The Lost Battlion


The Lost Battalion

In the heart of the Argonne Forest there is a deep rectangular ravine so formed, that it is enclosed front and rear and on both sides by steep, wooded slopes. A little brook coursing from east to west had been joined in primeval days by a small tributary flowing directly from the south, thus disclosing nature's instruments in the production of this peculiar geographical formation. Sunlight seldom penetrates into this valley, shaded by thick forest growth. It is always sombre and still there.

Before the Americans went through the Argonne, the place where these two streams meet had been known as the head of the Ravine de Charlevaux. Thereafter, and for all time, it will be known as "The Pocket." It is the spot where the "Lost Battalion " fought. It is hallowed ground where starving heroes resisted against overwhelming odds with "No surrender" for their watchword.

In the bitter struggle through the Forest of Argonne, the 77th Division after seven days of continuous fighting found its advance on October 2d almost at a stand-still before strongly wired and entrenched enemy positions. These positions extended along the ridge of Bois de la Naza, across the Ravine de Charlevaux, thence westerly over a wide hill to a second ravine beyond, where they connected with enemy trenches extending southward from La Palette Pavillion. The most westerly of the two ravines ran north and south, through the middle of the 308th Infantry's sector on the left of our line. A wild tangle of trees, vines and undergrowth covered the entire region through which this system of defences was constructed.

Attack after attack was made by our forces, only to meet impenetrable machine-gun fire from skillfully concealed guns covering every foot of this front. The least movement in our lines was detected and invariably brought down instant fire.

The situation was critical. The success of our operations depended upon breaking through the enemy line. At this juncture, an attack without regard to losses was ordered along the entire divisional sector to start at 12:50 P. M. on the 2nd of October, supported by a barrage from the artillery and a simultaneous attack by the French holding the Binarville sector to the West.

The attack was made. Elements from two battalions of the 308th Infantry, accompanied by sections from Companies C and D of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion, found an apparently undefended spot in the bed of the north and south ravine, and quickly filtered through. This force, commanded by Major Charles S. Whittlesey, was under orders, if successful in breaking through, to push forward to Charlevaux Mills and hold that position until the other elements of our line had reached it.

Leaving D and F Companies in position on the western side of the ravine, Companies A, B, C, E, G and H of the 308th, with the machine gunners, advanced on the east side, and by six in the evening reached their objective. About ninety casualties from flanking machine-gun fire were suffered on the way, but the advanced battalion had captured from the enemy two officers, twenty-eight privates and three machine guns and crossed his heavily wired trench system. The same night, the 3d Battalion of the 307th Infantry attempted to follow, Company K alone succeeding in getting through and joining Major Whittlesey in the morning.

All would have been well had the flanking elements been successful. But the 307th was held up before Bois de la Naza and the French were checked in front of La Palette Pavillion. That night, the enemy strung wire across the path through the ravine that our advanced units had taken, and posted additional machine guns to cover the valley. This linked up the two sections of their trench system and placed a closed German line to the rear of Major Whittlesey's command.

Arrived at the hill, south of Binarville-la Viergette Road, Major Whittlesey took up a position for the night near the crest of the hill in the vicinity of Bois de Buirrone, about 500 meters east of the Moulin de Charlevaux. It was a steep slope covered with underbrush and young timber. In order to reach the position, the 600 men of his command, including the machine gunners with their guns and tripods on their shoulders, in the growing darkness filed down the northern slope of the southern hill, through the morass at the bottom of the ravine, and across the stream over a bridge of planks. As they crossed the brook, to right and left of them, the view along the valley was open, with high ground rising at the end of each vista. To the front could be seen the Binarville-la Viergette Road, about a hundred yards from the crest and along the slope on the side of which the halt was made.

Digging funk-holes was a severe work, for the ground was hard and stony. Though they had no blankets, overcoats or other covering, the men spent a rather restful night. Machine guns posted to the front and flanks were undisturbed by enemy movements.

At daybreak on the 3d, Company E, under Lieutenant Wilhelm, was sent back to attack from the west of the ravine thereby assisting Companies D and F in moving forward. Details started for rations, as the men had gone forward carrying only one day's rations. All reserve rations had been consumed during the early phase of the advance. Fortunately water was found at a spring just south of the position. These ration details never returned.

At half-past 8 A. M., German artillery shelled the position, but without serious effect owing to the steep reverse slope. Because of our position, the enemy's artillery never became effective. Patrols had been sent out, but soon returned with disturbing report of Germans on the right and left flanks in small numbers and the impossibility of establishing liaison in either direction. At about this time, Captain Holderman with Co. K of the 307th, consisting of 79 men, arrived and took position on the right flank.

At 10 A. M. Lieutenant Lenke returned with 18 men from E Company, reporting that that company had been surrounded and that Lieutenant Wilhelm had ordered him to get his platoon out by any means possible. Lieutenant Wilhelm subsequently worked his way through with a few remaining men.

A German trench mortar suddenly opened fire, from 600 yards to the west. Scouts reported the mortar protected by machine guns. A platoon was sent to attack the mortar but met with severe machine-gun fire and did not succeed in its mission. The platoon brought back a prisoner who stated that his company of 70 men had been brought in during the night to take position in our rear.

Half an hour later a report was received that the runner post system in the rear had been broken, two posts having been attacked and scattered by the Germans. A message reporting this fact was immediately dispatched to regimental headquarters by carrier pigeons. From this time on, it was impossible to reestablish communication to the rear for several days.

The Battalion was cut off !

To meet the situation, the forces on the hill were disposed in a square formation to repel attack from any side, and the machine guns posted to guard the flanks and sweep the ravine.

Along toward dusk the murmur of voices could be heard to the left flank. A patrol that had been sent out earlier in the day failed to report back. Cossack posts which had been established well outside of the position were drawn in. All reported seeing large groups of the enemy through the trees. The voices came closer and were now unmistakably German. A command to "stand to" was given. The babel continued in excited tones with a plenteous sprinkling of the word "Amerikaner. " There was no doubt of their intention to attack, but where and how were the questions that interested our listening men.

The voices on our left were joined by others on our front. Evidently another platoon was coming into position. Darkness had set in, and even without the dense foliage obstructing the view, observation would have been impossible.

The ammunition of our men was limited. When a nervous soldier on the left discharged his piece he was cautioned " Steady " and the rest of the line kept steady.

The babel had now reached an excited pitch on our front, on the left and in our rear.

Our front line rested on the road cut into the side of the slope, and above the road was a cliff, 18 or 20 feet high. The presence of Germans on this cliff was reported by a returning scout.

Suddenly from the top of the cliff, the voice that had been doing most of the talking called out "Adolph! " The answer came from our left, " Hier Eitel. " Another gutteral " Hier " sounded in our rear. Then, "Nun Alles ist in Stellung " (Now everyone is in position), " Dritte Kompagnie alles zusammen! " (Third Company all together!)
" Dritte Kompagnie " obeyed implicitly, and our soldiers were treated to a ferocious coordinated potato-masher attack. Potato mashers dropped in clusters from the trees above them, they came from all sides, singly and in twos and threes, and exploded with a terrific uproar. Again the officers cautioned the men to be "steady." Everyone remained calm, though admittedly anxious. The attack, while seemingly of longer duration, lasted not more than ten minutes.

Again the loud talking started. Again the Boche platoon chiefs in answer to their leaders called out, "hier." This time they became a little careless and showed some movement up over the cliff, and on our left. They were becoming bold at our apparent "inaction." Yet each of our men had his piece loaded and cocked and his eye on the barrel, looking at his front. Word was passed that when the command was given to fire, the aim should be low and following the ground.

Again "Alles ist in Stellung," came to the ears" of our men. But the rest of the command. "Alles zusammen" was never uttered. "Commence firing," rang out over our line and the crack of rifle-fire that traveled around our position was almost instantaneous. The Boche were caught out of their funk-holes in erect positions, as the cries that rang through the forest proved. The potato mashing was checked, but machine-gun fire from our rear raking the entire field was their answer to our volley. "Alles zusammen" was heard no more that night nor were there anymore roll calls of Boche platoon leaders. After ten minutes of intense barrage, the enemy machine guns quieted down and thereafter during the night indulged only in occasional bursts of harassing fire.

During the attack, the captain in command on our left flank sent a runner to battalion headquarters for reinforcements. The runner obtained eight men and rejoined the company with three. Again the runner was dispatched for assistance. This time he started back with twelve and lost four in the machine-gun barrage.

The losses in killed and wounded in the first day's fighting had by October 4th reduced the effective strength of the forces, including K Company, 307th Infantry, and the machine gunners, to 520 men. During that day and the succeeding days there was a constant drain on this small band for patrols and runners sent out in an increased effort to get in touch with regimental headquarters in the rear. These patrols were uniformly unsuccessful. They never got through the Germans on the heights to the south. During the day of the 4th, the men were beginning to suffer from lack of food. There were occasional bursts of machine-gun fire and two trench-mortar attacks, of an hour duration each, but it was not until 4 P. M. that the organized attack was launched once more on our left and rear.

Again the voices in command called out to the platoon leaders on all four sides of us, but the names he called were different from those of the day before. Then the Boche tried a trick. One of our men was noticed by an officer putting on his pack and preparing to leave his funk-hole. The amazed officer inquired what this movement meant. The man stated that word had been passed from the right to get ready to move, because the Germans had chased the Americans back and it, had been decided to retire from the position. This was the first intimation our men had that the enemy included English-speaking Huns and that the latter were playing the bold stroke of sending fake messages into our lines. The rumors of retirement was quickly squelched and our men all stayed quietly in their places.

When the Huns figured that enough time had elapsed for all our men to be standing on their feet, suddenly, with a terrific roar and tearing crash, every one of their machine guns opened up on our positions at once. While the fire was coming from rear and flanks, a fusilade of potato-mashers and grenades descended from the cliff in our front. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the machine-gun fire stopped and a voice called out, "Gaz Masks!" The pronunciation of the words was unmistakably German and the command in form was obviously wrong. So nobody was fooled. " Gas masks hell!" called out one of our men on the right, as he fired in the direction of the voice. Immediately, an unearthly howl went up, of the kind emitted only by a wounded Boche.

Throughout the night the fighting continued, with machine-gun sniping and potato-mashers on the part of the enemy, and our men firing every time they heard a voice or movement. Many of their shots reached the mark. The woods on the outskirts of our positions where the Boche were lurking were filled with moaning and howling until well on into the next day.
From that time on, the Boche called out many of his commands in English. Menacing shouts such as " First, Second and Third Companies this way " and " Bring up ten machine guns on the left, " interspersed with a wide vanity of jeering remarks, all in perfect English, were thrown out to tantalize our men. The talk was not one sided, however. The Boche were told in plain language, English and German, what the world thought of them. One epithet in this repartee that always infuriated them into silence was " Wint Betebren " a rather opprobrious term, hateful to the military class, which means literally "Wind-bag ring, or circle or group."

To follow the sequence of events in "The Pocket" and to distinguish between the attacks that were hurled against its defenders in the next three days is almost impossibility. To the men who went through the experience it was a hideous nightmare. Under the constant strain of defending themselves at all times from every conceivable kind of an attack, launched from every one of four directions and sometimes from all four at once, elemental considerations alone swayed them. The necessity of constant alertness for their own preservation, the passionate desire to kill the enemy, to destroy as many as possible of the mocking devils who were calling out jests and jeers from secure concealment, controlled their thoughts and regulated their existence.

One day was like another. Starvation was creeping on them. There were no meal times to mark the flight of time. There was water in the brook flowing through the bed of the ravine. But the price of a drink of water by day was a life. At night, the Boche played his machine guns on the water holes and it was only by great good luck that a man could secure a supply and win his way back to his funk-hole in safety. Rain fell almost continuously. The nights were damp and cold. The men, without blankets, overcoats or other shelter, shivered till daylight and got little rest.

At intervals, the enemy trench mortars, firing at practically point blank range from the left flank, tore up the entire slope to which our men were clinging. The hill became a tangle of twisted shattered trees and splinters. Men were literally blown from one hole into another. Showers of mud and gravel fell upon those who were fortunate enough not to come into actual contact with the flying shell splinters. When it was deemed that the "minenwerfers" had wrought sufficient Confusion and commotion, the enemy sprayed the ground with a pitiless rain of machine gun bullets. During daylight it was a rash act to stand erect. Positions were changed by crawling along the ground. Even this was far from safe, for the enemy showed themselves expert in grazing fire and their missiles had a way of singing through the grass and catching a man whose duty required him to leave his funk-hole.

The wounded could receive only the scantest attention. After the first two days only two of the medical detachment were surviving to render first aid. These two heroically crawled from one sufferer to another. But in scores of cases the injuries were gaping shell wounds or bullet holes, requiring more than a mere bandage. Bandages gave out and it was necessary to take bandages from the dead to bind up the hurts of the living. The dead lay unburied on the ground.

During the daytime, burying parties would not have lived to perform their duties. After three days, many of the men had become so weak from hunger it was beyond their strength to dig graves in the hard soil. At night it was impossible to see, except at those times when the ground was illuminated by the weird glow of Very-lights shot into the midst of our funk-holes by the Boche.

Throughout these six days and nights in the pocket, with their bodies tortured by hunger and wrecked by fever, with death always at their elbow, the spirit of resistance never once weakened in the hearts and minds of officers and men. On the night of October 4th, the firing of our own troops could be distinctly heard to the south, and hopes were high that relieving forces would soon break through and join them. At intervals in the noise of the combat, the sound of our Chauchats would be distinguished, and the friendly firing seemed to grow stronger and draw nearer. Disappointment was keen therefore, when daylight dawned without a sign of reinforcements.

Although panels were displayed, they were hardly distinguishable through the trees and no assuring signals were received that our aeroplane had located exactly the battalion's position.

One cheering event marked the next day. Our artillery, commencing its fire on the hill to the south in the early morning, suddenly jumped to the slope on the southern-hill opposite the battalion's position, just in time to crash into large forces of the enemy massing for an infantry attack. For half an hour, the air was full of flying Dutchmen and parts of the same, then, in a miraculous way, our shells leap-frogged the position of our own troops and fell on the crest to the north of them. It happened at that very moment that a large number of Boche, probably to offset the defeat of their attack on the south, were advancing from the north with grenades to hurl from the cliff. They caught the second edition of our barrage square in their faces, and the attack went to pieces. It seemed like an act of providence.

One of our aeroplanes flying over the terrain where the Boche had organized, before our firing, was seen to drop a signal " Fire on me. That was probably one of the instruments that providence used.

" It was a beautiful barrage" said an infantry officer who enjoyed it that day from his fox-hole on the hill. For several hours the woods resounded with the howls of wounded Boche, until their comrades were able to hurry them out of hearing.

But that night, the Chauchat firing to the south seemed fainter and weaker than the night before. This discovery, coming at the end of a particularly terrible afternoon, was enough to thoroughly dishearten the most courageous.

At 4 o'clock that afternoon, the enemy had covered the slope on which our men were located with an intensity of machine-gun fire difficult to exaggerate. It seemed impossible that a single foot of the ground could escape without a bullet searching it.

Many of our men were killed and many wounded by this barrage. The wounded were brave at all times, but there were moans and piteous cried in the dark that night. The day began with 375 as our effective strength, but this number was greatly reduced by casualties suffered in the afternoon's attack.

If the men on the bill had known that October 6th was a Sunday, they would have called it Blue Sunday. Things seemed at their lowest. The firing of relieving forces to the south had not grown appreciably nearer. Hunger was becoming almost unbearable. In one funk-hole, two men were dividing a morsel of bacon-rind that one of them found in his pocket. He had used it to rub over a wound in his hand. Now they were eagerly eating it, the first particle of food in four days. In another hole, the occupants were subsisting on a little mixture of salt and pepper discovered in a condiment can. At intervals, they would dip their tongues into this concoction, and go through the form of eating. One man crept out of the brush with a small chunk of black break that he had salvaged from the body of a dead Boche. Friendly airplanes hovering over the region of the ravine dropped parcels of food at various times during the day. But this food fell with tantalizing regularity out of the reach of our beleaguered men. The Boche continued his usual daily program of minenwerfer bombardments at hourly intervals, interspersed with machine-gun fire from every angle. The dead of the day before covered the ground. The machine-gunners of the 306th Battalion lost both their officers. After repelling attack after attack on our flanks for four days, only one of their nine machine guns remained in action. Ammunition for our machine guns was almost exhausted. The effective strength of all units had fallen to 275. It was a time for spirits to fail. It was a time for courage to flicker out. It was a time when the few survivors could look into one another's faces and say with conviction, " There is nothing before us but death."

One thing, however, in that desperate situation, no one forgot. The command had advanced to the ravine where it lay under orders to take the position, and to hold it at all costs until the other elements of the line of the 77th Division should reach it. The orders were plain. On the 6th, there was a general sensing through the little band on the hill that the test had come. Without a command or a suggestion being given, it was known throughout the hill by every officer and man that if the Germans captured the slope they would have to find there the last of its defenders dead at his post.

It was at this time that a dramatic episode occurred to crystallize this purpose and to give it expression.
At four in the afternoon of the 7th, a private of Company H reported to the commanding officer. That morning with eight others he had slipped away into the forest to secure a parcel of food dropped not far away by one of our planes. The party encountered a German out-post. Five of the nine were killed and the rest wounded and captured. One of the latter was blindfolded, given a note by the German Commander and sent into our lines. He delivered the note to Major Whittlesey. This was the note:

"To the Commanding Officer-Infantry, 77th American Division.

" Sir:--The bearer of this present, Private has been taken prisoner by us. He refused to give the German Intelligence Officer any answer to his questions, and is quite an honorable fellow, doing honor to his Fatherland in the strictest sense of the word.

"He has been charged against his will, believing that he is doing wrong to his country to carry forward this present letter to the officer in charge of the battalion of the 77th Division, with the purpose to recommend this commander to surrender with his forces, as it would be quite useless to resist any more, in view of the present conditions.

"The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions. Please treat Private as an honorable man.

He is quite a soldier. We envy you.

Major Whittlesey read the note and passed it over to Captain McMurtry. He read it and handed it to Captain Holderman. The three officers looked at one another and a grim smile wrinkled their features. " We are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. " This, after six days of the most inhuman warfare conceivable hurled at them by the Boche in attempts to annihilate, that had failed. It was almost funny.

The fact of the receipt of the note soon spread over the hill. Men too weak to stand on their feet raised up on their elbows and cried: "You Dutch -s, come over and get us." That was the only response. Major Whittlesey took in the two white panels spread on the ground for the purpose of indicating the position to our aeroplane. There should be nothing white showing on that hillside.

Another answer was on its way to the Boche. That very evening the crackle of musketry and the rat-tat-tat of Chauchats and Hotchkiss guns fell on the ears of the beleaguered men, coming from the rear and right flank. Beyond the fraction of a doubt, it was the long-hoped-for, despaired- of relief. It was brother Americans of the 77th Division furiously fighting their way through. Sheer exhaustion forced the tears from the eyes of men to whom the hope of life was returning. The Boche, however, was not quite through. In one last desperate effort to impress his "Humane sentiments, " on the survivors in the pocket, he descended with all his force on the right flank. For this attack, he had reserved his liquid fire, and scorching flames shot into our ranks.

But our men were revivified. They sprang into the fight to the tune of every choice oath in the English language. Our one remaining machine gun at last was firing at a target point blank. In word and deed, the Huns got hell, and back they crumbled never to come on again.

As the Germans dwindled away through the trees into the night, the men of the 307th came up on the right, with food and ammunition in abundance. A half-hour later, patrols of the 308th were reported coming in from the south. The relief was complete. The fight of the " Lost Battalion "-the battalion that was never "lost "-was over. On the morning of the 8th, the 252 survivors of the 679 that had entered the "pocket," with their sick and wounded, marched south through the deep ravine to rest.

Their hillside is now quiet. The dead lie sleeping in a little enclosure near the western border of the valley. The crash of minerwerfers and the whine of the bullets is stilled. But if the trees on this torn slope of France could ever break the silence, they would say "By these splintered wounds you see upon us, we will live to mark the valor of the Americans. "
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