The Lost Battalion was originally written in 1938 and has been re-issued with minor editing in 2000. For those readers seeking a companion volume to the 2000 A&E film by the same title, this book is more than a bit disappointing. However, the lost battalion is an interesting journalistic account of the seven companies of the American 77th Infantry Division who found themselves cut off behind German lines for six days during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the First World War. About 550 US soldiers under the command of Major Charles Whittlesey were trapped in a small river valley under constant German fire. As the authors point out, the unit was neither a single battalion nor was it ever "lost," merely isolated. By the time that Whittlesey's command was finally relieved, the unit had suffered 65% casualties. Whittlesey himself was awarded the Medal of Honor for his stubborn defense. Yet the main lesson of this tale of combat heroism is that, "the human capacity for endurance, for mere passive defense, exceeds all belief and possibility as long as there be a leader to say, don't give up, we're not licked yet."
The book is divided into chapters that cover each day from 2-8 October 1918, with events arranged chronologically. Edward M. Coffin, a modern-day historian at the University of Wisconsin who arranged for the work to be re-printed, provides a short effortless forward. There are several photographs and a few totally inadequate maps that supplement the text, but only weakly. Unfortunately, Mr. Coffman made little effort to update or augment the original narrative and while the story flows smoothly, a lazy and jingoistic style might annoy after awhile. The authors are comfortable with using non-words like "ploying," or "funk-hole" [i.e. foxhole] and attacks that "corkscrew (the soldiers twirl around while advancing?).
Readers expect a hero may be perplexed by Major Whittlesey. Initially, the Harvard-educated lawyer seems comparable to Joshua Chamberlain, the soldier-scholar who won the Medal of Honor at Little Round Top in 1863. Certainly this book paints Whittlesey as a man devoted to duty, who was the only battalion commander to reach his objective and then refused to be budged off by repeated German counterattacks. While Whittlesey demonstrated determination and obstinacy, his actual command abilities are less certain because there were few decisions for him to make after his initial un-opposed occupation of the objective. Thereafter, Whittlesey's role became rather passive - encouraging resistance and vigilance - but not making any critical decisions. Furthermore, Whittlesey's post-war suicide three years later compared poorly with Chamberlain who went on to live a long, productive post-war life. The author's allude to Whittlesey's post-war guilt, particularly sentiments he expressed that his unit's sacrifices served no useful purpose. If this was so, then why did Whittlesey not retreat before the German ring closed around his unit? Having been ordered not to give up ground without direct orders from the division commander, Whittlesey was content to await rescue, but he demonstrated little initiative or imagination. Certainly Whittlesey 's actions merited a Medal of Honor, but the accusations that the price of two virtually destroyed battalions was hardly worth the moral victory that was achieved bears consideration. Apparently Whittlesey himself doubted the value of this sacrifice. Given the inability of Whittlesey to live with the decisions he made and the losses his unit suffered, it is also possible that Whittlesey was fundamentally un-suited to making the kind of life-or-death decisions required of a combat leader. While some of these questions are addressed in the book, the reader should recognize that important questions about combat ethics and psychology have been given short-shrift in the interest of story-telling.
Certainly one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the perspective provided from the German side. The authors were able to obtain interviews with many of the Germans who fought against the Lost Battalion and their side of the story indicates that desperation was not unique to Whittlesey's intrepid band of doughboys. In fact, the German front was beginning to crumble and they never had sufficient reserves to crush Whittlesey. Indeed, while German attacks were constant, the worst damage to the Lost Battalion was done by friendly artillery fire and hunger. One odd omission in this account is that the author's fail to mention that Corporal Alvin C. York of the 82nd Division won his Medal of Honor in the attempt to relieve the Lost Battalion.
Modern readers should also recognize the subtle anti-military bias, common to America in the 1930s, which pervades these pages. The authors want to honor these men as heroes, but not as soldiers. In trying to put the Lost Battalion incident in perspective, the author's conclude, "that the men of the 77th Division lacked not for courage, intelligence, patriotism or any other fundamental quality, but simply that they were poorly trained and insufficiently experienced. Seen from this angle the ultimate responsibility rests on the Washington authorities who sent such soldiers to a major war, and the lesson is that democracies should not engage in mass wars, for when they seek a universal competence they tend to lose democracy." This pro-isolationist hogwash asserts that despite the heroism of soldiers such as Whittlesey, military effort and preparedness fundamentally threatens and debases democracy. In fact, the lesson of Whittlesey and Alvin C York should be that democracies can produce soldiers every bit as good as totalitarian states, but without the need for militarized cultures. Unfortunately, America's enemies also failed to note our ability to produce heroes such as Whittlesey and York and instead perceived the United States as soft and unwilling to sacrifice. Three years after the Lost Battalion was published, the Axis powers demonstrated what happens to democracies that eschew military preparedness.