Saturday, June 3, 2017

The 77th Division's 'Lost Battalion' of World War I

The "Lost Battalion" was part of the 77th Div.

The "Lost Battalion" from the 77th Division during World War I was a popular name given to elements of nine companies from that division that took part in a failed offensive in the Argonne Forest during October, 1918. The infantryman from the 77th Division would begin their trial by fire on October 2nd and not be rescued from the German Imperial Army by the Allies until October 8th.

In all, there were about 554 American soldiers that took part in the offensive, which included: A, B, C, E, G, and H companies from the 308th Regiment; K Company from the 307th Regiment; and C and D companies from the 306th Machine-gun Battalion. The men of the 77th Division would go through six days of hell behind German lines and their actions, though distinguished, would result in 197 of their number being killed, 150 missing or captured and 194 rescued.

Major Charles White Whittlesey

Though the battlaion, led by Major Charles White Whittlesey, would undergo many hardships during their time ahead of Allied lines, they would tangle with the German Empire's 5th Army and inflict approximately 600 casualties on the enemy.

When the attack began, it was never planned that the force commanded by Whittlesey would become trapped, of course. The 77th Division, along with elements of the American 92nd Division were supposed to be supporting the right flank of advancing French forces. The aim was to break the dead-lock trench warfare lines that had defined the 77th Division's war until that point.

Communications were haphazard in those days and, when the French attack stalled, the Americans received no news about this. So, Whittlesey's unit moved well past the German lines and became cut-off from Allied forces.

The battalion was not equipped to deal with the kind of fight they happened into across the small, dangerous space of the battlefield. They were short of food and water. In fact, the only way the 77th's soldiers were able to fill their canteens was by crawling through enemy fire to a nearby stream. Whittlesey attempted to send runners to find out what the friendly situation was, but all of those were either killed or captured by the Germans.

Soldiers from the 308th Regiment, 77th Division

To add to the 77th's problems, as if they did not have enough, friendly artillery fire began falling on their position. With it plain by that time that the unit's runners would not be seen again, Whittlesey resorted to using a carrier-pigeon to send a report to division. In the communication, he said: "We are along the road parallel [sic] 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake stop it."

Luckily for Whitttlesey and his men, where runners had failed their pigeon, named Cheri Ami, was successful. And, the deadly rain of steel from the sky stopped.

The soldiers of the 77th Division mostly came from the City of New York. The division's distinctive blue and yellow patch even featured a graphic of the Statue of Liberty. It is an emblem the men from the unit chose for themselves and it was adopted by the command.

During the course of the war, the Argonne Forest had been someplace the Germans held since the early days of the conflict. There were vast enemy tunnel networks throughout the forest, which made the Lost Battalion's job even more complicated. Throughout the Argonne, the Germans had spread nearly 100 miles of barbed wire, channelizing potential attacking forces.

When the offensive had begun, the main objective of the 77th Division was to secure the Binarville-La Viergette road. The kick off for the attack was 0700, to allow ground fog to clear-up some. Whittlesey left two companies (D and F) to be a covering force on a nearby ridge-line, while the rest of first and second battalions, led by Whittlesey, would engage the enemy on "Hill 198," as it was known then. In general, it was a flanking maneuver intended to surprise the German occupiers.
The modern 77th Div. patch

At the point where Whittlesey and his infantry were securing Hill 198, the French met with a massive counter-attack by the German Army, driving them back to their lines. Though the hill was under the control of the 77th Division, it was the only thing that was -- now that the until was cut-off from any help. And, the Lost Battalion was surrounded by the Germans.

The soldiers and leaders from the 77th Division had to know something was wrong. They dug in as fast and deep as they could. Then, the Germans attacked from all sides. With grim determination, the men from the 77th Division held their ground. The next day, patrols were sent out to try and determine the enemy's situation.

Between the fifth through the eighth of October, the Germans brought the fight to the defenders of Hill 198. They sent offers of surrender, but Whittlesey would not respond to them.

Though German attacks were regular, the pocket that Whittlesey and his men made was firm. With almost no food or ammunition left, it was fortunate that, on October 8th, at about 1500, the Allies finally broke through the German line to relieve Whittlesey and his men.

For actions during the offensive, Whittlesey, Captain George G. McMurtry and Captain Nelson M. Holderman received the Medal of Honor, most notably among others. Meanwhile, Whittlesey was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Sgt. Benjamin Kaufman from K Company of the 307th Regiment, and Private Archie A. Peck, from A Company, 308th Regiment also received the Medal of Honor. Distinguished Service Crosses were also awarded to 31 other officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the famed "Lost Battalion."

Meanwhile, for their heraldry in the face of grim odds, the story of the "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Division is one that remains prominent in that unit's history, and the history of the American contribution to World War I.


  1. I have an old 77th patch. Its actually embroidered on the OG wool fabric that may have been part of the uniform. I got the "patch" when my grandmother died since her husband, my grandfather had served in WWI from NY. My question is that the units listed under the 77th don't match any of the units listed on my grandfthers mil record. It says he served overseas from Aug 1918- Apr 1919. I see Aut REpl Draft to Sep then HQ Co 161 Inf. Can you help me?

    1. I cannot. I saw some samples of military records from the World War I Era, and they were so different from today I could not make heads or tails from them. All best.

    2. Your man was a replacement to the 77th from the 40th Division. He arrived in France in August and was assigned to the 77th in September. What was his name?


No profanity, vulgar language, personal attacks, libel or defamation, nudity of any kind or sexual imagery is permitted on this site. The site's management reserves the right to screen all messages for appropriateness through this venue.