Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War's Lost Battalion

By Edward G. Lengel
Da Capo Press, 2018
Bob Knight, Reviewer

1919 Reenactment of the Lost Battalion Incident by
the Actual Participants

I had wanted to read this book ever since I started seeing excerpts and short reviews about it in various publications. I have visited the location of the Charlevaux Ravine where the "Lost Battalion" stalled in their advance many times; however, seeing it from the highway still leaves you with a lot of questions. Never in Finer Company answered many of them. The initial chapters of the book surround the organization of the 77th Metropolitan Division and the 82nd All American Division. The author does a good job explaining the Plattsburg Training system and how it impacted the officers in both divisions. He outlines the demands of the fighting divisions in France and their actions of removing some of the best soldiers in both the 77th and 82nd as replacements. He further describes the subsequent addition of troops from the "Sunshine" Division (the 40th) to the 77th which gave the Metropolitans their western cowboy and farm/ranch soldiers. The initial combination of the New Yorkers and Westerners was one of the weaknesses of the 308 Regiment of Charles Whittlesey's Lost Battalion, but in the end it was one of its strengths as the two very different groups of men welded into a fighting force that had the same ferocity as Alvin York.

The author blends the backgrounds of Charles Whittlesey, Alvin York, George McMurtry, and Damon Runyan into its narrative. Whittlesey and McMurtry, the commanders of the Lost Battalion, are described in depth with lots of detail on their personal experience prior to WWI. I was quite surprised that McMurtry was a self-made millionaire prior to his joining the Army. We don't see much of that today in my view.

Never in Finer Company reveals that the 82nd was always just weeks behind the 77th, whether in its initial organization, departure for Europe, or entering the Meuse Argonne. Alvin York's personal conflicts are explained in depth prior to and during his joining the 82nd, and the book provides lots of post-WWI detail on his life. The 82nd's entrance to the Meuse Argonne is explained with a movement of General Hunter Liggett's finger on a map. That finger movement eventually helped provide relief to the Lost Battalion, and Alvin York's actions were a major contributor and morale booster. This authenticates the author's decision to blend the stories of the four very different men into one excellent narrative.

Damon Runyon's inclusion as one of the four major characters is more of a stretch. As a reporter in New York his fascination and reporting of the New York man on the street bleeds over into his actions after he is assigned as a WWI correspondent by the New York American newspaper. Runyon's boss at the paper is William Randolph Hearst and he assigned Runyon to France. Runyon's love of the man on the street continues in France, and his desire to report on the men of the 77th Division—his men from New York—justifies Runyon as the book's fourth character.

Capt. George McMurtry, Maj. Charles Whittlesey, and Lt. William Cullen
(1919 Reenactment)

The friendship, mutual respect, and constant support by friends Whittlesey and McMurtry helped solidify the Lost Battalion. Their actions, together with many other officers and men surrounded in the Charlevaux Ravine, are described in detail. The narratives of several of the soldiers in the ravine are fascinating. My initial disappointment at the book not providing more details on the men in the first few chapters was remedied by the descriptions of their actions once surrounded. The final attack by the German storm troopers on the Lost Battalion is the book's high point. You can feel the battalion's ferocity and know that the Germans never had a chance to defeat this group of men.

York's actions can't be overlooked. The book details the events leading to his capture of 132 German prisoners and his killing of at least 25 enemy soldiers. At one point, when York has captured the German Lieutenant Paul Vollmer, you have the feeling that Vollmer knows the only way to save his men and himself from this one American soldier and his six associates is to surrender.

All four main characters return to the U.S., and the remainder of their lives is described in great detail. Whittlesey's fragile mental condition and his weak lungs due to gassing scar him in ways others can't see. McMurtry's and Runyon's personal lives are unstable at best and both do the best they can to exist in the post-WWI world. McMurtry's lifelong commitment to the men of the Lost Battalion is detailed, as is his friend Whittlesey's commitment to those same men in his brief remaining life. Alvin York's continued fame after his WWI heroics is fully covered up to his death. His philanthropy in his hometown and county is impressive and wonderful to discover.

The book is such a page-turner that you want more. As noted, the primary focus is on its four main characters. However, one very noteworthy background theme that underlies the entire story is the arrogance and lack of support provided by the generals of the 77th. They never got close to the front lines, and other than their continued bullying of troops you perceive very little value in their leadership. It is the men on the ground and decisions made by General Liggett, the overall commander of the First Army, that saved the day and won the battle.

If you are a WWI nut like me, Never in Finer Company is a must read.

Bob Knight


  1. It sounds really good. Thank you for the review, Bob.

  2. Excellent review, Bob. Thank you for your detailed approach.

  3. I love the details you give in this review, Bob. The attitude and arrogance of the generals involved is certainly a sad comment and gives us great pause for thought.

  4. Excellent review.

  5. Dr. Lengel is a gifted story-teller. It is also a compact survey of our preparations for the expedition to Europe in general. Best advice I ever saw for a book review was: Good Read. So is this one.