Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. Edward G. Lengel. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 2018.
In Never in Finer Company, Dr. Edward Lengel seeks to tell the story of the Lost Battalion (the 308th Infantry Regiment of the 77th Division) and, at the same time, explain the wider narrative of America’s brief involvement in World War I. The Great War, as it was then known, started in 1914, and, while U.S. industry and banking began supporting the British and French in that year, the country did not officially join the fight against Germany until 1917. Because of a myriad of factors, it took an additional fourteen months before there were enough American troops to make a difference. The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) led two major campaigns in the final third of 1918: the St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. The 308th was a draftee regiment, largely from New York City, and participated in the latter offensive. On October 2, 1918, due to a lack of experience on the part of both the regimental and divisional commanders, the 308th found itself surrounded by the Germans. The soldiers’ ability to hold out for six days behind enemy lines earned them the name “Lost Battalion” and was seen by many as an example of the American spirit.
Lengel focuses on four individuals to tell this story. The first person to appear in the narrative is the war hero Sgt. Alvin York. A conscientious objector from rural Tennessee, York won fame by capturing 132 German soldiers in a single event. The next two individuals are Major George McMurtry, who was originally a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and Lt. Colonel Charles Whittlesey, McMurtry’s commander in the 308th and the man who led the Lost Battalion during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. While both men were successful businessmen from New York, they had not met before the war. Their friendship and ability to work as a team proved critical when the 308th was surrounded. Finally, Lengel picks the unlikely character of a hard-living New York sports reporter, Damon Runyon. During the conflict, Runyon sought to focus the country’s attention on the average soldier instead of the generals.
From the opening words of Never in Finer Company, Edward Lengel sows confusion in the reader’s mind. The text’s title directly references the men of the 77th Division’s “Lost Battalion,” but the book opens with the familiar story of Alvin York of the 82nd “All American” Division. This establishes a pattern, which is repeated throughout the text, where York’s narrative is inserted, sometimes awkwardly, into the primary story of the 308th. In a way, Lengel is replaying history, where the celebration of the Lost Battalion’s refusal to surrender against overwhelming odds was quickly overshadowed by York’s single-handed feat of valor that saved his unit and led eventually to a major motion picture starring Gary Cooper.
Dr. Lengel is an expert on the American Expeditionary Force and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. His 2008 text, To Conquer Hell, is an excellent resource, and many of the scenes in Never in Finer Company can be found in a more abbreviated form in his earlier work. Lengel is at his best when developing the narrative of a battle. Both Whittlesey’s successful refusal to surrender and York’s attack illustrate the author’s ability to put the reader in the moment of conflict.
Lengel is also a scholar who focuses on details, and he appears to have been inspired by Runyon’s desire to tell an honest story of extraordinary soldiers. Unfortunately, he also seeks to share equally what he has learned in his exhaustive research about all the individuals he has studied—from privates to generals. Another weakness comes from the fact that, rather than creating a linear narrative that moves chronologically, the author jumps around. As an example, Lengel goes on for several pages discussing Private Krotoshinsky’s attempt to evade capture on October 8th only to end abruptly. The reader is then forced to wait seven pages through four other narrative threads before learning whether Krotoshinsky succeeded. At other times, Lengel chooses to cover the same event in more than one place in his text. For example, he first discusses the victory parade New York City hosted for the 77th Division beginning on page 268 and then returns to discuss it again from a slightly different perspective on page 281.
The recurring challenge of Never in Finer Company is to make a connection among the stories of Whittlesey, McMurtry, and York. Lengel tries, but he does not completely succeed. Yes, they trained at the same camp, but at different times. Both divisions fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of late 1918, but so did most of the Allied Expeditionary Force. To counter this, the author argues somewhat successfully that it was the pressure of the 82nd on the German line that allowed American troops to rescue members of the 308th Infantry Regiment trapped behind enemy lines. In the end, however, he is forced to admit York had direct contact with 308th only once, at the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Armistice Day 1921, when he sat near Charles Whittlesey and George McMurtry. As for Runyon, he quickly assumes the role of a supporting character, because he, like Lengel and anyone who did not actually fight in World War I, is an outsider.
In the end, Never in Finer Company is an interesting read, but it is not recommended for the lay reader for which it is intended. A novice in World War I and the American role in the conflict would be better served acquiring Lengel’s earlier work. Likewise, this text does not fulfill the expectation of its title, and Robert Laplander’s Finding the Lost Battalion is a more useful source. Presently, Dr. Lengel is exploring his other historical passion, the late Colonial/Early National period of American History, but it is hoped that he will return again to tackle another topic dealing with World War I.
Edmund D. Potter is an Instructor in Warfare Studies with the United States Air Force’s Air University and the Curator for the 116th Regiment Foundation. The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Still image from the 2001 film “The Lost Battalion” (IMDB)