4 October, 1918, a carrier pigeon arrived at his loft on the Western Front having been shot through the chest. The message carrier still hung from its wounded leg and contained the following:
We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.
The message had come from the ‘Lost Battalion’, more than 500 men of the US 77th Division, who had been cut off and surrounded by German forces in the Argonne sector. The pigeon was named Cher Ami.
First World War Communications
When the First World War began, telephone and telegraph were the predominant means of communication on the battlefield. Radio was still in its infancy and though wireless sets became more portable over the course of the war, they were initially too bulky to be practical.
Telephone and telegraph had their own disadvantages. In a conflict dominated by artillery, the wires were especially vulnerable and signallers couldn’t keep up with the repairs needed to keep lines up and running.
Pigeons Take Flight
Pigeons were an excellent alternative for sending messages on the Western Front. It’s estimated that as many as 95% of the messages sent from the trenches by carrier pigeon arrived successfully. They were a faster and more reliable option than either human or dog messengers.
In all, more than 100,000 pigeons were used by all sides during the war. Their importance is reflected in a poster printed by the British government warning that anyone responsible for killing or wounding homing pigeons would be subject to a hefty fine.
Meuse-Argonne and the Lost Battalion
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the largest American action of the First World War, and the most costly in their history. It began on 26 September, 1918, and benefited in the initial stages from catching the German defenders off guard. But their good fortune didn’t last and the defence soon stiffened.
On 2 October, troops of the 77th Division, under Major Charles Whittlesey, were ordered to attack into the dense Argonne Forest. They drove north, capturing an area of high ground. Whittlesey sent a runner to report that they had broken through the German lines and needed reinforcements. But something was wrong. To their right and left, German counterattacks had pushed French and American forces back and Whittlesey’s men were left exposed.
The following day, the Germans recaptured the high ground to their rear, and Whittlesey was surrounded. German artillery opened fire. Whittlesey sent carrier pigeons again and again requesting support but efforts to reach the isolated men were forced back by the German defence.
The misery was compounded on 4 October, when American artillery was mistakenly directed on to Whittlesey’s position.
In desperation, Whittlesey ordered that another pigeon be sent, informing headquarters of their position. The pigeon handler, Private Omar Richards, selected Cher Ami for the job. Despite his injuries, Cher Ami arrived at headquarters 25 minutes after being dispatched and the Allied bombardment ceased.
But Whittlesey was still surrounded, short on ammunition and with barely any food. American planes attempted to drop supplies on their position but most missed. A valiant pilot flew a low level pass over the Americans to get an accurate idea of their location. The plane was shot down but a French patrol found the wreckage and recovered their map. Allied artillery was now able to open fire on the encircling Germans without hitting Whittlesey’s men.
On 8 October, with the Germans having retreated under heavy fire, Whittlesey and what remained of his ‘Lost Battalion’ emerged from the Argonne Forest. More than 150 of his men were dead or missing.