The Lost Battalion of World War I

Today’s post comes from Garet Anderson-Lind, an intern with the National Archives History Office.

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Soldiers of the 77th Division as they are demobilized in New York, 1918. Some are veterans of the Argonne Offensive. (National Archives Identifier 26433577)

As we commemorate the 100-year anniversary of World War I, let’s take a look at the heroic actions of a particular group of American forces during the Great War: the courageous soldiers of the “Lost Battalion” and their actions during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late 1918.

The “Lost Battalion” consisted of several different companies from the 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) stationed in France.

Included in the fateful mission were Companies A, B, C, E, G, and H from the 308th Infantry Regiment, Company K, from the 307th Infantry Regiment, and Companies C and D from the 306th Machine Gun Regiment.

During the mission that earned them the name, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey of the 308th led the “Lost Battalion.”

Part of the massive campaign known as the Hundred Days Offensive, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was planned as a large thrust into German territory that sought to break through the famed Hindenburg line, hopefully to end the war that had been fought for four long years.

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Position occupied by the 306th Infantry during the battle, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 301662)

Early on October 2, with the American 28th Division on their right and parts of the Corps of the French 4th Army on their left, Major Whittlesey and his men entered the heavily wired and entrenched position in the Argonne forest, with “Hill 198” as their goal. As they advanced into the forest, they encountered resistance but were confident their flanks were secure.

However, late on October 2, disaster stuck. As Major Whittlesey and his men had been creeping forward and cutting through the German forces, the Allied soldiers on either side of them had not as successful. While the “Lost Battalion” had captured their goal of Hill 198 and were digging in, fierce German counter-strikes had turned back both the French forces on their left and the other American forces on their right.

With Major Whittlesey unaware of these reversals, German forces encircled the “Lost Battalion.”

Upon learning of their predicament, Major Whittlesey knew he had only two options: to hold or retreat. Unwilling to disobey orders and keeping with the finest traditions of the American armed forces, Major Whittlesey and his brave men declined to give up their position for the relative safety of retreat.

They instead braced themselves to defend their objective, at whatever the cost. For five days and nights, the American soldiers withstood the German assault, beset on all sides by German gunfire and destructive grenade attacks.

American forces attempted to direct an artillery barrage onto the German positions to help them in their defense, maintaining communication through carrier pigeon messages. Although the engagement of artillery forces was successful, their aim as not. While the direct cause is unknown, the American artillery unfortunately started shelling Major Whittlesey and his men instead of the opposing forces.

Although successive carrier pigeons had been unable to get through, the “Lost Battalion” released their last bird, Cher Ami, carrying a desperate plea to stop the barrage: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.”

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Pigeon message from Captain Whittlesey to the commanding officer of the 308th Infantry, 10/4/1918. (National Archives Identifier 595541)

Even though Cher Ami sustained debilitating injuries, she was able to successfully carry the message, although she eventually died from her wounds.

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Message carried by the released American prisoner asking for the surrender of the “Lost Battalion,” October, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 301662)

Later, a released American prisoner gave Major Whittlesey a message from the German commander asking the American forces to surrender. Citing the cries of the American wounded, the German officer attempted to appeal to Major Whittlesey’s humanitarian side.

While legend has it that the major shouted to the German forces to “Go to Hell,” both the after-action report and Major Whittlesey himself stated that he did not reply at all, instead treating the surrender request with the silent contempt it deserved.

Late on October 7, after failing to break the American position with one last assault, the German forces retreated northward as the American 82nd division farther north had broken through and threatened to encircle them.

After breaking through, an Allied relief force gave whatever food they had to the starving men and immediately began attending to the many wounded.

The final casualty count lists 107 killed, 190 wounded, and 63 missing out of the 554 men who engaged in the defense. The U.S. Army award the Medal of Honor to three soldiers involved in the siege, including Major Whittlesey, who was also immediately given a battlefield promotion to lieutenant-colonel immediately.

The men of the “Lost Battalion” helped keep the Meuse-Argonne Offensive alive. The actions of these brave men helped defeat the German Empire and their efforts should never be forgotten.

Visit the National Archives website for a full list of events and activities related to the 100th anniversary of World War I.

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