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Mr. Baldwin's Trip to The Pocket


THE LOST BATTALION
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Mr. Baldwin's trip to the Pocket



THE LOST BATTALION

Our trip to the "pocket" below the Charlevaux Road
June 12, 2001

On Tuesday, June 12th , we met our guide, Phillippe Sauvagnac, in the lobby of du Coq Hardi Hotel, in Verdun, France at 9 A.M. The hotel is one-half block from the Meuse River. Phillippe apologized for his abilities with the English language, but, as far as we were concerned, he was an excellent linguist.

He showed us his plan for the day as well as a French version of the chapter on The Lost Battalion recounted in the book " The History of the 308th Infantry" - he had the page opened where it mentions Walter J. Baldwin recalling something "Quarante ans plus tard" - forty years later. Dad was recalling Holderman's bravery in the face of enemy fire.

Our first destination was the American Memorial 26 miles north of Verdun in Montfaucon, 10- 12 miles east of the Argonne. It is a beautiful spot on a hillside. The monument lists on its base all the American Divisions that fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. On the wall inside the base, is a chiseled map pinpointing the areas of the Meuse Argonne battlefield that each division was responsible for. The 77 th was on the extreme left or westernmost sector-farthest away from the Meuse River.

From the base of the monument, looking west, you can clearly see the Argonne Forest rising up from the French countryside. Behind the monument, to the East, are the ruins of the church that was the center of the original village of Montfaucon that was destroyed in the battle of Verdun in 1914.

We then drove north to the American Cemetery at Romagne. Thank goodness for Phillippe. The route was winding with lots of turns in tiny villages. The cemetery is in one of the most beautiful/peaceful spots I have ever experienced. Over 14,500 American soldiers who died in the First World War are buried there, the largest American Cemetery in Europe. It appeared that we were the only visitors at the time. At the Visitors Center, the gentleman quickly produced a list of the men of the 306th 307th and 308th buried there.

They asked if we wished to visit any specific graves and I chose two men who were part of the group in the "pocket":
Btln. Sgt. Maj. Ben Gaedeke - He was standing next to my dad, when dad was helping a wounded man, Sam Feuerlicht of C Company. They came upon Jim Larney and dad "introduced" him to Freuerlicht. Gaedeke said they "ought to get down to the new command post" - after several steps a shell hit right on the spot Gaedeke was standing, killing him. Feuerlicht " sagged from Baldwin's arms, his chest torn out: Larney went down with a chunk of iron in his right elbow, and Baldwin was beside him, tearing a shirt to pieces to try and stop the blood. Together they rolled down the hill and began to scratch at the hard earth, Larney with his one good hand and a bayonet, Baldwin with a trench shovel he had picked up from the side of Paul Andrews, who had valiantly volunteered to get water earlier in the day and valiantly done it, but now lay dead with a piece of American shell in him".

Lt. Marshall G.Peabody - wounded on October 3, when he got "the full burst of a machine gun in one leg just below the knee". He was the most seriously wounded of the officers, yet "led his men with his courage". On October 6th, lying wounded in his funk hole wearing one of the few trench coats available, he was hit by mortar and machine gun fire. Knocked out of his hole by the blast, his body rolled down the hill " right on top of signal man Larney". Larney and Cepeglia and Richards, who were in a hole with him took turns wearing the coat to ward off the cold. At every reunion, Peabody's fiancee, Ms. Anita deGoll, would send a bouquet of flowers which my dad would arrange to have set at a place at one of the tables, in front of an empty chair.

The grave sites are immaculately kept and the setting, as mentioned above, is beautiful. We then visited the chapel which is on the hilltop looking down on the grave sites, with the Visitors Center at the opposite end of the graves. In both the Visitors Center and the chapel, Marilyn - ( my wife ) inscribed on the log "In memory of Battalion Sargent Major Walter J. Baldwin". On the massive outside wall of the chapel is a list of all the men whose bodies were never located below a phrase that includes the words, "dedicated to those men whose final resting place is known only to God"

From Romagne, we then drove southwest through the villages of Epinonville and Charpentier, near Apremont to Varennes-en Argonne, where we had lunch. Varennes-en-Argonne is on the western edge of the Argonne. Those names stiffed memories of dad reciting them.

After our repast in a small hotel's restaurant, we started out on our trip to what Phillippe referred to as "the big show". This was the term the doughboys used to refer to the Meuse-Argonne offensive. We then drove slightly south, then west through the Argonne, passing through tiny villages with signs like Clermont, Mounblainville, Harazee, and Vienne le Chateau, and then, finally Binarville, again, names of villages that sent tingles up my spine.

We drove north along the western edge of the Argonne and stopped in several places that Phillippe indicated were the jump-off points for our guys the morning of October 2. He had never heard of the location, referred to in accounts of the advance as L'Homme Mort. In this area, to the right of the road there were some open meadows between the road and the forest, where cows were now roaming. To the left of the road, Phillippe indicated were the wide open fields that were the responsibility of the French who were to supply support in the advance on our left, or west flank.

There were several spots that Phillippe pointed out as being critical locations where the French were stopped and thwarted in their efforts to move northward and provide that flank support. Again, the terrain was wide open and it must have been difficult to move forward against entrenched troops. The road turned slightly to the right, closer to the forest and suddenly on the right was a pond, perhaps 250-300 feet wide. On the left were a small house and several other buildings on the site of what once was the Charlevaux Mill. Here the road took a dramatic turn to the right around the north side of the pond and we entered the wall of the Argonne Forest - trees and brush beginning at the edge of both sides of the narrow two-lane road. This was the Charlevaux-Apremont Road originally built by the Romans.

My estimate is that we drove perhaps 200-250 yards into the forest and came upon the monument on the right, or south side of the road. The marker, about four feet high indicates with an arrow pointing down the slope, the location of "The Lost Battalion" - the pocket.

These are several of my observations that I feel were significant: Firstly, the severe angle of incline on the slope, perhaps 110-120 degrees in spots. The terrain was densely covered with trees. I was disappointed because I did not feel confident about making it down without tumbling down the slope. The area was densely wooded and littered with fallen, dead limbs and tree trunks. There were spots here and there that sunlight would dapple the ground but mostly the canopy of trees kept the area shaded, beautiful on this clear June day, but cold and damp in October, 1918. Couldn't determine if I could see the ravine at the bottom due to the tree cover.

Secondly, and perhaps more profound, was the observation that in certain spots, on the north ( or German ) side of the road, the ground rose from the side of the road in cliff-like fashion. There were places where the cliff was 8-10 feet high. This must have given them tremendous sight line advantages from these places that appeared to tower over the road, and of course, the positions of the men in the pocket.

Lastly, I do not recall any place where the road was straight for more than 150 feet. These curves or bends in the road created places where the doughboys would have been exposed to not only forward fire from directly across the road, but also fire from the side across the road - some pretty tough spots.

As I mentioned above, I was initially disappointed about not going down the hill. We drove perhaps 200 yards further east to a spot that I guess Phillippe had checked out that presented an open area where the slope was not as severe. We walked down through heavy underbrush, weeds, ferns etc. and were able to look back, westward through the ravine. From this vantage point I could see both sides of the sloping hills rising from the bottom of the ravine. Whittlesey had led his men from the Charlevaux Mill area along the ridge to my left ( sustaining 90 casualties before they ever got to the pocket ). They could look to their left ( right from where I was standing across the ravine and see their objective - the Charlevaux Road. They turned to the left, or north, and proceeded down the southern slope across the Charlevaux Brook and took up positions on the northern slope below the road.

Since the slope became more severe, we went back to the car and drove back to the site of the monument. After some hesitation, Phillippe and I proceeded down the slope. Starting out on the seat of my pants for the first 30-40 feet, I went from branch, to tree trunk, to branch, down the hill of the pocket. On the way down, I saw what had to be the remains of a funk hole, dugout, fox hole; oval shaped, deeper at the top or the higher spot on the hill. Nearer the bottom of the hill the ground cover, bushes, etc. became heavier and then, right ahead of me at the base of the ravine, I saw the waters of the Charlevaux Brook, flowing from east to west, apparently towards the mill pond we had passed earlier. The stream at this point and time was only 3-4 feet across. People who have been there after heavy rains have said that it is much wider and a real morass of mud down there. NOTE: It rained most of the time the men were in the pocket.

I realized that I could be standing at the spot where Phil Cepeglia, and many other brave men went for water for themselves - and their buddies. Some of them died right there in their efforts - they were exposed to fire from all sides. This was the most significant moment for me. The experience made all the planning worthwhile.

Looking up the southern slope, it was difficult to see through the tree cover where the hill stopped, but it was obvious that the Germans , who had come around behind our guys and occupied this slope had a tremendous advantage

in firing into the rear of the position of the 77th . You could get some sense of the trap our guys were in.

Looking up the northern slope gave me a bottom-up view of the steep slope of the hill below the road, and we proceeded to climb up that slope. On the way up, we passed three additional dugouts or fox holes, two on my left, one just up from the other, and one to my right that was canopied by a netting of roots and branches. The last 10- 15 feet of the climb were on my hands and knees. Another look or two up the path of the Charlevaux - Apremont Road and a long look down the hill and we left the monument to the men of " The Lost Battalion " with vivid recollections and a feeling of having fulfilled a life-long dream.
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