Lost With The Lost Battalion

John Damcott was 22 years old when he was killed by a German bullet in 1918. Today he lies among 14,246 other graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France.

He grew up in Clymer. The American Legion Post in there is named after him and after Arthur Jones, another World War I veteran from a nearby community.

Never was war more brutal than in World War I. Most of the 14,000-plus deaths represented by the gravestones at Meuse-Argonne occurred in seven weeks, between Sept. 26, the day the offensive started, and Nov. 11, the day an Armistice was signed. It is the day we now commemorate as “Veterans Day.”

The war in which I was involved, Vietnam, cost 58,000 American lives and occurred over the course of 10 years. The American combat death toll from World War I was slightly more than 53,000, but these casualties occurred in a mere nine months of horrific trench warfare. War is never easy to quantify but, in terms of raw numbers, it is hard to exceed the killing intensity of World War I. The French lost some 1.5 million men, the British nearly 1 million and German deaths were estimated to be about 2.5 million. It is fitting that when we remember veterans today, we do it on the day that this war ended.

I knelt at John Damcott’s grave: just one among the thousands of graves in this cemetery. Of course, I never knew him nor have I met any of his family. I knelt out of respect and because he had come from my hometown. However, his cross, his grave marker was no larger or smaller than any other in the cemetery. In a sense, I was kneeling for all of them. The many thousands of graves in this place speak with one voice. It didn’t matter that he was a private. He could have been buried next to a general or someone of higher rank. There is no ranking when it comes to sacrifice. The power of a cemetery like this lies in what they were doing and that they were all Americans. Their deaths were a consequence of an American commitment, common to us all.

We left the cemetery and drove a few miles on country roads to the ravine where John Damcott died manning a machine gun after his buddy had gotten hit and could no longer operate it. According to Wilbur Renskers, who knew John’s family, this young soldier had received little training in combat arms. (He had six weeks of total training before being deployed to France.) He had been thrown into this brutal fight soon after his arrival. His battalion, a part of the 77th Division primarily consisting of men from New York City, had gone into battle along with thousands of other soldiers on Sept. 26. However, they had gotten ahead of their supporting lines and for six days were surrounded and cornered in this small ravine by the German army.

They had been sitting ducks, but they would not surrender. They also came under fire by their own artillery, an unfortunate accident which was stopped only when a carrier pigeon was released asking the barrage be lifted. When the “Lost Battalion” was finally found and relieved by other American soldiers, of its roughly 554 original members, only 194 walked out. The rest had been wounded, killed or taken prisoner. John Damcott was one of those killed in that French ravine.

When World War I ended, the majority of American families chose to have the remains of their loved ones disinterred and sent back to the United States for burial. John Damcott’s family was a part of the approximately one-third of American families who chose to leave their sons buried on foreign soil near where they died. A survey was done by Congress in 1930 to ascertain if any widows or mothers of sons buried in France wanted to return and visit the graves of their loved ones. Mrs. Damcott had responded that she would like to visit her son’s gravesite. Wilbur Renskers remembers that she did so.

Mrs. Damcott would be heartened to know that still today a grateful nation remembers the sacrifice that was made when her son, John Damcott, was lost as a part of the Lost Battalion.

His gravestone is cleaned and polished every year. The grass and the shrubbery in the cemetery is immaculately maintained by the nation he served.

On Memorial Day and Veterans Day each year, American flags are placed on his grave along with the other 14,246 comrades in arms who lie in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. He is still a part of us and we are a part of him. Part of being an American is remembering our war dead and the sacrifice that they made for all of us. John Damcott died nearly 100 years ago, but he has not been forgotten.