Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and seven other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Major Charles Whittlesey knew the situation was desperate.
Trapped: American gunners in the Argonne Forest.
Twenty-four hours earlier, on 2 October, 1918, he and his men had been ordered to advance against heavily fortified German positions in the Argonne Forest in Northern France.
It was part of the biggest operation undertaken by the American Expeditionary Force in World War One. The attack was to prove deadly for thousands of men.
Charles Whittlesey
Charles Whittlesey was serving in the Army’s 77 Division, a motley band who were known as the Metropolitan Division, a reference to the fact that they’d been drawn from New York’s multi-ethnic Lower East Side. Between them, they spoke 42 languages.
The linguistic diversity did not hide the fact that most of
the men were inexperienced soldiers. 
After a brief but intensive training at Camp Upton in New York, they were shipped to France. Some had not even learned how to throw a hand grenade.
Major Whittlesey was leading 554 soldiers in the Argonne offensive; his men were tasked with attacking the German front line. 
The strength of the enemy alone would have made this a perilous task; what made it far more deadly was the terrain.
American soldiers in the Argonne
The Argonne is an area of deep ravines and bluffs of rock: it is easy to defend and almost impossible to attack. Whittlesley sniffed at the danger and sensed a tough time ahead. But orders were orders: on 2 October, his men moved forwards.
They proved remarkably successful in penetrating the Argonne’s ravines: indeed, their success was to prove their downfall. The Allied units on their flanks were unable to make such steady progress. It was not long before Major Whittlesey’s men found themselves cut off. They had advanced too far.
Into hell: the soldiers advance
The German counter-attack was devastating. Soldiers hidden on the high bluffs began firing downward on Whittlesey’s exposed positions, slaughtering the men below. There were no chance of firing back: the rocky pinnacles were 200 feet high.
Major Whittlesey knew that any attempt to retreat would be tantamount to suicide: his men would be picked off one by one. The only option was to sit tight until American forces could come to their aid.
Major Whittlesey’s only means of contacting battlefield headquarters was to use one of the three carrier pigeons that he had brought with him. When a head count revealed that more than 300 of his men had been killed, he sent one of the pigeons to headquarters with the message: ‘Many wounded. We cannot evacuate.’
Hero of the hour: Cher Ami
The pigeon was immediately shot down by the Germans, who were determined that Whittlesey should remain isolated. The major now sent his second pigeon: ‘Men are suffering. Can support be sent?’
It was all to no avail: the second bird was also shot down. Whittlesey had just one pigeon left, his prize bird, Cher Ami. He was now in desperate need of sending a message: his men were not only being attacked by the Germans, but they were coming under intense friendly fire from American artillery.
Whittlesey placed a note inside a canister and then attached it to Cher Ami’s leg. ‘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!
German bombs still surface from time to time
Cher Ami was spotted by German gunners as he attempted to fly out of the ravine. They turned their weaponry on him, firing wildly in all directions in an attempt to bring him down.
Cher Ami continued flying through a hail of fire until disaster struck. The bird was hit and could be seen dropping to the ground. Major Whittlesey’s men were devastated: Cher Ami represented their last hope of rescue from their Argonne hell-hole.
But no sooner had the gunfire stopped than there was a astonished gasp from Whittlesey’s troops. Cher Ami had struggled back into the air and was once again flying through the ravine. This time - though raked with gunfire - he made it out alive.
One they downed: a crashed German plane
Sixty-five minutes later, divisional headquarters sighted a carrier pigeon approaching its loft. It was Cher Ami. When they went to look for the message, they discovered he’d been shot through the breast and blinded in one eye. His leg - the one carrying Major Whittlesey’s message - was hanging from a single tendon.
Divisional headquarters acted immediately: they had no idea that Whittlesey’s men were being hit by friendly fire. They ordered an immediate halt to the bombardment.
A transcript of Cher Ami's note
The troops managed to hold out for a further four days before the Allies finally sent in a relief force. The Germans retreated and Whittlesey’s Lost Battalion, as it was already being called, was finally safe.
Whittlesey returned to America a war hero: his stand in the Argonne was the stuff of legend. But Cher Ami, too, had become a national hero. One of 600 pigeons used by the United States Army Signal Corps, he had already delivered 12 important messages at Verdun. Now, his rescue of the Lost Battalion was his finest hour.
His leg was so damaged that it had to be amputated; a wooden leg was specially carved for him.
Pershing: saluted Cher Ami 
When he sailed back to America, General John J Pershing personally saw him off. On arrival, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster; he would later become an exalted member of the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame.
Cher Ami died on 13 June, 1919, from wounds received in battle. He was stuffed by a taxidermist and placed on display in the Smithsonian, alongside another famous hero from the First World War, the mongrel dog Sergeant Stubby.
Both of them remain there to this day.

UK paperback
Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’  Simon Winchester

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