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A Talk with Edward Lengel, Author of Never in Finer Company

What is the Lost Battalion, and why is it important?

The name is a little misleading. It wasn’t a single battalion, but an amalgam of three different ones. And it wasn’t ever really “lost.” Still, the Lost Battalion came to symbolize a powerful story of American heroism, and in its own way redefined what it means to be an American. In October 1918, about 900 Doughboys from the U.S. Army’s 77th Division advanced into the German-held Argonne Forest. Enemy forces surrounded and attacked them on all sides for several days. With very little water, and no food or medical supplies, the Americans held out and were eventually relieved. Nobody expected these conscript soldiers to become heroes, but they did, working together to overcome almost impossible odds.

 

Most of the men of the Lost Battalion hailed from New York City. What motivated them to enlist, and what did their families think about their sons going “over there” to fight a war?

The men were all draftees. Most came from greater New York City, and many from the tough streets of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Others were western cowboys, ranchers, and farmers. Many were recent immigrants, some of them not yet naturalized citizens, and some barely spoke English. But they were not reluctant soldiers for all that. Military service offered them, as they thought, an opportunity to prove that they were real Americans who loved their new country—even if they came from the lowest levels of society. Their families shared many of the same hopes.

 

Why did so many of the officers and battalion commanders have so little military experience, and what impact did that have on the way they performed?

The United States had not fought a major war since 1865, and had never fought overseas on a large scale. World War I found the country entirely unprepared, with most young men having little or no experience of military service. American field officers were dedicated and determined to do the best they could for themselves and their men, but they didn’t understand the realities of modern warfare. Sometimes, then, they fell into traps—as happened to the Lost Battalion.

 

Why were some generals hesitant to listen to their officers’ concerns about advancing forward?

General John J. Pershing ordered all of his generals to keep their officers and men constantly on the attack. Only by remaining constantly on the offensive, he believed, could American forces break out of the trench warfare that had stalemated the Western Front for years. Pershing’s generals took him at his word, and would not tolerate any objections from their own officers. Often they simply refused to listen to the truth.

 

Homing pigeons make an appearance in your book, and one in particular played a role in the story of the Lost Battalion. How did a bird help save the Lost Battalion?

Surrounded on all sides, the Lost Battalion could not communicate with the outside world. They had no radio and of course no telephone. Tree cover prevented them from signaling to airplanes. Runners could not break through the enemy lines, although many tried and paid with their lives. Major Charles Whittlesey, commanding the Lost Battalion, had only a handful of messenger pigeons to get word of his plight to the outside—and no way of receiving messages. A couple of days after being surrounded, the Americans came under bombardment from their own artillery. Men were killed and wounded by dozens at a time. By this time, only two pigeons remained, and one of them escaped before the handler could attach a message. The final pigeon, named Cher Ami, carried a message calling for the artillery to stop firing—but shrapnel badly wounded the bird before it could escape. Read the book to discover what happened next!

 

The Lost Battalion went at least three days without food, and you discuss the mental and physical toll such a thing takes on the body. How did the men survive? Were they able to get water?

The only water available was from a spring at the bottom of a ravine behind the surrounded men. Unfortunately, enemy snipers kept it under constant observation. Several men who tried to get water were shot dead. But that didn’t stop them from trying—usually not for themselves, but for their wounded buddies. That, ultimately, was the key to their survival: although they came from different backgrounds and often had not gotten along well together before, the Americans came to depend on each other for everything.

 

Based on your research, how important was the training and/or camaraderie of the soldiers to their survival?

Training didn’t help them much. Nothing could prepare them for what they experienced in the pocket. What did carry them through was the example of their leaders, which inspired the constant and total support they provided to each other.

 

You focus on four men in your book. How did you select them—what drew you to their particular stories?

Three of the four men later received the Medal of Honor. Two, Major Charles Whittlesey and Captain George McMurtry, commanded the Lost Battalion. They were not professional soldiers—Whittlesey was a lawyer and McMurtry a stockbroker—but under the most extreme circumstances they became great leaders. The third man, then-corporal Alvin C. York, was not a member of the Lost Battalion but played a major role in a nearby action that helped save the surrounded men. York is my third cousin and has long been an inspiration to me and my family. The fourth man, journalist Damon Runyon, was an unlikely hero—but his determination to get the true story from the front by listening to the men rather than the generals helped to ensure that the story of the Lost Battalion would be told to America.

 

The Lost Battalion was honored with parades and newspaper attention when it returned home to New York. Why did America hail these veterans so exuberantly?

New York City embraced the Lost Battalion upon its return to the United States in the spring of 1919. Citygoers knew that many of the Doughboys had been born among them, often in poverty, and that they had done New York proud. Many of them had arrived in the United States at Ellis Island beneath the torch of Lady Liberty. The same torch bid them farewell when they went to fight in 1918, and hailed their return home a year later. Even those who had not come from New York were adopted by the city as hometown heroes—and that included Tennessee farm boy Alvin C. York, who took a triumphal tour of New York in the spring of 1919.

 

The survivors of the Lost Battalion struggled mightily upon returning to the U.S. And the commander of the Lost Battalion, after receiving many honors—including serving as honorary pall bearer to the Unknown Soldier—committed suicide several years later. Do you think their experiences of reintegrating into civilian life mirror that of today’s veterans?

Each of the four men featured in Never in Finer Company bore the consequences of their experiences in the Argonne Forest. Returning home was a fight for each one of them. McMurtry, once an easy-going and genial man, came back to the United States with a changed personality that divided him from friends and family. He found meaning in devoting himself to the service of his fellow Lost Battalion survivors. York, who had not wanted to go to war, struggled with searing memories of combat and feelings of guilt about comrades and even enemy soldiers who had perished. He found peace in devoting himself to the service of poor farmers from his native East Tennessee. Even Runyon fought internal battles over what he had experienced on the battlefront, channeling his energy into telling the stories of the Doughboys and ultimately uniting his love for them and New York City in a powerfully symbolic gesture at the end of his life. Whittlesey, who gave himself totally to the service of his men during and after the war, gave until he had nothing left—and his experience at the interment of the Unknown Soldier ultimately led him to take his own life. There are tragic and inspiring aspects to all of their stories—just as there are for all veterans today.