I tracked down The Lost Battalion, a 2001 made for cable movie, on YouTube. The story of the 307th and 308th Battalions of the 77th Infantry Division in World War 1 gets the Saving Private Ryan cinematic treatment. It's not a great film, but a very good one. I remembered seeing part of it on cable years ago. This was before I'd dug into the true history of the unit and its commander, Major Charles W. Whittlesey.
Briefly, nine combined companies of the 77th advanced into the Argonne Forest. The French and American divisions on their flanks fell back, and the enemy surrounded Whittlesey and his men. They fought, isolated and pretty much on their own, for nearly a week.
The focal character of this story is Whittlesey. “Galloping Charlie” got his nickname from his too long legs, which gave him the running gait of a startled ostrich. He was a lawyer by profession, not a soldier. Before the war, he advocated President Woodrow Wilson's mindset of staying out of the war. Eventually, though, the U.S. went Over There. So did Whittlesey.
The movie does a good job recreating the desperate battle. A few well-written lines stand out amongst the almost constant action. At one point, realizing the battalion is surrounded and without much hope of survival, a captain and Whittlesey share this exchange:
“You don't think we should be here, do you?” the captain asks.
“No,” Whittlesey answers.
“Well, given that's the way you feel, why are you here?”
“Life would be a lot simpler if we could choose our duties and our obligations. But we can't. We shouldn't. That's why I'm here.”
I'll get back to that dialogue in a sec.
Whittlesey's stand made a difference in that war. The cost was high. Of the 554 men he led into the Argonne Forest, only 194 walked out. Some folks, mostly Englishmen and Frenchmen, dispute the impact of the battle in the Argonne. The fact remains, though, that the American and French forces repeatedly attacked to relieve the surrounded battalion. And though the 77th did not win the war by themselves, as critics of the movie point out, the Armistice was signed five weeks later.
Coincidence? Uh, no.
Whittlesey left the Argonne, but was a walking casualty. Traumatized by the loss of so many of his men, he committed suicide by jumping off the side of a cruise ship three years after the war. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – known then as Shell Shock – was not only misunderstood, it carried the stigma of cowardice.
What did the sensitive and, ultimately, brittle lawyer suffer every waking hour and every restless night of those last three years? Plenty of living combat vets could tell you. Few can bring themselves to talk about it, though.
Okay, the movie has a script, and the conversation between Whittlesey and his captain might be speculative fiction. The major's answer to the “why are you here” question haunts me, though. The American “doughboys” got a heroes' welcome home. The soldiers who went to Viet Nam – who also did not choose their duties and obligations – were protested and spat on when they got back.
But every man and woman who dons a uniform, no matter what duty or obligation is thrust on them by our nation's leaders, ultimately fights for one thing in the end. They ensure a nation where we can disagree, where we can choose to cheer or jeer, where we can re-elect or roust the folks who send them into battle. We can protest, unlike Tienanmen Square, China, or (fill-in-the-blank) Russia. We can, for the moment, worship as we choose.
To Major Charles White Whittlesey, and to every man and woman who gave the last full measure of devotion to this country, I give my thanks.