October 4, 1918 The Lost Battalion

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

The Argonne Forest is a long strip of wild woodland and stony mountainside in northeastern France, a hunting preserve since the earliest days of the Bourbon Kings.  For most of WWI, the Argonne remained behind German lines.  On October 2, 1918, nine companies of the US 77th “Metropolitan Division”, roughly 554 men, came to take part of it back.

Lieutenant Colonel CW Whittlesey
Lieutenant Colonel CW Whittlesey

Their objective was the Charlevaux ravine and a road & railroad on the other side, cutting off German communications in the sector.

As heavy fighting drew to a close on the first day, the men found a way up hill 198 and began to dig in for the night.   Major Charles White Whittlesey, commanding, thought that things were too quiet that first night.  Orders called for them to be supported by two American units on their right and a French force on their left.

That night, the voices drifting in from the darkness, were speaking German.

The 77th had come up against a heavily defended double trench line and, unknown at the time, allied forces to the left and right had been cut off and stalled. Now they were alone, and surrounded.

The fighting was near constant on the fourth, with no chance of getting a runner through.   Whittlesey dispatched a message by carrier pigeon, “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.”

The last thing that German forces wanted was for an enemy messenger to get through, and the bird went down in a hail of German bullets.  Whittlesey grabbed another pigeon and wrote “Men are suffering.  Can support be sent?”.  That second bird would be shot down as well.

cher-ami
Cher Ami

On day three, the “lost battalion” came under fire from its own artillery.  Whittlesey grabbed his third and last carrier pigeon, “Cher Ami”, and frantically wrote out his message.

German gunfire exploded from the high ridges above them as this bird, too, fluttered to the ground.  Soon she was up again, flying out of sight despite the hail of bullets.  She arrived in her coop 65 minutes later, shot through the breast and blind in one eye.  The message, hanging by a single tendon from a leg all but shot off, read:  “WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT“.

Drops of food and supplies were attempted from the air, but all ended up in German hands.

lost battalion, map

The lost battalion was isolated for 6 days. Food and ammunition were running out.  Water was available from a nearby stream, but only at the cost of exposure to German fire.  Bandages had to be removed from the dead in order to treat the wounded. Medicine was completely out and men were falling ill.  All the while, they were fighting off German attacks from all sides.

When they were finally relieved on the 8th, only 194 were able to walk out on their own.

Edward Grant attended Dean Academy in his home town of Franklin, Massachusetts, before graduating from Harvard University.  “Harvard” Eddie Grant became a Major League ballplayer, playing utility infielder for the Cleveland Indians as early as 1905.  Grant would aggravate his fellow infielders, calling the ball with the grammatically correct “I have it”, instead of the customary “I got it”.  Grant played for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds, before retiring from the New York Giants and opening a Law Office in Boston. He was one of the first men to enlist when the US entered WWI in 1917, becoming a Captain in the 77th Infantry Division, A.E.F.

Captain Grant was killed leading a search for the Lost Battalion on October 5, becoming the first major league baseball player to die in the Great War.

Captain Eddie Grant
Third Baseman-turned soldier, Captain Edward Leslie Grant, the 1st Major League ball player killed in WW1

Eddie Grant was honored on Memorial Day, 1921, as representatives of the US Armed Forces and Major League Baseball joined his sisters to unveil a plaque in center field at the Polo Grounds. From that day until the park closed in 1957, a wreath was solemnly placed at the foot of that plaque after the first game of every double header.  He is memorialized by the Edward L. Grant Highway in The Bronx, and by Grant Field at Dean College in Franklin, Massachusetts.

Cmoh_armyMajor Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, and Captain Nelson Holderman, all received the Medal of Honor for their actions atop hill 198.  Whittlesey was accorded the rare honor of being a pallbearer at the interment ceremony for the Unknown Soldier, but it seems his experience weighed heavily on him.  Charles Whittlesey disappeared from a ship in 1921, in what is believed to have been a suicide.

James Leak described his experience with the Lost Battalion, at an Abilene Christian College gathering in 1938.  “[T]he “Lost Battalion””, he said, is entirely a misnomer…it was not “Lost”. We knew exactly where we were”, he said, “and went to the exact position to which we had been ordered”.

LostBattalionMonument
Monument to the Lost Battalion, Argonne Forest, France.
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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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