Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Lost Battalion

Today is the final day of my Veteran's Day movie marathon. Now if I was working someplace where they were actually doing units on World War I, I'd be putting up suggested questions and links for these movies besides summaries. This is the only clip I could dig up on the Lost Battalion, obviously from a foreign version. There was another Lost Battalion in WW2 that was rescued with great loss by an all Japanese-American unit. This was featured in Burns' PBS Special.

The Lost Battalion is the name given to eight American units of the 77th Division, roughly 550 men, isolated by German forces during World War I after an American attack in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. Roughly 197 were killed in action and approximately 150 missing or taken prisoner before 194 remaining men were rescued. They were led by Major Charles White Whittlesey.

On October 2, the division quickly advanced into the Argonne, under the belief that French forces were supporting the left flank and two American units were supporting the right flank. Unknown to Whittlesey's unit, the French advance had been stalled. Without this knowledge, they moved beyond the rest of the allied line and found themselves completely cut off and surrounded by German forces. For the next six days, the men of the division were forced to fight off several attacks by the Germans, who saw the small American units as a threat to their whole line. The battalion suffered many hardships. Food was short, and water was available only by crawling under fire to a nearby stream. Ammunition ran low. Friendly artillery fire was dropped on their position, which was surrounded by the putrefying corpses of fallen comrades. Communications was also a problem, as every runner dispatched by Whittlesey either became lost or ran into German patrols. The only reliable mode of communicating with headquarters was through the use of carrier pigeons, but this was both time consuming and they could only send messages, but not receive. Because of this, at times, they would be bombarded by shells from their own artillery, which was unaware of the exact location of the battalion. Despite this, they held their ground and caused enough of a distraction for other allied units to break through the German lines, which forced the Germans to retreat.

Of the over five hundred soldiers that entered the Argonne Forest, only 194 were able to walk out unscathed. The rest were killed, missing, captured, or wounded. Major Whittlesey, along with several other officers received the Medal of Honor for their valiant actions. Whittlesey was also recognized by being a pallbearer at the ceremony interring the remains of the Unknown Soldier. However, it appears that the experience weighed heavily on him. Whittlesey disappeared from a ship, in what is believed to have been (and was reported as) a suicide, in 1921.

An account of the Lost Battalion was given in a 2001 film, The Lost Battalion, directed by Burton L. King. A&E made a television movie based on the exploits of The Lost Battalion during the Battle of the Argonne in 1918, directed by Russell Mulcahy, also entitled The Lost Battalion. Major Whittlesey was played by Rick Schroder.

Cher Ami was not the only pigeon used but is by far the most famous. His stuffed body is still displayed today at the Smithsonian. In his last mission, he delivered a message despite having been shot through the breast. The bird was awarded the Croix de Guerre, for heroic service delivering 12 important messages in Verdun.

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