Writer’s Note: Among the Medal of Honor recipients I’ve researched so far, while all were grim and tragic, reading through the account of Charles W. Whittlesey tore my heart apart.

Despite the odds of making his mission a success, this Medal of Honor recipient led his men into the Argonne Forest and did his best to save as many of his men as possible in a war where casualties were routinely horrific. But that was a rather difficult feat as the flank unit that was supposed to support them failed, allowing the Germans to surround his battalion. No resources, no proper communication, tons of wounded, plus a devastating friendly fire – the 308th Battalion Commander had lost his men right before his eyes. Couple that with the never-ending publicity upon his return, and it was only a matter of time before his demons finally caught up and took over him.

A Brilliant Lawyer By Profession

Charles White Whittlesey, the eldest of four children, was born in Florence, Wisconsin, in the winter of 1884 into a middle-class family. At age ten, his family moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he’d spend the rest of his childhood and attend school. He was a brilliant young man and was active in student leadership throughout his attendance at Williams College. Whittlesey gained popularity among his peers, earning the nickname “Count” for his aristocratic manner. During these years, he already exhibited exemplary leadership characteristics—a skill that would serve him and his men greatly later in combat. He would go on and earn a law degree at Harvard Law School in 1908 and was set to establish his own firm in partnership with a Williams classmate when America entered World War I in April 1917. A month later, Whittlesey enlisted in the U.S. Army, initially serving as a captain in the 308th Infantry, 77th Division, and was shipped to France.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Something to know about the 77th Division was that Soldiers were mainly from New York City and spoke over 40 languages. Yet, despite the language and cultural barrier, men in the “Metropolitan Division” shared one common denominator: to serve the United States and return home safely, which was more than enough for them to understand and form a brotherhood.

Four months into his deployment, Whittlesey was promoted to major and placed in command of the 1st Battalion of the 308th. Over a year later, he and Captain George McMurtry, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 307th Infantry, were ordered to lead their men into the Argonne Forest as part of a massive coordinated offensive. Both commanders expressed that the task was impossible to execute as 1) the two had under-strength battalions, and 2) the dense forest had been heavily guarded by the Germans for nearly four years, giving the enemy troops a terrain advantage and years to prepare defensive positions. Regardless of their concerns, the regimental commander insisted on advancing, confident that the attack would be successful.

Whittlesey’s unit was a mixed bag comprising men of all three battalions of the 308th Infantry, some men of the 3rd Battalion/307th Infantry, remnants of Companies C and D of the 306th Machine Gun Battalion, three doughboys from Battery D of the 1st Battalion/305th Field Artillery Regiment, and a couple of stragglers from the 2nd Battalion/302nd Ammunition Train. In a time when a battalion totaled about 1200 men, the force commanded by Major Whittlesey was just about 700 men.

It was reported then that Whittlesey responded to the order, saying, “All right, I’ll attack, but whether you’ll hear from me again, I don’t know,” then left to prepare his men for the seemingly impossible assault.

Deep Into The Argonne Forest

On October 2, 1918, nearly 700 men charged out of their trenches and into the narrow, muddy Charlevaux Ravine. After taking out and passing through the initially German lines, Whittlesey and McMurtry led their men deep into the Argonne Forest and reached their objective. That they managed to break through was impressive enough, but this was only the beginning of the bloodiest, most traumatic five days of their lives.