A Time to Remember: The Lost Battalion

holly-fisher-1BY HOLLY FISHER
Staff  Writer, UAS Whalesong

In 1917 to 1918, American soldiers flooded the battlefields of Europe, propping up the sagging Allied lines, and challenging the exhausted Central Powers. The United States had gone from dormant to full mobilization, and transition to total war conditions in less than a year. This rapid development far outstripped what had been thought possible. Germany had hinged its unrestricted U-Boat warfare on the belief that the U.S. would require a long time to mobilize. German High Command thought they could sufficiently devastate shipping lines, and exhaust Allied supplies long before the North American troops could mobilize. With the expected delay, the Germans also planned to set up enough disruptions in cross-Atlantic travel to prevent the troop carriers from making it across the ocean.

The U.S. smashed all expectations. The first troops landed in France on June 25, less than three months after declaring war. Though this first wave of soldiers was just a small volunteer force, it was a tiny sampling of what was to come. By mid-1918, U.S. troops were arriving in France and England at a rate of some 10,000 a day. The inexperienced but enthusiastic American troops were assigned to battle-wearied Allied deployments across the front. They propped up weak points in the lines, bulked out forces preparing for forward offensives, and filled in cracks that had been growing larger in the tired troops. This led to some strange and unfortunate happenings, as troops went from quiet America to the war torn moonscape of the Western Front with little preparation.

One of these events was the case of the Lost Battalion.

On Oct. 2, 1918, several units of the U.S. Army 77th Division moved into the French Argonne Forest as part of a large advance. The plan had them working forward in-sync with units of French troops on their left, and other American units on the right. Due to communication failures, U.S. Army Major Charles Whittlesey, in charge of the forward division, did not know that their French and American allies had been stalled by counterattacks. His only means of communication were carrier pigeons and message runners, the second of which proved disastrously ineffective against enemies in the forest. With no information about their support units, the soldiers were soon far ahead of their lines and surrounded by the Germans.

The men of the 77th dug in on the hill that was their objective, soon realizing they were alone. All runners sent to reestablish communication with the other units were killed or captured. Attempts by the Americans to break through enemy lines incurred heavy casualties, and kept them trapped in their defensive holes. Carrier pigeons were the only means of communication that could get past the enemy, though Allied planes were searching the area visually. This led to the worst part of the whole ordeal.

On Oct. 4, the unfortunate unit began to suffer artillery fire from their own support troops. No one knows exactly what caused this deadly gaff. It is possible that Whittlesey relayed the wrong coordinates for their location, making the pilots overhead tell the artillery crews that the men on the hill were German forces. It is also possible that the crews simply had poor aim, owing to the problematic conditions of the dense forest. In a desperate bid to end the friendly fire shelling, the Major released the last bird in hopes of it getting back to the artillery crew. The pigeon, named Cher Ami, successfully relayed the simple but pointed message: “We are along the road paralell [sic]… Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.”

The German attack resumed once the artillery fire ended, forcing the injured unit to continue fighting through the worst day of their entrapment. Most of the men had brought no rations with them, and the only available water was from a stream in the line of fire.

During the first ever recorded aerial resupply drop in U.S. combat history, their allies attempted to deliver emergency rations to keep them going. Due to confusion from the air, everything dropped behind German lines.

During all of this, Whittlesey ignored several German demands for surrender, despite the bleak outlook of their situation. Without food or clean medical supplies, and suffering from grenades, snipers, and rifle and machine gun fire, the units held out for five days. When a relief force finally broke through the German lines on Oct. 8, only 194 of the more than 500 men walked out in one piece. The rest were wounded, missing, captured, or killed.

That so many survived in a potentially hopeless situation has been attributed to the camaraderie of the units; the majority of them were recruited from the poor streets of New York.

In the years since, much speculation and investigation has gone into figuring out just how these events transpired. The Lost Battalion still inspires fascination today in both the heroism of the trapped men and in the sheer improbability of the whole event.

Cher Ami the pigeon earned a French commendation, died from battle wounds in 1919, was stuffed, and is now enshrined in the Smithsonian.

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