea of field gray. Nevertheless, Major's Whittlesey and Budd, following their orders to the letter, established a Post de Command in a captured German bunker (see illustration above) and waited for the morning, when they were confident that their flanks would catch up. Pigeon messages were sent back to 308th Regimental Headquarters alerting them to the situation and a carrying party was sent out to fetch ammunition, food and water; all of which the American force was very short of. By 2100 hrs all was quiet in what would later become known as the "Small Pocket."
During the night, however, elements of the German 122nd Infantry Regiment/2nd Landwehr Division – the rear guard force covering the general withdrawal in the area – slipped in behind l'Homme Mort and the small American force thereon, and severed the runner line, eliminating at least three runner posts in the process. Unaware of the actual strength of the force that had penetrated their line, but believing it to be considerable, IR122 set up machine-gun posts behind the American bivouac and called for assistance. Elements of the 254th Infantry Regiment/76th Reserve Division, newly arrived to the area and brigaded to the west of IR122, responded and brought more machine-guns. Quietly then, throughout the rainy night, German machine-gun teams and snipers moved into position around the doughboy perimeter line and waited. (Photo above of l'Homme Mort Mill.)
When the carrying party had not returned with supplies by the morning of 29 September, and with stray doughboys coming over the hill stating that the runner line had apparently been cut during the night, Major Whittlesey decided to send out a scout party to investigate. Within a short time, messages back from that party confirmed the facts concerning the runner line. By that time however, the small U.S. force was already under attack by machine-guns, snipers, and at least one light trench mortar, taking fire from all four points of the compass. Another scout party went out and brought in a mortally wounded German officer who, just before he succumbed to his wounds, informed Major's Whittlesey and Budd that worse lay yet ahead for them in the forest. It was mid-morning by this time, and the flanks had not yet caught up. Realizing then that Regimental Headquarters might not be aware of the rapidly deteriorating situation, and with supplies and ammunition about gone and the German fire from all sides growing heavier, Major Whittlesey decided to send out his Battalion Adjutant, Lieutenant Arthur McKeogh, to try to break through the German cordon to the rear and lead up a rescue force. Lieutenant McKeogh took two enlisted men with him and set off through the thick brush. In the distance, they could hear their comrades on the main line battling desperately to drive the line forward.
By nightfall, all food was exhausted in the Small Pocket. A small stream at the bottom of the hill was under fire from a particularly expert German sniper, and thus water was unobtainable as well. Thankfully, the number of wounded the force had taken during the previous 24 hours had been low. Nevertheless, the terrible weather and rough combat conditions in the battle through the thick forest thus far had left few of the doughboys in anything like a healthy state. German combat patrols 'nibbled' the doughboy perimeter well into the night but so far no serious attack had been mounted, although the doughboys were sure it would come. In order to prevent any panic, Major's Whittlesey and Budd kept the truth of the predicament from their men, telling only the few officers under them of the situation. Nevertheless, word leaked out. Soon nearly everyone knew what was happening and the tension on l'Homme Mort that night was intense as sporadic rifle and machine-gun fire continued.
Just after dawn that morning of 30 September, outposts of the Small Pocket were surprised by a small squad of doughboys coming through the trees up the hill, dragging several German prisoners and a captured German machine-gun. They were a scout party sent out from the main line to locate the bivouac of the 1st Battalion/308th. Lieutenant McKeogh and his two cohorts had, after several harrowing adventures, made it back through the lines earlier that morning and informed 308th Regimental Headquarters of the situation. (3) The incoming squad had run into only one enemy machine-gun crew, whom they captured, and it now appeared that the Germans were in full retreat. Major Whittlesey sent the squad back down the way they had come, along with several of his own men to reestablish the runner line, and soon supplies were coming up the hill and wounded were being carried back down it. By 1700 hrs that evening, the main line had battled up to the l'Homme Mort position, covering Major Whittlesey's flanks, and all was well again. It had been a very close call, the lesson of which would not be lost on Major Whittlesey.
The next day, 1 October 1918, the 308th received orders to continue their attack forward, up a nasty slice of ravine buried deep within the forest known as the "Ravin d'Argonne." Two kilometers ahead, the north/south running Ravin d'Argonne terminated, emptying into the east/west running Charlevaux Ravine. Major Whittlesey's orders were to drive straight up the Ravin d'Argonne, cross the Charlevaux Ravine, and take up a position along the east/west running Binarville-La Viergette Road, which cut across the northern slope of the Charlevaux. There he was to form solid flank liaison with French forces to his left (at the Charlevaux Mill, see picture at left), and the 307th Infantry Regiment to his right, consolidate the position, and await further instructions for a coordinated attack. (4) Orders handed down by the 77th's Division Commander, Major-General Robert Alexander, heretofore had been to "advance without regard to flanks." These were now amended to also include the addition "...or losses." The ground ahead was to be taken at all costs, and there was to be no relinquishing of taken ground without permission from the Commanding General himself.
The 308th slammed forward, with bloody results, up the Ravin d'Argonne for all of 1 October. Casualties were very heavy and by the end of the day, they had advanced barely a kilometer. Late that afternoon the Brigade Commander, Brigadier-General Evan Johnson, sent Major Whittlesey a new attack plan, designed to bypass much of the resistance he faced at the outlet of the Ravin d'Argonne. (5) An attack using the new plan on the morning of 2 October failed, with further heavy casualties. That afternoon, however, Major Whittlesey and the replacement 2nd Battalion/308th Infantry Commander, Captain George G. McMurtry, tried again and managed to narrowly break through the German lines. (6) Between 1730 and 1930 hrs, they led nearly 700 men down into the Charlevaux Ravine.
Although he had argued strenuously – twice in fact – that the attack orders were likely to lead to yet another entrapment of his unit behind enemy lines, Major Whittlesey had, while again acting under well-defined and competent orders, been able to pierce the German Giselher Stellung main line and was now on to his objective. Reconnaissance revealed however that, once again, his had been the only unit to take its objective; flanking forces to the east and west had been unable to keep up with them, just as Whittlesey had earlier predicted to his Regimental Commander, Colonel Cromwell Stacey. They were therefore now in a veritable untenable position: stranded nearly a kilometer ahead of their main line and once again with no flank support whatsoever. However, the two Battalion Commanders – who understood, as before, that their orders forbade their retreat, and not yet aware of the full magnitude of their peril – ordered their men to dig in as darkness fell.
The Siege of the Lost Battalion
They dug into the northern slope of the Charlevaux hillside, between the Binarville-La Viergette roadway above and an undeveloped wagon path below running between the hill and the Charlevaux Brook (see illustration above). This is the position that over the next five days would become world famous as simply "The Pocket." They refused their flanks into a well-defined defensive perimeter stretching approximately 300 meters long by 100 meters wide following the contour of the hillside. Machine-guns covered both flanks, while liaison to the rear was, as before, maintained through a series of runner posts that stretched back to the Regimental Headquarters, now at the l'Homme Mort bunker 2 kilometers to the south. Messages sent back by Major Whittlesey along this line on the evening of 2 October alerted Regimental Headquarters to the situation in the Charlevaux Ravine, and thus elements of the 3rd Battalion/307th Infantry were dispatched to establish liaison from Major Whittlesey's right flank and extend back to the main line behind the Charlevaux position. However, only Company K of the 307th, led by Captain Nelson M. Holderman, (7) was able to proceed up to The Pocket, arriving there about 0400 hrs on the morning of 3 October. Meanwhile, believing his position still somewhat tenable on the evening of 2 October, Major Whittlesey had decided to wait until the morning of 3 October to send the connecting link from his left flank rearward to remaining elements of 2nd and 3rd Battalions/308th back on the main line and already liaisoned to French forces further to the west.
The German forces along the mainline of the Giselher Stellung along the top of Hill 198, knew that Major Whittlesey's force had taken up a position in the Charlevaux Ravine, but did not know their exact numbers or what support they might have. Yet, seeing no further reinforcement after Captain Holderman's Company K/307th came up over the night of 2-3 October, elements of IR122 and RIR254 repaired the break in the Giselher Stellung line on Hill 198 which Major Whittlesey's forces had pierced open. The Germans again slipped in behind the Americans in the early hours of the morning, and eliminated the U.S. runner line, thus cutting off the force ensconced in the Charlevaux Ravine from any support behind. Remaining elements of the runner line retreated into The Pocket to inform Major Whittlesey of this at about 1000 hrs on 3 October. About that same time, remnants of a patrol the Major had sent out earlier that morning from Company E/308th to attempt the left flank connection back to the main battle line, straggled back into the position reporting that they had been ambushed with heavy casualties. (8) Soon thereafter, the Germans began to pound The Pocket with heavy trench mortar and machine-gun fire from entrenchments to both the north and south. A strong patrol of Company K/307th sent out by Major Whittlesey late that morning to attempt a breakthrough to the southeast also failed with heavy casualties.
With the only form of communication left available to him that of carrier pigeon, Major Whittlesey kept 308th Regimental Headquarters informed of the rapidly deteriorating situation as best he could, but was unable to receive orders back. Believing then that his orders to hold the position he had taken still stood, Whittlesey and his men held onto the ravine bivouac and beat off several strong German attacks during the course of the day, but took many casualties for the effort. By the evening of 3 October, the four remaining enlisted medics in The Pocket were reporting to Major Whittlesey that all medical supplies were exhausted, as was nearly all of the food supply. Water, which should have been obtainable from the Charlevaux Brook, was not accessible, due to intense German machine-gun fire. Casualties had been terrible during the day, with nearly 20% of the force killed or wounded already, including Captain McMurtry who had had a machine-gun bullet shatter one of his kneecaps.
The next day, 4 October, the surrounded force again repelled repeated German attacks in the morning and continued to absorb German trench mortar fire. Hand grenades were now exhausted, and ammunition was beginning to run low. Meanwhile, to the south, what remained of the 308th Infantry, along with elements of the 307th, launched repeated attacks to affect a breakthrough of the German line in order to reach Major Whittlesey's surrounded force – all to no avail. That afternoon elements of the 152nd Field Artillery Brigade made plans to attempt to fire a "barrage of protection" around The Pocket in support of the ground attacks, in order to draw German troops away from it. However, due to an error in map coordinates (which was not Major Whittlesey's fault, as is often thought), at least one battery of artillery mistakenly fired directly onto the American position in the ravine instead of around it. With German mortar and machine-gun fire keeping the beleaguered U.S. troops corralled into their narrow position, the Americans had no choice but to endure. At 1500 hrs, after half an hour of continuing U.S. barrage, Major Whittlesey released his last carrier pigeon, named "Cher Ami," with a plea to lift the fire:
We are along the road parallel 276.4
Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.
For heaven's sake stop it.
Whittlesey, Major 308
Twenty-two minutes later, Cher Ami arrived at Mobile Pigeon Loft #9 with the message, though he was missing an eye, a leg, and had been shot through the breast and wing. The artillery, however, had already discovered their error by that time through other means and had begun to lift their fire. Nevertheless, the damage in The Pocket had tragically been done: some 80 men had been wounded during the barrage (including one of the four remaining medics), while approximately 30 had been killed. Additionally, a group of men from Company E had been captured during a German attack that slammed into the position immediately following the barrage. Among them were two officers, Lieutenants James Leak and Victor Harrington who, under questioning, would be largely successful in fooling the German commanders of RIR254 into believing that the American force in the ravine was nearly twice the size that it actually was.
As 5 October dawned, the force in The Pocket was rapidly weakening. With no food or water available and the strain of combat weighing heavily on them since 26 September, few of Major Whittlesey's men had the strength left to bury their dead, and therefore bodies littered the hillside. Without any supplies available to the three remaining medics, and forced to remain out in the chilling and rainy elements, the wounded were in a terrible state and beginning to succumb to infection and gangrene. Repeated German attacks were again fended off throughout the day, while to the south could be heard the desperate sounds of battle, as the remainder of the 154th Infantry Brigade continued to attempt to penetrate the Giselher Stellung and break through to the Charlevaux Ravine.
Also that day, DeHavilland DH-4 aircraft of the 50th Aero (Observation) Squadron appeared over the ravine, flying low and slow, in an effort to positively locate Major Whittlesey's exact position in order to attempt an aerial resupply. This would be the first such large-scale endeavor in history. (9) Their efforts to locate Major Whittlesey's men were largely unsuccessful, however. They were far too well dug in to the heavily wooded, brush-covered hillside to be seen. If they could be seen from the air, then they could also be seen by the German on the high ground around them. This meant that the 50th was up against a tough stump; they had to attempt an air drop – an operation which had never been done before – to resupply a group of men whose exact position could not be positively confirmed.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, newspapers were already reporting the plight of what they were popularly calling "The Lost Battalion." The name was a gross exaggeration of the facts – Major Whittlesey's men were not "lost" in the sense that no one knew where they were; in fact, nothing was further from the truth. The term "lost," in fact, was in reference to their apparently hopeless situation. Nor were they a single battalion, but instead a composite unit of four different battalions. Major Whittlesey's command in the ravine actually consisted of portions of Companies A, B and C of the 1st Bn/308th; E, G, and H of the 2nd Bn/308th; approximately one platoon each from Companies C and D of the 306th Machine Gun Bn (with nine heavy Hotchkiss weapons); and Company K of the 3rd Bn/307th Infantry. Additionally, there were also several men in the Charlevaux from Companies D and F/308th, as well as from the 3rd Bn/308th and the 302nd Ammunition Train. Though there has never been any official U.S. Army record of exactly who or how many men were actually in The Pocket between 2 and 7 October 1918, the most accurate list to date positively places 694 men and officers as originally entering the ravine on 2 October. (10) Yet, whatever their numbers, the fact remains that by sunrise of 6 October 1918 – just as the plight of these men was making headlines back home – the casualty total in The Pocket was approaching 70%.
That morning of 6 October, as Major Whittlesey's men fought off the first of several attacks which would be launched against them that day (including one late that afternoon that incorporated flamethrowers), the first of several relay flights made by the 50th Aero Squadron in an attempt to resupply The Pocket from the air was begun. None of these attempts would prove to be successful however, with the squadron losing three aircraft that day to enemy ground fire. From the air, the featureless and heavily fog-enshrouded forest landscape of the Argonne made pinpointing The Pocket beyond difficult, and therefore all of the dropped packages fell into enemy hands. However, during their first flight of the day, Lieutenants Harold E. Goettler (pilot) and Erwin R. Bleckley (observer) believed they had seen signs of Major Whittlesey's men through the ground fog. Though their normally assigned DH-4 #2 had been so severely shot up on that flight so as to be of no use for the remainder of the day, they borrowed DH-4 #6 that afternoon from fellow pilot, 1/Lt. Floyd Pickrell. They then set out on yet another extremely dangerous, low level mission to obtain a precise location of the Lost Battalion. Their plan was to record on their map "hot spots" from where ground fire was coming and thereby pinpoint the exact correct position through process of elimination. During that second flight, however, Lt. Goettler was shot in the head from ground fire, and in the ensuing crash Lt. Bleckley sustained massive internal injuries and died in an ambulance on the way to a field hospital. Though the resupply efforts would continue, nothing dropped from the air would ever reach Major Whittlesey's beleaguered men.
However, the 50th Aero Squadron's efforts would have another, unanticipated effect on the episode then playing out in the Charlevaux Ravine. About 1000 hrs of 7 October, nine men slipped away from the left flank of The Pocket – without orders – to try to locate one of the airplane packages dropped the previous afternoon that they believed to be close at hand. Not far off the flank, German machine-gunners ambushed them, and five of the party were killed outright, while the four remaining wounded were taken prisoner. One man, Private Lowell Hollingshead of Mt. Sterling Ohio, had received only a slight knee wound, and was therefore taken before the German intelligence officer of RIR254, Ltn. Heinrich 'Fritz' Prinz. Prinz requested that Hollingshead take a letter back to Major Whittlesey, suggesting the surrender of the remaining forces in the ravine. (11) After some debate, Private Hollingshead agreed to do so and he was duly released along the wagon road at the bottom of The Pocket with the letter. Private Hollingshead presented the letter to Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry at about 1600 hrs that afternoon, whereupon legend holds that the Major, upon reading the missive, turned to the German lines and yelled that they could all "Go to hell!" In truth, Major Whittlesey said nothing of the sort, but instead ordered his men to prepare for an attack he was sure would come once the letter was left unanswered. Orders were also passed that all white airplane signal ground panels (which were hardly anything close to white anymore) be gathered in, lest they be mistaken for a sign of surrender. Once word of the German surrender request had passed along to the men on the hillside, however, they began to shout back to the Germans of their own accord what they thought of the ultimatum – and in no uncertain, or none too polite, terms! (12)
The final German attack hit the beleaguered command shortly after 1700 hrs that afternoon, coming from all points of the compass, and lasted for over an hour and a half. Once again, as they had in the final attack of 6 October, the Germans brought flamethrowers to bear against The Pocket, but they were all driven off and killed, again as they had been the day before. Nevertheless, the attack was the fiercest to date and virtually exhausted both Major Whittlesey's men and their meager remaining supply of ammunition. However, attacks launched farther along the German main line to the east by American forces had had a telling effect that day, and the German line was again in full retreat by the time the final attack against The Pocket ground to a halt that evening. With their last effort to eradicate The Pocket repulsed, and under intense pressure from the 307th Infantry and what remained of the 308th (attacking to the south and southeast), the German forces surrounding the Charlevaux Ravine abruptly withdrew from the area just before 1900 hrs. Shortly thereafter, relief finally broke through to Major Whittlesey's position in the form of Company B/307th Infantry. The epic in the Charlevaux Ravine was over. Major Whittlesey and his men had stood their ground and held out, against incredible odds.
The price had been high however. Of the 694 officers and men that went into the Charlevaux Ravine on the evening of 2 October, only 194 were able to walk out on the afternoon of 8 October – a casualty rate (killed, wounded/sick, or missing/POW) of nearly 72%. Of the 20 officers that originally entered The Pocket, only four were able to walk out. For their efforts in the ravine in holding their ground, as well as holding the beleaguered command together under incredibly difficult circumstances, Major Whittlesey, Captain McMurtry, and Captain Holderman were each bestowed the Medal of Honor. Major Whittlesey was also immediately promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and Captain McMurtry was promoted to Major. Additionally, two enlisted men that had been fighting to affect the breakthrough to The Pocket were each also presented the Medal of Honor, as were Lieutenants Goettler and Bleckley of the 50th Aero Squadron. Thus, there were seven Medals of Honor awarded for this one five-day event – more than would be given out for any single modern combat event until the famous U.S. Army Air Forces raid on the Ploesti oil fields in 1943. For many years afterwards, the event in the Charlevaux Ravine, and the tales that grew up around it, would make the Lost Battalion one of the most popular war stories of American participation in the First World War. General John J. Pershing, overall commander of all American forces in France, labeled the episode as one of the three most outstanding events of the war, and Charles Whittlesey one of its three most outstanding soldiers.
And so, Charles Whittlesey and his men found themselves heroes upon their return home. Yet, that was a distinction which ill suited Whittlesey, and he tried hard to avoid it; something which proved to be all but impossible. His fame as the first man of the war to receive the Medal of Honor, as well as illnesses related to his gassing during the war and a severe case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, followed him constantly. Therefore, in 1921, after three years of almost nonstop publicity over the event, failing health, and unending psychic torment, Whittlesey booked passage on a vacation steamer to Cuba, telling no one of his plans. At about 2330 hrs on the night of 26 November 1921, the first night of the voyage, Charles Whittlesey stood up from the table in the ship's saloon that he had been sharing with a fellow passenger, politely excused himself, strode out the door into the darkness beyond, and leapt over the side of the ship.
His body was never found.
1) Charles White Whittlesey was born 20 January 1881 in Florence, Wisconsin. When he was 10 years old, his family moved out east, where his father was from, and settled in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Charles attended Williams College and Harvard Law School, before going into practice in New York City. Politically, he was a died in the wool Socialist and a pacifist, but he was also a strong patriot and to that end he enrolled in General Leonard Wood's 1916 Plattsburg Officer's Training Program. When the U.S. went to war in 1917, he was called up for a refresher course and following that, at Camp Upton, on Long Island, he was made Commanding Officer of Headquarters Company/308th. In France, during the summer of 1918, he was advanced to Regimental Operations Officer for the 308th, but never actually saw combat on the front lines himself, though he was severely gassed behind the lines (an episode which he never reported and that would later contribute to his death). Just two weeks before the drive into the Argonne Forest, he was promoted to Major and placed in command of the 1st Bn/308th, partly because the attrition rate among officers in the regiment had been so high that summer and he was next in line. Therefore, his first actual combat assignment where he would lead troops into battle was the largest and most difficult offensive of the war. His 1st Bn was made the point of the 308th's drive, and his regiment was almost a third untested and largely untrained replacements when they stepped off into the forest that morning of 26 September. He himself was a very sick man, due to the gassing he had undergone, without treatment, the month before.
Kenneth Pepperell Budd was a Harvard Business School graduate and a successful New York businessman when he too went to Plattsburg in 1916. After retraining in 1917, he was offered a Battalion Commander's job straight out of the course (in August, 1917), so astute had he been during his training. He turned down the offer, but by January of 1918 he was thrust into the job with the rank of Major anyway. He was placed in command of 2nd Bn and led them all through combat that summer, being heavily gassed and wounded once in the process. Taking his battalion into the Argonne as support behind Major Whittlesey, he was more than likely already suffering some degree of combat exhaustion as he led his men into battle once again. This may explain (in part) his lack of sound judgment on 28 September, when he joined his Battalion Headquarters Detachment to Major Whittlesey's during the advance up l'Homme Mort and left the majority of his battalion – still spread out along the main line just east of Whittlesey's advance path – leaderless and unguided in the midst of a stiff fight.
2) The 368th Infantry was an African-American unit, sent to fight with the French without proper training, equipment, and support. They were in no way adequately prepared for combat, let alone a tricky liaison mission such as they were charged with off Whittlesey's left flank. Without proper artillery support, on 26 September they were met by stiff German resistance and shattered, falling back to the jump-off line three times. Officers had to drive the men back to battle at gun point. On 27 September, they fell back behind the jump-off line. By 28 September, some companies of the regiment had managed to advance, but nowhere near far enough to cover Whittlesey's left flank.
3) Lieutenant Arthur McKeogh, Pvt. John Monson, and Pvt. Jack Herschkowitz would each receive the D.S.C. for their adventures that night. Monson died in 1920, an alcoholic; McKeogh became the first Lost Battalion historian, but died in 1923; Herschkowitz lived into the early 1980's.
4) The objective was never the actual Charlevaux Mill itself, despite popular myth.
5) The attack plan specified that Company's D and F of the 308th would be left back on the main line on the west side of the ravine attacking Hill 205, a major point of resistance holding them up in the area. Meanwhile, Whittlesey took the reminder of the 1st and 2nd Bn's on a flanking mission around the hill, to the east side of the ravine and over the ridgeline there called Hill 198. Then, once on the objective, he was to send two of his companies back over Hill 198 to connect up with D and F and complete a solid line off his left flank back to the main line.
6) Ken Budd had been relieved of command of the 2nd Bn immediately following the Small Pocket episode and was sent to Staff School at Langres. In truth, his orders for Langres had arrived just before the jump-off into the Argonne, and since there wasn't anyone to take his place at the head of 2nd Bn at that 11th hour, the order was shelved until something could be figured out. Obviously, his abandonment of his battalion of leadership at such an inopportune moment as on 28 September must have had some effect on the decision, because by then the 308th was even shorter of officers than at the start of the battle.
George Gibson McMurtry Jr. was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. His father was an immigrant Irishman who had come to America without a penny and had virtually built the town of Vandergrift, Pensylvania, to serve the tin mills he built and there. George Jr. grew up then with a healthy respect for the common man, while having a silver spoon in his hand. He went to Harvard Business School and interrupted his studies in 1898 to go to Cuba with his family friend, Theodore Roosevelt, in the 'Rough Riders', serving in Troop D under Captain R.B. Huston. When he returned home again, he studied hard enough to still graduate with his class in 1899. By 1910 he was a millionaire on Wall Street and well respected by all who knew him. A Plattsburg graduate, almost all the officers in the 308th knew him and he was probably the most well liked officer in the entire regiment during the war.
7) Nelson Miles Holderman was a replacement officer from the 7th Infantry, California National Guard. In combat, Holderman was in his element and was without doubt the best officer in the Charlevaux Ravine. He took seven separate wounds during the event in the Charlevaux, some of them serious, but within a year was little worse for the wear.
8) Among these casualties was one of the five medics up with the force in the Charlevaux, who had volunteered to go back for much needed supplies and was captured by the Germans during the ambush.
9) Each of the attacking divisions involved in the offensive had an observation squadron attached to it for aerial liaison duty. For the most part they performed their work admirably. The biggest difficulties seemed to involve activities over the Argonne Forest and the Bois d'Septsarges.
10) Lost Battalion historian and author Robert J. Laplander has spent considerable time over the last 20 years compiling a list of those definitely known to have been in the Charlevaux Ravine and believes that the number may actually be slightly higher. However, no further proof has yet been found to include any from the 'possibles' list.
11) Prinz had lived in Seattle for 12 years before the war, working for a German tungsten mining outfit, and by that stage of the war knew Germany had no chance at winning. His offer for Whittlesey to surrender was an honest one and made with the thought of both saving the lives of the remaining Americans in the ravine, as well as saving the honor of RIR254, whose only blemish was not having been able to eject the Americans from that ravine.
12) Later, when asked about this portion of the event Whittlesey – ever the master of understatement – would laconically reply, "The men swore a good deal."
Lost Battalion historian and author Robert J. Laplander has studied the experiences of Charles Whittlesey and his men for over 20 years. For a full, definitive accounting of the actions of the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest, please read his book Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legend of America’s Famous WW1 Epic. Mr. Laplander also runs Doughboy MIA on the US WW1 Centennial Commission website. He lives in Waterford, Wisconsin with his wife, Trinie, their three children, and a tall, skinny dog. For more information, please visit: www.findingthelostbattalion.com
On the overcast, misty morning of November 12th, 1918 – the first morning of peace in Europe in four years and four months – Corporal Roy Holtz of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, an AEF dispatch rider and motor scout, became the first American to cross the Rhine River and onto German soil, riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A short time later, Cpl. Holtz’s commanding officer, Major Frederick W. Hackett of Champlain New York, lead the first American contingent of U.S. Army occupation forces across the river, giving the German populace an initial glimpse of what would soon become a familiar sight – the American Doughboy. In the days to come, a veritable herd of brethren to these first troops followed as the AEF set up the newly formed 3rd Army for occupation duty, which quickly established headquarters in the city that Cpl. Holtz had motored through that first, blessed day – Coblenz, on the Rhine River.
All through the month of November and into December, troops of the 1st and 3rd German Armies streamed across the bridgehead and through the town as well, surrendering their arms and stores before being discharged from service by the American Bridgehead Commission (by then the controlling governmental power for the district). Only then were they allowed to return to their homes. It was a strange atmosphere, notable for the lack of general triumph elicited by the victors, as well as a certain measure of pride still maintained by the vanquished troops, who believed in their hearts that the war had been lost not on the battlefield, but in the political offices far behind the front. As such, the occupying army allowed the retreating German divisions the honor of parading their troops and regimental colors one last time in farewell before disbanding.
It was a hollow honor.
Interestingly, the last division to appear on final parade in occupied Coblenz was the 76th Reserve Division from Hesse; the same division that had fought so magnificently against the American 77th Division during the Argonne Drive, and the one that had been largely responsible for bottling Major Whittlesey’s men up in the Charlevaux Ravine that previous October. Their final parade came on the morning of December 11th, after which they marched off toward their homes in what would later be described as “good order”. And of the two officers of the 76th RD left behind to hand over their division’s stores to the American Bridgehead Commission, one of those that had been chosen was none other than Lt. Fritz Heinrich Prinz...
After the failure of the 254th Infantry Regiment to dislodge Major Whittlesey’s men from the Charlevaux Ravine before their ordered retreat from that area, Lt. Prinz had found little in the rapidly diminishing German cause to believe in. Though he fought on with his division right up until the end, he was well aware – most particularly following the events in the Charlevaux Ravine – that it was only a matter of time before the bitter end came. When it finally did, on that gray December afternoon, AEF reporter Wilber Forrest, who had arrived in Coblenz on December 8th looking for something to write about (along with 900 men of the 39thInfantry/4th Division) was there to see it. Forrest, whose dispatches had been among the first to report Major Whittlesey’s earlier predicament on l’Homme Mort that would eventually become known as the ‘Small Pocket’, found Lt. Prinz to be:
“...a dapper little Prussian officer who looked as if he had just jumped out of a bandbox; a pleasant person, courteous and anxious to please. He spoke faultless English and, thus accomplished, had been chosen as interpreter (by) the American Bridgehead Commission. Lieutenant Prinz was the man who wrote the note to (Lt. Col.) Whittlesey demanding the surrender of the remnants of the “Lost Battalion”. He expressed great admiration for Whittlesey and his heroic command. He said he hoped someday to meet the American officer, but did not confirm the popular story of the manner in which Whittlesey was said to have replied to his note...”
Forrest made special note of that last fact, and some weeks later would make his way back to 77th Division PC at Chateau Villain to “check the truth about the Lost Battalion”, as he put it, and thus help perpetuate one of the many legends that sprang from the episode in the Charlevaux Ravine.
Another figure that found himself there to interview Lt. Prinz was a tall, quiet American officer that had been detailed to the General Staff of the American Bridgehead Commission and arrived in Coblenz only on December 5th. Colonel Clarence S. Sherrill had ended the war as Divisional Chief of Staff of the 77th “Metropolitan” Division, and had been involved to no small degree in the orders that came from General Alexander’s PC during the Charlevaux incident. Now, much to his surprise, he found himself face to face with the very man that had composed the now famous ‘surrender letter’. Though there meeting was little more than a minor footnote to what had fast become one of the most famous stories of the war, it was nevertheless an epic footnote, to be sure. In a report that he wrote on Christmas Day, 1918, to General Alexander, Col. Sherrill had this, in part, to say about the extraordinary meeting he had with Lt. Prinz:
“(Lt. Prinz) informed me that he was in command of a platoon (sic) of the German forces which were between Major Whittlesey and the remainder of the 154th Brigade. He also was the officer who transmitted to Major Whittlesey the note urging him to surrender to avoid further useless sacrifice of life. I questioned Lt. Prinz to give the German view of our men, and he expressed himself as being a great admirer of our division for its gallant offensive operation, and especially was loud in praise of Major Whittlesey and his gallant detachment. He stated that the Germans felt that it was absolutely suicidal for the American detachment to persist in its defense, and it was for that reason that he sent the message requesting the surrender... Lieutenant Prinz, previous to the war, had been for six years the representative of a German tungsten company in Spokane (Washington), and expressed his desire to return to America after the war, saying that he intended to look up Colonel Whittlesey for the purpose of expressing to him his personal admiration for this gallant conduct... (He) said one of the most discouraging things (the Germans) encountered was the absolute lack of “nerves” shown by the American troops, as opposed to the shaken nerves of the German, who were absolutely worn out by the prolonged service at the front. He said our men seemed to be absolutely devoid of any such things as “nerves” at that time, and this buoyancy had a very depressing effect on his men.”
After his duty had finished at Coblenz, Fritz Prinz returned to his hometown of Stettin, up on the coast, where his wife, Auguste, was waiting for him. He had served honorably as an officer in the war since early 1915, been wounded twice, and had seen action on the Russian, Romanian, and Western (France) fronts. In the immediate post war years, he went back into the mining business that had been his trade before the war and within a few short years wound up as manager of a large coal mine just outside of Kassel. In December of 1926, he realized his ambition to return to the United States on a business visit. By then, however, Charles Whittlesey was already dead, and as the old German campaigner later wrote, “I saw and heard nothing of the comrades of the Lost Battalion. I went into a bookshop in New York, but even they could not tell me anything about a book or history of the Lost Battalion.” Since he had no idea how to get hold of Lowell Hollingshead, he was not able to meet up with him either, something that truly disappointed him. And by the time that Hollingshead had heard, by sheer chance from a newspaper reporter, that Prinz was in the country and looking for him, it was too late and Prinz had already sailed for home. Holly, for his part, later told Tom Johnson, co-author of the 1938 book The Lost Battalion, that he would have “walked all day” to have seen Prinz again.
Nevertheless, Prinz and Hollingshead later on did exchange a few infrequent letters, in the 1930’s, mostly exchanging family pleasantries and rarely mentioning the incident in the Charlevaux Ravine. By that time, both men had families and had tried to put the war behind them. Prinz had two sons; one was serving in the German army and another as a private in a Nazi public works program. The last letter Hollingshead had from Prinz was dated May 19th, 1939. Then, four months later, Hitler kicked off World War Two, with his invasion of Poland, and all correspondence between the two men stopped, apparently for good.
In late 1962, Lowell Hollingshead enlisted the aid of the Columbus Dispatch, a local newspaper that was preparing to follow the old campaigner on a return to France, 44 years after his adventure in the Charlevaux, to help him try and locate Prinz before they went over. They, in turn, contacted the Hamburg branch of Bernsen’s International Press Service (a private news service then based in New York City). Holly was then disappointed to learn that the last administrative record of Prinz and his wife that could be found had them listed as living in the town of Paderborn, Germany – which had been completely flattened during the Allied strategic bombing campaign toward the end of the Second World War. Their youngest son, Gunther, had been killed on the Russian Front. No trace of the older son, George Hans, was ever found.
Theodore Bernsen, president of the press service, rather neatly summed it all up in the last line of his report, sent to Hollingshead on December 4th, 1962:
“This then, is the end of the story.”