- Blood in the Argonne: The “Lost Battalion” of World War I
The Lost Battalion has been found. Fresh on the heels of Robert H. Ferrell's Five Days in October (see review in JMH, January 2006), comes Blood in the Argonne by Alan D. Gaff. The fate of the Lost Battalion stands alongside the heroism of Alvin York as the best known episode of America's First World War experience. On 3 October 1918, a hybrid group of about seven hundred soldiers from the 77th Division were positioned on a heavily wooded slope in the Argonne Forest of northeastern France. It had reached the Charlevaux Valley after a successful attack on the German defenses the day before, but then the unit lost touch with the main body of the division.
Led by Major Charles Whittlesey, the Americans were surrounded by German forces about a kilometer from U.S. lines. Despite efforts to rescue Whittlesey's men, including help from a gallant pigeon named Cher Ami, the [End Page 525] division were unable to penetrate the German machine gun and rifle fire until 7 October. Then a successful American attack on another part of the front forced an enemy retreat. By that time the trapped doughboys had run out of rations and were low on ammunition. "They endured five days of pure hell" (p. 4). More than half of Whittlesey's men did not survive the ordeal.
The author does much to sift through the fiction surrounding the episode to uncover the facts. He follows the story chronologically from the organization and training of the 77th "Liberty" Division in 1917, to its deployment overseas the following year. In France the draft division initially served with the British before General Pershing attached it to his First Army and it played a crucial role in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. As Gaff reminds us, Whittlesey's unit was neither lost nor a battalion. A newspaper reporter placed this moniker on the unit, thus launching its legendary status.
The Lost Battalion legend spawned numerous publications, a silent film, and recently Hollywood blessed their story with a not so realistic portrayal for cable television.
The strength of Blood in the Argonne lies in Gaff's ability to bring the participants to life. Drawing from personnel papers, memoirs, and official records, the author lets these documents tell the story. The pages are packed with excerpts from these sources, but in some cases they work against the story as they impede the narrative. Most telling is the epilogue where Gaff traces some of the survivors after the war and shows how this harrowing experience pursued them into civilian life. "The war was always with these old soldiers, shadowing their every move," he says (p. 296).
Whittlesey was deeply affected by the events of October 1918 and depression drove him to suicide three years later. Gaff has also gone to great lengths to document each of the doughboys who could accurately call themselves a member of the Lost Battalion. He has located rare photographs of some of the enlisted men and they grace the narrative and have their own section at the end of the book. More of a social and cultural study than a traditional military history, this is a fine contribution to the growing literature on the AEF.
College Park, Maryland