charles whittlesey

Charles Whittlesey

An attorney by trade, Major Charles Whittlesey later made his name as the uncompromising commander of the so-called “Lost Battalion,” an American unit that became stuck behind German lines. On October 2, 1918, the bookish and bespectacled Whittlesey led his men into hostile territory as part of a coordinated offensive in the Argonne Forest. But due to poor communication, his unit crossed the rough terrain too swiftly and was soon cut off and enveloped by German forces.

Whittlesey’s nearly 600-strong force dug in and established a makeshift defensive line. Despite being low on food, water and ammunition, they spent the next five days dodging sniper fire and repelling wave after wave of German attacks. At one point, their own troops began accidentally shelling their position, but Whittlesey launched a carrier pigeon and managed to stop the barrage of friendly fire. The Americans were later offered a chance to surrender, but Whittlesey held his ground and fought on against increasingly grim odds. Allied reinforcements finally arrived and forced the enemy to retreat on October 8. By then, only 194 of the Americans were still standing, among them Whittlesey, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his extreme bravery and coolness under fire. Sadly, Whittlesey remained haunted by the war for the rest of his life, and later committed suicide in 1921 by throwing himself off a ship as it sailed toward Cuba.

The Lost Battalion is the name given to nine companies of the United States 77th Division, roughly 554 men, isolated by German forces during World War I after an American attack in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. Roughly 197 were killed in action and approximately 150 missing or taken prisoner before 194 remaining men were rescued. They were led by Major Charles White Whittlesey. On 2 October, the division quickly advanced into the Argonne, under the belief that French forces were supporting the left flank and two American units including the 92nd Division were supporting the right flank.[1] Unknown to Whittlesey’s unit, the French advance had been stalled. Without this knowledge, the Americans had moved beyond the rest of the Allied line and found themselves completely cut off and surrounded by German forces. For the next six days, suffering heavy losses, the men of the division were forced to fight off several attacks by the Germans, who saw the small American units as a threat to their whole line.

The battalion suffered many hardships. Food was short, and water was available only by crawling under fire to a nearby stream. Ammunition ran low. Communications were also a problem, and at times they would be bombarded by shells from their own artillery. As every runner dispatched by Whittlesey either became lost or ran into German patrols, carrier pigeons became the only method of communicating with headquarters. In an infamous incident on 4 October, inaccurate coordinates were delivered by one of the pigeons and the unit was subjected to “friendly fire”. The unit was saved by another pigeon, Cher Ami, delivering the following message:

WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALLEL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT.

Despite this, they held their ground and caused enough of a distraction for other Allied units to break through the German lines, which forced the Germans to retreat.