From the Silver Screen: The Lost Battalion (1919)

The Lost Battalion

Directed by: Burton L. King
Produced by: Edward A. MacManus
Written by: Charles Logue
Premiered: July 28, 1919

For the first time in the history of the world you are to look upon a motion picture re-enacted by those who live again the historic events for which a grateful nation commended them. There is fact and record behind each incident. Every person, map, letter and document when shown as such is the original. The U.S. Signal Corps collaborated in photographing here and abroad, including the resting place of those who sleep forever where they fell in the place that will be known in history as “The Pocket”. From Major General Alexander, Colonel Whittlesey and Major McMurty to the last private all appear before you without compensation. We honorably proclaim our motives … may we prove worthy.
            ~ Edward A. MacManus

The forward presented above, from Edward A. MacManus, producer of the film, follows the title pages, which opens the silent film “The Lost Battalion.” It is this forward and the date on which this film was produced that initially drew my attention. A Keeper who wishes to view this in preparation for the Call of Cthulhu’s scenario “No Man’s Land,” which I recently reviewed (No Man’s Land: WWI Mythos Action with the Lost Battalion), will find it to be a visual time capsule. For us looking at it 100 years later, it’s a window into time, long past.

Before we get into the film’s synopsis, a brief history of the Lost Battalion is in order. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late September 1918, the U.S. 77th Division 1-308th Infantry unit, one of many in the operation, advanced through the Argonne forest in France. The unit, commanded by Major Charles Whittlesey, pushed ahead of their flanks and found themselves cut off and encircled by German forces. For six days, the 1-308th hunkered down in a ravine famously known as “The Pocket” and endured constant German attacks and friendly artillery fire while being short on everything from ammunition to fresh drinking water. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to get help from other U.S. forces who were unaware of the unit’s plight. Their pleas were finally heard when their last carrier pigeon made it through the German encirclement to U.S. forces. A few days later, the 1-308th survivors were finally rescued. During the siege, the 1-308th suffered staggering losses but never gave up the ground they held.

The film opens with showcasing the officers that commanded the Lost Battalion, Lt. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey, Major George G. McMurtry, and Capt. William J. Cullen; each one raised in rank after the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. It continues with Lt. Arthur F. McKeogh Adjutant to Lt. Col. Whittlesey and Lt. Augustus Kaiser, whose artwork adorns the film’s title card, many drawn in “The Pocket” while under fire. Next is the enlisted men, Pvt. Jack Hershkowitz, Cpl. Philip Cepaglia, Sgt. Herman J. Bergasse, Pvt. J.J. Munson, and Pvt. Abraham Krotoshinisky, each one wearing their Distinguished Service Cross. The last hero in this segment is Cher Ami, the carrier pigeon credited with saving the battalion by getting a message of their struggle out. The inclusion of this segment before the main story was to bolster the film’s authenticity and honors the heroism of the men and pigeon.

The film’s story begins in September 1917 with a muted low, contrast aerial shot of New York City. Many tall buildings come into view, but its iconic skyscrapers are absent and not yet constructed. We get a brief look at the two sides of New York, the wealthy and the poor, before moving on to Camp Upton on Long Island, where the new draftees arrive with suitcases or wrapped packages tied with twine. The newly formed 77th Infantry Division nicknamed the “Statue of Liberty Division,” is a mixture of men from different economic standings and heritage from the surrounding area.

The film follows the stories of many characters throughout. Some characters are named while others are not. One of those characters is “The Kicker,” played by Jack McLean. The term “The Kicker” refers to a person who protests loudly, which most likely derives from the 1910 poem of the same name where the proverb “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” gets popularized. “The Kicker” is a middle-class office clerk for Richard Merwin, a merchant with great wealth and influence. “The Kicker” has been drafted, and his fellow workers are not sorry to see him go. He is full of spunk and ready to show the army a thing or two about how to do things. Within the same office, the merchant’s son, played by Gaston Glass, will also be off to war. His father, Richard Merwin, has used his influence to make life in the army easier for his son. Though his son is content with being treated like any other man. These characters illustrate the wealthier side of New York.

Elsewhere in the lesser economic and less affluent areas of the city, we have a host of unnamed characters. An Asian man in Chinatown takes a potshot at another man of the same heritage with his pistol and misses; the two continue the thousand years long Tong feud. The two men from opposing sides are arrested and conscripted into the army. A young draftee of Jewish descent says goodbye to his family, and a German-American soldier scolds his father for not supporting his choice to go to war. In a more touching and comedic scene, a young man pays a visit to his sweetheart at her boarding house before he heads off to war. These unnamed characters show the diverse backgrounds of the newly formed division.

Our only named character from the slums of the city is “The Burglar,” played by Sydney D’Albrook. “The Burglar” is a wanted man. He has a warrant out for his arrest, and the police are actively looking to bring him in. “The Burglar” eludes his captors and returns to his apartment, where he lives with his mother, played by Blanche Davenport. When he arrives, the young girl from next door, played by Bessie Learn, is there talking to “The Burglar’s” mother. Her brother was drafted, and he has to leave today, but she doesn’t know where he is to tell him the news. “The Burglar” sees an opportunity for volunteers to deliver her brother’s draft card to him. But really, he is going to assume his identity to evade the police and take his place in the army.

Our named and unnamed characters arrive at Camp Upton. Each one is treated the same as they go through training. When it’s visiting day, the wealthy merchant, Richard Merwin, is eager to see what his influence has gotten his son. He arrives to find his son on K.P. duty; his influence is rebuffed. That is not the only surprise this visiting day. The law has tracked down “The Burglar” through his letters to his mother. They arrive to take custody of “The Burglar,” but his army superior prevent it. They know the truth but admire “The Burglar’s” moxie to face danger in France than hide safely in a jail cell.

The film transitions to France with a mixture of establishing shots filmed previously by the U. S. Signal Corps. We next see our characters enjoying letters from home before the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Once the offensive starts, the men of the 77th division are shown in their trench waiting for the order to go over the top. The order is given; rush into no man’s land and fight hand-to-hand once they reach the German trench on the other side.

When the Meuse-Argonne Offensive starts, an animation shows the events of October 2 and how the 1-308th gets encircled. The animation uses actual maps and documents from the event.

The film returns to our character trapped in “The Pocket”. These scenes were shot on location in France in the actual ravine known as “The Pocket.” The very same ground where just a few months earlier these events happened. Along with the actors of the movie, the veterans who we saw at the beginning of the film, survivors of “The Lost Battalion,” return to reenact their heroic deeds for the film.

The men are ordered to dig in but find the ground hard, leading to shallow foxholes. On the second day, the Germans attack from all sides. Many of the soldiers struggle with malfunctioning weapons. A lone soldier using a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) curses its maker. We see the two Asian men from earlier now sharing the same foxhole, both having issues with their Springfield rifles. Capt. McMurty heroically walks upright through the explosions and gunfire giving commands to the men in their foxholes.

By the third day, hunger and thirst start to set in. The men are out of potable water. One brave man dares to crawl to a nearby waterhole. The Germans knowing that the waterhole is a vital resource, have their machine guns trained on that position. They keep it under constant fire. The brave soldier is lucky enough to get a quick drink for himself before he is forced to retreat empty-handed. But when he tries again, he pays with his life.

After losing 24 runners with messages of the battalions’ plight, the last remaining carrier pigeon Cher Ami is sent forth by Major Charles Whittlesey. The pigeon gets passed the Germans and arrives at command shy a foot and an eye. A plane is sent to drop supplies for the besieged battalion. Capt. Cullen makes a desperate attempt to signal the plane. He lies on his back in the open and waves a white flag while under heavy fire. Unfortunately, the supplies drop into German hands.

Under constant fire, the battle rages on. “The Burglar” leaves the safety of his foxhole to aid another soldier who is wounded. Tragically he is struck down himself. He is not alone, as one of the two Asian men from Chinatown is also fatally wounded. Despite being outnumbered and overwhelmed, the men kept up their morale and shouted insults at the enemy. On October 7 at nine p.m., 123 hours since entering “The Pocket,” relief arrives. Fresh American forces push back the Germans and rescued the surviving members of the 1-308th.

For their heroism Private Jack Hershkowitz, Corporal Philip Cepaglia, Sergeant Herman J. Bergasse, Private J.J. Munson, Private J.W. Rosson, Private Abraham Krotoshinisky, and Cher Ami are presented with their Distinguished Service Cross. Later, Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey received the Medal of Honor on the grounds of Boston Commons in Boston, Ma.

The division’s ranks are refilled, and on May 6, 1919, they march in a parade through the streets of New York. Many of the named and unnamed characters’ families and friends wave to the precession of troops as they pass by. The “The Burglar” mother is there, dressed in black, weeping with the young girl from next door.

The movie ends with the unnamed young man returning to his lover, the Jewish soldier to his mother and father, “The Kicker” to the merchant’s office, and the “The Burglar’s” mother mourning her son. The final scene is the rows of burial crosses of the men who didn’t make it out of “The Pocket”.

When the film was completed, it had two pre-release showings. The first one was on July 1, 1919, in Washington, D.C., and a day later in New York. The film debuted July 28, 1919, in Hartford, CT. The film was later re-released by Aywon Film Corp. in 1926. Today The Lost Battalion (1919)  can be found on Youtube, a ripped copy from an AMC broadcast. A more recent movie of the same title starring Rick Schroder as Charles Whittlesey can be found on Amazon. 

From a gaming aspect, if we are to view this film as game prep for the Call of Cthulhu scenario “No Man’s Land,” which I reviewed earlier, we would clearly see the differences between reality and fiction. Early in the scenario, as the player’s characters are gathering to move out into no man’s land, they pass through a small stream. The movie clearly shows the only source of water is closely guarded by German machine guns. Anyone getting close to the water source would have been cut down in a hail of bullets. Next, the men of the 1-308th have little hope of leaving the pocket alive. They are completely surrounded and cannot escape their position. Maybe one or two might make it through but not the numbers the scenario puts forth. The several runners that were dispatched during the siege never returned or reached their destinations.

There are elements from the movie that can be used in your game. The 77th division is made up of a wide variety of nationalities from different economic backgrounds. Players can choose from a wide variety of ethnicities for their characters without it seeming out of place. If the pre-gens are used, one of those characters possesses a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). These were new to the battlefield and not the most reliable, as shown in the film with a little humor. In a captioned scene in the film, a soldier holding his BAR, which he is trying to unjam, says, “The guy who invented this gun ought to be pinched for aiding the enemy.” Lastly, we can use the personalities portrayed in the film in our game. It could be Augustus Kaiser as he busily sketches while under fire or the brave Capt. McMurtry as he strolls from foxhole to foxhole, barking orders and ignoring the passing bullets that wish to end his life.

For me, I like this film for the slices of life it shows. It shows the viewer the mundane and unreported parts of that era. For instance, in the scene with the young lover’s girl, we see the young lady entering her room in the boarding house where she lives. She has a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers in her hand. She places them down on a table next to a vase holding older flowers. After putting her hat on a rack behind her, she returns to the vase, where she plucks out the old flowers and tosses them out the window into the alley without a thought. An act that we wouldn’t do today but appears common and acceptable to do by the film’s depiction. Also, when her suiter comes to call, he is stopped by the landlady, who acts as if she’s the young lady’s mother, scolding the suiter to not stay long. Other scenes stick out as well. The intolerance for Asian men by the police. Both men in the scene are apprehended and considered guilty, even though only one is shown committing a crime. Then there are the scenes in France where the battalion is at the ready in their trench. One would assume that the trench used was one used in the war. If not, the construction would have been like all the others of the time, adding to the realism of the scene. The film also highlights military tactics used, like the tossing of a spool of wire fencing over barbed wire to circumvent it. All of this is visually shown, which history books might not convey.

The film is a snapshot of an era long gone for us roleplayers and lovers of history. It’s a time capsule into the attitudes, lifestyle, and historical retelling of a major event close in time to the event itself. In truth, the depiction of the Lost Battalion was most likely sensationalized, like most Hollywood movies are. Though the film does show a slice of life that might not have been captured in the pages of history. By seeking out contemporary films of the period, the little intricacies that might have been lost to history can be revived and put into use in your games

~Stephen Pennisi

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