On Armistice Day, C-SPAN-3 dedicated their whole schedule to WWI. Part of this was a live showing, with commentary as we watched, of the groundbreaking 1919 silent movie, The Lost Battalion. The movie had real survivors in the cast and until this film, Americans hadn’t seen warfare depicted in such a harsh fashion. The Smithsonian loaned C-SPAN the movie for this viewing.
Scenes in the movie include actual Signal Corps footage and hand-to-hand combat. This was new and the historian commenting on the film described it as the ‘Saving Pvt. Ryan’ of its day. The silent film expert, Anjuli Singh, talked about how big budget and rare it was to be filmed, in part, on the battlefield in France where the unit had gotten cut off and surrounded.
I was particularly moved by the inclusion of two Medal of Honor winners from the battle; the commanders, Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey and Maj. George McMurtry. (Other Medal of Honor winners are in the film as well). I was struck by their presence because the commentators - especially, historian Edward Lengel, who has a book called, Never In Finer Company: The Men of The Great War’s Lost Battalion - did a great job explaining who they were.
They were a couple of blue bloods. One a Wall Street broker and the other a successful N.Y. lawyer. Yet, they took command when the battalion was cut off, without food and water, and shelled by their own side. They helped the men hold on until relief arrived.
But the commanders were never the same. The title of Lengel’s book comes from a phrase Whittlesey told McMurtry. In 1921, Whittlesey attended the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier ceremony. He told McMurtry he shouldn’t have come because he could hear the cries of his men. He watched this very film one night. Then the next morning, he boarded a ship for Cuba and when it got away from the shore, stepped over the side. It was more than he could take.
The film itself was groundbreaking though it was shown in limited release at first and then re-released in 1926. Until WWI, the concept of sending troops to overseas was more or less a strange concept. There’d been the Spanish-American War a few years earlier, but that was nothing on the scale of WWI. And the cultural upheaval of throwing immigrants, and different economic classes in together, was totally new. I thought the commentators did a great job of explaining the cultural norms of the time.
This was a good movie and really, for its time, quite the feat. And kudos to C-SPAN who had the grandson of Alvin York on preceding show to talk about his grandfather. York was involved in the same push as The Lost Battalion. It is where he won his Medal Of Honor. And if you don’t know anything of York personally, well, do a little reading. He passed up riches to help people after the war. And what he did earn, he gave to those charitable efforts. The one thing C-SPAN viewers came away with today was how much the participants detested this war.
If you’re into silent movies, The Lost Battalion is a nice piece of cinema history. I’m sure C-SPAN will re-broadcast this viewing. But do yourself a favor and learn a bit about The Great War, on this the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day.