WAR CURIOSITIES #30: Argonne 1918. Beyond the myth of an infernal struggle (2 of 2).


War curiosities: Argonne 1918. Beyond the myth of an infernal struggle (1 of 2).


Whittlesey, like other officers in his unit, carries a Colt M1911. This pistol is a semi-automatic weapon chambered for the powerful .45 ACP cartridge fed from a stout 7-round detachable box magazine. With the enemy lurking everywhere, the commander himself silently blesses the weapons’ designer John M. Browning, who since the early twentieth century began to build a reliable and durable pistol, nothing to do with the old Colt M1892 revolver, whose deficiencies were manifested in the struggle beyond the seas between the United States and the Philippines. The M1911 is another matter. It’s a reliable pistol, with full guarantees for its user, because in this type of war that sometimes gets hand-to-hand, a failure can be fatal.

The M1911 that he caresses, checks and cleans to make time until the next attack from the Germans, is the weapon ‘adopted’ by the United States Army in March of 1911. This pistol was designed as “Automatic Pistol, Caliber .45, Model of 1911”. The Colt’s journey has been tortuous, but firm, until it becomes the weapon whose design holds the longings for survival of both Whittlesey himself and the officers and NCOs accompanying him.


Colt M1911 ad from Munsey's Magazine.


The buzz of the battle is approaching. A new German attack is inevitable. After checking the magazine is full, he inserts it into the Colt and leaves it mounted. Takes a deep breath and waits. Strongly clamped in his hand, the Colt’s double safety ensures that there are no accidental shots among those who go with him. There are too many trembling hands. It is no wonder. The German’s footsteps are already being heard. They approach through the forest like ghostly shadows.

In this new defensive action led by Commander Whittlesey himself, he decides to act by surprise. He will let the enemy get close to his shooting range, about 40 - 50 meters away. Once the German troops enter in their gunsight, all his men will shoot in unison to unleash a firestorm on the attackers. Rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and pistols are ready.

The Germans go beyond the imaginary line that delimits the field of death! The fire at will command is heard! Like many others, Whittlesey’s Colt M1911 begins to spit lead without granting any concession to an enemy caught by surprise. The grayish lines formed by the Germans begin to blur. There are bodies that fall flat on their faces pierced by bullets. Others choose to throw themselves on the ground to guarantee a minimal opportunity to get out of there alive. The sound of the detonations is deafening. The commander pulls the trigger again and again to bring down approaching silhouettes with the bayonet fixed on their rifles. Magazines emptied at a frenetic pace. The cartridges are depleting dangerously, but the enemy, tenacious, does not even appear to retreat. They also fire their weapons and throw grenades to try to penetrate in the perimeter set by the Americans. The latter, realising to get closer of an overcome, encourage one another as they prepare for hand-to-hand combat.


Colt M1911.


Bayonets, shovels and other blunt instruments are added to the pistols, like the Colt M1911 that Whittlesey handles skilfully, to engage in a primitive and inhuman struggle. Bladed weapons tear the flesh, penetrate it or ground it. On the other hand, the M1911 of the officers and non-commissioned officers shoot point-blank against an enemy that is literally all over them. Thanks to the stopping power of the caliber .45 ACP that is used in the pistols of the North Americans, the shots that hit the German soldiers are able to almost stop them in their tracks. As time passes, the fray fades, loses intensity and the Germans, once again, must undertake the retreat, because their attack has been unsuccessful.

Whittlesey, like other carriers of the Colt M1911, crouches in his shooter position to catch his breath after the slaughter. Soon he realizes that his ammunition is low, also his men’s. The supply lines are cut off and, given the circumstances, there is no expectation of receiving help. From now on, each shot will have to be rationed in cold blood. Luckily, the weapon that the commander manages is reliable, it seems to resist everything. He sighs in relief when checking the condition of his pistol after the furious combat. Once again, it shows itself before his eyes ready to take action when his owner demands it.


Demonstration of the use of a Colt M1911.


October 3, 1918: the fight continues.


Explosions everywhere. Its brightness is blinding. The fire that emerges from the craters caused by the detonations illuminates the forest and burns everything around it. Several men are thrown out in the air. Some are lucky to die on the spot. Others, less fortunate, fall mortally wounded surrounded by frightful pools of blood. Men who are mutilated, dying, ask for medical help that never seems to arrive. Impossible to save the life of a man in such a situation. Those shells that explode at the top of the treetops, or at half height, launch deadly splinters’ hailstorms. The Americans, stuck to the ground like limpets, have no opportunity to peep above their shooter's wells.


Several soldiers lying on the battlefield.


Those who resist the rain of death in their trenches witness with tear-filled eyes the lethal effects of the German reprimand. Soldiers knelt among the trees, oblivious to everything that surrounds them, pray to God to take them out of that hell. Others sway from side to side in search of a place to cover themselves, but it is in vain, as they soon succumb to the German grenades. Men who a few moments ago were running to somewhere, seconds later disappear in the middle of a reddish cloud. Yes, that diffuse mass that floats in the air was a soldier. There are those who, with their arms pressing hard on the abdomen, try to prevent their intestinal mass from spreading on the floor. Those who look the worst, shattered on the ground, beg for the presence of a priest, a mother or a friend who gives them consolation in their last moments. Death continues with its macabre work for hours ...

With the last hours of daylight comes, again, the empire of tense calm. Attackers and defenders count their losses by dozens.


A winged heroine.


During the first hours of October 4, Whittlesey does not know if his ‘runners’ will have managed to cross the enemy lines in order to transmit the orders to the North American command post. Nor does he know if the carrier pigeons have complied with their risky work. All those sent previously have been killed by the accurate German soldiers. The latter know that, if an animal is able to take off and reach the headquarters, its situation can become complicated from one moment to another. There is no mercy with them either.


Allied soldiers release a carrier pigeon.


Amid the firing and artillery explosions, Whittlesey decides to send a message to the division headquarters, located several kilometers from his position (according to some consulted sources, about 40 kilometers away). Since sending soldiers has been ineffective, the officer takes the decision to use his last carrier pigeon.

Bad luck has vented its rage on the previous ones, as none has managed to take the messages to the rear. Each and every one of them have succumbed shortly after leaving the ground.

Whittlesey puts his drawn eyes on a healthy-looking pigeon and shows it to one of his subordinates. It’s ‘Cher Ami’ (translated from French, ‘dear friend’), a healthy-looking small bird despite the long hours of struggle. A small tube is clutched on one of her legs, where the officer inserts a message. On the paper he has just detailed their position and requests their own artillery to stop punishing them. As a result of the confusion, the Americans believe that their artillery comrades are shooting at them. However, given their desperate situation, it could be the German artillery, which has devastated their sector from the beginning. Just in case, Whittlesey entrusts the risky work to ‘Cher Ami’, in whom he and all his men trust.


Carrier pigeon with the message container fixed on the leg.


As soon as its carer leaves her free to fly, several theories involving ‘Cher Ami’s’ feat begin. There are those who claim that an explosion, just at the time of her release, killed several men who were guarding her and she, miraculously, could take flight despite being wounded and dazed. Others posed the animal was wounded in mid-flight on several occasions. But what is really amazing is that, despite her terrible injuries, ‘Cher Ami’ arrived at the command post of the division and, as expected of her, delivered the message.

There, safe behind her own lines, the person in charge of healing the pigeon discovered that she had wounds of varying degrees. Her chest had been hit by a German bullet, but she was also blinded in one eye, and even one of its legs was barely held in place, hanging by the tendon. How did that animal accomplish its mission despite the severity of its injuries? It is something that still wonders me.


A stuffed carrier pigeon … Could it be ‘Cher Ami’?


The last days of the siege.


The fourth day, as well as the successive days, acquired dramatic shades. The Germans assault the American perimeter again and again. Despite experiencing high losses, they do not give up. They want to defeat a fierce enemy, who does not flirt with the idea of surrender, even though Whittlesey's men lack food and ammunition is scarcely alarming. Even the health personnel, with hardly any material to work with, are forced to remove the dressings and bandages of the dead to cover the wounds of those who still live.

Water. Much needed. Those who go mad for their lack run to the streams that cut through the forest. They do not realize their fatal mistake because, after the first sips, they perish on the shore. German snipers do not waste the opportunity. Only some manage to dodge death by millimetres and return to the positions occupied by their colleagues to illuminate dozens of looks all yearning for something. Fresh water. Water paid with blood, so it has to be rationed with austerity.


German assault troops.


Despite the losses, the high casualties, the lack of provisions and ammunition, plus the constant attacks of the German troops, the Americans hold firm. Aware of the tense situation that their enemies are going through, the Germans decide to send a small delegation to propose the surrender of the units commanded by Whittlesey. The commander, as expected, did not accept the proposal despite the situation in which he and his men were immersed.

Throughout the following days, the American High Command finally realized the critical situation of Whittlesey and his unit. To this end, the sectors surrounding the sack-up were reinforced and, from there, attacks were launched in order to link up with the defensive perimeter where the commander was. That way, perhaps, there could be the possibility of freeing their brothers in arms.

On the other hand, the Germans did not sit idly either. They knew that the time had come to deliver the final blow to the Americans, come what may. To accomplish this, they even managed to assemble units of assault troops, the fearsome ‘Stoßtruppen’ (also called ‘Sturmtruppen’).


Stoßtruppen in action.


The successive battles in the forest reached levels of brutality never seen during the previous days. The use of flamethrowers by the Germans increased the rawness of the fight. Countless tongues of fire licked trees and bodies until they were completely consumed. Vegetation and men were reduced to black, smoking, shapeless masses unable to be recognized by those who, a few moments before, had fought with them.


A ray of hope that led to liberation.


It was almost October 8, 1918 when Commander Whittlesey decided to go all in. Aware that the resistance offered by his men and himself was about to crack, he ordered a messenger to make contact with one of the units that the 77th Infantry Division had deployed around that sector of the Argonne forest.

A single soldier, Abraham Krotoshinsky, of Polish origins emigrated to the United States, was ordered to flee the siege at any cost. I do not want to imagine myself in his skin right now. The pressure he must have felt in those dramatic moments could make the most experienced soldier shiver. He bears a great responsibility ... The responsibility to save all his brothers in arms and the memory of those fallen in combat over the fierce days of fighting against the Germans.


Soldier Abraham Krotoshinsky.


The chapter of his biography that deals with this feat is overwhelming. He had to travel the forest alone, using up courage, agility and intelligence, because the Germans had made a clean sweep on closing the surrounds of the increasingly smaller American contingent. After some sprints and high-tension moments among the vegetation, where he had to play dead to avoid the German patrols, he finally managed to escape from that hell. Thanks to his cleverness and valour, the young soldier managed to contact other units of the 77th Infantry Division. What a joy and relief he must have felt when he met with his compatriots!

On October 8, thanks to Krotoshinsky’s guidance, a large contingent of Americans managed to reach the sack-up, where Whittlesey and his men sighed after the enormous suffering.

In the next days, on the outskirts of Argonne, despite requiring terrible efforts, the rest of divisions, French and North American, managed to move the front line towards the east. The armies of the Kaiser had to retreat and slowly march backwards towards Germany to avoid being sacked-up and destroyed.


A historical legacy.


It could be said that the feat led by Whittlesey and his men was a thorn in the flesh of the Germans deployed in the area of Argonne. Nevertheless, beyond the intense resistance they offered, this historical episode leaves us with many lessons.

My favourite, undoubtedly, are the words of General Robert Alexander, written in 1919, referring to what happened in the Argonne forest:

“These organizations, or detachments therefrom, comprised the approximate force of 550 men under command of Major Charles W. Whittlesey, which was cut off from the remainder of the 77th Division and surrounded by a superior number of the enemy near Charlevaux, in the Forest d'Argonne, from the morning of October 3, 1918, to the night of October 7, 1918.

Without food for more than one hundred hours, harassed continuously by machine gun, rifle, trench mortar and grenade fire, Major Whittlesey's command, with undaunted spirit and magnificent courage, successfully met and repulsed daily violent attacks by the enemy. They held the position which had been reached by supreme efforts, under orders received for an advance, until communication was re-established with friendly troops.

When relief finally came, approximately 194 officers and men – officers, non-commissioned officers and troops – were able to walk out of the position. Officers and men killed numbered 107 – does not mention the number of wounded, missing and prisoners, but we can get the hair-raising figure by process of elimination.

On the fourth day a written proposition to surrender received from the Germans was treated with the contempt which it deserved – it is understood that he refused it.

The officers and men of these organizations during these five days of isolation continually gave unquestionable proof of extraordinary heroism and demonstrated the high standard and ideals of the United States Army.”


After reflecting upon the General’s words, I would like to mention some curiosities about the 77th Infantry Division and Major Whittlesey himself.


Emblem of the 77th Infantry Division.


This division received the nickname of ‘Metropolitan’, because of where most of the men hailed from (New York). An agglomeration of soldiers of different ethnic origins. Sources consulted assure that the men of this division spoke, besides English, more than 40 different languages or dialects. Keep in mind that the United States, and especially New York, were recipients of large migratory flows before the First World War.

Something that made this division special was its varied human composition, but within the disparity of origins, they shared a common characteristic. The great majority were not military professionals, they were recruits, and in fact it was the first North American division to be formed by recruits.

Why is the contingent led by Whittlesey called the ‘Lost Battalion’? Perhaps it is because of the number of members of the unit itself, about 550 men, more or less the corresponding to an American battalion of the time (of course without counting all their actual strength or support units). But this understanding is totally wrong. If the reader has been paying attention to the most technical data of this article, you will have been able to distinguish that Whittlesey commanded between eight and nine companies. That is, on paper, a superior force to what makes up a battalion, which could be the case of a regiment (integrated by up to three battalions, each of them with up to three companies).


American soldiers occupy a German trench.


Why was it called ‘lost’? Some text written by veterans of the battle never admitted that qualification, because they assure they knew at all times the place where they were fighting against the Germans. At least, a bit of humour remained in some of the survivors of that carnage.

What happened to their commander? After his actions in the forest of Argonne he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. On October 29 he was moved away from the front line and returned to the United States; just a few days later, on November 11, the Great War would end. On December 5 of the same year, he received the Medal of Honor from the US Army (as well as other men who participated in the siege of Argonne), the highest recognition given by the aforementioned military institution. Afterwards, he began a tortuous existence that, despite returning to his activity as an attorney in 1919, led him to experiment with the pain suffered by him and his men in Argonne. He helped at the New York Red Cross because of his values and principles, full of humility and a strong sense of duty towards the most needy.


Whittlesey receives a decoration.


A couple of years later, at the end of November 1921, he boarded a ship and began a journey in which, before leaving, no one imagined the mysterious outcome. Witnesses say that on November 26, after several hours drinking alcoholic beverages, he jumped overboard. His relatives and closest friends were unaware of his travel intentions, let alone his suicide plans. What took him to end his life? Here there is an extensive debate between historians and history buffs. Did he struggle to readjust to civil life? Could the pressure of becoming a national hero had lead him to a state of deep depression? Could it be the suffering endured and witnessed in that distant Argonne forest that consumed Whittlesey inside? Was the loss of so many subordinates and comrades in arms that led him to suicide? Never, nobody will know what went through his mind. Once again, it is proved that wars, beyond the first line of battle, also wreak havoc on time and distance.

What happened to his Colt M1911? Any reader could be struck by this question when he delves into a historical figure such as Whittlesey. It is known that many officers, at the end of the war, returned to their places of origin with their personal weapons. The great majority of the soldiers did not have such luck, because the corresponding Army claimed the weapons used – although there are always cases of some weapons captured by the enemy or found on the battlefield that decorated, and they still decorate, some other bookshelf. His M1911, like many other officers’ ones, may had returned to the United States with its owner. But maybe not, maybe it stayed on French soil for eternity, buried in some unknown place or in the bottom of one of the many craters caused by bombs.


M1911 (above) and M1911A1 (below) comparison.


What is certain is that the ‘big sister’ of the M1911 pistol returned to Europe to fight in World War II. This time it was under the name of M1911A1, because the model that fought in the Great War was modified in in some aspects to improve its performance. Issues related to the safety, the trigger, the sight and some ergonomic characteristic may be the most visual aspects that can be seen at first sight. In functional terms, the internal parts hardly changed, due to the fact the M1911 had been revealed a reliable weapon during the First World War and, henceforth, would continue to be one of the US Army’s guns ... Not only during the Second World War, but beyond, until the beginning of the decade of the 90s.


One last thought.


It is worth mentioning, at the end of this article/story, that the Germans also showed exceptional courage when it came to maintaining their position in the Argonne forest for so long. The German High Command knew that if that point was lost to the enemy, perhaps the front around Verdun would collapse completely. History has shown that, despite the brutal fight in the Argonne forest, that episode was one of many extreme sacrifices, on both sides, that took place in the final stretch of World War I ... A fight that was dying but, years later, another unparalleled war would once again devastate not only Europe, but the whole world.


Monument to the ‘Lost Battalion’ in the Argonne Forest.


At the present time, in the year 2018, have humans learned any of the lessons that bequeathed us that war called then Great War, the war that was going to end all wars?

Dear reader, now it is your turn to meditate on what happened in that forest of Argonne, and also on what has been discussed about selfless human sacrifice, between comrades, between men who depend on each other when the situation becomes extreme around them.

Nowadays, in 2018 ... Have we learned anything from all those lessons?

Share it if you liked it!


Daniel Ortega del Pozo



PS: for more information about the Colt M1911A1, please visit this page where you will find an incredible replica from the prestigious brand Denixhttps://www.denix.es/en/catalogue/world-war-i-ii-1914-1945/pistols/6316/


An article by our guest blogger: Daniel Ortega del Pozo.

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