H/T War History OnLine. 

This is an amazing story.

During World War I, two hundred American soldiers were saved by a pigeon.

The Lost Battalion and the pigeon that saved them

In World War I, the Hundred Days Offensive was the last great Allied attack on the Western Front, leading to the Armistice of Compiégne. One important part of it was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, also called the Battle of the Argonne Forest, the largest offensive in American military history, with 1.2 million U.S. soldiers participating. During the battle, over 500 men, now called the Lost Battalion (though not an actual battalion), found themselves in dire straits and their lives depended on a single messenger pigeon.
American soldiers in the Argonne Forest
On October 2, 1918, the nine companies moved into the Argonne forest under the command of Maj. Charles White Whittlesey, their flanks protected by French and American forces. Their orders were to advance up a ravine and capture a mill. From this mill, a nearby road and railroad could be controlled, stopping German supplies and securing Allied ones. A general order issued to all units participating in the battle strictly forbade any retreat. Allegedly, Germans often tricked attacking Allied soldiers by shouting “retire” or “fall back,” causing confusion. With the no-retreat order, any such commands were to be assumed to be an enemy ruse or an act of treachery.
Major Charles White Whittlesey
The force began its attack on the morning of October 2, but found their advance stymied by German forces dug in on a nearby hill called “Hill 198.” It took the Americans all day to find a way up the hill and dislodge the defenders. Unknown to them, however, the forces on their own flanks were driven back by a massive German counteroffensive. By the end of day, the 554 men were on top of the hill, but they were completely surrounded by the enemy. Their position was well-defended, except for the rear, which they guarded with a few riflemen and some machine guns. The holes, however, were dug too close together, making a good target for snipers and artillery.
American soldiers during the Battle of the Argonne Forest
On the morning of October 3, Whittlesey sent out runners to make contact with the flanks he thought were in position, as well as troops in the back, but all were killed or captured. For a while, the Germans overestimated the size of the American force and didn’t attack, but got emboldened by the afternoon. Several attacks were repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides, and the fighting continued on October 4. Refusing to budge, Whittlesey started sending out messenger pigeons. The first message said “Many wounded. We cannot evacuate,” but the bird was shot down by Germans. The follow-up, “Men are suffering. Can support be sent?” was also shot.
A Signal Corps pigeon (not Cher Ami)
To make things worse, American artillery started shelling their positions. Facing the risk of complete annihilation from a friendly artillery strike, Whittlesey fetched their last messenger pigeon and wrote out a message: “We are along the road paralell [sic] to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.”
Official transcript of the message, made upon its delivery
The last bird, named Cher Ami (“Dear friend” in French, though she later turned out to be a hen despite having a masculine name), took to the air. She was hit almost immediately, either by rifle fire or shrapnel from a shell exploding directly underneath her and she fluttered to the ground. She took flight again, disappeared from sight and returned to her loft at battalion HQ 25 miles away, 25 minutes later. The bird was a ghastly sight. She was covered in blood and shot through the chest, she lost an eye and the leg to which the message was attached in a small container was shot off, hanging on a single tendon.
Cher Ami in life
Her flight saved the Lost Battalion. Plans were made to rescue the men trapped behind German lines. For the next four days, Whittlesey’s men held their position, gradually running out of ammo and supplies. Near the end, bandages were taken off the dead and applied to the still living wounded. Their single source of water was exposed to the enemy and they had to creep through gunfire to get to it. At one point, the Germans sent a captured American soldier to the defenders with a message: “the suffering of your wounded men can be heard over here in German lines, and we are appealing to your humane sentiments to stop….please treat (the messenger) as an honorable man. He is quite a soldier. We envy you.” Whittlesey refused to reply.
Major Whittlesey
Finally, at 3PM on October 8, Allied forces broke through and rescued the beleaguered Americans. Out of the 554 men who went in, 194 walked out unscathed; the rest were wounded, missing, captured or killed. Whittlesey received a battlefield promotion and the Medal of Honor along with two of his captains. Cher Ami, the heroic pigeon, received a wooden leg to replace the one she lost and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre but died the following year from her wounds.
Cher Ami’s stuffed remains
In November 1921, Whittlesey, alongside other Medal of Honor recipients, acted as pallbearer at the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. A few days later, the hero who saw his men through the worst of gauntlets boarded a ship for Havana, but he never arrived. One night, he dined with the captain and retired, seemingly in good spirits; he was reported missing the next morning. It was presumed he committed suicide by jumping overboard. He left letters addressed to family and friends in his cabin. To Captain (later Major) George Mcmurtry, who was his right hand man during the battle, he left a war relic: the preserved letter in which the unnamed German officer demanded his surrender.
Monument to the Lost Battalion and its flying savior in the Argonne Forest
You can visit the Argonne American Cemetery, built near the site of the battle, and learn more about America’s participation in the Great War on our Fields of World War I Tour. You’ve missed our tour this year, as it starts tomorrow, but it’s never too early to sign up for the 2018 one!
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