Finding the Lost Battalion: Myths and Legends
The story of the Lost Battalion has always been surrounded by rumor, myth and legend. In this section, we will explore and shed light on the truth of the most persistent of these 'fables'.
Myths and Legends of the Lost Battalion: The Name
To begin with, the name 'Lost Battalion' is a complete misnomer. They were neither lost in the classic sense, nor were they an actual battalion either. Even the men who were there hated the name, preferring to refer to themselves as more of a 'beleaguered battalion', or 'surrounded battalion'. Why then were they called the 'Lost Battalion'? Well, the term was actually coined by a newspaper man and was simply an off hand creation that sounded good, but the facts are far more revealing.
In the first place, Whittlesey and his men were never 'lost'. They were right where they were supposed to be, and exactly where Whittlesey reported them to be, despite popular myth. (For more information on Whittlesey's supposed incorrect coordinates, see the article on the 'mistaken barrage' below.) Whittlesey continued to send good and accurate coordinates of his position all through the battle in the Argonne, which I illustrate in my book, Finding the Lost Battalion, as well as during their time in the Charlevaux Ravine. Their regimental, brigade and divisional commanders behind the line knew where they were as well. The only ones who had any doubt concerning the whereabouts of Whittlesey's command were the artillery (again see below) and the air service, who were charged with dropping in fresh supplies to the surrounded bivouac. (For more information on the air services' part in the event, see the 'Side Story: The 50th Aero Squadron' sections.) Whittlesey had brought his command up to their objective line as had been ordered, had indicated as such and would continue to do so until they ran out of carrier pigeons to send back messages with. So no, they weren't lost in the sense that no one knew where in the forest they were. In their case 'lost' referred to their general situation, as in hopeless, or beyond help. It was fully expected by many behind the line that the unit - out of food and medical supplies and short of ammunition - wouldn't be able to hold out against a surrounding force that held all the advantages and that in the end the Germans would have killed or captured the entire command; thus the 77th would have lost the entire outfit. As far as 'lost' goes, it is perhaps best summed up by one of the men that had been there: "Hell, we weren't lost. The &%$#@* Germans knew where we were the whole %$*&#^! time!"
And as for 'battalion' part of the name, the force in the Charlevaux Ravine was actually elements from all three battalions of the 308th Infantry, an element of 3rd Battalion/307th Infantry, some shot up elements of Companies C and D of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion, three men from Battery D of the 1st Battalion/305th Field Artillery Regiment, and a couple men from the 2nd Battalion/302nd Ammunition Train. All tolled, the force under Major Whittlesey and Captain McMurtry there in the Charlevaux was just shy of 700 men. A full battalion at war strength at the time mustered 1,200 men, with about 1,000 of them toting rifles on the line. So as we can see Whittlesey actually commanded what in a later war would be termed a 'mixed unit' that was less than even battalion strength.
So why 'battalion'? Well, first because Whittlesey - who's name was most closely associated with the story at the time because he was the over riding commander of all forces in that ravine - was a battalion commander. And this was a distinction that resonated with the newspaper men at the time, whose job it was to write easy to understand stories for the folks back home. Few civilians understood the breakdown of a military unit, which in Whittlesey's case was thus: 77th Division > 154th Infantry Brigade > 308th Infantry Regiment > 1st Battalion. (Each division had two brigades of infantry; each brigade had two regiments; each regiment was divided into three battalions; each battalion was divided into four companies; each company was divided into two sections; each section had two platoons and each platoon was divided into squads.) But it didn't really matter whether someone understood the breakdown or not - the term 'battalion' was a military designation for a unit and to the newsmen it just sounded good. So when a short synopsis of the story was initially wired back to the states on October 5th by one Damon Runyon, then a reporter at the front, and caught the eye of Harold D. Jacobs his editor, Jacobs wired back simply "Send more on lost battalion" and a name was born...
Myths and Legends of the Lost Battalion: Cher Ami, the Heroic Pigeon
The story of Cher Ami, the heroic pigeon that 'saved the Lost Battalion' has truly become one of the most persistent, and most loved, myths of the American participation in the First World War. And as great as the story is (it's even one of my favorite stories), it is not altogether true.
In its most sensational, the story goes like this: Whittlesey's men were being bombed by their own artillery (or French artillery, depending on the version) due to incorrect coordinates sent back by Whittlesey. In order to stop the terrible bombardment, Whittlesey writes 'desperate' note and his pigeoneer sends their last bird, Cher Ami, on his way. Cher Ami makes it back to his home loft in good time, despite being all shot to hell and delivers the missive, which alerts the artillery to their terrible mistake, thus saving the Lost Battalion from certain and total annihilation.
Like I said, it makes for a great story, but the facts are something different. When the mistaken barrage by US artillery began around 2:00 pm on October 4th (and US it definitely was - see below), Whittlesey and McMurtry both expected the artillery to correct their fire relatively quickly. The fire was heavy and the Germans added to it with their own trench mortars and machine guns, so no one was moving around above ground. When Whittlesey realized the fire wasn't going to lift, during a slight 'lightening' of the fire around 3:00 pm, he moved from the hole he was in, grabbing Pvt. Omer Richards, one of his pigeoneers, and high-tailed it back to the command hole, where he sat down and composed the famous message:
"We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake stop it."
By this time the fire was as heavy as ever and Whittlesey handed the note to Richards, who reached in his coop to grab one of his two remaining birds. As he did, a shell went off close by, startling him and he lost his grip on the bird, which fluttered off. He then grabbed his final remaining bird, Cher Ami. Clipping the message in it's tiny tube to Cher Ami's leg, he thrust the bird into the air. Though Cher Ami was an experienced messenger bird, the fire was just too thick I guess, because the bird flew only a short way down the hill and then perched in a tree. When throwing sticks and rocks at the frightened bird failed to do any good (he simply hopped up to a higher branch), Richards jumped out of his hole, ran down the hill and began to climb the tree, shaking it as he went to try and dislodge the errant bird - all under fire as the shells continued to rain down. Finally Cher Ami took off once again and headed down the ravine. Several men saw him get hit and fall to the ground, but in a wink he was up and tearing through the sky again in the direction of the US lines.
Meanwhile, back behind the line, a little before 3:45 pm or so Lt. Leon Hattemer walked into the 308th Regiment's Poste d'Command to use the telephone. Hattemer was an artillery spotter from the 305th Field Artillery Regiment and had been up in his observation post in a tree farther forward earlier ranging the fall of shot for the barrage that was then going over. His unit was one of those firing a 'barrage of protection' around the Charlevaux Ravine to try and keep the Germans off Major Whittlesey's back as well as prepare the way for an afternoon attack that was to try and break through to the beleaguered command. As the forest was so dense, there had never been any chance to range the fall of shot for the artillery by direct observation - the best they could do was to fire by coordinates given them and range the shot by observed flash or smoke columns. Hattemer had been doing the latter and wanted to use the telephone to report in to his fire center. The regimental commander of the 308th, Col. Cromwell Stacey, and the regimental intelligence officer, Capt. Brad Delahanty, were both in the PC at the time and asked where the line of fire was, as no one had told either of them about any 'barrage of protection' around Whittlesey's position. When Hattemer showed them on the map where the units were dropping their shells, one line showed as cutting right across the position Whittlesey occupied. The artillery believed Whittlesey to be on the southern slope of the Charlevaux Ravine, rather than the northern slope where he actually was, and consequently was dropping the far 'wall' of fire, meant to 'keep the Germans off his back' directly on his position instead.
Both 308th officers jumped. "Good God man," Delahanty cried, "Support them? You're firing to destroy them! That's exactly the line Whittlesey is occupying!" Meanwhile, Colonel Stacey had immediately grabbed the phone once the full impact of what had happened hit him and had his operator immediately get through to the 152nd Field Artillery Brigade to alert them to their mistake. That call came through to the artillery at just before 3:50 pm.
At Mobile Pigeon Loft #9, the clock was just passing 3:30 pm when a bird landed on the deck, passed through the gateway and a little bell rung signalling another message was in. Corporal George Gault wandered over to the cage and found a gray and while checked bird streaked with blood. Reaching in and carefully and examining the bird he saw it had been hit in the breast, lost an eye, had a hole in one wing and the leg holding the message tube was gone; the tube barely held on by a couple thin tendons. Extracting the note, he froze in horror at Whittlesey's straight forward missive. Gault called over his lieutenant, Pelham Bisell, showed him the message and together they placed a call through to their CO, Major Milliken, at the main message center for the 302nd Field Signal Battalion. Milliken listened, horrified, and ordered that the original message be sent him by courier at once and then immediately called the 152nd Field Artillery Regiment. It was five minutes to four when the call went through, and the artilleryman on the other end told Milliken that whatever shooting they had been doing was over already. Hanging up and stepping outside, Milliken could just make out one or two distant booms and then the artillery was silent. It was just just before 4:00 pm when the Major had stepped outside.
In the Charlevaux Ravine it was noted that the fire first slacked off and then ended all together 'around 4:00 pm'.
So... as we can see, though the story is a great one, and Col. Stacey's call beat Major Milliken's by only a few minutes, it's clear that Cher Ami bringing the note in wasn't the cause of the artillery lifting their fire. As with all persistent rumor or myth, there is almost always a grain of truth at the core, and here that grain of truth is a separation of but a few minutes in time that no one ever knew about. In any case, to the men of the Lost Battalion - who never heard anything about Leon Hattemer or Colonel Stacey's call - it was Cher Ami getting through that saved them from that terrible barrage; something they all believed until the day they died. And of course the press did their job in pumping the story up as well...
And Cher Ami? The bird lived to come hom,e do a Liberty Loan tour and retire to the US Army 'old pigeons home' (yes, it was a real place) where death finally found her in June, 1919. Yes, you read that right - her. After the famous pigeon died, the government decided that stuffing and exhibition was the only right thing to do with the remains and it was a taxidermist that discovered that Cher Ami was in fact a girl bird. She is still on display to this day in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. If you look real close, you can see where the wound was in her chest...
Myths and Legends of the Lost Battalion: The Surrender Letter and 'Go to Hell Whittlesey'
The single most persistent myth of the whole Lost Battalion episode is that the Germans issued a 'demand' that the Americans in the ravine surrender and that Major Whittlesey, upon reading it, yelled that the Germans could "Go to hell!" Neither is true. Here are the facts:
The Germans did send a captured doughboy, Pvt Lowell Hollingshead, back into the position with a letter offering Whittlesey and his men the opportunity (indeed, encouraging them) to surrender. Hollingshead had been one of a party on nine men that slipped away unauthorized from the left flank of the position in an effort to locate a package that had been dropped to them by air but which had fallen instead into enemy held territory (as ALL the airplane packages had). The group, desperately hungry, was hoping the package would contain food. Instead of the package, the doughboys ran into a machine gun nest and three were killed outright, while the remaining six had all been wounded and captured. Hollingshead, among the lightly wounded with merely a slug above his knee, was asked by Lt. Fritz Prinz, an intelligence officer with the 254th Regiment (who were surrounding the Charlevaux) if he would consider taking a message back into the position in the ravine for his commanding officer. Prinz, who had lived in Washington state for some 12 years before the war, had no hatred in his heart for Americans and had come to realize that Germany could no longer win. Tired of the war and desperate to save the honor of his regiment - the only stain on that honor being their inability to eliminate this nest of Americans lodged behind their lines - he wished to reason with the American commander, play on his sentiments and thus uphold regimental honor and also save lives of men (on both sides) who would otherwise die needlessly. Hollingshead, though greatly apprehensive (he was well aware he had deserted his post and what the penalty for that was) finally agreed to carry the message in.
A German guide led the blindfolded Hollingshead through the forest and back to the outskirts of the American bivouac. Then without the blindfold, Hollingshead limped his way into the edge of the position, holding a white flag on a stick Lt. Prinz had given him. There, outposted doughboys grabbed him up and took him over to see Major Whittlesey, where the errant doughboy presented the letter given to him by Prinz:
To the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Batl. J.R. 308
of the 77th American Division
The Bearer of the present, (here Hollingshead signed his name)
has been taken prisoner by us on October (the date was left blank)
He refused to the German Intelligence Officer every answer to his
questiones and is quite an honourable fellow, doing honour to his fatherland in the strictest sense of the word.
He has been charged against his will, believing in doing wrong to his country, in carrying forward this present letter to the Officer in charge of the 2nd Batl.J.R.308 of the 77th Div. with the purpose to recommend this Commander to surrender with his forces as it would be quite useless to resist any more in view of the present conditions.
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 the (again, here Holly had signed his name) as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier we envy you.
The German commanding officer.
The letter, reproduced here exactly as it was typed, obviously makes no demands of surrender. That particular myth stems from Whittlesey's later Operations Report, in which he stated that "No reply to the demand to surrender seemed necessary". And a further point is illustrated by this statement as well - that there was no reply made, despite the persistent myth that upon reading the note Whittlesey turned toward German lines and yelled out that they could go to hell. However several eye witnesses nearby at the time all agree that Whittlesey never said it. Indeed, Whittlesey spent the remainder of his short life ever after maintaining that he did not say it and the nick-name that the myth spawned - 'Go to Hell Whittlesey' - bothered him to no end. Only one time, early after his return from France, did he ever even indicate that it might have been true; this during a speech when someone asked him outright if he had said it. And even in that instance it is highly likely (indeed, probable) that the reporter writing the story on the incident 'embellished' the story, to say the very least. Based on reliable reports, private memoirs and letters, and from those who were there, Whittlesey DID NOT say it.
What he did do was give Hollingshead a good tongue lashing and send him back to his position on the left flank, then order that there was to be nothing white showing anywhere on that hillside that might give the Germans any indication of surrender. Then he ordered everyone to get ready for the attack that was sure to come once it was plain to the Germans that the request was going to be ignored.
It wasn't long before the attack came either...
Myths and Legends of the Lost Battalion: Sergeant York Was Motivated to His Deeds in an Effort to Help the Lost Battalion
Another myth that pops up from time to time is that Sergeant Alvin York, whose deeds on October 8th, 1918 would earn him a Medal of Honor, was at least partially motivated by a need or desire to 'help save the Lost Battalion'. This is simply untrue. Neither York nor anyone in his unit (outside of most likely his division commander and perhaps the brigadier generals in his division) knew anything about what was happening in the Charlevaux Ravine. The average soldier on the line wasn't aware of the situation; even in the 77th Division, those men in the 305th and 306th Regiments weren't aware of the event until after it had been resolved. One corporal (for Sergeant York hadn't yet become Sergeant York at the time) in a division working 12 kilometers to the northeast, with still another division (the 28th) between his (the 82nd) and the 77th, in an age where news wasn't forthcoming to line soldiers who were busy trying to stay alive and obtain their objectives wasn't going to be made aware of a situation that did not concern him in any way. At best, he may have been told that the 77th was bogged down deep in the Argonne and the 82nd was coming in to help out. In any case, York's actions took place on October 8th, the day after the rest of the 77th had broken through to Whittlesey's position. By midnight of the 7th the majority of the Germans in the area of operations of the 308th had pulled back and come the morning of the 8th, Whittlesey and his men no longer had anything to fear in the 'ravine of death', evacuated their wounded that morning, buried their dead, and the survivors walked out that afternoon. Nothing York did on the 8th had any impact on the situation in the Charlevaux Ravine whatsoever.
Myths and Legends of the Lost Battalion: The 'Mistaken Barrage' of October 4th
Perhaps one of the most controversial, and yet understated, aspects of the whole episode in the Charlevaux Ravine is the disastrous barrage that fell upon Major Whittlesey’s position during the afternoon of October 4th. It accounted for at least 30 dead and some 80 wounds among the beleaguered command and was the single most terrifying experience of the whole five-day ordeal. Reporter Thomas Johnson, in doing his interviews for his 1938 book, The Lost Battalion, found that virtually every man that had been there remembered this one particular incident the most vividly – and with the most horror. Immediately after, the army tried to ‘white-wash’ the incident, both burying it in as much official red tape as it could, and by both claiming (in a decidedly left-handed way) that Major Whittlesey had provided the wrong coordinates to his position, while at the same time also blaming it on the French. But, as I have shown in Finding the Lost Battalion, Whittlesey’s coordinates could hardly have been to blame, and evidence of the barrage being truly an American mistake certainly existed at the time of the relief and indeed still exists to this day. But one must dig deep to find the proof, and to answer the many questions that still surround the tragic episode.
To begin with, the question of why the event has been so little talked about or investigated is relatively easy to answer; no one has ever wanted to paint any American unit in a bad light, then or now. We were the ‘good guys’ after all, even when compared to our ally France, and it was very important for the propaganda effort at the time to keep our troops always looking good in the eyes of both America and the rest of the world. Unlike today, it was considered important by nearly everyone (the news media especially) to back the war, since American interests were at stake and American lives were on the line. Hi-lighting such an unfortunate incident would do no one any good. If done enough, troops’ morale might begin to suffer dangerously and needlessly, which might then easily lead to dissention in the ranks, to be followed closely by something similar to that which had happened in the French army in the spring of 1917 when their troops had ‘mutinied’. And since America was the world’s last great hope of defeating the enemy, that simply could not be allowed to happen – or even to begin. The AEF’s high command recognized this, as did the news media of the day (even though something along the lines of the unfortunate barrage would have made for big headlines) which so cooperated in keeping such terrible accidents that it became aware of under wraps. It was, in the end, best for everyone. (This is not to say that anyone in the media of the time knew of the October 4th barrage; on the contrary, it is highly likely that they did not and I have found no proof to suggest they did until much later.)
This especially meant for the folk’s back home. While the war was generally popular with the American people, there was a certain element in the States that did oppose it. Giving them fuel for their fire was not considered the ‘proper’ thing to do then, whether that fuel was the truth or not. Nobody wanted to go to war (and certainly nobody wanted to die in it, of course), but it was obvious that the war needed to be won. Helping to turn popular opinion against it was not going to do that, or help get the Germans off French and Belgian soil. There were also the feelings of the families of the men who had died during the episode to consider as well. They had already suffered a great deal. What could possibly be gained by increasing their pain? And most surely it would not do for the rest of the families with friends or relatives ‘over there’ to think that their boys were being ‘slammed’ by their own artillery, as well as that of the enemy – even though it happened more than one would think.
And there is plenty of evidence to support that it did happen more than one would think, at least in this particular part of the battlefield in the Argonne. To be fair however, we must first examine and then figure in to our equation the serious problems an artillery unit faced in the Argonne. The terrain of course played the largest part, as direct fall of shot could not be accurately observed in most instances. Each unit history for the outfits that made up the 152nd Field Artillery Brigade readily admits that, for the first 10 days at least, none of them had a chance to truly ‘check up’ their fire, meaning to readjust it through ‘re-registration’, i.e. observing fall of shot and then correcting it onto a known fixed map point, thus giving the artillerymen a fresh ‘starting point’ from which to advance their fire. And remember also; they had only hurriedly registered their guns through astronomical means before the battle started to begin with, rather than using the direct-sight method, in order to keep the secrecy of the coming battle. Therefore they had only been dropping their shells within a certain parameter of accuracy, rather than in a directly accurate fashion, ever since the beginning and it only got worse the deeper they worked their way into the confusion and tangle of the Argonne. (How does that old saying go? “Close only counts in horseshoes, artillery fire and atom bombs...”)
This is not to say that the 152nd were simply throwing their shells around willy-nilly. Quite the contrary; they were good and precise gunners, for the most part, who maintained a high degree of accuracy, even under those most difficult of conditions. When called upon to bomb a ridge or hill top, General McCloskey’s boys could usually be counted on to blow the hell out of whatever it was with good speed and reasonable precision. In being able to do this, they were also one of the better informed branches of the 77th, always having artillery spotters and runners either stashed away in strategically placed observation posts close to the action, or actually ‘imbedded’ with an infantry unit, such as Lt. Teichmoeller and Privates Saddler and Jeffries were with Major Whittlesey’s 1st/308th. This then gave the artillery fairly accurate and up to date information as to troop locations; a situation which went far in preventing any ‘accidents’.
Yet accidents there were, as we have seen. Take for instance the message I quoted in Finding the Lost Battalion sent by Captain Walter Rainsford, at the head of Company L/307th, on October 2nd when he called for a barrage, but wanted to be specifically told if it was coming since, “It has a habit of hitting us”. Then there was the situation of Company I/307th, on the right of the 308th before Depot des Machines, which had gotten boxed in ahead of their flanking units among a field of Birch trees and slammed by their own fire briefly during the move against that position. Another report, dated September 29th, further chronicles when a plane of the 50th Aero Squadron out on contact patrol sighted panels reporting short firing friendly artillery coming down onto a unit of the 308th along the far-left flank of the division. They took down the coordinates and dropped a message at Rampont to get it stopped, which it shortly was, luckily for the unit being hit. However, Captain Rainsford adds that in many situations they were not always that lucky:
“Artillery preparation had frankly become a thing to dread. There was no direct observation of their fire due to the blind character of the country and the still apparent lack of aeroplanes, nor was there any direct communication from the infantry units to the batteries. If a platoon or company were suffering from the fire of their own guns, they could send a runner with a message to that effect to battalion headquarters, perhaps half a mile or more distant through the woods. And battalion headquarters, if their (telephone) wires had not been blown out would communicate with regimental headquarters, who in turn would take it up with the artillery. And the artillery would quite likely reply that the infantry were mistaking enemy fire for their own...”
Nor was it always the fault of the artillery for an episode of short firing to occur, as Rainsford further points out:
“What was also probably a fruitless cause of trouble was an almost criminal inexactness on the part of very
many infantry officers in map reading. The terrain was undoubtedly difficult for the attainment of exactness and of certainty; but that alone would not sufficiently account for the mistakes made. It was the one salient point on which the training of infantry officers was found to be deficient. Many a company commander or liaison officer was entirely capable of waving a vague finger over a valley marked on the map while stating that the troops in question were “on that hill”; and if pressed to be more precise he would give as their coordinates figures which represented a point neither in the valley to which he was pointing nor on the hill on which they were. Another technical difficulty which may or may not have lead to misunderstanding... was that infantry and artillery officers were taught quite dissimilar methods of representing a given point on the map by coordinates...”
This last certainly seems to be one of the main sticking points in the whole Lost Battalion episode, since Major Whittlesey has forever been accused of sending back wrong coordinates for his position in the Charlevaux and bringing the barrage of the 4th down on his men because of it. And yet, as my research has proven (which, again, I document in Finding The Lost Battalion) his coordinates have been double-checked and shown to be correct within 10 meters or so. Lieutenant Teichmoeller’s coordinates sent back on the morning of the 3rd, on the other hand, have been shown to be incredibly wrong. Both sets of numbers reached the rear in pigeon messages, where both were read and acted upon. And yet, only Major Whittlesey’s numbers have ever been pointed to accusingly, even though Lt. Teichmoeller’s message – complete with horribly skewed coordinates – has always been as readily available as any of Whittlesey’s. Why?
Perhaps it eventually had something to do with the jealousy over Major Whittlesey’s Medal of Honor. However, one of the first instigations I have found of the ‘wrong coordinates’ story comes from none other than Colonel Houghton of the 307th, in his telephone conversation with General Johnson on October 8th, as illustrated in Finding the Lost Battalion:
“Whittlesey found on coordinates about where we have given our front line (which were only slightly different than those Whittlesey had sent back – Author). The reason why he was fired into by friendly artillery was because he had given us the wrong coordinates of his position...”
The problem here is that Colonel Houghton is referencing a single map point and indicating that Major Whittlesey’s command was not found to occupy that single point, which is only some 75 meters or so off from the Major’s stated coordinates. Obviously then, Colonel Houghton was not so much ‘wrong’ in his assessment as he was simply ‘incorrect’. Major Whittlesey certainly had been at the point he had indicated in his messages out from the Pocket, however his entire command had not all been on that single point! Moreover, since they had been forced to consolidate during the course of the siege, this too obviously meant that they were not necessarily ‘right on the money’ any more – something that Major Whittlesey himself had worried about right from the beginning, and one of the reasons that the command had not shifted position earlier in the siege. So Colonel Houghton’s message then sets an unfair precedence against Major Whittlesey right from the get-go.
However, they would certainly seem close enough to the map coordinates to negate any effects from a ‘less than perfect’ calculation by the artillery, unless of course that calculation was very wrong - which it obviously was. Reinforcement to this point is found in the History of the 306th Field Artillery, where the regiment admits to firing “in support of” Major Whittlesey’s troops, against the enemy surrounding them (as does the History of the 305th Field Artillery as well). However, a map in the History of the 306th FA illustrating the location of the 306th’s batteries during the episode also shows where they believed Major Whittlesey’s command to be – which was not in the Charlevaux Ravine at all, but instead on the slope of the south-western corner of Hill 198, facing almost directly into the Ravin d’Argonne and Hill 205! Even a casual glance at the map will show the difference and give a general direction of fire from the closest 306th batteries, which were located at that time along the Binarville-Vienne le Chateau road south of town, meaning that their fire would be coming from the southwest. Further, there were also some batteries of the 305th F.A. located nearby that neighborhood as well.
Yet be that as it may, once Colonel Houghton’s statement had found its way into the ears of the 152nd Field Artillery Brigade, which it undoubtedly did, they then had a scapegoat that got them off the hook for their mistake in Major Whittlesey himself. (As if they had not already had one in the French!) When General Alexander had checked with General McCloskey concerning the event on the night of the 4th, he had been assured by the old artilleryman that the barrage could not have been American (of course), but then the next day McCloskey issued an order stating:
“Hereafter, when a barrage is called for by the infantry for protection, the rate of fire will be four per gun per minute for four minutes, two shots per gun per minute for two minutes. The barrage will then cease, and will not be repeated unless called for again by the infantry, either by signal or by telephone.”
Certainly there must have been at least some suspicion in General McCloskey’s mind then that they might have hit Major Whittlesey’s men, otherwise why issue the order? Add to this the confusion created by the shoot called for by Lt.’s French and Frayne of the 50th Aero on the morning of the 5th when it was realized the coordinates they corrected the artillery’s fire onto were nearly the same as the ones the brigade had apparently shot across the afternoon before. Someone had shelled Major Whittlesey’s position; had there been a mistake made by, perhaps, one – or more – of his batteries? General McCloskey had to be aware of the likely effects that never having really registered his guns would have had on their accuracy. Might he also have been aware of the deficiencies his National Army officers possessed, i.e.: those that Captain Rainsford has pointed out above? As a regular army man he had to be, and equally would have recognized that mistakes were bound to happen, especially with citizen soldiers. Therefore, probably more out of a reflexive action than any other in order to save the reputation of his unit – and thus his own reputation as commander as well – General McCloskey made the suggestion to General Alexander that perhaps the barrage was French. He then issued the ‘official’ order (and who knows how many ‘unofficial’ ones afterwards) and called the case closed. And one will notice that later even Colonel Houghton never said it was American artillery per se that had hit Major Whittlesey either; only that it was friendly artillery. This would only have reinforced the general idea that it was not U.S. as well, at least in some minds.
Thus, leveling blame at the French for the barrage had not begun with General Alexander’s apparently off handed comment to ‘Zip’ Cepaglia on the morning of the 8th; “Oh no. That was French.” And there could have been some actual merit to the ‘French theory’ too, for the French had, A) requested permission to level a barrage aimed in that direction during the long fight to take La Palette not just once but at least twice, apparently the second time believing Major Whittlesey and his men had all either been wiped out or since captured. And B) some of the fire into the Pocket had indeed come from their possible direction in the southwest. Ah yes, but hadn’t the Germans also brought a field gun around Hill 205 and already ‘ranged’ it onto the Pocket from that general direction as well, some might ask? True, but Major Whittlesey’s men by that stage of the game (at least the Upton men anyway) could well tell the difference between a French 75 or 155 as opposed to the German 77 or 105 just by the sound the shell made incoming. So they all knew it was not a German barrage, simply by the sound it made. Nor did virtually any of them think it French either, for that matter. Even the History of the 308th Infantry admits, “It is true that our artillery had at times - as the troops in the Pocket knew - a disagreeable habit of falling short...”
Damnedible evidence, to be sure...
But how can anyone be sure it was not indeed French? Not easily, if one judges strictly by the physical evidence. Pieces of shrapnel and, more importantly, shell fuses and one complete and unexploded 155mm shell that my research team and I uncovered in the Pocket in the summer of 2002 certainly point to the French. Yet the 152nd F.A. Brigade also used French guns, with French ammunition, just like the French. Therefore, physical evidence is of no real use to us, and so the decision must be based strictly on preponderance of evidence then.
First and most importantly, there were U.S. batteries located in the correct area from which the shellfire had apparently originated; Batteries C and D on the 306th, and at least Batteries E and D (Lt. Teichmoeller’s unit remember) of the 305th, and most likely elements of A and B from that regiment as well. The fire, according to the men in the Pocket who had experienced it, had clearly roared over coming from almost due south on over towards the southwest. The two batteries of the 306th involved were stationed along both sides of the road running south out of Binarville, which would account for the southwestern fire. After all, the placement is correct and the distance – no more than 3 or 4 kilometers as the crow flies – would have been well within range of the 155’s that the 306th was equipped with. On the other hand, the fire from that direction could not realistically have been French, as direction of that fire and travel distance for the shells reveal. For any French battery placed an average distance behind their curving front line in that area to have missed the mark of La Palette Pavilion atop Hill 205 and nailed the Pocket instead, would have necessitated an ‘overshoot’ in a distance of almost 900 meters. This also would have necessarily have had to come from a more westerly direction of southwest. Certainly a wide margin of error! And for any battery to miss its mark from a more southerly direction of southwest, their fire would have had to have overshot by an almost equal distance and some short distance to the right (east). True, any French battery(s) in question could have been aiming for the German reinforcement center of Moulin de Charlevaux, in order to prevent the influx of enemy troops to the Hill 205 positions during one of the many infantry attacks. But even then the direction of fire would have had to be off by at least some 800 meters to the east of the mill. Would an army that had been fighting for four years already, and so well experienced in a war dominated by artillery, really have gunners performing that badly? It seems highly unlikely. In any case I have found no evidence that any batteries from the French 247th, or any other French artillery unit for that matter, were placed in that general area (though, admittedly, records are sketchy). Indeed, C and D Batteries/306th had been moved over there specifically to help out the hard-pressed French.
Conversely, elements of the 305th that had fired that day (and remember, the artillery not only admitted doing a shoot that day, but it had also been ordered to) were spread out in a scattered fashion behind the advancing line of the 154th Brigade - or in other words almost due south of them. Men there that had watched the majority of the fire come into the ravine have said that the shelling had started up on Hill 198 (as Sgt. Minder of Company B/306th M.G. had noted in the letter to his mother) and then had “jumped” down the northern slope of the hill, crossed the ravine and settled onto the opposite hillside. Any battery using Teichmoeller’s poorly given coordinates of the morning of the 3rd, corrected and adjusted but never checked up on, and then firing with this ‘guesswork’, might likely believe the stranded command to be along the northern slope of Hill 198 rather than across the ravine on the southern slope of Mont d’Charlevaux. And the 306th map mentioned above clearly shows that they believed Major Whittlesey’s command to be in roughly a similar spot. And where might they get their coordinates? From the 152nd F.A. PC. And where might they in turn have gotten the original coordinates, which had been ‘corrected’ after their initial, disastrous use (see text of Finding the Lost Battalion)? Lieutenant Teichmoeller’s message of the morning of the 3rd. And since the artillerymen generally distrusted the infantry’s ability to read a map correctly (and both learned map skills differently – again, see Captain Rainsford’s quote above) they would be more likely to pay attention to Lt. Teichmoeller’s message than to any sent by Major Whittlesey...
In short then, basic directory evidence supports the barrage as being American, the likely main perpetrators being elements of Batteries C and D/306th F.A., and elements of Batteries E and D of the 305th F.A. Physical evidence (the shrapnel, fuses and unexploded ordinance we found in 2002, as well as similar evidence found during an investigation Tom Johnson had requested done during the writing of his 1938 book) at least in part also support this. We already know that General Johnson had ordered a ‘barrage of protection’ laid down around Major Whittlesey’s position. There is also the fact of the cessation of the barrage just as soon as the call from Col. Stacey, Capt. Delehanty and Lt. Hattemer came in to 152nd FA PC; this after Lt. Hattemer had confirmed where his Battery’s (Battery E remember) line of fire had been – which was directly across Major Whittlesey’s position – as they fired for protection. We know that Major Whittlesey’s coordinates were correct and that Lt. Teichmoeller’s were wrong – and that the artillery was obviously not firing using Major Whittlesey’s coordinates.
Or, in a way, were they? As we have seen, Major Whittlesey’s coordinates indicate a single spot; one that he unfortunately never indicated from which direction he had extended his line. Certainly no one could expect an entire battalion to occupy a single small plot of ground (a la Colonel Houghton, apparently). Therefore, had they pushed out east or west from that single coordinated spot? Considering that the last anyone outside of the immediate mid-level command structure of the 308th had known, Major Whittlesey’s objective had been the Charlevaux Mill. Knowing that, it might be reasonable to assume that he had gotten to, or at least near, the mill and had a line extended from there eastward down the ravine, setting up his PC at the spot his coordinates sent out indicated and leaving nothing off to the right (east) of his indicated position. None of his messages out would contradict this theory and since there was no way to communicate back with Major Whittlesey, no one could ask. This theory might also be supported by the main track of most (but by no means all) of the barrage, which ripped through to the right, or east, of the coordinated map spot. What might not support this theory however is to suggest that firing such a barrage on the basis of an assumption as to another’s likely movements is taking one hell of a reckless risk!
What is the final answer then? Based solely on what circumstantial evidence is available, we can safely determine that the barrage was definitely American, brought off by at least the previously named units, if not more, though with no knowledge of their mistake on their part (for a mere mistake it was). To the army, it was an unfortunate episode, probably preventable but for which there could afterwards be no real recompense. It had happened during war, a terrible and ugly thing in itself, and during that ugliness terrible things happened. There could be no changing the terrible thing that had happened there in the Charlevaux Ravine that October day, so what was to be gained by putting the families of the men that had suffered the most by it through the added agony of knowing their sons had died needlessly? Nothing; nothing except added misery, broken lives and perhaps broken careers. And so the matter was quickly determined to be best for all if it was just swept under the rug and then dismissed to fade into history and be forgotten.
For the men that had lived it however, particularly those who carried its physical as well as emotional scars, there would be no forgetting, and no absolution as readily available as that utilized by the army – only the lasting significance of the experience.