James F. Larney was not the only Northern New York native connected to “The Lost Battalion” …
WATERTOWN — The 5-by-7-inch diary, worn, ragged, fading and stained by the mud and rain of World War I battlefields of France, has been lovingly kept by the Larney family for more than 100 years.
But this weekend, its revered words have taken on renewed meaning.
The diary connects the family in a tangible way to its creator — James Francis Larney, of the 308th Infantry Regiment, which formed part of the 77th Infantry Division. It was a unit originally made up of soldiers mainly from New York City with casualties replaced by untrained troops from the Midwest.
This Thanksgiving weekend, the diary has returned to France, in an alliance between the Larney family and a World War I historian and author who is solemnly escorting it through the battlefields where its words were originally set to paper by fountain pen and pencil by a soldier and writer whose life as a state highway engineer and land surveyor was interrupted by World War I, and where he served as an airplane signalman. He resumed his career with the state Department of Public Works upon his return to Watertown from The Great War.
According to Watertown Daily Times files, Mr. Larney, who died in May of 1974 at the age of 82, left Watertown with a contingent for Camp Devens, Mass., on Feb. 23, 1918 and went overseas on April 4, 1918.
Among episodes recorded by Pvt. Larney’s diary was the 308th Infantry’s experiences in “The Lost Battalion,” five days of suffering that became one of the most famous, and epic, events of the war.
“I was pretty blown away when I was talking to Larney’s granddaughter, and the suggestion was made, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if it went back to France?’” said Robert J. Laplander, Waterford, Wis., the world’s leading historian on The Lost Battalion. For more than 25 years, along with his wife Trinie, he has researched and explored the story of the Lost Battalion, the men who formed it, and their commander, Charles W. Whittlesey.
Mr. Laplander is author of the self-published books, “Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WW 1 Epic,” published in 2017 and “The Lost Battalion: As They Saw It,” published in 2020. He was featured in the 2017 PBS “American Experience” program “The Great War” and started researching the story of The Lost Battalion in 1997 after obtaining a copy of “Ours to Hold High: The History of the 77th Division in the World War.”
He was interviewed by the Times last week, before heading to France.
“I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Mr. Laplander said of the agreement to take the diary back to France. “To have a chance to work with the diary in the first place is amazing on its own, but to have the chance to bring it back to where it was ‘born’ is unbelievable. I’m incredibly humbled and honored by this opportunity.”
Mr. Laplander, who has been to France many times and leads tours of the Argonne area and Lost Battalion site with partner Mike Cunha, a First World War podcaster, under Lost Battalion Tours, says this may be the most important trip he’s taken there yet.
“We were there for the 90th anniversary of the event, when we brought over the storyboard that is near the site, and for the 100th anniversary, when we showed current serving soldiers around there, including members of the 77th Sustainment Brigade, which carries on the lineage of the 77th Division,” he said. “All that has been a tremendous honor, which I have been grateful to have been allowed to have been a part of. This, though, is almost like reaching back into the past and shaking hands with Jim.”
A final offensive
The battle of The Lost Battalion was part of the 100 Days Offensive; a series of attacks by the Allied troops near the end of World War I. The offensive began on Aug. 8, 1918 and ended with the Armistice on Nov. 11.
On the morning of Oct. 2, 1918, Pvt. Larney paused to write in his diary:
“Fair autumn day. Warming up ... Left dugouts in the middle of the day and went quite a way through more woods, starting and stopping, ducking and running exposed places until we came to another deep ravine and dug in for the night on the farther side.”
On the evening of Oct. 2, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey, a Harvard-trained New York City lawyer who became commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry Regiment, 77th Division, led his nearly 700 men into the narrow Charlevaux Ravine deep in the Argonne Forest of northeastern France.
The National Archives documents what happened next:
“With the American 28th Division on their right and parts of the Corps of the French 4th Army on their left, Major Whittlesey and his men entered the heavily wired and entrenched position in the Argonne forest, with Hill 198 as their goal. As they advanced into the forest, they encountered resistance but were confident their flanks were secure.
However, late on Oct. 2, disaster stuck. As Major Whittlesey and his men had been creeping forward and cutting through the German forces, the Allied soldiers on either side of them had not been as successful. While the “Lost Battalion” had captured their goal of Hill 198 and were digging in, fierce German counter-strikes had turned back both the French forces on their left and the other American forces on their right.
With Major Whittlesey unaware of these reversals, German forces encircled The Lost Battalion.”
Five days later, Maj. Whittlesey, refusing to surrender, led 194 starving survivors out of the ravine. He would receive one of five Congressional Medals of Honor given in connection to the event, and the first from the war. Pvt. Larney was wounded twice on Oct. 4 and was carried out on Oct. 8 to a field hospital.
On Sunday, Oct. 13, Pvt. Larney wrote a letter to his mother, which, less than a month later, was published in the Times. He explained that he was wounded in the right arm and left thigh. He added:
“The Hun sent us a note to surrender on humanitarian grounds, but no attention was paid to that. We beat him off again and again, though the German army completely surrounded us. Five attempts to cut through us failed. Quite a dubious situation at one time ... I am getting along fine and will be all OK.”
“The fight in the Argonne Forest is so much worse than anybody realizes,” Mr. Laplander said. “It was absolutely a living hell. It rained almost every day, it was cold, they didn’t have enough to eat, they were pushing forward through a very dense forest that the Germans had been ensconced in for four years and they knew it like the back of their hand. It was one, giant pre-sighted target to them.”
Actually, The Lost Battalion was never lost, nor was it a battalion. It consisted of several different companies from the 77th Division of the American Expeditionary Force. Also, the unit knew exactly where it was. Pvt. Larney would later tell the Watertown Daily Times that crewmen in allied airplanes could not find it because of the great amount of foliage that screened the soldiers. Supplies that were dropped fell to the north or south of their location, into the hands of the Germans.
Mr. Larney later recalled to the Times that at one point, soldiers saw planes drop items believed to be provisions. Nine soldiers volunteered to go get it.
“They went out and were met by terrific fire and five of the nine were killed, while four others were wounded,” Mr. Larney told the Times shortly after his return to the U.S. in the spring of 1919. “The four were taken prisoner by the Germans.”
Mr. Laplander said that Mr. Larney kept an “amazingly complete” record of everything the 308th Infantry Regiment went through in the Argonne.
“At one point, Major Whittlesey had even seen him writing in the journal while they were still surrounded in the Charlevaux Ravine,” Mr. Laplander said. “However, rather than to confiscate it, the major had encouraged him to keep at it, saying, it’d be a ‘good record of what happened here.’”
The diary contains about 220 pages.
“It’s an extremely important document in that Jim Larney was right by Charles Whittlesey’s side the entire battle,” Mr. Laplander said. “He saw everything and he wrote about it, and very clearly about it. There’s no puffery. He didn’t make anything up. There’s no suggestions. There is no supposition. It’s all exactly as he saw it.”
But Mr. Larney’s diary contained more than just his battle recollections. It documents his entire service during the war. He only ended it when he was back in the U.S.
“We have great reverence for the diary,” said Valerie A. LaClair, Watertown, one of two granddaughters of James F. Larney. “When you really think about the thin threads your life hangs on, if he hadn’t survived that, none of us would be here.”
After Mr. Larney’s death in 1974, the diary was passed on to his wife, Ruth M. (Gordon) Larney. After Ruth died in 1981, the document was passed on to son John A. Larney. When he died in 2007, his widow, Mary Ann, became main caretaker of the diary.
“After my father passed in 2007, my mother had it at her house and there was always the thought that there should be something done to restore it because it’s now over 100 years old,” Ms. LaClair said. “Ink fades and there’s the thought that it’s getting brittle.”
Ms. LaClair said it was Mary Ann’s decision to allow Mr. Laplander to borrow the diary. The agreement involves more than a trip to France for the document.
“My father never felt comfortable letting it out of his hands,” Ms. LaClair said. “But my mother felt she was comfortable letting Robert take the diary.”
The diary was heavily insured and sent to Mr. Laplander through the USPS.
“He promised to have it restored to preserve it and also take it with him, to basically walk the footsteps of the soldiers,” Ms. LaClair said.
Mr. Laplander said the entire diary has been photographed.
“It will be preserved, no matter what,” he said. “I’m going to do an entire transcription of it. That’s going to take some time, but we’ve got the pictures done.”
The diary also contains drawings and some maps, Mr. Laplander said.
“In one way, it’s kind of weird because this is someone’s private diary,” Mr. Laplander said. “I’m not necessarily sure he would want anybody looking through it. But that the family would trust me is significant and I appreciate the trust they put in me for this. And, in that they believe I’m the right guy, I’m touched by that.”
a treasured correspondence
Mr. Laplander became aware of the diary when it was in John A. Larney’s possession and while the historian was working on his first book about The Lost Battalion.
“We corresponded for years before his death,” Mr. Laplander said. “He would send me transcriptions of what he could make out and things his dad had passed on to him. But he would never risk lending out the diary itself, which is understandable.”
The author also discovered that James Larney was not happy with a 1938 book about the The Lost Battalion, in which he was a source, authored by Thomas Johnson and Fletcher Pratt. Mr. Laplander obtained a copy of the book.
“It turned out that it belonged to Jim Larney,” Mr. Laplander said. “He wrote in the margins everything that was wrong with the book.”
Mr. Laplander said that James Larney loaned the authors of the 1938 book his diary. The book, Mr. Laplander said, used “flowery prose” and took lots of poetic license, which James Larney took exception to.
“When you compare the diary with the 1938 book, there are a number of differences,” Mr. Laplander said. “We also had access to Larney’s copy of that book and he had gone through it with a fine-toothed comb and made notes in the margins of all that he knew to be wrong with it and he made no bones about it either.”
Ms. LaClair said that her father, John Larney, would also read parts of the diary over the phone to Mr. Laplander.
“They corresponded until my father’s death,” Ms. LaClair said. “He would read parts of the diary to him as a source book because my father felt that a lot of things that had been written about it weren’t accurate. There was a movie made in 2001 with Ricky Schroder on The History Channel that my dad felt had some inaccuracies and it really annoyed him when things were written that weren’t right because he had a first-hand source, his father.”
‘Hell’ — no
One false tale that has been passed down is that when Commander Whittlesey received a message of surrender from the Germans, he replied, “Go to hell.”
Pvt. Larney was right by the commander’s side when he received that offer.
“Apparently, Whittlesey just took the note and put it in his blouse without comment, according to my grandfather’s diary,” Ms. LaClair said. “‘Go to hell’ is a better story, but it didn’t happen like that.”
But Mr. Larney later told the Times that after his commander pocketed the message, he turned to him and told him to gather up the white signals laid out on the ground, lest the enemy interpret them as a signal of surrender.
Ms. LaClair recalled that her grandfather was always interested in military history.
“I remember him telling me one time about the Civil War and a battle in that war that he found interesting, but I don’t remember him talking too much to us about personal things. They might have been too horrific for him to share.”
She said that her grandfather, a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, was a very religious man.
“There’s a part of the diary where I remember reading where he actually found, when he was put by himself, a bombed-out church and he found a priest in the church. He spoke with the priest and all of a sudden, there was heavy shelling and the priest said to him, ‘Pray for me.’ But he had to get going. He had to join his compatriots.”
Ms. LaClair recalled another part of the diary where her grandfather and fellow soldiers were seated around a campfire one night before going into battle.
“They all sat around the dying fire talking about their chances,” she said. “He basically says in the diary that he made his peace with God with whatever happens, because they were going over the hill or whatever.”
She noted that her grandfather was a relatively older soldier, age 27, during his war service. He also married later in life.
“He was mature when he experienced everything — the war, marriage, children,” Ms. LaClair said.
He was also quite modest.
“He didn’t go to his own retirement party,” she said.
But Ms. LaClair recalled an amusing incident involving how her grandfather was honored for his career with the state. She said her father, John Larney, also worked for the state Department of Transportation, and he did attend his retirement party.
“So, whenever somebody wanted to toast Grandpa about something wonderful he did, they’d say, ‘John! Stand up and hear this story about your father!’ He was a modest man and didn’t like the limelight and I think that’s really why he didn’t talk about his experiences in the war. He never liked to think of himself as having done something heroic.”
“To us, he was a hero.”
Mr. Laplander said that to a certain degree, due to the diary, he has come to know Mr. Larney, and through his extensive research, other soldiers in The Lost Battalion.
“For whatever reason, the cosmos chose me to be their historian,” Mr. Laplander said. “It’s a position I relish and I kind of look at them as my boys. I’m a custodian of history, a tour guide to events out of the past. And I make it my business to understand who they were and how they were and look at the war through their eyes and try to understand how they felt.”
He added, “None of it is made up. It’s all things they left behind, things they said. What we got is what they wrote down, what they recorded.”
Ms. LaClair, asked what she thinks her grandfather would think of his diary returning to France, said, “I think it’s something that would interest him a great deal.”
Mr. Laplander and Mr. Cunha had planned on visiting at least three of the four “most important” sites Pvt. Larney was when he wrote his diary.
“We’ll be on those exact spots where he wrote the book, and that’s going to be pretty amazing,” Mr. Laplander said.