The Lost Battalion of World War I

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

18 thoughts on “The Lost Battalion of World War I

    1. Copies of most of the monthly rosters from 1912-43 and 1947-59 for Army units (including Army Air Corps) are in the custody of the National Archives in St. Louis, MO. Please contact them for access to these records. The address is the National Archives in St. Louis, 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO 63138-1002 and the email address is Rosters for units serving in World War II from 1944-46 were destroyed in accordance with Army disposition authorities.

    2. Colonel Buehler,
      Great article by Mr. Anderson-Lind.
      If you need help, I am an independent researcher here at NARA-St. Louis and can help you.

      1. bj pouvais vous m aider j ai retrouver des colard disque du 306 bt a bet c dans mon village mais personne ne sait si il on stationer a equirre pas de calais france

    1. I am looking for information about George Milton Murray
      Company G of the 308
      Under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey.
      I am interested in the any information connected to The Lost Battalion.
      Mr. Murray did survive

  1. I am looking for information about Moses Rothenstein who was in the 77th Division, 306th Infantry. He was killed in action on August 27, 1918.

  2. Question for anyone.
    My father was in Company D, 308th Machine Gun Battalion. COS> A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H are referred to in the battle. Why can’t I find a roster for COS. D and F?
    Father”s nameAbraham Hemsey.
    Answers anyone?

    1. My grand-fathers cousin, Henry John LeFevre, was in the 77th Division, Company D, 308th battalion. He was killed in action on 12 October 1918 in the Argonne Wood, Ardennes, France. His remains were shipped back to the states, he is interred in the Spry Utah cemetery.

  3. My Grand uncle was Frederick Staats. He was in the 306th machine gun battalion Company C. He was killed in action. The telegram said Sept. 30 but we really dont know. He was a Staten Islander and had an American Legion Post named for him. Any information on this?

  4. Please update your records in regards to the sex of this pigeon. As per DNA analysis by the Smithsonian Institution, Cher Ami was a Male. The following is an excerpt from an article from The National Museum of American History, Behring Center and is by Frank Blazich, July 15, 2021:
    “This summer marks the centennial of a bird—possibly the most famous pigeon in history—going on display at the Smithsonian. A representative of Columba livia domestica, this bird is known as simply Cher Ami. Since Cher Ami first went on display, the pigeon’s sex has remained a source of debate. The wartime records of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps recorded Cher Ami as a hen, or “she.” For a century the Smithsonian, however, has always labeled Cher Ami as a cock bird, or “he.” Through modern DNA analysis, the century-old mystery of the famed pigeon’s sex has recently been determined by a team of curators and scientists. This question has now been definitively answered: the Smithsonian has conclusively identified Cher Ami as male.”

  5. My grandfather was a survivor of the Lost Battalion. His name was Harry Schaffer. He died a few months after my mother was born. My grandmother did not have any pictures of him and I’m hoping to find one.

  6. My gradnfather was a survivor of the Lost Battalion. His name was Hully Newcom from Montana. I would appreciate any information you have.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *