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"
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".
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
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
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.
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