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Archive documents up for auction tell how US soldiers were rescued by carrier pigeon

A dramatic wartime account by a member of a lost party of soldiers who were rescued by a heroic British carrier pigeon has been uncovered.

Lieutenant James Leak was one of almost 700 men who became cut off during a major offensive on German positions towards the end of the First World War.

In the six days of being encircled by enemy forces deep in a French forest almost 200 men were killed either by constant German shelling or friendly fire from confused Allies unaware of their true position.

Runners made repeated attempts to get word back to headquarters of the location of the so-called Lost Battalion but each time they were intercepted by the enemy.

The stranded group then tried using carrier pigeons to send messages only to see them shot out of the sky by German snipers.

It was the British bird named Cher Ami that saved them by flying 25 miles in as many minutes to deliver the life-saving message despite being badly wounded.

The heroic exploits of a British carrier pigeon called Cher Ami (pictured)during the First World War have been revealed in archived letters and documents from a soldier who was involved

American soldier Lieutenant James Leak was part of the Lost Battalion which became cut off from other troops in France's forest of Argonne and were surrounded by hostile German forces. Although 200 men were saved after their location was learned, Leak was captured

American soldier Lieutenant James Leak was part of the Lost Battalion which became cut off from other troops in France’s forest of Argonne and were surrounded by hostile German forces. Although 200 men were saved after their location was learned, Leak was captured

Hand written report by Leak, 8v0, dated A.P.O. Dec 19 1918 describing the circumstances that led to his capture by the Germans

A vaccination document, listing various vaccinations received in 1917, with one hand written, and one typed certification declaring that Leak had received various vaccinations

The documents are being made available for auction and are expected to fetch around £5,000. Pictured: a report of his capture by Leak (L) and a vaccination document belonging to Leak (R)

The ‘Lost Battalion’ and the battle of Argonne

The Lost Battalion is the name given to the nine companies of the 77th Division in the First World War who became isolated during an operation in the Forest of Argonne.

In October 1918, the division launched an attack into the Argonne, under the belief that French forces were supporting their left flank and two American units were supporting their right.

While the supporting units had got held up, the 77th pushed on unknowingly and subsequently ended up surrounded by German troops.

For the next six days, suffering heavy losses, the men of the Lost Battalion and the American units desperate to relieve them would fight an intense battle.

Messengers either got lost or ran into German forces and attempts to resupply the division with airdrops also failed.

Although repeated attempts to convey their location by homing pigeon were made, it wasn’t until the success of Cher Ami that Allied troops were able to rescue the division. 

Roughly 197 were killed in action and approximately 150 missing or taken prisoner before the 194 remaining men were rescued. 

The homing pigeon was shot through the breast, blinded in one eye and had a leg hanging only by a tendon but she still managed to complete the mission.

Upon discovering their location, reinforcements managed to push the German forces back and find the Lost Battalion of 194 men.

Cher Ami survived but lost her leg and so a small wooden one was carved for her. She died a year later.

The pigeon was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal with a palm Oak Leaf Cluster for her heroic service.

The man responsible for training and caring for the pigeon in the signal corps, Enoch Clifford Swain, was given an award for his service. 

Lt Leak, who served in the American Army’s 77th Division, was one of the 150 men captured during the offensive.

Now an archive of letters and documents relating to him has been made available for sale at auction by a militaria collector. It is expected to sell for £5,000.

One of the documents is the officer’s hand written account describing his experience in the Argonne Forest and his capture.

In it he wrote how a few days into the operation his platoon became detached from the main force and came under heavy bombardment.

He was struck in the left leg by shrapnel and pretended to be dead as a German patrol came by.

One enemy soldier spiked him with a bayonet and upon realising that he was still alive captured him.

Tom Lamb, military specialist at auctioneers Bonhams, said: ‘To read first-hand accounts from a platoon commander of the event is as thrilling as it is shocking.

‘The bravery that these men showed more than 100 years ago helps put the world’s current situation in a little perspective.

Military sketch map of Lake Constance, in Germany, where Leak was interned after his capture

Military sketch map of Lake Constance, in Germany, where Leak was interned after his capture

Leak's Brass shoulder insignia of crossed rifles , Leak's 1st Lt's shoulder insignia and a hand-made brass wired motif of the Statue of liberty, both presumably taken from his uniform

Leak’s Brass shoulder insignia of crossed rifles , Leak’s 1st Lt’s shoulder insignia and a hand-made brass wired motif of the Statue of liberty, both presumably taken from his uniform

‘The men were known as the Lost Battalion and they may have remained lost forever if not for the heroic efforts of a carrier pigeon.’

On September 26, 1917 the Allies attacked the German lines at the top of a hill in the Argonne Forest.

Five days later the American 77th division had orders to advance up the hill and were to have been supported on either side by French and other US forces.

But both of these became bogged down and made little progress. The Germans soon encircled the 700 men and fired upon them in all directions.

As well as shelling, the Germans even poured ‘liquid fire’ down the hill in the form of lit oil tipped down pipes.

The battalion, which had little food or ammunition, had to withstand a horrific barrage bombing from their own side which obliterated the bodies of scores of already dead soldiers.

The message attached to Cher Ami that was written on onion paper read: ‘We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.’

Mr Lamb said that because the US only came into the First World War in 1917, such archives and relics are very rare.

Pictured: The archive of letters and documents relating to Lt Leak and the Lost Battalion has been made available for at auction by a collector of militaria. It is expected to sell for £5,000

Pictured: The archive of letters and documents relating to Lt Leak and the Lost Battalion has been made available for at auction by a collector of militaria. It is expected to sell for £5,000

Pictured: A resolution, signed by the Committee of the Bar of Gregg County [Texas], drawn up on Leaks death on May 4th 1942. It was presented to his widow in commemoration of his life

Pictured: A resolution, signed by the Committee of the Bar of Gregg County [Texas], drawn up on Leaks death on May 4th 1942. It was presented to his widow in commemoration of his life

Lt Leak had been a lawyer before the First World War and joined the American Army in 1917.

He arrived in France in the summer of 1918 and was captured on October 4 and spent the remainder of the war in a PoW camp in Germany.

He returned to the US after the war and carried on practising law before he died in 1942 aged 53.

The timed auction ends on January 29.

THE FEATHERED ARMY AND THEIR SECRET MILITARY MESSAGES 

Carrier pigeons have been used for centuries and were used in both world wars to convey military messages.

They can reach speeds of 80mph and distances of 700 miles.

Pigeons were used extensively in the First World War – with the US Army Corps using 600 pigeons in France alone.

US Navy aviators maintained 12 pigeon stations in France with a total inventory of 1,508 pigeons when the war ended.

Pigeons were carried in airplanes to rapidly return messages to these stations and 829 birds flew in 10,995 wartime aircraft patrols. 

The RAF trained 250,000 birds in World War II, forming the National Pigeon Service.

The were so relied upon that the government even introduced a special RAF squadron to cull falcons and hawks who attacked them.

The birds would be dropped into Nazi occupied Europe using mini parachutes. They were then picked up and secret messages were inserted into capsules on their legs.

The birds would then fly hundreds of miles back home. When they landed, wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer and a soldier of the Signal Corps would know a message had arrived.

He would go to the coop, remove the message from the canister, and send it to its destination by telegraph, field phone, or personal messenger.

Thirty two pigeons were even decorated with the Dicken Medal during the war years – the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Among them was Commando – a pigeon who carried out more than ninety missions during the war.

Another was Kenley Lass who was the first bird to deliver intelligence from an agent in enemy-occupied France in October 1940.

Dutch Coast delivered an SOS message from a ditched aircrew 288 miles in 7.5 hours in 1942.


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