In 1918, the United States and its allies were locked in the gruesome trench warfare of World War I. Each side was dug in and minimal progress made by either side came at tragic human cost. In early October 1918, General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, was determined find a way to end the war by Christmas. Pershing's plan was to commit French and American forces in an advance through the French Argonne Forest, punching a hole in the German lines. This would mark the beginning of the end of the war.
On Oct. 2, 1918, the center of this advance would be led by the First and Second Battalions of the 308th Infantry Regiment. These Battalions had been involved in fierce fighting which had driven their combined numbers down to around 800 men from the 2,000 they began with. Their leaders were Major Charles Whittlesey and Captain George McMurtry.
Whittlesey was born in Florence, Wis., but now lived in New England. McMurtry made his home in New York. Both were lawyers as civilians. The men they lead were a mix of seasoned veterans and rookies just out of basic training. These men represented the diversity of America. There were Italians, Polish, and Swedes hailing from anywhere from big cities to Midwestern farming communities. What they all shared, the belief that it was their duty to defend freedom and keep our democracy safe from those that would take it away.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 2, after a half-hour artillery barrage to soften the enemy's defenses, they began the charge across the "no-man's" land between opposing trenches. Leading the charge were Whittlesey and McMurtry with a pistol in one hand, wire cutters for the barb wire obstacles they would encounter in the other hand and a whistle in their mouths to signal the advance over the fog-laden terrain. Encountering heavy resistance, they lost more than 90 men during their advance, but were able to advance through German lines into the high ground in the Argonne Forest, their desired destination. The problem: The rest of the offensive had stalled, leaving this battalion behind enemy lines and surrounded.
Cut off from supplies and with the only form of communication to headquarters being carrier pigeons, these men entrenched in an area on the side of a hill roughly 300 yards long and 75 yards deep. Here they were to hold until relieved. During the next four days, they endured numerous assaults from the much larger German force using snipers, flame throwers and machine gun strafing. The men even endured an accidental barrage of American artillery that was finally halted by a note sent back by the last remaining carrier pigeon named Cher Ami.
It wasn't until Oct. 7 that American Forces broke through to this "Lost Battalion." Of the more than 800 men that began the offensive from these two battalions, only 175 walked out of the Argonne Forest. Another 190 were taken out by ambulances.
As we celebrate Veterans Day each November, it is important we educate our young students about the courageous acts of those that have served our country. Many men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice so we may live in freedom and pursue our dreams, we owe it to them to honor their sacrifices such as those of "The Lost Battalion."
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.