The Fighting Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Forces

By Kingseed, Cole C. | Army, November 2010 | Go to article overview

The Fighting Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Forces


Kingseed, Cole C., Army


In assessing the reasons for the Allied victory during World War I, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) commander GEN John J. (Black Jack) Pershing noted that 'upon the young commanders of platoons, companies and battalions fell the heaviest burden." Deeds of daring, to use Pershing's phrase, were legion during the war, and there were many whose heroic services had been recognized over the course of the war. In his memoirs, however, Pershing mentioned only three soldiers whose battlefield exploits he deemed particularly extraordinary and representative of the fighting spirit of the AEF.

Best typifying the spirit of the rank and file of the AEF were a Reserve officer, a draftee from the mountains of northern Tennessee and a Regular Army man. Of the more than 2 million soldiers who composed the American Expeditionary Forces over the course of the war, Pershing singled out MAJ Charles W. Whittlesey, who refused to surrender the "Lost Battalion" of the 77th Division; CPL Alvin C. York of the 82nd Division, who singlehandedly killed 25 enemy soldiers and captured 132 Germans; and LT Samuel WoocuxU. from the 5th Division, who personally attacked a series of German machine-gun nests near Cunei, France, and killed the crews of each in turn until reduced to the necessity of assaulting the last detachment with a pick, dispatching them all. All three soldiers fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive that began the last week of September 1918 and continued until the armistice on November 11.

Few legends from the Great War have endured as long as the story of the Lost Battalion. In reality, MAJ Charles W. Whittlesey's 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry, 77th Division, was never lost, nor was the Lost Battalion a single battalion. What became known as the Lost Battalion was actually seven companies from two separate infantry battalions and two machine-gun sections from the 306th Machine Gun Battalion. From October 2, 1918, until the surrounded doughboys were relieved a week later, Whittlesey was the senior commissioned officer of the besieged defenders. CPT George G. McMurfry, an old Rough Rider, commanded Whittlesey's sister battalion from the same regiment.

Whittlesey lacked the military presence of a Pershing or a Woodfill. A "slender bespectacled New Englander, a man of manners, a practicing lawyer in New York" is how doughboy historian Laurence Stallings describes him in his book The Doughboys: The Story of the AEF. Not a professional soldier, Whittlesey had earned his commission through one of the Plattsburgh, N. Y., camps designed in the American preparedness movements in 1916. His previous wartime experiences had been unremarkable.

By October 1, 1918, Whittlesey's 1st Battalion positioned itself on the front line within the Argonne Forest, under orders to continue the attack the following morning toward Charlevaux Mill, with McMurtry's 2nd Battalion in direct support. Due to the attrition during the previous week's combat, the fighting strength of the combined battalions was less than 700. To their front was a deep ravine that separated the left flank companies from the main body.

At precisely 0630 hours, Whittlesey plunged forward under cover of an intense artillery bombardment. The assault across the corps front failed immediately, but by early afternoon on October 2, the division commander renewed the attack. Whittlesey somehow discovered a gap in the enemy defense and penetrated the German line to a half-mile. McMurtry's 2nd Battalion was hot on his heels. Casualties, however, had reduced their combined strength to approximately 550 men.

Awaiting reinforcements, Whittlesey assumed direct command of the survivors and relayed his position to battalion headquarters. Alone in the Argonne since his flanking elements had failed to match his advance, Whittlesey established a defensive posture and waited for the inevitable German counterattack. He did not have to wait long.

By midafternoon, the Germans had recovered from their initial surprise and began penetrating Whittlesey's perimeter. …

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