World War I, known as the Great War, was won 104 years ago by the combined forces of the U.S., France and Great Britain through an intense and bloody series of assaults on entrenched German troops in the autumn of 1918.
One American unit leading that assault in the Argonne Forest was the 77th Infantry or Statue of Liberty Division composed of young men from the streets of New York City. Just a week before the offensive, the 77th was heavily reinforced by about 476 Montanans transferred in from their replacement division.
“The Lost Battalion” is the name given to nine remarkable companies of the 77th Division, some 554 men including about 59 Montanans, surrounded and isolated by German forces during their attack in the Argonne Forest. On Oct. 2, the Battalion, commanded by Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey, launched an assault into the Argonne, under the belief that French forces and two American units were supporting their flanks.
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As the battalion drove forward, they broke through German lines and advanced so rapidly into the Argonne Forest that they outpaced the forces on their flanks. Soon, the battalion was deep in German territory — “lost” to allied support.
But the “Lost” Battalion was by no means “lost” — they knew right where they were in their seemingly untenable position, and so did the Germans who had them surrounded.
The Whittlesey battalion, found themselves positioned on a steep, heavily wooded slope in the Charlevaux Valley. The nine trapped companies, A, B, C, E, G, and H of the 308th, K of the 307th Infantry, and C and D of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion and its parent 77th Division were composed of three dozen nationalities from all walks of life on the streets of New York. Remarkably, many Montanans were mixed in these melting pot companies.
For the followingly six days, with scarce ammunition, food, and supplies, but an abundance of courage and a leader who simply refused to surrender, these Yanks fought valiantly against attacking Germans. Communications were also a problem, and at times they were bombarded by 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.
Meanwhile other companies from the 307th and 308th Regiments sought desperately to locate and break through German lines to bring relief.
Finally, on Oct. 8, other Yanks broke through German lines to rescue the defiant but desperately weakened survivors of the Lost Battalion. Twenty-four Montanans were among the 197 Killed in Action including Otto J. Schultz of Somers, who was captured and died of wounds. Seventeen Montanans were wounded. Eighteen more Montana men were among the 194 rescued, although four would die of wounds and one of pneumonia in the aftermath.
A Montanan among the survivors, Pvt. James G. Irvin of Billings, Company D, 308th Infantry, later related his ordeal in the Great Falls Tribune:
His firsthand account of the experiences of the gallant little detachment of the 77th division . . . reveals some interesting sidelights . . .
Irvin was close to Maj. Whittlesey, commander of the detachment, when the American who had been taken prisoner by the Germans and released to carry the message back to his comrades requesting they surrender, delivered the message. The widely heralded reply accredited to Whittlesey, in which he is supposed to have told the Germans in stentorian tones to “Go to hell” never was uttered, Irvin says, although the sentiment therein expressed was carried out.
“What Major Whittlesey did remark,” says Irvin, “was addressed to the message bearer and uttered in a low voice. It was: ‘I ought to shoot you for bringing this kind of a message.’”
As a matter of fact, the bearer of the message nearly was shot by mistake by Irvin, who was stationed several rods away from where the detachment lay partly concealed, by hastily thrown up breastworks and the rank undergrowth. Irvin observed the messenger approaching and waiting for him to announce himself.
The guard had his rifle leveled on a patch of moonlight across a path which the messenger was traveling. If the stranger made no sound before reaching the patch of moonlight, Pvt. Irvin intended to fire. He knew better than to make known his own presence for fear the visitor might be a German, and several enemy raiding parties had already tried to storm the position where the Americans lay.
“By the merest chance, the messenger divined the presence not far off of his comrades and hailed them just before he stepped into the patch of moonlight on which I had my rifle leveled. He passed safely through the lines.”
“Major Whittlesey appeared highly displeased at the messenger and rebuked him severely. The messenger then took his place among us.
“For some time after arriving at our rendezvous we were under fire of both our own (French) and the enemy artillery. We lost several of our men from this source. Major Whittlesey sent back all the carrier pigeons we had with us with messages to our artillery to cease firing on that point. I was only a few feet away when the major sent back the last pigeon. All the others, apparently, were killed before reaching their destination, for the shells from our guns kept falling in the vicinity. As the major adjusted the message to the leg of the last pigeon (named Cher Ami), he remarked:
“’Now then you little devil, if you don’t get through, I don’t know what’s going to happen to us.’”
“The bird got through safely, we learned later, and the artillery fire lifted. That last message also resulted in our rescue.”
Cher Ami’s message read: “We are along the road paralell (sic) to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.”
As Cher Ami took flight to fly to home base, the Germans saw him rising out of the brush and opened fire. Within seconds, he was shot down but managed to take flight again. Cher Ami arrived back at his loft at division headquarters 25 miles to the rear in just 25 minutes, helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors. He had been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, and had a leg hanging only by just a tendon. Army medics saved his life. Cher Ami, the hero of the 77th Infantry, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and the Croix de Guerre by the French.
Irvin’s account continued:
“ . . . Where the detachment of the 77th was surrounded (was) called . . . ‘the pocket,’ there was a small spring which furnished the only fresh water the Americans could reach. The German artillery had the exact range of the spring and German outposts had a clear view of the spot. Whenever one or more Americans tried to reach the spring, the enemy laid down a barrage. It was here the Lost Battalion suffered its heavy casualties,” Irvin said. Machine guns manned by Germans were stationed on three sides of the American position and a constant storm of lead was directed on the spot. The little band was nearly famished when found.
(Few of the) men who composed the detachment were taken out alive. A majority went directly to a hospital and remained there several weeks recuperating. Irvin and a half dozen others volunteered for duty the following day and resumed the advance, but the Billings man was forced by weakness to drop out.
“I marched until I couldn’t stand up any longer, carrying the regulation pack which a soldier takes into the front lines. This pack weights 110 pounds. I stumbled along for a couple of miles and suddenly everything went black. When I woke up I was in a hospital, and I was still there when the armistice was signed.”
In the aftermath of their horrendous experiences, some men suffered what we would now call PTSD.
For survivor Pvt. Joe Prusek, a young homesteader from Melville, Sweet Grass County, the effects proved fatal. In the terms of the times, Prusek “suffered from the effects of shell shock and a general nervous breakdown caused by his experiences with the Lost Battalion.”
He killed himself in a cabin at his homestead. When the sheriff arrived at the scene four days later he found Prusek’s dog faithfully tending over the body of his master. Since his death, the dog apparently had never relaxed his vigilance. When the sheriff arrived, the dog would circle around the body at intervals, then take his position near the head of his dead master.
Note: For more about Montanans in World War I, see historian Ken Robison’s books World War I Montana: The Treasure State Prepares and Montanans in the Great War: Open Warfare over There. For names and more information about the Montanans in the Lost Battalion see: https://bit.ly/3SY5NF8