The Lost Battalion

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Pigeons in warfare communications: just wing it! (Source: BBC)

From horse-riding knights charging into battle to dolphins successfully finding underwater mines, the history of war combines itself with those of the animals domesticated for it. Some are even paid tribute to and given the soldiers’ honors.

Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon among many used to deliver messages over long distances, was one of them. In French, its name literally means “dear friend” and this kind of friend is unmistakably the one you want close by your side…

October 1918. Deep into the Argonne Forest (northeastern France) US Army Major Charles White Whittlesey is leading some 554 men into what is said to be a decisive attack in the last days of WW1. However, he and his troops are facing tough resistance from the enemy lines, and to top it all off, regular bombings from their own artillery!

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Map of the area: the net is closing… (Source: johnsmilitaryhistory.com)

Suffering several losses, the company decides then to settle down to try to secure itself, but to make things worse, ammunition and food supplies are lacking. The only chance of rescue lies with calling for reinforcements – that’s where carrier pigeons burst onto the scene.

A first one is sent towards headquarters. Shot down. A second one undergoes the same tragic fate.

There’s now a third and last pigeon available. Cher Ami is about to take off with a message tied to his leg: “WE ARE ALONG THE ROAD PARALELL 276.4. OUR ARTILLERY IS DROPPING A BARRAGE DIRECTLY ON US. FOR HEAVENS SAKE STOP IT.” The pigeon starts to rise in the air, gets hit by a bullet, but nevertheless keeps on flying away. It will cover some 40 kilometers in less than half an hour to successfully deliver the message, blood dripping from its serious wounds.

Argonnen, zerschossener Wald
The Argonne Forest during WW1, a desolate battlefield. (Source: Bundesarchiv via Wikipedia)

After a few days, and thanks to the pigeon’s heroism, 194 men were able to walk out of the forest uninjured. Major Whittlesey was decorated, so were some other members of the so-called Lost Battalion – so was the convalescent Cher Ami.

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The message brought back from the battlefield. (Source: National Archives Catalog)

 


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