[March 31, 2021] War brings the unpredictable. There are men who, we would least expect, do impossible things. This was the case of the ‘lost battalion’ of the 77th Infantry Division during World War I. The Lost Battalion is the name given to nine companies of the 77th isolated by German forces in late 1918.
The allied Meuse-Argonne Offensive began on 26 September 1918. General Johnson, commander in charge of the offensive, had a “no retreat” command for his divisions.
“It is again impressed upon every officer and man of this command that ground once captured must under no circumstances be given up in the absence of direct, positive, and formal orders to do so emanating from these headquarters.”
On 1 October, Major Whittlesey, commander of the 308th Infantry Regiment, was given his orders to attack with flanking support to capture a critical road junction and railway line. The attack began well (as often the case) but bogged down by the following evening. Unknown to Whittlesey, the French unit on his left flank had fallen back under attack, and the American unit on his right had stalled.
After many hours trying to send couriers through the rear lines and none getting through, Whittlesey realized he was surrounded. Remembering his no retreat orders, he immediately began fortifying his defensive position against expected German counterattacks.
During the afternoon of 3 October, the Germans attacked from all sides. Given their preparation in the defense, the Germans suffered many casualties trying to take the American units. Whittlesey used pigeons to supplement his military couriers, but none seemed to get through.
Unfortunately, the Americans did not understand the exact location of Whittlesey’s battalion and began shelling his men. Desperate and down to his last pigeon, a pigeon called Cher Ami was sent. Immediately a shell burst below the pigeon, killing five men and stunning Cher Ami. Whittlesey’s message was delivered, and the friendly shelling ceased.
From 5 to 8 October, the Germans continued their attacks. They also sent messages to the Americans to surrender. Whittlesey did not respond. While holding his position, his parent unit, the 154th Brigade, launched ferocious attacks to get to them but failed. News of the Lost Battalion’s dilemma reached the highest levels of Allied Command. With additional American divisions thrown into the renewed rescue mission, units eventually linked up with Whittlesey’s men.
Over 500 foot soldiers entered the Argonne Forest; only 194 walked out unscathed. The rest were killed, missing, captured, or wounded. Three officers, including now Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey, received the Medal of Honor for their valiant actions.
NOTE: You can read more about the unsung heroes of World War I here: Unsung heroes of World War I: the carrier pigeons – Pieces of History (archives.gov)