From the Desk of Chris Dubbs: Storytelling and Myth Making in WWI

Chris Dubbs is a military historian living in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, and has worked as a newspaper journalist, editor, and publisher. He is the author of America’s U-Boats: Terror Trophies of World War I (Nebraska, 2014) and American Journalists in the Great War (Nebraska, 2017).  

 

I occupy a narrow slice of scholarship in the history of World War I—journalism. I have a forthcoming book with UNP on the topic, which may or may not be titled Women Journalists of the Great War. Having that narrow focus on such a vast subject means that I filter all the drama of that war through the reporters who covered it. For example, I would not write about the German invasion of Belgium, but about how Mary Boyle O’Reilly dramatized it by walking with refugees through the devastated region or how Irvin Cobb employed humor to report dark episodes of the conflict.

It’s not a coincidence that the best war correspondents of World War I were novelists, short story writers, and playwrights. Reporting wars is all about telling stories. Richard Harding Davis, Frederick Palmer, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Edith Wharton (to name a few of the fiction writer/reporters) enthralled newspaper and magazine readers in America by dramatizing their experiences reporting the war.

Even those journalists who hadn’t sharpened their pre-war pens on fiction writing, employed fictional techniques in their war reporting. Today we’d call it literary journalism, because it combines factual reporting with the use of characters, dialogue, dramatic scenes, and first-person narration. In other words, storytelling. It conveys history as close as possible to the actual experience of the person reporting the event, enriching it with texture and context.

Which brings me to the phone call I received from two documentary filmmakers—Luis Blandon and Mark Fastoso of Echo Films. They were working on a documentary about one of the most iconic stories of the Great War—the Lost Battalion. They had read my book American Journalists in the Great War (Nebraska, 2017) and liked the way it told stories about war correspondents. I am as susceptible to flattery as the next person, so I continued listening.

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The impetus for their documentary, they explained, was the well-received new book on the Lost Battalion, Never in Finer Company, by historian Ed Lengel. Lengel, a wonderful storyteller himself, adds new dimension to the familiar story by focusing on several of its main characters, including journalist Damon Runyon. Hence my utility to the project. They suggested that my commentary in the film could provide background on journalistic coverage of the war and Runyon’s role. I signed on.

The basic facts: On September 26, 1918 American troops joined their French and British allies to launch the final campaign of the war—the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The U.S. army employed its recently-implemented press bulletin system to deliver regular updates on the fighting to correspondents at press headquarters behind the lines. On October 3 a bulletin brought a disturbing report that a unit of the 77th Division, commanded by Major Charles Whittlesey, had been completely surrounded by enemy troops. What transpired over the next four days was part war reporting and part myth making.

Army bulletins reported every exciting update: The men were under heavy attack, they had run out of food, ammunition was nearly gone, casualties were high, the Germans had called for their surrender. Reporters had already branded them the “Lost Battalion,” even though the unit was not a battalion and was never actually lost. They also guessed at what Whittlesey’s response had been to the German surrender demand: “Go to Hell.” That’s what they reported even though they had no clue about his response. The legend was gathering momentum.

By the time the unit was rescued on October 7, most of America was following the drama playing out in the Argonne Forest. Since many of the soldiers in the 77th hailed from New York City, the plight of the division held special interest for New York sports writer turned war correspondent Damon Runyon. Runyon was famous for his unique style of writing, a high-voltage mix of formal speech, colorful slang, and nicknamed characters, a style so unique that the English language had to coin a new adjective to describe it—“Runyonesque.”

Runyon met the men the day of their rescue. Here’s how he opened his story: “Out of the fog of fighting that hangs over the forest of Argonne came limping today Whittlesey’s battered battalion.” Runyon tried to interview Whittlesey, but the major told him to speak to the men instead. They were the real story.

Runyon knew many of these men. He had been following the 77th since its days in training at Camp Upton on Long Island. If the draft board had taken a random slice of New York City, it could now have delivered a more mongrel conglomeration of manhood than existed in the 77th. There were Germans in the 77th, and Italians, Chinese, and Irishmen, from the city’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods. “Hyphenated Americans,” was the derogatory term of the time. By ethnicity and social class, the 77th perfectly reflected New York City and served as an apt symbol of melting pot America itself.

I’ll let Runyon finish the character sketch: “The ‘Big Town’s’ polyglot population sent heroes to one of the Homeric fights of the war. For four days and four nights the one-time counter jumpers, brokers, clerks, gangsters, newsboys, truck drivers, collegians, peddlers and what not, held positions which they had been ordered to take and hold while several times their number of Germans were busily engaged shoveling a variety of hell upon them.”

Runyon’s accounts of the battalion distanced themselves from the embellishments of the legend. Not to distract one bit from the genuine heroism of the men of the 77th, but the legend of the Lost Battalion, the real legend that Runyon helped to define, rests on the division’s uniquely American character, a concept as difficult to define then as now.

What those men endured and how they endured it was an inspiring story of uncompromising tenacity and survival, as fine a picture of American grit as any in the war.  Runyon storytelling allowed us to see it not only as an accomplishment of heroic individuals, but as a manifestation of American character.

Ed Lengel served as the historian guide in the documentary, and I got to chime in on my narrow slice of the Great War, one of the journalists who told its stories. The film will eventually be available through Amazon Prime. For now, you can view a preview of the film or rent the full version ($4.99) at the Echo Films website.

 

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