More than a century ago (103 years to be exact), Private James Larney, a soldier from Watertown, New York, went to war as a member of the famed 77th ‘Liberty’ Division. Assigned to the Headquarters Company of the 308th Infantry Regiment, his commanding officer was Major Charles Whittlesey, who would lead his men during one of the most epic events of America’s participation in WWI – an episode known famously as the siege of the ‘Lost Battalion’.
On the evening of Oct. 2, 1918, Major Whittlesey led some 600 of his men into the narrow Charlevaux Ravine deep in the heart of the Argonne Forest. That night the Germans surrounded them, cutting the unit off a kilometer and a half ahead of the main American line. Over the next five days, before relief finally broke through to them, the ‘Lost Battalion’ would endure a casualty rate of 72 percent while never giving ground. In the end, five Medals of Honor would be earned in connection with the event, which became one of the most reported and popular stories of the war, and Charles Whittlesey became the U.S soldier in the war to be awarded the coveted medal, on Christmas Eve, 1918.
Private Larney was one of Whittlesey’s men in the Lost Battalion and was right at the Major’s side the whole time. His job was that of ‘signalman’; Pvt. Larney was in charge of the cloth panels laid out on the ground to communicate with aircraft flying above them. Upon landing in France, in April 1918, Larney had begun keeping a daily diary.
This was strictly against the rules at the front, for if obtained by the enemy the information therein might benefit them in some way; if discovered by his superiors, the diary would be confiscated and Larney would be in trouble. Nevertheless, he kept at it, writing surreptitiously in the little 5” by 7” oil cloth covered black book nearly every day through the 77th Division’s battles all that spring and summer and into the fall.
It was then his unit spearheaded the 77th’s attack into the Argonne Forest on Sept. 26, 1918. Wounded twice with the Lost Battalion, he was carried out by ambulance to a field hospital about mid-day on Oct. 8 following the relief of the position and did not return to his unit until the war had ended.
Through it all, Larney continued writing in the diary, keeping an amazingly complete record of everything the 308th Infantry Regiment went through in the battle of the Argonne.
At one point, Major Whittlesey had even seen him writing in the journal while they were still surrounded in the Charlevaux Ravine. However, rather than confiscate it, the Major had encouraged him to keep at it, saying it would be “a good record of what happened here.” The only part Whittlesey left unsaid was “in case we don’t get out.”
Larney only ended the diary when he was back in the states and discharged. Today, the document – worn, ragged, and stained by Argonne rain and mud – remains the single most important record of what happened during those five difficult days of valor and death that the Lost Battalion endured in the Charlevaux Ravine.
Now, over the Thanksgiving week of 2021, Lost Battalion historian and author Robert J. Laplander will be returning to France with the diary, taking it back to many of the places where it was born under Larney’s pen. Jim Larney’s daughter in law, now the keeper of the diary, and the Larney family have approved the momentous trip.
“The diary was lent to me so that I could photograph it and transcribe the whole thing before it completely fades away. Many of the writings in it are almost illegible at this point, so we are going to be just in time, I think,” says Laplander. “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’? I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. 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 am incredibly humbled and honored by this opportunity.”
Laplander, whose book ‘Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WW1 Epic’ is considered the benchmark work on the subject, has had access to the diary information before, but never the diary itself.
“While I was researching my book, I came to know Larney’s son, John, and we corresponded for years before his death. 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.” Laplander says.
Laplander got back in touch with the family through his Lost Battalion Facebook group not long ago, and extended an offer to completely photograph and transcribe the diary before time erased the record. Larney’s granddaughter and her mother eventually decided to allow it, recognizing the significance of the book, and understanding that Laplander, the world’s leading authority on the Lost Battalion, was the right person to do it.
“Sweating out the shipping from New York to here in Wisconsin was the worst part,” Laplander says. “It was heavily insured and tracked the whole way, but still … We all breathed easier when it arrived safe and sound. It’s in a protected dry box now, under lock and key and safe.”
But Laplander’s book isn’t the first one to benefit from Jim Larney’s writings. In the early 1930’s, Thomas Johnson, a New York City newspaper reporter, had access to the diary, too. He had used parts of it for a series of newspaper articles and as a basis for the first book ever written on the event; along with military historian Fletcher Pratt they penned the 1938 ‘The Lost Battalion’. But as it turned out, that book left much to be desired – at least in Jim Larney’s estimation.
Laplander says, “When you compare the diary with the 1938 book, there are a number of differences. 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!”
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 the moniker of 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. All that has been a tremendous honor, which I have been grateful to have been allowed to have been a part of.
“This, though … this is almost like reaching back into the past and shaking hands with Jim. We plan on visiting at least three or four of the most important sites he was at when he wrote the diary. We’ll be on those exact spots with the book and that’s going to be pretty amazing.”