Alamo of the Argonne

Haggard American doughboys listened as a deep German baritone ticked off the roll call, voices echoing through swirling mist. The scheme was intended to stupefy the trapped soldiers: to mesmerize them into thinking they were surrounded when only a few hundred of Major Hunicken’s 254th Regiment were closing the ring. Like a hammer on anvil the cry splintered the silence: “Jetzt alle zusammen!” Instantly the Germans charged, crashing through tangled undergrowth. Above their heads the thunder-throated Minenwerfer guns rained shells on Yankee soldiers in The Pocket. Lead whistled wildly. But American grit held on. When enemy bayonets glinted between branches the beleaguered Americans let loose with every weapon they had. Wounded men crawled to the firing trench; if they could shoot straight that was all their Captain cared about. Within minutes the Germans turned tail and fled. The green soldiers who hadn’t even had a year’s worth fighting on the front had whipped the Boches. Hunicken’s knock-out punch had failed. But the Battle for the Pocket wasn’t finished. The curtain raiser to one of the most gripping dramas ever fought during World War One, the battle had just begun.

On September 25th, 1918, the French and Americans planned a grand assault to capture the northern half of the Argonne Forest. Ever since the war began in 1914 the Germans had held unprecedented control of Argonne and its major town Verdun, a control that hindered Allied advance. Machine-gun nests, barbed wire, mines, trenches and snipers laced the forest’s ten-mile expanse. Every tree bristled with hidden death.

The big push came on September 26th. Black Jack Pershing, the United State’s steely General, ordered that the 1st Battalion, 308 Infantry under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey, was to advance into the Argonne, penetrate German lines and then dig in to await further orders. Whittlesey objected. He pleaded that the General reconsider as he had too few men. But Pershing insisted. And it was because of Pershing’s cold insistance that Whittlesey and his men were trapped for a week in a thickly wooded ravine – with no way of escape – a ravine that would later be both famous and infamous.

After five days of transportation, Whittlesey and his Battalion arrived on the edge of Argonne Forest. The time: 6 a.m. Rain clouds scudded across a bleak sky. Tension electrified the air. It was Whittlesey’s job to attack the Giselher-Stellung, one of the main strongholds in the tight German defense. Nervously his outfit waited as the American barrage opened steady fire on the dark forest. Then, at the half hour mark, the 1st Battalion lurched int0 the dripping forest – and disappeared. By evening, Whittlesey had advanced through vacant enemy lines and as night had fallen, halted in a thickly wooded ravine now known as The Pocket. Above the ravine at the base of limestone cliffs ran an old Roman road. On all sides German lines criss-crossed the Battalion’s advance. As they prepared camp, little did Whittlesey know what would befall them.

October 3rd dawned wet and cold. After a brief consultation with his Captains, Whittlesey commissioned a Captain Holderman and his company to silence a nearby machine gun nest which had discovered their location. The Californian relished the charge. Under massive fire Holderman and his men crawled toward Hill 198, snipping the barbed wire as they went while bullets whizzed and hummed. Charging through the breach they disabled two machine guns before limping back to the ravine and headquarters. They had given the Germans a taste of the famed American grit, an undaunted fighting spirit that earned us our liberty more than 200 years ago; but the price Holderman paid to achieve it was high. More than half his command lay on those blackened slopes, while he himself had been injured. It would seem that the medal for heroic deeds would go to Holderman for such bravery; but it was not to be. The medal was awarded to another – a drapery salesman named Jim Carroll. During the retreat from Hill 198 Carroll’s buddy, Art Fein, collapsed writhing with three bullets in him. Defying Holderman’s orders to leave the wounded, Carroll dashed back through a murderous hail and dragged his friend to safety. It was when the survivors staggared back into camp, that Whittlesey realized his worst fear: they were trapped. Yet he refused to surrender. If they must go down, then they would go down fighting.

Though trapped and in a precarious position, Whittlesey knew that it was vital to hold The Pocket. Despite it’s being in a ravine, it commanded an important stretch of forest land and if the British and French burst through the German strangle-hold, the Allies had a good chance of winning the war. Meanwhile, Whittlesey’s patrol found a way out of the Pocket; a gap in the ravine the Germans had evidently missed. But there was a problem. The only way Whittlesey could retreat swiftly and safely was if he left the wounded behind. There were too many. Their situation was bad; death loomed before them; starvation threatened them; but abandoning his soldiers was not one of them. Whatever happened Whittlesey vowed to stand firm.

October 4th: American Artillery prepared a deadly barrage. Somehow, someway, American Generals discovered the 1st Battalion’s exact location – but mistook them for German snipers. Shells blasted the banks of the Charlevaux River just behind the Pocket. Whittlesey’s men roused themselves from an exhausted stupor, cheering as the shells blossomed on the far bank. At last! They were being rescued! But as the shells rained closer, cheers died into silence. Something was wrong. The shells were falling short -way too short. In a minute more they would be falling right in the Pocket.

Shrapnel spread death and destruction. For the first time since their ordeal began, soldiers panicked. Screams and curses filled the air as men dug deeper foxholes to escape the shelling. Trees snapped. Shrapnel slivers stripped foliage. With their camoflauge torn away, Whittlesey’s men were now visible to hidden German snipers who opened fire on Americans  trying to hide from their own artillery.

That was the last straw. Whittlesey stormed to headquarters, merely a squalid dug-out in a bank, and frantically scrawled out a note:

“At:294.6-276.3

Date: October 4th

To: Delaware 1

We are along road parallel to 276.3 Our own artillery is dropping barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sakes stop it!

Whittlesey”

The message for help was neatly folded and slipped into a tiny metal tube which was then attached to the leg of a carrier pidgeon: Cher Ami. Whittlesey had tried many times before this drastic turn of events to signal for help; he had attempted signaling Allied Airplanes; he’d commissioned runners yet none had reached General Alexander’s Head Quarters; as a last resort he had even used pidgeon courriers but they too had been shot. Now, the fate of the 1st Battalion, 308 Infantry, rested with Cher Ami: the fifth – and last – pidgeon.

At 4 pm on October 7th Cher Ami reached the pidgeon loft at Head Quarters, the metal tube with Whittlesey’s message still attached to his leg. One eye was gone; his breast bone was shattered by a bullet and his left leg was torn off. Yet despite these traumatizing injuries the brave little pidgeon had struggled on, truly earning his name: “Dear Friend”! When the General had read Whittlesey’s note he immediatley began preparing a rescue.

Meanwhile, the plight of the Lost Battalion, grew graver by the minute. None knew that Cher Ami had fullfilled his daring quest, nor that help was on its way. For them there was only the moment: the terror that faced them, and the will to live. It was then that Abe Krotoshinsky, a Jewish immigrant under Whittlesey’s command, volunteerd to take another rescue message to Head Quarters. So it was on the morning of October 7th, Krotoshinsky left with two others. Sometime later two of the soldiers staggared back, grim witnesses of a machine gun havoc. Both belived “Krot” dead. Hope dimmed.

At 4 pm, the same time Cher Ami reached General Alexander’s Head Quarters, Krotoshinksy miraculously reached a Lieutenant Tillman of Company B, 307th. After a brief rest, he himself guided Tillman and a select company of soldiers back along his treacherous route to the Pocket.

While Krotoshinsky was guiding Tillman toward Whittlesey’s encampment, the Germans launched one last attack against the Americans. They sent a demand for surrender, which Whittlesey adamantly refused. Though sick and wounded, Whittlesey’s men were so enflamed by the idea of surrender that they fought as though the gates of Hades were gaping before them. Such savagery sent the Germans reeling. Victory was but a word. Feeling was numb. Under the strain of a harrowing week, endurance finally snapped and they lay where they fell: the living and wounded mingling with the dead. Years after WWI, men would wake screaming in the night, plagued by the haunting memories of their days in the Pocket.

Krotoshinsky and Tillman relieved Whittlesey’s Battalion that very evening. Here at last was something to cheer  about! Rescue, hot food, medical attention. Yet not a sound came from them except the whimpering of the wounded. Of the original 550 troops under Whittlesey’s command, 107 were killed; 63 were reported as missing and another 190 were wounded. They had won – but at a price. Victory tasted bitter-sweet.

After their rescue Whittlesey recieved one of three Medals of Honor for bravery during the war. When he went back to the States he tried returning to his old career as an attorney on Wall Street. But the Battle for the Pocket had become the most talked about event during the war, and people wanted him for speeches and asked him to attend parades. The immense pressure began to toll on him. Whittlesey is quoted as telling a friend: “Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit, usually about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear it much more.” In November of 1921, Whittlesey booked passage on a ship whose destination was New York to Havana. It was the last he seen. Unable to elude the demands of heroism, Whittlesey finally completed his escape from the pocket of a steep ravine in a French forest, when he leaped overboard into the icy blackness of the Atlantic Ocean.

Some say there were rumors circulating accusing Whittlesey of the Lost Battalion’s fate. Others say that he was reckless, which fault caused the battalion to be trapped. But rumors are sad stories of twisted facts, generally born of spite. Whittlesey was a hero, whether he wanted to be one or not. But his greatness wasn’t daring acts of bravery. No. His bravery was humble selflessness; a willingness to stand firm, no matter what it cost him. It is a different kind of strength. And one worthy of wings of valor.

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