Friday, December 15, 2006

Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I

Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I by Robert Ferrell (2005) provides new material about the plight of five hundred men of the Seventy-seventh Division that were trapped and surrounded by German troops in the Argonne Forest from October 2 to 7, 1918. The author discovered new material in the U.S. Army Military History Institute and in the National Archives. This provides a more complete understanding of the story of the Lost Battalion. The Seventy-seventh Division was known as the "Liberty" Division and comprised mostly of draftees from the New York City area.

The "Lost Battalion" was not really lost. That was only a term coined by a newspaper to describe their isolation from friendly forces. They had been sent ahead of the main division line without proper flanking support which eventually led their being surrounded. It took five days for their comrades to break through to them.

My Rating: Good (***). World War I has not had the attention of historians that WWII has attracted. It is refreshing to see emphasis on obtaining a better understanding of WWI by a competent historian.

Some common strategies or themes included:
  • Lack of Leadership:
  • Commander of the overall American forces, General Pershing, exhibited several failings as a leader which led to the entrapment of the "lost battalion." He put inexperienced forces into the front line. His veteran troops were involved in the recent St. Mihiel engagement and were unable to be deployed in time. He knew that would be the case, but he accepted the responsibility from the overall allied commander, Marshall Foch, even though it was an unrealistic task and ill conceived use of American forces. The troops had to be transported over 50 miles of poor roads to reach their starting point, and organization of the lines was inadequate. The Seventy-seventh received a five mile wide front line, the largest of any other unit. The problem was created by inadequate and aggressive planning without due consideration of logistics. Pershing's approach was to push, push, and push troops and commanders to advance, and he had little understanding of tactics. Without experienced officers and troops, that was an ill-advised approach. Pershing was more interested in the opportunity to be a hero in the Meuse-Argonne campaign than tactically using his forces with their fate in consideration. (pp. 4-6)

    The Seventy-seventh's commanding officer, Major General Alexander, was considered a "stuffed shirt" by his peers, with some believing he would be relieved of command but it never happened. He treated his subordinates poorly, with some transferring from his command, and he also had little diplomacy in dealing with other units or headquarters. He did not have adequate flank support on the left from the French. The French were slow to advance because they preferred the Americans to bear the brunt of the combat (four years of war made them reluctant to accept casualties), leaving the flank open. Alexander never verified the French advance on the flank, and simply pushed his troops forward. Additionally, Pershing agreed to a French Army request to remove the Ninety-second division (which was under French command) from the front, and that further opened the left flank. The Ninety-second was an African-American division and the French were prejudiced against it, requesting its withdrawal. The combination of factors left the flank open on the Seventy-seventh and Alexander was unable to comprehend the danger of doing so (pp. 6-11).

    General McCloskey's artillery regiments placed friendly fire on the "lost battalion", misreading the coordinates provided. Mysteriously, a division investigation of the incident never occurred and the command papers disappeared.

  • Lack of Equipment:
  • One of the officers of the "lost battalion", Captain Holderman wrote in an after action report: "Never allow a force as large as a battalion to start on any mission without supporting weapons, in the form of 38 millimeter guns, trench mortars and machine guns." They had the machine guns, but none of the others since it was considered too difficult to transport them. (p. 25).

  • Display of Good Judgement:
  • One of the machine gun officers of the "lost battalion", 2nd Lieutenant Maurice Revnes, wrote a note on the third or fourth day of the battle to Major Whittlesey recommending the battalion surrender because of the lack of food, low ammunition, and large number of wounded without medical care. He was court martialed, but the verdict was over turned by General James Mayes since the Lieutenant gallantly performed his duties while being wounded, and that it served no purpose to convict him a charge the General deemed petty (pp. 38-39).

    After the "lost battalion" was relieved, everyone including Alexander (who put them in that predicament) and McCloskey (whose artillery bombarded them) claimed they saved the battalion. "The man who did save the Lost Battalion was [Major General] Summerall, who never laid claim, probably because it was not he who paid the price but the seven thousand men of his division who died or were wounded." (p. 83)

Interesting points raised or facts presented by the author included:
  • The ranking commander of the "Lost Battalion", Major Charles Wittlesey, a New York lawyer, committed suicide three years after the war which many conclude was due to a failure to reconcile with his war experiences. (p. 84)
  • "In an unchivalrous act the Germans directed trench mortar, machine-gun, and rifle fire at burial parties." (p. 31)
  • The last messenger pigeon of the battalion was sent to stop the friendly artillery fire. The pigeon, named Cher Ami was shot through the breast and arrived with the message dangling from a shattered leg. It died of its wounds in 1919 and was stuffed, and is on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (p. 36)
  • The common used term "foxhole" was not used during WWI. They were called "funkhole".
  • On November 11, 1921 the tomb of the unknown soldier was established, and during that ceremony all holders of the Congressional Medal of Honor were present, including the three officers from the "lost battalion": Whittlesey, McMurtry, and Holderman. Whittlesey committed suicide days after the ceremony. (pp. 83-84)

    Click here to buy "Five Days in October: The Lost Battalion of World War I"


    Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Anonymous said...

    Brilliant site, I hadn't noticed previously during my searches!
    Continue the fantastic work!

    Anonymous said...


    This is a inquiry for the webmaster/admin here at

    Can I use some of the information from your blog post above if I provide a backlink back to your site?


    Peter Kapsales, Ph.D. said...

    Yes, you have my permission.