The Lost Battalion (WWI)

By | March 31, 2021

[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.

Several members of the Lost Battalion portrayed themselves in the 1919 feature film, The Lost Battalion.  A&E made a 2001 film about the event, The Lost Battalion.

————–

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)

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “The Lost Battalion (WWI)

  1. Greg Heyman

    Gen. Satterfield, I found your article interesting and for reasons I cannot articulate well. I just liked it. Others have said that the lost battalion story is like a mystery. I’m not so sure. What I do know is that we all like a come-from-behind story and this one is like that. Keep these stories frequent and entertaining as well.

    Reply
  2. Tom Bushmaster

    Hey, Gen. Satterfield, you got the wrong dates on your blog today. Oh, I get it, April’s Fool. Well done. But, I see that it is actually 31 March.

    Reply
    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Great, thanks Gen. Satterfield for the fix. Yep, 31 March.

      Reply
    2. Dern McCabe

      He He, saw the same and thought it was an early Aprils fool joke as well.

      Reply
  3. Max Foster

    This article is one of the main reasons I keep coming back to this leadership blog. Occasionally, Gen. S. writes about a story, one that we might call a meta-story, an uncommon event of heroes in action. Like the traditional hero that slays the dragon and recues the princess. This battalion has it’s hero in its commander who helps defeat the Germans and recuses his men.

    Reply
    1. Dead Pool Guy

      Great comment Max in that you drew a link between the classic hero story to this lost battalion. Great job.

      Reply
    1. Doug Smith

      JT, you wrote this before I could. Same idea. It would be very entertaining to find out more about these ‘lost battalions” which are rare but everyone knows about them. The stories drive our emotions, are mysterious (I know, others said this), are thrilling, and show how soldiers can heroically and bravely overcome great odds.

      Reply
    1. Stacey Borden

      The stories of heroism are never dull. That is why we love them.

      Reply
  4. Audrey

    Another enjoyable article from Gen. Satterfield and his blog. Like Ken said below, these type of stories are like mysteries. So, given that, are these stories told my the ‘foot soldiers’ on the ground to make the story more attractive?

    Reply
  5. Randy Goodman

    There are “lost battalions” in every war, it seems. I look forward to reading more about them in articles here at Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog. Well done.

    Reply
    1. Jeff Blackwater

      Yeah, good thinking here Randy. Lost battalion, what a great subject. It makes me want to read more about them to get a feel for what they were thinking and doing to link up with their sister units.

      Reply
    2. KenFBrown

      Excellent, Randy. I too would like to read more. These stories are like mysteries to be solved. 👍

      Reply
      1. Jonnie the Bart

        Ken, well said. They are indeed like mysteries of old.

        Reply
        1. Steve Dade

          You said that right, Purse. Interesting name, I must admit.

          Reply

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.