October 2, 1918 Lost Battalion

Lieutenant James Leak compared those six days lost in the Ardennes with the 1836 siege of the Alamo, and the legendary 300, at Thermopylae.

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” came to take part of it back.

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Major Charles White 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.

They had come up against a heavily defended double trench line and, unknown at the time, allied forces to their left and right had been cut off and stalled. The Metropolitan Division was alone, and surrounded.

The fighting was near constant on day two, 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.

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Cher Ami

Whittlesey grabbed another pigeon and wrote “Men are suffering.  Can support be sent?”/  That second bird would be shot down as well.

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 they all ended up in German hands.

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By October 7, food and ammunition were running out.  554 had entered the Ardennes five days earlier, now fifty per cent were either dead, or wounded.  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.  Even so, survivors continued to fight off German attacks from all sides.

Out of the forest emerged a blindfolded American prisoner, carrying a white flag.  He’d been sent with a message, from the German commander:

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 Lowell R. Hollingshead [the bearer] as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer.

Though he later denied it, Whittlesey’s response was remembered as “You go to hell!”.  White sheets placed to help allied aircraft find their position were pulled in, lest they be mistaken for flags of surrender.  The meaning was unmistakable.  When they were finally relieved the following day, only 194 were fit to walk out on their own.

The Meuse-Argonne offensive of which it was part would last forty seven days, and account for the greatest single-battle loss of life, in American military history.

Edward Leslie Grant attended Dean Academy in his home town of Franklin, Massachusetts, and later graduated from Harvard University.  “Harvard” Eddie Grant became a Major League ballplayer, playing utility infielder for the Cleveland Indians as early as 1905.

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“Harvard Eddie” Grant

Grant delighted in aggravating 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.

Sixty former ballplayers were killed during the Great War, including nine former Major League players, twenty-six minor players, three negro leaguers and a number who played college, semi-pro and amateur. Another four played in the Australian League. Harvard Eddie Grant was killed leading a search for the Lost Battalion on October 5, the first Major League ball player to be killed in the Great War.

Eddie Grant was honored on Memorial Day, 1921, as representatives of the US Armed Forces and Major League Baseball joined with 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.

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Major Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, and Captain Nelson Holderman all received the Medal of Honor for their actions atop hill 198.  Whittlesey was further honored as a pallbearer at the interment ceremony for the Unknown Soldier, but his experience weighed heavily on him.

In what is believed to have been a suicide, Charles White Whittlesey disappeared from the SS Toloa bound for Havana in 1921, leaving instructions in his stateroom as to what to do with his bags.  Whittlesey’s cenotaph is located at Pittsfield Cemetery in his home town of Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  It is an ‘IMO’ marker (In Memory Only).  His body was never found.

In prepared remarks before a gathering at Abilene Christian College in 1938, Lieutenant James Leak compared those six days lost in the Ardennes with the 1836 siege of the Alamo, and the legendary 300, at Thermopylae.   “[T]he “Lost Battalion””, he said, “is entirely a misnomer…it was not “Lost”. We knew exactly where we were, and went to the exact position to which we had been ordered“.

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Monument to the Lost Battalion
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 30, 1918 Gold Star Mother’s Day

They are so few, who pick up this heaviest of tabs on behalf of the rest of us.

Today, Sunday, September 30, 2018, is Gold Star Mother’s Day.  I wish to dedicate this “Today in History”, to those women who have made the greatest sacrifice a mother can make, in service to the nation.  The rest of us owe them a debt which can never be repaid.

Suppose you were to stop 100 randomly selected individuals on the street, and ask them:  “Of all the conflicts in American military history, which single battle accounts for the greatest loss of life“.  I suppose you’d get a few Gettysburgs in there, and maybe an Antietam or two.  The Battle of the Bulge would come up, for sure, and there’s bound to be a Tarawa or an Iwo Jima.  Maybe a Normandy.  I wonder how many would answer, Meuse-Argonne.

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The United States was a relative late-comer to the Great War, entering the conflict in April 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked permission of the Congress, for a “War to end all wars”.  American troop levels “over there” remained small throughout the rest of 1917, as the formerly neutral nation of  fifty million ramped up to a war footing.

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US Marines during Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918

The trickle turned to a flood in 1918, as French ports were expanded to handle their numbers.  The American Merchant Marine was insufficient to handle the influx, and received help from French and British vessels.  By August, every one of what was then forty-eight states had sent armed forces, amounting to nearly 1½ million American troops in France.

After four years of unrelenting war, French and British manpower was staggered and the two economies, nearing collapse.  Tens of thousands of German troops were freed up and moving to the western front, following the chaos of the Russian Revolution.  The American Expeditionary Force was arriving none too soon.

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“Gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, firing 37mm gun during an advance against German entrenched positions. , 1918”, H/T Wikipedia

Following successful allied offensives at Amiens and Albert, Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch ordered General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to take overall command of the offensive, with the objective of cutting off the German 2nd Army. Some 400,000 troops were moved into the Verdun sector of northeastern France.  This was to be the largest operation of the AEF, of World War I.With a half-hour to go before midnight September 25, 2,700 guns opened up in a six hour bombardment, against German positions in the Argonne Forest, along the Meuse River.

Montfaucon American Monument, World War I, France
Butte de Montfaucon, today

Some 10,000 German troops were killed or incapacitated by mustard and phosgene gas attacks, and another 30,000 plus, taken prisoner.  The Allied offensive advanced six miles into enemy territory, but bogged down in the wild woodlands and stony mountainsides of the Argonne Forest.

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Meuse-Argonne American cemetery near Romagne, in France

The Allied drive broke down on German strong points like the hilltop monastery at Montfaucon and others, and fortified positions of the German “defense in depth”.

Pershing called off the Meuse-Argonne offensive on September 30, as supplies and reinforcements backed up in what can only be termed the Mother of All Traffic Jams.

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Fighting was renewed four days later resulting in some of the most famous episodes of WW1, including the “Lost Battalion” of Major Charles White Whittlesey, and the single-handed capture of 132 prisoners, by Corporal (and later Sergeant) Alvin York.

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Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, outside of Romagne, France

The Meuse-Argonne offensive would last forty-seven days, resulting in 26,277 American women gaining that most exclusive and unwanted of distinctions, that of being a Gold Star Mother.  More than any other battle, in American military history.  95,786 others would see their boys come home, mangled.

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Gold Star Mother’s Monument At The Putnam County (NY) Veteran Memorial Park, photograph by James Connor

In May of that year, President Woodrow Wilson approved a suggestion from the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defenses, that American women were asked to wear black bands on the left arm, with a gilt star for every family member who had given his life for the nation.

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Today, Title 36 § 111 of the United States Code provides that the last Sunday in September be observed as Gold Star Mother’s Day, in honor of those women who have made the ultimate sacrifice. (April 5 is set aside, as Gold Star Spouse’s Day).  Recently, both President Barack Obama and Donald Trump have signed proclamations, setting this day aside as Gold Star Mother’s and Family’s Day.

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At first a distinction reserved only for those mothers who had lost sons and daughters in WW1, that now includes a long list of conflicts, fought over the last 100 years.  At this time the US Army website reports  “The Army is dedicated to providing ongoing support to over 78,000 surviving Family members of fallen Soldiers”.

Seventy-eight thousand, out of a nation of some 320 million.  They are so few, who pick up this heaviest of tabs on behalf of the rest of us.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 2, 1918 1st Division Rags

Rags survived our nation’s deadliest battle with the loss of an eye, but Donovan wasn’t so lucky. He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

Private James Donovan was AWOL.  He had overstayed his leave in the French town of Montremere, and the ‘Great War’, awaited.

When the two MPs found him, Donovan knew he had to think fast. He reached down and grabbed a stray dog, explaining to the two policemen that he was part of a search party, sent out to find the Division Mascot.

RagsIt was a small dog, possibly a Cairn Terrier mix. He looked like a pile of rags, and that’s what they called him.  The dog had gotten Donovan out of a jam, now he would become the division mascot for real. Rags was now part of the US 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.

Instead of “shaking hands”, Donovan taught him a sort of doggie “salute”.  Rags would appear at the flag pole for Retreat for years after the war, lifting his paw and holding it by his head.  Every time the flag was lowered and the bugle played, there was that small terrier, saluting with the assembled troops.

Donovan’s job was hazardous. He was on the front lines, stringing communications wire between advancing infantry and supporting field artillery. Runners were used to carry messages until the wire was laid, but they were frequently wounded, killed or they couldn’t get through the shell holes and barbed wire.

The dog learned to imitate the men around him, who would drop to the ground and hug it tightly during artillery barrages. He would hug the ground with his paws spread out, soon the doughboys noticed him doing it before any of them knew they were under fire. Rags’ acute and sensitive hearing became an early warning system, telling them that shells were incoming well before anyone heard them.

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A great book, if you want to learn more.

Donovan trained Rags to carry messages attached to his collar.  On October 2, 1918, Rags carried a message from the 26th Infantry Regiment to the 7th Field Artillery.  The small dog’s successful mission resulted in an artillery barrage, leading to the capture of the Very-Epinonville Road.

An important objective had been taken, with minimal loss of life to the American side.

Rags was small and fast, and often ran messages across open battlefield. The terrier’s greatest trial came a week later, during the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. The small dog ran through falling bombs and poison gas to deliver his message. Mildly gassed and partially blinded, shell splinters damaged his right paw, eye and ear. Rags survived and, as far as I know, got his message where it needed to be.

Rags survived our nation’s deadliest battle with the loss of an eye, but Donovan wasn’t so lucky. He was severely gassed and the two were brought to the rear. If anyone asked about expending medical care on a dog, they were told that it was “orders from headquarters”.

Rags recovered quickly, but Donovan did not.  Donovan was transferred to the United States, and brought to the Fort Sheridan base hospital near Chicago, where medical staff specialized in gas cases.  It was here that the dog was given a collar and tag, identifying him as 1st Division Rags.  Donovan died of his injuries, in early 1919.  Rags moved into the base fire house becoming “post dog”, until being adopted by Major Raymond W. Hardenbergh, his wife and two daughters, in 1920.Rags Grave

The 1st Division marched down Broadway in 1928, part of the division’s 10th anniversary WW1 reunion, a small terrier-mix in the vanguard.

Rags lived out the last of his years in Maryland.  A long life it was, too, the dog lived until 1934, remaining the 1st Infantry Division for all his 20 years.

On March 22, 1934, the 16-paragraph obituary in the New York Times began: “Rags, Dog Veteran of War, Is Dead at 20; Terrier That Lost Eye in Service is Honored.”