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

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Natasha Lyonne Is Coming to the Live Culture Gabfest. Are You?

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
Behold
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Honcho Says Celebs Who Keep Nude Photos in the Cloud Are “Stupid”
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 2 2014 9:19 AM Alibaba’s Founder on Why His Company Is Killing It in China
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 2 2014 10:42 AM The Hanging Coffins of Sagada
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 10:36 AM How Bad Will Adam Sandler’s Netflix Movies Be?
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?