October 25, 2018


Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. By Edward G. Lengel. Da Capo. $28.

     Military history is, by definition, a niche interest: only a small subset of general readers will want to know all the ins and outs of long-ago (or even not-so-long-ago) battles, maneuvers, weaponry, strategy and tactics. It is all too easy to forget, as many writers of military history seem to forget, that battles are fought by people, grand campaigns include many thousands of individuals, sweeping movements affect the lives of untold numbers of service members and civilians alike – in short, that military events occur within society as a whole, never in isolation. It is, for example, all too easy to point out, as many historians have, the ways in which World War I remade much of the globe (the geopolitics, we would now say) through the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires. This is certainly true, but it is facile when made as a broad statement, buying into the oft-repeated comment attributed, probably apocryphally but entirely appropriately, to Joseph Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”

     So military historian Edward G. Lengel deserves considerable credit for taking a large and frequently told story, that of the Lost Battalion in the waning days of World War I, and telling it microcosmically rather than macrocosmically – that is, making it into the story of individual people involved in the Lost Battalion and affected thereafter by the experience, some for a few years of postwar life and some for decades. There are four primary characters here: Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Charles Whittlesey, Captain George McMurtry, Sergeant Alvin York, and reporter Damon Runyon. Whittlesey was the Lost Battalion’s leader, McMurtry his second-in-command, and both were from backgrounds now unheard-of in the military: successful Wall Street lawyers who volunteered to fight for a cause and a nation in which they deeply believed and for which they were literally ready to put their lives on the line. A mere six weeks before the November 11, 1918, end of the war, they found themselves leading some 600 men into the Argonne during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which had begun in September. Their regiment moved through a ravine toward a heavily fortified German line, but the rest of their unit, on the battalion’s flanks, was unable to advance, leaving Whittlesey, McMurtry and their men stuck, cut off from their supply lines, and pinned down by German fire from 200-foot-high bluffs overlooking the ravine. Without food or water, the inexperienced men of the Lost Battalion held out against snipers and attacks using hand grenades and flamethrowers, but they did hold out, even after the Germans, on October 7, sent a message asking them to surrender – in far more respectful, even admiring language than can be imagined between enemies nowadays. The Lost Battalion stayed put until that night, when a relief force finally arrived and the Germans retreated. But it was not much of a battalion anymore: fewer than 200 men made it out of the ravine alive.

     This is the bare-bones battle story, the stuff of many military histories and even of popular culture: the tale became a movie as early as 1919. But although Lengel tells the story with alacrity, it is not his primary focus in Never in Finer Company. His interest is in Whittlesey and McMurtry as men, and in the parts played in the Meuse-Argonne campaign by them, the men they led, and by Sergeant York – one of the most-famous and most-decorated U.S. soldiers from World War I – and Runyon, a sports reporter who had been in the right place, at the right time, to cover Pancho Villa’s raids in 1916. Lengel traces the ways in which these men’s lives brought them all to the Meuse-Argonne in 1918, emphasizing just how different the men were: Whittlesey and McMurtry from New York City’s economic and social elite, York from rural Tennessee and a strong religious background that originally led him to claim conscientious-objector status, and Runyon from a life of hard drinking and incessant womanizing. This sort of throwing-together of disparate lives, so common in the military in World War I and for many years afterwards, is unthinkable in the modern age of an all-volunteer U.S. military. But the deep and very different effects that the war had on the four men are little different from the responses to trauma seen in veterans today, except that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was minimized as “shell shock” and given very little treatment, if any, a hundred years ago: when World War I ended, Sigmund Freud still had more than 20 years to live, and theories about the long-term psychological impact of traumatic events were still in their infancy.

     The primary tragic figure in Never in Finer Company is Whittlesey, who never recovered from what he saw when the Lost Battalion was trapped or from the blame some threw at him for not trying to retreat when the men became stuck – even though such a retreat would almost surely have led to the complete annihilation of the battalion by encircling German troops. Whittlesey and McMurtry were both awarded the Medal of Honor for their conduct, but while McMurtry was able to return to Wall Street work, eventually make a fortune, and live until 1958 before dying at age 82, Whittlesey was unable to handle the postwar demands for him to give speeches, attend parades and accept honorary degrees. He said he constantly heard from men he had led, “usually about some sorrow or misfortune,” and simply could not bear much more. In 1921, at the age of 37, he disappeared overboard from a ship sailing from New York to Havana, almost certainly a suicide; his body was never found.

     York and Runyon had much-better-known postwar lives, and in the context of Lengel’s book are actually less-interesting characters, simply because they are more-familiar ones. Still, Lengel really does make an effort to focus, as the book’s subtitle says, on The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion, not on grand concepts such as military strategy, heroism in a cause, or the emergence for the first time of the United States on a world stage that it had previously assiduously avoided, thinking that the Atlantic separated it both geographically and morally from European events. None of Lengel’s skillful exposition and careful scholarship will make Never in Finer Company a book to attract a mass market of readers. But for those already interested in military history and in how the United States came to play so large a role in the world during the 20th century, Lengel’s book offers some very human perspective on matters so much more frequently told from a grand geopolitical point of view.

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