The Story My Uncle Wouldn’t Tell

world war I
U.S. troops embarking for France during World War I. (National Archives)

‘Attacked and starved’: A century-old diary recounts U.S. soldiers trapped behind enemy lines

by Shoshana Akabas

(The Washington Post) – At the top of a ravine in this remote forest sits a stone marker — hidden by shrubbery and easily missed — that reads “LOST BATTALION” with an arrow pointed downward into the gorge.

One hundred years ago, near the end of World War I, my great-great uncle Samuel Marcus spent six days in these dense woods, starved and surrounded by German troops. He was a sergeant in B Company of the 308th Infantry and a member of that Lost Battalion, a group of 554 American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during the massive Meuse-Argonne offensive.

But the name “Lost Battalion” is a misnomer, generated by New York newspapers. The troops’ location was always known. They weren’t “lost” — they were neglected, first by their commanders and then by history.

“Nothing can ever seem hard to me after what I have gone through,” Sam wrote in his journal. Yet the monumental struggle of the Lost Battalion — their deprivation, neglect and heroic sacrifice that changed the outcome of the war — has almost faded from our collective memory.

Before World War I, the U.S. military was 140,000 strong; by the end of the war, the military’s ranks had swelled to 2 million. Seventy percent of the ranks were new draftees: One of them was Sam. He left behind his family and was totally unprepared for what he found when he arrived in France.

My father inherited the diary Sam kept during the war. It’s a faded blue pocket daybook, and the cloth binding it is now held together by a few stitches. Unable to decipher Sam’s tight, loopy handwriting, my father kept it for years in the back of his bureau. Finally, when I was in high school, he asked for my help transcribing it. I was 16 years old and I didn’t know much about my great-great uncle, but it seemed important to my dad, so I agreed.

We spent hours poring over Sam’s faded pencil scribble — locations were the hardest to decipher. I visited the map division at the New York Public Library, trying to find the five-house towns Sam described, with little luck. Not being able to pinpoint the locations made it all seem like a fable, instead of something my great-great uncle lived through.

I understood little about him, but I knew even less about World War I. Perhaps my high school history teachers overlooked it in favor of World War II, a longer conflict with a clearer impact on the American home front and our contemporary society.

But World War I triggered the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and ushered in the modern era. When Sam and the U.S. troops entered the war in early 1917, bloody trench warfare had left the opposing armies at a standstill, and the Allies were praying for something to successfully pierce the German line.

It was the Lost Battalion that ultimately stumbled across the German front, a crucial event in the 47-day Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest military campaign in American history, involving more than one million troops. Fought until the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive claimed 26,000 American lives in just over a month.

Sam was drafted in 1917 at age 26 — the age I am now. He served in the 77th “Liberty” Division and proudly wore the Statue of Liberty insignia on his shoulder tag. In the opening pages of his journal, he described his excitement having his hair “cut off by the machine” for the first time and joked about the quality of the food: “Had stew, etc., but did not eat the ‘etc.’” But the light tone of his early entries wore off as soon as he was shipped over to France in the spring of 1918 after a long, miserable boat trip across the Atlantic.

His meticulous tallies of army base gambling winnings were quickly replaced by an equally pragmatic recounting of daily life-or-death scenarios.

“Two Germans came over bearing a stretcher between them,” Sam wrote in the summer of 1918. “A large Red Cross on their arms and a man on the stretcher covered by a blanket. Our boys open fire, however, and they immediately gave themselves up. They found a machine gun under the blanket, which would have done considerable damage if we had not captured them.” Even what seemed to be the most benign things were not to be trusted.

As they marched through the northern countryside of France, troops had to contend with mustard gas — yellow artillery shells of sulfur mustard that could cover the ground in an oily liquid and incapacitate troops for days.

“One shell burst near our dugout. Drove the gas right in my face,” Sam wrote. “I swallowed some before I could get my mask on. My throat was parched all the time.”

The gas changed everything: tactical strategies, the conventions of war and the trajectory of my uncle’s life. For his battalion and others, the barrage was nonstop.

“We were [showered] this morning by the largest barrage of gas and shell fire that this company has experienced in two years. Sure was [terrible],” he wrote one morning as they moved toward the front. “Many of our platoon were gassed, being foolish enough to take their mask off too soon. I have only two men left in my squad.”

Commanders often came from a higher social class and showed little regard for the welfare of the troops. Internally, the battalions were plagued by poor relations between soldiers and officers, especially as commanders pushed ineffective and deadly full-frontal attacks. Sam didn’t keep his true opinions from the pages of his journal, describing how commanders marched the troops back and forth until their throats were sore from cursing.

“We did nothing but swallow dust and gas fumes all along the road for 5 hours,” Sam wrote. They trekked on with heavy packs full of ammunition and no choice but to follow orders.

The long-term effects of such prolonged gas exposure may not have been known at the time. The short-term effects, however, were painfully clear: “Boiled my feet which were in a bad state after that hike of last night. Actually criminal the way they treated us on that journey. No eats for 24 hours. And then, hike about 15 miles with heavy packs.”

The wavering of his commanders and the impracticality of marching soldiers back and forth without proper sustenance drove Sam crazy. His resilience was rooted in a deep pragmatism that often ran counter to his commanders’ decisions. After a rainy night without proper shelter, he engineered better accommodations for his fellow soldiers by pitching their tent using a young tree as their tent pole.

“Made our quarters more roomy,” he wrote. Then he cut down a large tree and chopped it into four supports for a long table. Despite the heavy rain and notoriously leaky and crowded tents, his squad slept soundly.

My father’s stories about Sam highlight the same pragmatism and resourcefulness. In the art of fishing, using live bait is cheating, but my dad recalled, “Sam wasn’t interested in the art of fishing, he was interested in catching fish.” So they strung dobsonflies on the line and, while he taught my father to fish, he terrified my father with stories about how the big fish fed in the shallows at night.

No matter how often my father asked Sam about his experiences in France, he wouldn’t talk. But his journal tells the whole story: The final push into the German stronghold in the Argonne Forest took place in early October 1918.

The Lost Battalion was the first “over the top” — the first soldiers to clamber over the rim of the defensive trenches, drawing concentrated fire from the enemy. Believing the French troops were supporting on their left flank, they moved well past the rest of the Allied line. But the French troops were delayed, and the Germans were quick to surround Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey’s troops, blocking their escape with barbed wire.

Weak from lack of food and medical supplies, illness and infection were rampant. The first-ever airdrop relief efforts, undertaken by the 50th Aero Squadron, dropped most of the supplies out of reach due to erroneous coordinates from the carrier pigeons, the Lost Battalion’s only method of communication.

Despite their ever-diminishing numbers, the Lost Battalion held strong, creating enough distraction to the German troops for the Allies to break through German lines and force a German retreat. One month later, the Germans surrendered.

But there was a cost to the victory: Out of 554 members of the Lost Battalion, only 194 of them walked out of the Argonne Forest on Oct. 8, 1918. One of these was Sam.

“We cut our way through wire entanglements, fought machine gun nests, laid in holes, hastily dug, wet, cold, hungry, pushed ahead without any relief,” Sam wrote, “being encircled by the Germans and attacked and starved for 6 days when at last we were rescued, a sorry lot of men.”

The road to recovery was long — one my uncle never completed. Returning to camp on Oct. 10, 1918, he described convulsions and aches in his limbs. “The pain is awful. However, there are men here who suffer more than I do, so I must not complain.” Yet weeks later he was still in the field hospital, detailing severe symptoms in his journal as a result of the gas exposure: “My feet seemed to have shrunk to half their size and if I scratch my leg enough to make it bleed, why it takes weeks before it heals up.”

The remaining pages of his journal describe five months of disappointment at being added to and removed from sailing lists back to America. Though Sam rarely complained (in the pages of his journal and in real life, I’m told), he felt the injustice of the situation deeply and wrote a letter home concerning this mistreatment.

“Hope some newspaper gets hold of the letter and publishes it,” he wrote in his diary. “France may be good enough for French but [down with] anyone who keeps a man over there one day more than is necessary.”

The bad food that had been a source of humor in his early entries turned into a point of contention, indicative of a broader disregard for lowly soldiers’ welfare: “One had only to look in the second-class cabin to see the officers eating the finest of dishes, pastry and ice cream, and we were eating slime not fit for pigs. It does not seem fair, but so it has been all along. We who have done the fighting … just being tolerated, it seems to me, and those at home getting all the gravy. But I guess they do not know how things are over here.”

Sam finally arrived home months after the war ended. “I’ll never turn my back on the Statue of Liberty again,” he wrote. “States are good enough for me.”

He opened a leather shop in Upstate New York and built a cabin on Great Sacandaga Lake to fill with all his great nieces and nephews, including my father, who inherited Sam’s diary.

My father likes to recount how Sam returned from fishing trips with a bucket of live catch. He’d pull a fish out by the tail, lay it on a wooden board, and whack the fish’s head with the handle of a leather knife he kept in his belt. Then he flipped the knife and cut back the layers of scale, flesh and muscle around the fish’s heart to show my father that, through all the trauma, it was still beating in a steady rhythm.

“I have not written all things that came to my mind, and I am sorry now that I did not do so,” Sam wrote in the final pages of his journal. “Yet, it is better so, for it would not be fit for the eyes of others if I would express my true feeling about how we were treated over in France.” So he closed the wartime chapter of his life, never to reopen it.

Standing where Sam stood — and almost died — one hundred years ago is the most alive he has ever been for me. Without a place for them to inhabit in my imagination, the dead are frozen in sepia-toned images. But here, in this forest, I can see the steepness of the ravines that trapped the soldiers, the density of the forest that protected them, the calm of the spring where my uncle found water. The terrain is a monster, the bees hum, the dragonflies glide over the water. The place is real, and so were the people.

Eleven miles northwest of the site of the Lost Battalion, in the largest American cemetery in Europe — filled with fallen soldiers from the Meuse-Argonne Offensive — members of B Company are buried among 14,246 fellow soldiers in the longest stretch of graves with religious markings you’ve ever seen.

The Lost Battalion is one with few descendants. So many young men were killed before having children. Preserving a collective history is a challenge made even more difficult and urgent by the lack of surviving generations. Sam had no children, and to this day my father and I are the only two people who have read his diary.

I spent hours in the woods and even longer in the cemetery without seeing a single person. Few may be left to visit these graves.

These young men gave their lives and their futures — descendants they never had — in a military offensive that, though it reshaped our world, has nevertheless been largely forgotten. These graves are a testament to the bravery and sacrifice that my uncle’s words resurrect. n (The Washington Post)