California State Military Department
The California State Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
 
Californian and First World War
California and the Lost Battalion
 
by
Nathaniel T. Robertson
Regimental Historian, 185 th Armor Regiment
 
 
Many of the participants in "The Lost Battalion" served in organizations in the lineage of the California's 185th Armor Regiment, 160th Infantry Regiment, and that of the 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized). One such Guardsman was Nelson M. Holderman who served in Company L [Santa Ana], 7th California Infantry Regiment during the Mexican Border Service and then in the 160th Infantry Regiment, until his Company was reassigned in total as Company K, 307th Infantry Regiment. The above picture was taken afterward of some of the "The Lost Battalion" survivors.


The Regiment's March to the Great War:

The Regiment's march started with the Mexico Border Service (18 June 1916 - 6 January 1917), when the 1st California Brigade [National Guard], was called into service on 18 June 1916, at their home station, and mustered into service on 28 June 1916, at the Sacramento Fair Grounds. [1st California Brigade: Company B, Signal Corps, Field Hospital Number 1, Ambulance Company Number 1, 1st Battalion of California Field Artillery, 1st Squadron of California Cavalry, 2nd California Infantry, 5th California Infantry, 7th California Infantry.] They were later stationed at Nogales and Yuma, Arizona, tasked to protect the border and Railroads between Nogales and San Diego.

Within a few months, on 26 March 1917, the 1 st California Brigade was called back into Federal service by Presidential Executive Order, moved to the San Diego Fair Grounds, Del Mar, California, and started training for war. On 6 April 1917, Congress declared war on Germany and formed "The National Army" to consist of a 220,000 man regular army, 550,000 man National Guard, and a non-specified number of men in "Other Militia" as needed (volunteers and draftees). By early May the Regiment's Guardsmen had started building and occupying Camp [General Stephen Watts] Kearny, San Diego (today Miramar USMC Air Station) as they assessed and trained volunteers (recruits).
 
During early July 1917, the first draft calls were conducted, and the draftees were ordered to report to specified Army and National Guard units on 5 August 1917. On 18 July 1917, the 40th Division [California National Guard] was organized at Camp Kearny from the Guardsmen and volunteers of the States of California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Nevada. On 5 August 1917, National Guard formations were officially drafted into the National Army, to coincide with the draftees scheduled arrival dates. By November 1917, the Division was at war strength and conducting training; however, like the rest of the army it lacked necessary arms, equipment, and supplies. When new recruits arrived, they drilled in civilian clothes with broom handles for rifles. At the same time, the Division started to receive tasking to provide leaders, soldiers, and equipment to fill the organizations that were deploying to
Europe at an earlier time. By July 1918, the Division had provided well over 6,500 trained leaders and equipped men, artillery pieces, mules, Wagons, and Ford trucks to the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.) fighting in Europe.

On 26 July 1918, the 40th Division left Camp Kearny for Camp Mills, New York, then moved onto France arriving on 24 August 1918. However, unlike the 40th Division's support of those that preceded us to Europe, others provided only a few fillers and less equipment; so when the 40th Division arrived they had just a little over 60% of the required strength for a Combat Division. Within days, A.E.F. would be on the offensive and there was no time to waste for additional troops to arrive. Hence, the 40th Division was redesignated as the 6th Depot Division, and assigned to the First Army working directly behind the front lines providing troops, equipment, and training of replacements. One of the first tasks of the Division was to disperse its Guardsmen to those units who needed them; then to get ready to receive and train arriving replacements. They were successful in keeping the majority of the 40th Division's organizations, units, and sections together when they were assigned to other Divisions.

By 11 November 1918, the 40th Division had processed over 27,000 replacements into the front lines, and ranked seventh among the Combat Divisions of the A.E.F. in casualties. Of the assigned men 2,587 were killed in battle, 11,596 were wounded in action, 70 taken prisoner, and 103 died due to other reasons. Since November 1917, Guardsmen from the 40th Division have served in every Division and major action in the A.E.F.; over 2,100 men assigned to the 154th Brigade, of the 77th Division, included many of those that fought and died with "The Lost Battalion".

Test of the American Expeditionary Forces

"The Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives were planned and executed by American generals and American troops." General John J. Pershing, American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). Since 1914, the Germans had a salient deep into the British and French lines at Saint Mihiel. Marshal Ferdinand Foch (Allies' Commander-in-Chief) ordered General Pershing to drive the Germans from the Saint Mihiel salient and to simultaneously start another offensive in the Meuse-Argonne. The experienced French and British had been fighting since 1914, and long wanted the newly arrived American troops to be used as fillers in their own ranks. They fully expected the untested Doughboys to fail at these missions; thus giving impetus to the Allies' position to integrate the Americans into their formations. To the Allies' surprise, the Saint Mihiel Campaign (9-16 September 1918) was a quick and overwhelming American victory. Every objective was achieved and 16,000 Germans were captured; however, the Doughboys paid a very high casualty rate of over 1,000 men each day of thecampaign.

Within 10 days, the American Army turned over sections of the Saint Meihiel battlefield to the Allies, moved over 40 miles, rearmed and supplied, then started the Meuse-Argonne Campaign with themorning attack of 26 September 1918. The Meuse-Argonne area was one of the most difficult and most heavily fortified along the entire front. To the east was the Meuse River bordered by high wooded hills; to the west was the Argonne forest, which was very hilly and thickly forested. In the center was a dominant fortified hill called "Montfaucon", surrounded by miles of barbed wires, trenches, bunkers, and strong points. The Americans again surprised the Allies, and Marshall Foch by capturing "Montfaucon" in 2-days; after he had predicted that it could not be captured until the "spring of 1919". Due to fatigue, supplies issues, weather, and high level of casualties the Americans began to slowdown a bit. The Germans fought with tenacious resolve, attacking and counter attacking, bringing forces from all other sectors to stop the assault. However, the Americans refused to become permanently bogged-down and continued to press the attack forward.

How "The Lost Battalion" Become "Lost"

Fighting In the Argonne Forest was a fierce and arduous struggle for each yard. Troops often became confused and easily lost due to the mazes of trenches, thick forests, and hilly terrain. On the morning of 2 October 1918, the order was to continue the attack. On the 77th Division's left was the French Army's 38th Corps, and on its right was the 28th Division. The 77th Division's Commanding General ordered his Brigade Commanders to attack abreast with the 154th on the left and the 153rd on the right. The 154th Brigade Commander ordered his Regiments to attack abreast with the 308th Infantry on the left and the 307th on the right.

The 308 th Infantry Regiment's Commander ordered the 1st and 2nd Battalions to attack abreast with 3rd Battalion following. The 307th Infantry Regiment's Commander ordered the 2nd Battalion to attack, the 3rd battalion to follow in sector, and the 1st Battalion was designated a Division reserves located in the 308 th Infantry's sector. From the very onset of the attack through 3 November, the 77th Division's Commanding General [Major General Robert Alexander was continuously telling his Brigade commanders to press the attack, that they were far behind the units on either flank. They in-turn pressured their subordinate commanders to catch-up. (In fact, they were far ahead of everyone else.) By midday on 3 November, the battle bogged downed, and the Armies worked on establishing their front lines.
 
At 1605 hours, on 3 October 1918, near Binarville, France, in the Forest d'Argonne, Major Charles W. Whittlesey, Commander of the 1st Battalion, 308 th Infantry, sent a carrier pigeon to Regimental Headquarters, stressing his situation was "SERIOUS". He had strong German positions on the high-ground on his left, front, and right; the battalion was very low on ammunition and his effective combat strength was only 245 men. The 1st Battalion had successfully (unknowingly) found the weakest point between two German divisions and advanced far ahead of the entire front lines. Later that evening Captain Nelson M. Holderman, Commander of Company K, 307 th Infantry moved forward to Major Whittlesey's Headquarters to coordinate defensive positions and receive a situation report. He was tasked to be his Regiment's liaison and to maintain continuous contact with the lead elements on the 307 th 's left flank. Shortly afterwards Captain George G. McMurtry, a Battalion Commander of the 307 th Infantry arrived at Major Whittlesey's Headquarters. He had heard of the Battalion's success and wanted to learn first hand of the weaknesses in defenses identified while advancing deep into German lines.
While the Commanders talked they realized the tenuous situation, and made immediate plans to withdraw their units to the safety of their own lines. However before they were able to implement the plan, the Germans counter attacked filling the hole in their lines, completely encircling "The Lost Battalion". The "The Lost Battalion" [Companies A, B, C, E, G, H, 308th Infantry; Companies C, D 306th Machine Gun Battalion, and Company K, 307th Infantry] established a hasty strong point. Major Whittlesey assumed command for all encircled troops, Captain McMurtry became the Second-In-Command, and Captain Holderman was tasked to hold the right-rear flank. This was the weakest point in the defenses and most likely avenue of enemy attacks.
 
The "Lost Battalion" heroically fought for days, harassed continuously by machine gun, rifle, trench mortar and grenade fire, running out of food, water, ammunition, suffering high casualties, exposure and starvation, however refusing to surrender. They were even bombarded by friendly artillery. Every rescue attempt failed, until 14:50 hours, on 8 October when relief units fought their way to the battalion. Only 194 men were able to walk out and of them less than 20% were deemed capable for combat.
 
Survivors of the Lost Battalion pictured soon after rescue.
 
Posted 2002


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