A Pigeon's Message From the "Lost Battalion"

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
March 27 2013 1:15 PM

A Pigeon's Message From the "Lost Battalion"

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This is a field transcription of a message from Maj. Charles Whittlesey to his commanding officer, delivered by pigeon on Oct. 4, 1918. Whittlesey, commanding nine companies of the U.S. Army’s 77th Infantry Division, took up a position in the Argonne Forest in France on Oct. 2, 1918. His group of 550 soldiers was surrounded by German troops and cut off from supply lines. The dramatic situation, which stretched for four and a half days, drew much attention from war correspondents, and the media nicknamed the group the “Lost Battalion.”

Because WWI predated the invention of reliable two-way wireless communication, the armies relied on runners or carrier pigeons to communicate. The U.S. Army Signal Corps used about 600 birds in France during the war. For the cut-off Lost Battalion, the birds were the only connection to headquarters.

Advertisement

The bird that carried this message was named Cher Ami. He was shot while trying to deliver it—when he arrived, the capsule containing the message was attached to a leg so badly hurt that it later had to be amputated—but managed to return nonetheless.

As this message shows, to add to their other tribulations, the Lost Battalion came under friendly fire. Later, the commander of the 77th, Maj. Gen. Robert Alexander, told the press that it was the French—“in spite of my determined protest”—who directed artillery fire on the ravine, “being convinced that the command had surrendered.”

When the Battalion was finally retrieved, 107 of the original group had been killed in action, while 190 were wounded. Whittlesey was awarded the Medal of Honor.

After the war, Whittlesey and some of his group appeared as themselves in a silent film about their experience. Whittlesey, by all accounts a shy and retiring man, was in constant demand as a speaker.

Whittlesey vanished from a United Fruit Company steamship en route from New York to Havana in 1921. Although his body was never found, it's presumed he committed suicide by jumping into the sea; he left a will and farewell notes to his family and his law partner. “War preyed on his mind,” the New York Times reported.

TODAY IN SLATE

Jurisprudence

Scalia’s Liberal Streak

The conservative justice’s most brilliant—and surprisingly progressive—moments on the bench.

Colorado Is Ground Zero for the Fight Over Female Voters

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

Culturebox

Theo’s Joint and Vanessa’s Whiskey

No sitcom did the “Very Special Episode” as well as The Cosby Show.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Cliff Huxtable Explains the World: Five Lessons From TV’s Greatest Dad

Why Television Needs a New Cosby Show Right Now

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 18 2014 8:20 PM A Clever Attempt at Explaining Away a Vote Against the Farm Bill
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 6:02 PM A Chinese Company Just Announced the Biggest IPO in U.S. History
  Life
Outward
Sept. 18 2014 3:24 PM Symantec Removes Its “Sexual Orientation” Filter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 3:30 PM How Crisis Pregnancy Centers Trick Women
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 3:04 PM Pogo Returns With Another Utterly Catchy Disney Remix
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 6:48 PM By 2100 the World's Population Could Be 11 Billion
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 18 2014 3:35 PM Do People Still Die of Rabies? And how do you know if an animal is rabid?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.