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Charles W. Whittlesey
Whittlesey in uniform, 1918
Born Charles White Whittlesey
(1884-01-20)January 20, 1884
Florence, Wisconsin, U.S.
Disappeared November 26, 1921 (aged 37)
Atlantic Ocean, en route to Havana, Cuba, from New York, New York, U.S.
Status Declared dead in absentia
November 30, 1921(1921-11-30) (aged 37)
Monuments Whittlesey Memorial Marker, Pittsfield Cemetery, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, U.S.
Alma mater Williams College
Harvard University
Occupation Lawyer, military officer
Military career
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1917–1919
Rank US-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant Colonel
Commands held "Lost Battalion," 308th Infantry, 77th Division

World War I


Charles White Whittlesey (born January 20, 1884; disappeared November 26, 1921) was a United States Army Medal of Honor recipient who led the "Lost Battalion" in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive during World War I. On November 26, 1921, he committed suicide by drowning on route to Havana at age 37.[1]

Early life[edit | edit source]

Whittlesey at Williams College

Charles White Whittlesey was born in Florence, Wisconsin, where his father worked as a logger, and he attended school in Green Bay, Wisconsin.[2] He moved with his family in 1894 to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he graduated from Pittsfield High School in the class of 1901. He enrolled at Williams College, where he was a member of St. Anthony Hall,[3] graduating in 1905. He was voted the "third-brightest man" in his class, and because of his aristocratic manner was nicknamed "Count." He earned a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1908. Soon after graduating he formed a law partnership with his Williams classmate J. Bayard Pruyn in New York City. Influenced by his friend and roommate at Williams, Max Eastman, Whittlesey spent several years as a member of the American Socialist Party before resigning his membership in disgust over what he viewed as the movement's increasing extremism.

World War I[edit | edit source]

In May 1917, a month after the American entry into World War I, Whittlesey took a leave from his partnership and joined the United States Army. He shipped for the Western Front as a captain in the 308th Infantry, 77th Division. The 77th Division was known as the "Metropolitan Division," because it was made up largely of New York City men, principally from the polyglot Lower East side. Its members spoke 42 different languages or dialects.

By September 1917 Whittlesey was commissioned a major. On the morning of October 2, 1918, the 77th Division was ordered to move forward against a heavily fortified German line as part of a massive American attack in the Meuse-Argonne region. Whittlesey commanded a mixed battalion of 554 soldiers, who advanced forward through a ravine. Because the units on their flanks failed to make headway, Whittlesey's troops were cut off from their supply lines, pinned down by German fire from the surrounding 200-foot (61 m) high bluffs. The following days were perilous for Whittlesey and his men, as they were without food or water. Some of the men had never thrown a live grenade, but for four days, they resisted snipers and attacks by waves of German troops armed with hand grenades, and in one incident, flame throwers. During this period war correspondents seized on the incident and dubbed the unit the "Lost Battalion".

On October 7, the Germans sent forward a blindfolded American POW carrying a white flag, with a message in English:

The suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in the German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop. A white flag shown by one of your men will tell us that you agree with these conditions. Please treat Private Lowell R. Hollingshead [the bearer] as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you. The German commanding officer.

Whittlesey's alleged reply was "You go to hell!", although he later denied saying it, stating a response wasn't necessary. He ordered white sheets that had been placed as signals for Allied aircraft to drop supplies to be pulled in so they would not be mistaken for surrender signals. That night, a relief force arrived and the Germans retreated. Of the original 554 troops involved in the advance, 107 had been killed, 63 were missing and 190 were wounded. Only 194 were able to walk out of the ravine.

Awards and decorations[edit | edit source]

Whittlesey's awards include:[4][5][6]

Bluebird-colored ribbon with five white stars in the form of an "M".
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
1st Row
Medal of Honor
World War I Victory Medal
with three bronze service stars
Legion of Honor (France)
2nd Row
1914-1918 War Cross with Palm (France)
War Cross (Italy)
Knight Commander of the Order of Prince Danilo I (Montenegro)

Medal of Honor citation[edit | edit source]

Rank and organization: Major, U.S. Army, 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry, 77th Division. Place and date: At Charlevaux, Binarville, Argonne Forest, France; 2–7 October 1918. Entered service at: Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Birth: January 20, 1884; Florence, Wisconsin. General Orders: War Department, General Orders No. 118, December 2, 1918.


Although cut off for five days from the remainder of his division, Major Whittlesey maintained his position, which he had reached under orders received for an advance, and held his command, consisting originally of 46 officers and men of the 308th Infantry and of Company K of the 307th Infantry, together in the face of superior numbers of the enemy during the five days. Major Whittlesey and his command were thus cut off, and no rations or other supplies reached him, in spite of determined efforts which were made by his division. On the 4th day Major Whittlesey received from the enemy a written proposition to surrender, which he treated with contempt, although he was at the time out of rations and had suffered a loss of about 50 percent in killed and wounded of his command and was surrounded by the enemy.

Later life[edit | edit source]

Whittlesey received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel and returned to the United States as a war hero, receiving on December 6, 1918, one of the first three Medals of Honor awarded for valor in the war. (One of the other two went to his second-in-command, George G. McMurtry.) The story of the Lost Battalion was one of the most talked about events of World War I.[7] In 1919, the events were made into a movie. He tried to return to his career, working as a lawyer at the Wall Street firm of White & Case, but found himself in constant demand for speeches, parades, and honorary degrees. The pressure wore on him; he said to a friend: "Not a day goes by but I hear from some of my old outfit, usually about some sorrow or misfortune. I cannot bear it much more."[3]

Speculation on disappearance[edit | edit source]

In November 1921, Whittlesey acted as a pallbearer at the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, along with fellow Medal of Honor recipients Samuel Woodfill and Alvin York. A few days later he booked passage from New York to Havana aboard the SS Toloa, a United Fruit Company ship. On November 26, 1921, the first night out of New York, he dined with the captain and left the smoking room at 11:15 p.m. stating he was retiring for the evening,[8] and it was noted by the captain that he was in good spirits. Whittlesey was never seen again. He is presumed to have jumped overboard; his body was never recovered. Before leaving New York, he prepared a will leaving his property to his mother. He also left a series of letters in his cabin addressed to relatives and friends. The letters were addressed to his parents, his brothers Elisha and Melzar, his uncle Granville Whittlesey, and to his friends George McMurtry, J. Bayard Pruyn, Robert Forsyth Little and Herman Livingston, Jr.[3] Also in his cabin was found a note to the captain of the Toloa leaving instructions for the disposition of the baggage left in his stateroom.[3] He left the German letter asking for surrender to McMurtry.[citation needed]

Monuments and memorials[edit | edit source]

Whittlesey's cenotaph is in a cemetery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It notes that his body was never recovered. In 1948, the Charles White Whittlesey Room was dedicated at New York City's Williams Club.[9]

In popular culture[edit | edit source]

In 2001, U.S. television channel A&E made a television movie called The Lost Battalion based on accounts of the battle. In that portrayal Whittlesey was played by Ricky Schroder.[10]

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Netisha (December 11, 2018). "Aftermath of War: A World War I Hero Lost at Sea: The Death of Charles Whittlesey, 1921". National Archives. https://text-message.blogs.archives.gov/2018/12/11/aftermath-of-war-a-world-war-i-hero-lost-at-sea-the-death-of-charles-whittlesey-1921/. 
  2. "'Lost Battalion' Hero Former Green Bay Boy". December 1, 1921. p. 6. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/6060539/charles_white_whittlesey_18841921/. Retrieved July 31, 2016.  open access publication - free to read
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 "Charles Whittlesey: Commander of the Lost Battalion". The Great War Society. 2000. http://www.worldwar1.com/dbc/whitt.htm. Retrieved 2006-09-07. 
  4. L. Wardlaw Miles (1927). "Citations Awarded to the 308th Infantry". History of the 308th Infantry, 1917-1919. New York: Putnam. http://www.longwood.k12.ny.us/cms/One.aspx?portalId=2549374&pageId=7511407. 
  5. Beautiful War: Studies in Dreadful Fascination by Philip D. Beidler. University of Alabama Press. 2016. p. 109. https://books.google.com/books?id=zO4eDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA109&lpg=PA109&ved=0ahUKEwjpgYW3_YvXAhWJWCYKHYAdAvIQ6AEIPTAF. Retrieved October 25, 2017. 
  6. Picture of Whittlesey's military decorations in the College Archives and Special Collections, Williams College, as seen in the article "Lost Again: Echoes of a WWI Hero's Suicide", The Berkshire Eagle=May 26, 2017. The Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. http://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/lost-again-echoes-of-a-wwi-heros-suicide,508711. Retrieved October 25, 2017. 
  7. "Wings of Valor: The Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest". C. Douglass Turner. http://www.homeofheroes.com/wings/part1/3_lostbattalion.html. Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
  8. Parrish, Melvin M. (August 26, 1980). "Florence Native Commanded Famed Lost Battalion in World War I". Florence Mining News. p. 26. http://www.rootsweb.com/~wifloren/whittlesey.html. Retrieved September 7, 2007. 
  9. "Walter Frankl, Portrait of Colonel Charles White Whittlesey". The Williams Club of New York. 1998. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. https://web.archive.org/web/20070928043819/http://www.williamsclub.org/artlit/index.html. Retrieved 2007-09-07. 
  10. See credits for The Lost Battalion at the Internet Movie Database.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

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