Charles White Whittlesey : biography
for others with the same name, see Charles Whittlesey (disambiguation)
Lt. Colonel Charles White Whittlesey (January 20, 1884 – Presumed date of death November 26, 1921) was an American Medal of Honor recipient who is notable for leading the "Lost Battalion" in the Argonne Forest during World War I.
Medal of Honor citation
Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army, 308th Infantry, 77th Division. Place and date: Northeast of Binarville, in the forest of Argonne France, 2 – October 7, 1918. Entered service at: Pittsfield, Mass. Birth. Florence, Wis. G.O. No.: 118, W.D., 1918.
Although cut off for 5 days from the remainder of his division, Maj. Whittlesey maintained his position, which he had reached under orders received for an advance, and held his command, consisting originally of 46 officers and men of the 308th Infantry and of Company K of the 307th Infantry, together in the face of superior numbers of the enemy during the 5 days. Maj. Whittlesey and his command were thus cut off, and no rations or other supplies reached him, in spite of determined efforts which were made by his division. On the 4th day Maj. Whittlesey received from the enemy a written proposition to surrender, which he treated with contempt, although he was at the time out of rations and had suffered a loss of about 50 percent in killed and wounded of his command and was surrounded by the enemy.
Early life and education
Whittlesey was born in Florence, Wisconsin, but moved with his family in 1894 to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he graduated from Pittsfield High School class of 1901. He enrolled at Williams College, where he was a member of St. Anthony Hall, graduating in 1905. He was voted the "third brightest man" in his class, and because of his aristocratic manner was nicknamed "Count." He earned a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1908. Soon after graduating he formed a law partnership with his Williams classmate J. Bayard Pruyn in New York City. Influenced by his friend and roommate at Williams, Max Eastman, Whittlesey spent several years as a member of the American Socialist Party before resigning his membership in disgust over what he viewed as the movement’s increasing extremism.
A month after the United States entered World War I in 1917, Whittlesey took a leave from his partnership and joined the Army. He shipped for France as a captain in the Army’s 77th Division, also known as the "Metropolitan Division," because it was made up largely of New York City men, principally from the polyglot Lower East side. Its members spoke 42 different languages or dialects.
By September 1917 Whittlesey was commissioned a major. On the morning of October 2, 1918, the 77th was ordered to move forward against a heavily fortified German line as part of a massive American attack in the Meuse-Argonne region. Whittlesey commanded a mixed battalion of 554 soldiers, who advanced forward through a ravine. Because the units on their flanks failed to make headway, Whittlesey’s troops were cut off from their supply lines, pinned down by German fire from the surrounding high bluffs. The following days were perilous for Whittlesey and his men, as they were without food or water. Some of the men had never thrown a live grenade, but for four days, they resisted snipers and attacks by waves of German troops armed with hand grenades, and in one incident, flame throwers. During this period war correspondents seized on the incident and dubbed the unit the "Lost Battalion."
On October 7, the Germans sent forward a blindfolded American POW carrying a white flag, with a message in English:
Whittlesey’s alleged reply was "You go to hell!", although he later denied saying it, saying a response wasn’t necessary. He ordered white sheets that had been placed as signals for Allied aircraft to drop supplies to be pulled in so they would not be mistaken for surrender signals. That night, a relief force arrived and the Germans retreated. Of the original 554 troops involved in the advance, 107 had been killed, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded. Only 194 were able to walk out of the ravine.