The Lost Battalion (2001)
 

 

 

Director:  Russell Mulcahy.

Starring:  Rick Schroder (Maj. Charles White Whittlesey), Phil McKee (Capt. George McMurtry), Jamie Harris (Sgt. Gaedeke), Jay Rodan (Lt. Leak), Adam James (II) (Capt. Nelson Holderman, Co. K 307 th), Daniel Caltagirone (Pvt. Phillip Cepheglia), Michael Goldstrom (Pvt. Jacob Rosen), André Vippolis (Pvt. Lipasti), Rhys Miles Thomas (sharpshooter Pvt. Bob Yoder), Arthur Kremer (runner Pvt. Abraham Krotoshinsky), Adam Kotz (Col. Johnson), Justin Scot (Pvt. Omer Richards), Anthony Azizi (Pvt. Nat Henchman), George Calil (Pvt. Lowell R. Hollingshead), Wolf Kahler (Gen. von Sybel), Joachim Paul Assböck (Maj. Henrich Prinz), Michael Brandon (I) (Gen. Robert Alexander), Paul Courtenay Hyu (Pvt. Stanley Chinn), Josh Cohen (Pvt. Isidore Swersky), Tim Matthews (Lt. Schenck), Finbar Lynch (Pvt. Ferguson), Hugh Fraser (I) (Gen. DeCoppet), Ben Andrews (II) (Lt. Harold Goettler), Derek Kueter (Maj. Wanvig).

An American battalion is trapped behind enemy lines in the Argonne Forest of France in October 1918 during the closing weeks of World War I.  A fact-based drama.

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"The following is based on a true story of World War I 1914-1918.  The Americans joined the French and British forces in 1917 to help fight the invading German armies.  They believed they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy." 

Meuse-Argonne Sector, France 1918.  Maj. Charles White Whittlesey walks through a trench making sure his soldiers are squared away.  A corpsman is bringing in a wounded prisoner.  The corpsman is shot down, but the man with his eyes all covered with bandages, fights to make it to the trench.  He makes it to the top of the trench, but there he is shot dead.  His body pitches over onto the wooden floor boards below.  Whittlesey has blood on his face and goes to wash it off.

77th U.S. Division Headquarters.  Whittlesey arrives and Capt. George McMurtry tells him that Gen. Robert Alexander wants to see him immediately.  Alexander is giving his commanders the run down of the coming offensive.  Three divisions will be involved:  2 American and 1 French.  The attack will be along the Argonne sector.  Their job is to clear out the Argonne forest.  Whittlesey's battalion will advance to Charlevaux Mill and then hold it against the enemy.  Whittlesey tells Gen. Alexander that he lost a platoon this morning in the area about which the general is talking.  Alexander says:  "We have to live with acceptable loses."  Whittlesey protests that the men are short on food and ammunition.  They need time to be re-supplied.  The general wonders out loud why is Whittlesey the only one of his commanders who is raising a fuss?  The major replies that he will lead his men into the Argonne, "but I doubt if you'll see me or my men again."  He salutes the general and leaves.  The general refers to Whittlesey as "our New York lawyer". 

The troops are having to use carrier pigeons for communication.  The handler for the battalion fawns over one of his birds, named Cher Ami. 

Capt. McMurtry seeks out a new officer from Texas named Lt. Leak.  He welcomes the lieutenant to the 308.  Leak says there must be some mistake because he was supposed to be in a Texas unit.  He adds that he can't understand what most of these New York City soldiers are saying.  McMurtry responds:  "You don't have to understand them, lieutenant, they have to understand you."  So the lieutenant calls out the names on the roster.  He totally mangles all the last names of the men, who are from the various ethnic groups from New York, but he does get the men on board the truck.  In the truck there is a guy from Montana who some of the soldiers make fun of as a yokel.  Pvt. Lipasti takes it a bit too far and the Montanta fellow gets up ready to fight.  He stops as he gets up because he sees a line of soldiers with bandaged eyes walking with their right hand on the man in front of them so they don't trip. 

When the men get to their new positions in the trenches, Sgt. Gaedeke tells his men not to try to do anything.  The fellow from Montana sticks his head up out of the trench and almost is killed by the Germans.  The sergeant pulls the man down off the wall and tells the rookie:  "Here the turkeys shoot back."

Whittlesey and McMurtry confer.  The major wants to know what the sergeant thinks about the general's orders?  McMurtry says he's a professional soldier and doesn't have to think about that.  Whittlesey scolds him and says hat he wants his captain to be thinking all the time how they can get to Charlevaux Mill without getting the boys killed. 

The next morning the new soldiers are given some pointers by the fellows who have already seen some action.  The day turns into night and McMurtry speaks with Lt. Leak.  He tells him how to lead a charge from the trench.  He wants the lieutenant to go ten yards and then ten more yards, etc.  

The next morning the men are ready to go.  They line both sides of the trenches.  The guys are naturally nervous.  "Fix bayonets!"  Whittlesey blows the whistle and over the top they go.  Some men are killed before they can get out of the trench completely.   The battalion loses quite a few men as they run toward the German trenches.  The Americans reach the German trenches and there is some fighting with the bayonet.  After taking the trenches, the men keep moving forward. 

At headquarters the general wants to know from the colonel, why the men are not going forward?  The colonel says the men are meeting heavy resistance.  The general makes it clear that ground once taken will not be given up to the enemy. 

As the men move forward some are taken out by German snipers.  Then the men run into a machine gun nest.  Soldiers are sent around the flank to get behind the machine gunners.  McMurtry and two soldiers get behind the position and take out most of the Germans with two hand grenades.  Once the position is taken, McMurtry tells Lipasti to run down the hill and tell Lt. Leak to bring up the rest of the men.

German Headquarters, Argonne Forest.  The officers confer about the American troops who Major Prinz describes as reckless and unpredictable.  So the commander says they will have to force the Americans out. 

McMurtry tells Leak to get the men ready for a counter-attack.  Whittlesey speaks with Gen. Alexander on the phone saying that his men need to withdraw and regroup.  The general asks why isn't the battalion attacking?  The major replies that they have no support at all on their flanks.  The general says that's because the others are actually ahead of Whittlesey's unit. He gives the major a direct order to keep going until he achieves his objective.  The colonel tells the general that the French have actually been stopped behind Whittlesey's unit.  But the general knows that already.  He says they need that battalion to clog up the middle of their offensive until they can readjust their flanks. 

Whittlesey goes around collecting the dog tags of the dead and seeing to it that the dead are covered with something.  The men start moving forward.  Coming over a ridge the major looks closely and determines that they have reached the ruins of the mill.  So now they can stop their offensive action.  Some Germans opon up on the Americans, who have to drop down immediately.  The major sends Lipasti running downhill to tell McMurtry to bring up the rest of the men. 

As he runs, Lipasti is tripped up by his buddy Chin who then tries to stab the runner.  They recognize each other and relax.  Lipasti's buddy is under orders to remain hidden so he can radio for help if needed.  After a short cigarette break, Lipasti starts running again. 

October 2.  The French are now withdrawing.  Gen. Alexander says without the French on their flanks, their division will have to withdraw.  The colonel sends out the order to withdraw, but the lines have been cut to Whittlesey.  Now no one at headquarters knows where the battalion is at. 

Lipasti reports that Chin's line has been cut.  So now Whittlesey has to write a note to be send by carrier pigeon. 

At German headquarters the 245th Reserve Hessian Regiment has reported that they still have contact with an American force "of unknown strength" in the Charlevaux Mill area..  And the Americans are digging in.  The commander comments:  "Madness."  He orders Major Prinz to move the infantry reserve to Charlevaux to drive out the Americans.

The carrier pigeon comes into headquarters.  The colonel tells the general that it seems the New York City boys are the only unit that actually attained its objective.  Another officers comments:  "Not bad for a New York lawyer." 

McMurtry tells Whittlesey that their men are short of food and water and have to take ammunition from their dead.   The major tells the captain to send three runners on three different routes down to headquarters just in case the carrier pigeon didn't make it through. 

October 3.  Lipasti runs down to check on Chin, but the man has been killed.  He has to hide because he hears a unit of men coming toward him.  When the unit draws near, Lipasti realizes that they are Americans.  He shouts to the fellows, which shocks them a bit.  The officer in charge, Captain Holderman, wants to know what Lipasti is doing out here?  He explains.  Now Lipasti wants to know why these guys are parading around here like they were looking for a hooker on 14th Street?  The unit got cut off and they are on their own. 

Whittlesey and his men prepare for a German counter-attack.  Major Prinz blows his whistle and the Germans start advancing.  A fierce battle develops.  Some of the Americans are fighting standing up and many of them are shot down.  Someone yells at the men to get down.  Just when things are looking bad for the Americans, the lost unit appears with Lipasti to start a counter-attack against the Germans.  They force the Germans to retreat back to their trenches. 

Whittlesey now thanks Captain Nelson Holderman for arriving just at the right time.  A runner runs down to the local stream to fill canteens.  A German sniper shoots and kill him.  Whittlesey says there will be no one else sent to get water.  The major now sends a full platoon out to see if they can make contact with the French. 

Sgt. Gaedeke and his platoon arrives back at camp.  Whittlesey asks where's the rest of the men?  Gaedeke says they were ambushed.  The others are dead.  And  there are no French soldiers out there.  Cpt. McMurtry tells the major that they are surrounded by German soldiers.  Nevertheless, Whittlesey says their orders are to stay herr, so they will stay and hold this ground. 

Back at headquarters, the talk is about the "lost battalion".  They get a message from the major saying that they have repulsed several German attacks; they are surrounded; but they will hold their ground until they are relieved.

October 4.  The fellow from Montana tells Lipasti that he thinks he can get that German sniper if Lipasti will run downhill from tree to tree.  Lipasti takes off weaving his way downhill.  The sniper moves forward an inch at a time every time he misses the runner.  He gets out far enough and Montana shoots the German in the head.

The German commander says the Americans are fighting hard to try to find the "lost battalion".  This battalion must be destroyed immediately, before the relief soldiers arrives.  Major Prinz agrees, but asks permission to use the special assault unit, the Stosstrupen (stormtroopers).  Permission granted.

Sgt. Gaedeke tells the major that he doesn't think it's worth it to hold this ground.  The major tells him that if they can hold, maybe they can just end this war.  At headquarters the orders are to fire the artillery at certain coordinates, where Maj. Whittlesey is.  The firing starts.  At first the troops in the field are excited because the artillery is reaching the German positions.  But they watch in horror as the explosions come closer and closer to the American lines.  Soon the artillery is killing American soldiers.   Some of the men start retreating down the hill to get out of the way of the falling shells.  The major writes a message and sends it by the carrier pigeon Cher Ami.  Sgt. Gaedeke is blown to pieces by an American artillery explosion.

The carrier pigeon Cher Ami limps back into his cage.  The men are getting killed by the American artillery and Whittlesey has written: "For heaven's sake, stop it!":  The order goes out to cease firing. 

The Germans use the cease fire to attack the American positions.  Major Prinz blows his whistle for the attack.  The Americans wait until the Germans get very close and then open fire.  The men are only yards from each other and the number of deaths is very high on both sides.  The American major gets cut with a bayonet to his leg.  The captain is hit by a large piece of shrapnel in the back of his shoulder.  They decide to leave the shrapnel piece right where it is for now. 

The German commander is baffled as to how the Americans can still be holding on?  Once again, he urges his major to finish this group of troublesome troops. 

Maj. Whittlesey walks around the camp.  A dying soldier asks him to read him something from his Bible, but the soldier's Bible is so full of blood that the pages can't be read.  So the major remembers a passage from the Bible and recites it, as the young man slowly dies. 

Lt. Leak has been captured and is now at German headquarters.  Major Prinz talks with him.  Leak won't eat, drink or smoke with the major.  The major wants to know why the Americans refuse to surrender?  Leak tells him his men are different.  What the major is up against is a bunch of Mic, Polack, Dago and Jewboy gangsters from New York City and they will never surrender. 

October 5.  Planes are sent out to try and find the "lost battalion".  The American soldiers start whooping and hollering as the plane passes over them.  The pilot spots the men.  He marks down on a map where they are located.  Once Major Prinz knows that the pilots has found his target, he tells his men to fire at the plane to bring her down. The pilot is hit, but still makes it back to headquarters.  He dies just as his plane comes in.  The men at the airstrip find the map with the location marked on it. 

Lipasti finally makes friends with the kid from Montana.

Major Prinz talks with one of the American soldiers and asks him to take a message from him to the fellow's commander.  The young guy is worried that this will make him some kind of a spy.  The major laughs and says the American soldiers are very brave.  He adds:  "I want to save lives."  The American agrees to take the message. 

October 6.  The American message taker is escorted by a German soldier holding a white flag.  The German delivers the man and then leaves.  Maj. Whittlesey receives the message from Prinz.  Prinz asks that the Americans surrender because further fighting is hopeless for the Americans.  Whittlesey answers the message by grabbing the white flag staff, running forward and then hurtling it back toward the German lines.  Major Prinz sees this through his binoculars and gets the message.

Captain McMurtry tells the major that they lost 60 men to American fire today.  Now they only have about 200 men fit to fight.  Whittlesey comments:  ". . . we will never in our lives enjoy the company of finer soldiers or better men than we do tonight."  The captain says he has never served under a better officer than Major Whittlesey and the major thanks the captain for telling him this. 

October 7.  German troops with flame throwers start killing Americans.  The men start trying to shoot the operators of the flame throwers.  Lipasti finds his Montana friend dead.  Again the men are just yards from each other.  Some American soldiers grab the flame throwers from their operators and start burning up German soldiers.  Suddenly, Prinz sees his forces being pushed back.  He says of the Americans:  "Gangsters!"

The American survivors walk slowly around.  They stare at each other as if they are shocked that anyone is left alive.  Just then the relief column arrives.  They help with the dead and the wounded.  Gen. Alexander arrives later with the colonel.  Whittlesey reproaches the general for saying the French were on their flank.  The general pulls the major away from the others to tell him that the losses are acceptable to him.  He says that the "lost battalion" did an incredible job up here. 

Conversation ended, the major turns to his men to tell them they are now moving out.  The men line up and walk together to get on the trucks brought up to bring them back to headquarters. 

"Major Whittlesey, Captain Holderman and Captain McMurtry were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Private Krotoshinsky received the Distinguished Service Cross.  Cher Ami, the wounded carrier pigeon, who carried the message to stop the American artillery that was falling on Whittlesey's men, today has a place of honor at the Smithsonian Institution.  Whittlesey's stubborn defense deep in the German lines combined with the fierce American offense helped break through the German defenses.  Whittlesey led more than 500 men into the Argonne Forest.  Less than 200 men followed him out after their five day siege.  The Great War ended five weeks later." 

 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

The Battle of Argonne

 

Sept 12, 1918 – 3200 guns announced the first American made campaign of the war. The target was the German held salient of St. Mihiel. Warned by the build-up, the Germans start a withdrawal but at a pace too leisurely and a start too late.

15,000 German troops will be caught by the Yanks. This was the first US army in action by itself.

St. Mihiel was a German stronghold unchallenged for three years, but is now overrun in a few hours. 200 square miles of French soil are retrieved. The victory is only an overture for the last great battle of the war, the costliest and one of the most controversial battles ever fought by the US army: the battle of the Argonne.

Just northwest of St. Mihiel is Verdun on the Meuse River. The Argonne Forest is west and northwest of Verdun. North along the Meuse River is Sedan on an important rail line from Mezieres to Sedan to Metz.

After 15 months in Europe Pershing finally has what he wanted: an American army in the field with one victory under its belt: St. Mihiel. But his own battle to keep the force together still goes on in the staff meetings. French commander Foch insisted that American troops be assigned to French and British armies. But Pershing insisted that the Americans fight under their own command.

Pershing got his wish, but he had to compromise in the use of his army. Instead of driving on from liberated St. Mihiel into Germany, he had to choose another route more in line with the overall Allied plan. So he decides to swing his army around and head between the Argonne Forest on the west and the Meuse River on the east. He has chosen one of the deadliest corridors on the Western front. It is part of the old Verdun sector ravaged in the 1916 and 1917 battles – the burial ground of whole French and German armies.

Across from this front the Germans are dug in. They have constructed a combination of rest camp and defense system, 10 to 15 miles deep built into ridges that seem immune to any challenge. This is the perch of Germany’s youngest general, Frederich Wilhelm, the son and heir of the Kaiser.

Converging on this sector are the Americans. Among them are some men who will become very well known: Col. George S. Patton, age 32, just baptized by fire as a tank commander at St. Mihiel; two young Marine officers, future commandants of the Marine Corps, Thomas Holcombe and Clifton Cates; Capt. Harry S. Truman, age 34, commanding a battery of field artillery; and Col. George C. Marshall, age 37, who will eventually serve as Chief of Staff under President Truman.

Marshall has the job of organizing the whole vast complex of movements of these 600,000 men and all the supplies. There are only three narrow routes into the area and these roads soon clog with all the supplies and men. And the weather starts to turn cold.

Nine divisions are packed in along 22 miles of front. It will prove to be a cumbersome machine on the march, a target hard for enemy artillery to miss.

Sept. 26, 1918 – the battle of the Argonne begins. Airplanes bomb the German positions. On the right and center of the line, the Americans make an uphill charge in the open. The first objective are the heights, the anchor of the enemy’s front. Pinned down at first, the Americans capture the height in two days.

On the left, two divisions attack the Argonne Forest, a fortress camouflaged by nature,12 miles deep and half that wide. And every yard of ground taken will be agony.

The British open a new drive in the north, suddenly turning the flank of the Siegfried Line. The two drives hope to converge, thereby sealing off the whole German army.

German G. H.Q. in Hotel Britannic in the old resort town of Spa, Belgium. Ludendorf surveys the darkening picture and collapses in a fit of panicky rage. In a conference with the Kaiser and Hindenburg, he urges negotiations for an armistice and then pulls himself together to make peace on the best possible terms. The Argonne Forest is reinforced.

In this battle, the Yanks become involved in stalemate and attrition, a familiar story to the British and French. The casualties are appalling and 11,000 a week are struck down by pneumonia and flu.

The first enthusiasm has passed. The American spring had passed with winter on-coming.

There was a near demotion for Pershing, as he had taken on too many jobs. The result was chaos, with signals missed and signals crossed. The oversized army has difficulty with its communications among it many units. Whole battalions veer off the line and end up with the wrong division.

The offensive stalls ten miles into the German defense system, and to the British at least, it looks like the American show is turning into a fatal flop. The rations are bogged down behind the lines. Pershing is warned that Washington may appoint a man take charge of the supply problem. But Pershing beats them to the punch. He appoints General James G. Harvard to take over the supply part of the army.

Mid-October – the Allies pause and the supply problem gradually straightens out.

When the supply trains start moving again, the Germans zero in on the long supply line. The German have had time to plot out every sector of the area and now use their artillery to damage the enemy’s supply lines further.

Elsewhere, the German army is falling back. But here they make a stand.

1918 (Nov 1) – still no sign of German surrender.

Some of the heroes in the battle were: Sgt. Alvin York from Tennessee, who captures a 132 prisoners by himself; Major Charles Whittlesey whose battalion advances too far, too fast and is cut off, his unit becoming known as "the lost battalion", is surrounded for five days, but brings his battalion out at half its strength; and Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

75,000 casualties for the Americans and the Americans would keep falling until the actual Armistice.

 

 

Source: DVD: The Complete Story of World War I. Narrated by Robert Ryan. Volume 3: The Tide of War Turns: The Battle of Argonne. Very good, thorough coverage of the First World War. 

 

 

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