If you have not seen the movie “The Lost Battalion”, you may not know about Charles White Whittlesey. In the movie (short clip below), Whittlesey is played by Ricky Schroder who does a brilliant job acting out the part of Whittlesey. The movie follows a battalion of over 500 men commanded by then Army Major Charles White Whittlesey and trapped behind enemy lines in the Argonne Forest in October 1918 France during the closing weeks of World War I. I highly recommend watching this movie if you have the time and it will be much better to watch after learning a little about Charles White Whittlesey.
A clip from the movie The Lost Battalion showing the advance of the battalion. (graphic)
For Whittlesey’s actions during the time his battalion was cut off from the remainder of his division, Major Whittlesey was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor with the following citation:
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.
Whittlesey was born in Florence, Wisconsin and would later attend Williams College and graduate in 1905, being voted the third brightest man in his class. Whittlesey would go on and pursue a law degree from Harvard Law School, graduating in 1908. A month after the United States entered World War I in 1917, Whittlesey joined the Army and was shipped to France as a Captain. After only a few months, he was promoted to the rank of Major. On October 2, 1918, Whittlesey’s division, the Army’s 77th Division, was ordered to move forward against a heavily fortified German line as part of a massive American attack in the Meuse-Argonne region.
After advancing through a ravine, Whittlesey’s battalion of 554 men found that the units on their flanks were unable to move forward with them and they were in enemy territory alone and cut off from supply lines. The German soldiers fired down at the battalion from bluffs up to 200 feet high and the unit spent five days fighting off waves of German attacks, grenades and flamethrowers. War correspondents would refer to Whittlesey’s battalion the “Lost Battalion” in their reporting.
On October 7, the Germans sent a blindfolded American Prisoner of War with a white flag and a message in English that read:
“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. Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead [the bearer] as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer.”
Although he would later deny it, Whittlesey supposedly told the Germans to “go to hell”. Later that night, the Germans retreated as a relief force for the battalion arrived. In the end, out of the 554 Soldiers in the battalion, 107 had been killed, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded. Only 194 were able to walk out of the ravine.
Whittlesey was battlefield promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. He would later return to the United States and receive one of the first three Medal of Honors awarded during World War I.
In November of 1921, Whittlesey was a pallbearer at the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, along with fellow Medal of Honor recipients Samuel Woodfill and Alvin York. A few days later he booked passage from New York to Havana aboard the SS Toloa, a United Fruit Company ship. On November 26, 1921, the first night out of New York, he dined with the captain and left the smoking room at 11:15 p.m. stating he was retiring for the evening, and it was noted by the captain that he was in good spirits. Whittlesey was never seen again. He was reported missing at 8:00 a.m. the following morning. He is presumed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard, although no one reported seeing him jump and Whittlesey’s body was never recovered. Before leaving New York, he prepared a will leaving his property to his mother. He also left a series of letters in his cabin addressed to relatives and friends. The letters were addressed to his parents, his brothers Elisha and Melzar, his uncle Granville Whittlesey, and to his friends George McMurtry, J. Bayard Pruyn, Robert Forsyth Little and Herman Livingston, Jr. Also in his cabin was found a note to the captain of the Toloa leaving instructions for the disposition of the baggage left in his stateroom. He left the famous German letter asking for surrender to McMurtry.
The chances of Charles White Whittlesey being alive are non-existent. He was born in 1884 and would be 131 years old today. Still, the mystery of what happened to him and the fact that his remains have never been recovered remains a mystery. Charles White Whittlesey is listed on MissingVeterans.com as a missing Veteran, but that may merely be to honor the man who did so much for his country and help others to learn his story.