It’s early October 1918 in the Argonne Forest in north-eastern France, weeks before the end of World War One. Some 550 American soldiers are surrounded by German troops, and nobody on the Allied side knows their whereabouts. In the days that follow, they lose around 350 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Their future looks bleak to say the least… unless they can somehow get an SOS message out.
The men in question were from nine companies of the 77th Infantry Division, known as the “Statue of Liberty Division.” They were drafted troops, primarily New Yorkers, and in April 1918 they were the first non-volunteers to arrive in France to fight in the deadly trenches of the Western Front.
The group that went into battle in the Argonne Forest was a makeshift unit comprising men from a variety of battalions. But as the number of soldiers was around 550, equivalent to a single battalion, the name they came to be known by – “the Lost Battalion” – made perfect sense.
The Argonne Forest was a well-defended position that the Germans had taken early in World War One. German forces had gone on to successfully defend the area against multiple Allied attacks in the ensuing years. And in October 1918 the Lost Battalion was one of the units thrown into yet another assault on the German positions, as part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
The Meuse-Argonne operation was a huge offensive, the biggest ever undertaken by the U.S. military. More than one million American soldiers participated across the breadth of the Western Front. They included the Lost Battalion, which attacked the Germans in their Argonne stronghold on October 2, 1918. And at first, the U.S. forces made good progress.
The battalion’s commanders thought that French troops were advancing to their left, while soldiers from the U.S. 92nd Infantry Division were doing likewise on the battalion’s right. But in fact, the units on both flanks had been held up by determined German opposition. And that meant that the Lost Battalion was left unprotected.
As a result, the battalion was now encircled by Germans. The U.S. troops were caught in a trap, with no escape routes. And with each passing day, their situation became even more desperate. They were running low on food and ammunition, while the sole available source of water was a stream that could only be reached amid German gunfire.
And the battalion had no easy means of communication to alert a potential rescuing force of their plight. The unit didn’t have radios, while lines for field telephones had been destroyed by the bombing. The battalion’s commander, Major Charles White Whittlesey, had sent runners out to summon help, but each of them had been either killed or captured by the Germans.
Still, there was one option left open to the U.S. forces. During World War One, homing pigeons played a crucial role in military communications. In fact, a variety of animal species had important parts to play. Horses, donkeys and mules, even camels, were invaluable transport animals. And they paid a price for their faithful service – some eight million pack animals died during the conflict, as did around one million dogs.
In some ways, it’s the story of the homing messenger pigeons that intrigues the most. Speaking from a British perspective, Stewart Wardrop of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association told the Daily Mirror in 2014, “Pigeons were the best way of carrying messages from the front line, and by 1918 the Royal Engineers’ Signal Service alone had 25,000 birds in use with 380 men to look after them.”
In fact, as many as 100,000 pigeons were used to carry messages during trench warfare on WWI’s Western Front. And their effectiveness was astonishing – they successfully delivered their messages more than 90 percent of the time. The Germans became so concerned by this development that they tried to intercept the pigeons with hawks.
The messenger pigeon system used mobile coops located to the rear of the front lines. Soldiers would then take pigeons into battle in baskets, releasing them with messages as necessary. The birds carried these messages in small canisters attached to their legs, guided by their powerful homing instincts. When the pigeons arrived back at the coops, Signals Corps troops would distribute the messages to the intended recipients.
And the good news was that the Lost Battalion in the Argonne Forest had some of those pigeons with them. The bad news, however, was that because nobody knew where the men were, their own artillery was now firing on their positions.
So it was time to release one of the pigeons in a desperate attempt to summon help for the stricken battalion. The first pigeon flew off with a message reading: “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.” But gunfire from the German troops felled the bird before it reached its intended destination.
A second pigeon – carrying the message “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” – then flew off into the war-torn skies. It, too, was shot down. And while the third pigeon dispatched did reach its destination, it carried inaccurate co-ordinates that resulted in artillery mistakenly being fired on the Lost Battalion’s positions.
Then a hen pigeon called Cher Ami, French for “dear friend,” was taken from her basket. This time a more elaborate message was packed into the pigeon’s canister. “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it,” the message read.
Off Cher Ami flew. However, she was hit by gunfire and brought to ground. But this pigeon had grit. She managed to take to the air again and eventually made it back to her coop behind the lines. Once Cher Ami arrived, her keepers were astonished by her injuries and the fact that she’d flown more than 25 miles in just 25 minutes in spite of them.
Cher Ami had taken a shot right through the breast, she’d lost her sight in one eye and one leg dangled by just its tendons. Recognizing the special qualities of this courageous bird, army doctors set to work to save her life. The leg was beyond rescue, but otherwise Cher Ami was patched up and survived.
Thanks to Cher Ami’s outstanding bravery, the lives of the 194 men who’d survived the Lost Battalion’s ordeals were saved. The American forces launched attacks along the line and pushed the German troops back, relieving the Lost Battalion’s men on October 8, 1918, six days after they’d first launched their attack in the Argonne Forest.
Subsequently, Cher Ami’s bravery was rewarded with a French decoration more usually given to humans, the Croix de Guerre. And the Organized Bodies of American Racing Pigeon Fanciers awarded her a gold medal as well. After recovering from her wounds, Cher Ami sailed to the States, although not before admirers had made her a wooden leg. She eventually passed away in New Jersey on June 9, 1919.