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Deadly Battle’s Final Casualty 

By Chris Gibbons
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site

Charles Whittlesey stood along the rails of the large steamship in the late autumn of 1921, and stared vacantly at the Atlantic Ocean below. Haunted by his experiences during World War I, Whittlesey was consumed by guilt, and his terrible memories of the great Meuse-Argonne offensive had left him with a broken spirit. He probably gazed down at the churning water with a macabre sense of relief as he realized that soon he would no longer have to endure the dreaded nightmares that slowly chipped away at his soul.

Charles W Whittlesey WWI Medal of Honor recipientCharles W Whittlesey WWI Medal of Honor recipientThe autumn of 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the deadliest battle every fought by U.S. soldiers: the great Meuse-Argonne Offensive of World War I. More Americans were killed during this battle than in any other in U.S. history, as 26,277 Doughboys lost their lives and another 95,786 were wounded. Over 1.2 million American soldiers took part in the 47 day battle in 1918, and it eventually resulted in forcing an end to World War I.

Major Charles Whittlesey commanded 9 units of the U.S. 77th division. His battalion consisted of 554 men, most of whom were ethnic Irish, Italian, Jewish, and Polish street toughs from New York City, as well as Midwestern farm boys. Whittlesey himself was a Harvard Law School graduate. Because of his social status, one might assume that Whittlesey held himself above these men, but this wasn’t the case. He had the utmost respect and concern for the men he commanded.

On the morning of October 2nd, the battalion advanced deeply into the Argonne forest of eastern France, but unbeknownst to them, the Allied divisions supporting their right and left flanks had stalled, and they were soon cut-off and surrounded. For the next 5 days the Germans relentlessly attacked the small American force and inflicted heavy casualties. The Americans fought back fiercely and refused to yield. Food, water, and ammunition began to run out as the number of dead and wounded piled up. At one point, the men were mistakenly shelled by their own artillery forces. Newspaper reporters picked up on the story, and dubbed them “The Lost Battalion.”

On October 7th, a captured American soldier was released with a note for Whittlesey from the German commander. It read in part: “The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions.” Whittlesey and his second in command, Captain George McMurtry, smiled when they read it because they viewed it as a sign of German desperation. Whittlesey ordered two white panels used to signal Allied planes to be removed lest they be mistaken for white flags. There would be no surrender. Word of the note spread among the men, and some of them yelled, “You Dutch bast****, come and get us!”

Once again German Sturmtruppen (Storm Troopers), some equipped with flame-throwers, attacked the defiant Americans. The battalion was enraged as they viewed these weapons as immoral, and they tore into the attacking Germans, some with only their bare hands. The Germans retreated, but Whittlesey’s men were barely hanging on. Finally, on October 8th, the battalion was rescued by advancing U.S. troops. The relieving soldiers watched in silence as the battered survivors emerged from the forest. “There was nothing to say,” one of them said. “It made your heart lump up in your throat just to look at them.” Of the 554 men who entered the Argonne, only 194 were rescued. The rest were either killed or missing in action. Whittlesey, McMurtry, and 3 others received the Medal of Honor.

The post-war years were difficult for Whittlesey as he was continually troubled by his memories and the decisions he made during the battle. He was a pallbearer in burial ceremonies of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington in 1921, and a friend said that the distraught Whittlesey “thought that the Unknown Soldier might have been one of his own men.” He had recurring nightmares of the screaming wounded, and once had a disturbing dream in which a young soldier’s “cold in death” face touched his own.

On November 26, 1921, Charles Whittlesey had dinner with the captain of the USS Toloa as it traveled from New York to Havana. Shortly after 11pm, he briefly chatted with a few passengers about his experiences during the war. He then excused himself to go to bed. Whittlesey was never seen again. It is assumed that he jumped to his death from the deck of the ship. A search of his room found 9 envelopes containing letters addressed to his family, friends, and the ship’s captain. Whittlesey’s Will stipulated that the original surrender letter from the Germans be given to McMurtry.

The terrible memories would haunt Charles Whittlesey no more. Over 3 years after its conclusion, the great Battle of the Meuse-Argonne had recorded its final casualty.

Chris Gibbon is a volunteer with the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission. This article was originally published in the October 17, 2008 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News