A Pigeon’s Eye View of WWI
I loved this book. It is an historical novel about the “Lost Battalion” in World War I and is told in two different voices, alternating with each chapter. The first voice is Cher Ami, a carrier pigeon. The second is Major Whittlesey, the commander of the battalion.
When I read the first chapter, I found it off-putting to be hearing from a pigeon. When I read the second chapter, I found it annoying too. It was obtusely written alluding to a lot of things that I didn’t know about yet. But somehow, by the time I got to the end of that second chapter (page 29), I was so hooked that I needed to trade in my library copy for a purchased copy so that I could underline the story heavily.
Here are the historical facts. There were 600 men under Whittlesey’s command. They were isolated by German forces in the Argonne Forest on October 2, 1918. Beyond casualties suffered at the hands of the Germans, on October 4th, they were barraged by friendly fire after inaccurate coordinates for their location were delivered to the high command. The unit was ultimately saved by Cher Ami, who delivered this message from Whittlesey: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.” When they were finally rescued on October 7th, “194 emerged on foot, with another 144 carried out on stretchers. The rest were dead or vanished into the woods.”
There were many harrowing parts to the story, but I found this the most horrible – the troops who ultimately rescued the battalion said they didn’t need precise geographic coordinates. They could follow their noses to the stench. The author describes the “whiff of a real battlefield,” in this manner: “a gagging combination of shit and gunpowder, gas and blood, decaying flesh and muddy rot.”
From the most horrible part of the story to the most wonderful is the fact that the tale is finely nuanced. Among the facts of this part of history is that newspapers reported on the dire situation for Whittlesey and his men. Writers like Damon Runyon dubbed them the Lost Battalion, and turned Whittlesey and Cher Ami into heroes. But not only that, reporters and newspapers saved the Battalion. As the Major explains, there would be “disastrous consequences to the home-front morale if the army simply left us to die. Thus [General Pershing] ordered us rescued, no matter the cost. In a very practical sense, we owed our lives to Runyon and his ilk.”
Another wonderful thing about the book is the way Major Whittlesey’s character is drawn. At one point, he laughed at himself over his “superfluous schooling” that left him thinking of the dead on the battlefield by quoting Shakespeare to himself, “Alas, poor world, what treasure hast thou lost!”
As a final historical note, Major Whittlesey was the first person in WWI to be awarded the Medal of Honor and Cher Ami was retired from service due to injuries suffered. Ultimately, Cher Ami was taxidermized and placed in the Smithsonian helping this amazing story to live on.