The brave pigeon that saved 200 lives

Cher Ami United States of America 1910 - 1919

October 1918, northern France. The war will end in a matter of weeks, on 11 November, but one of the biggest conflicts of the First World War, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, continues to rage on. Amid the chaos, a group of 550 American soldiers led by Major Charles Whittlesey become trapped in a small depression of a hill, behind enemy lines. They are surrounded by Germans, and soon come under friendly fire from Allied troops, unaware of their position.

Some 197 members of what later became known as ‘The Lost Battalion’ were killed in action, while 150 were missing or taken prisoner. For the surviving men, their chances of escape were low – every dispatcher sent to seek help was either intercepted or killed. Food was scarce, water was only available by crawling under fire to a nearby stream, and ammunition was quickly running out. Far out of radio range, the battalion was helpless, and almost certainly doomed.

In a last ditch attempt for aid, Whittlesey began sending messages by carrier pigeon. Some 600 pigeons were employed by the US Army Signal Corps during the First World War – not necessarily the most popular method of communication, but a reliable one in the face of fledgling radio’s limitations. Pigeons could be a risky way to communicate, though. Soldiers trained diligently to spot and shoot birds working for the enemy, so there was no guarantee the recipient would the receive the message – and if a pigeon was shot down, its message could easily be intercepted by enemy forces.

But Whittlesey had no choice, and the battalion watched in horror as the first pigeon, carrying the message ‘Many wounded. We cannot evacuate’ was shot down by the Germans. He sent a second bird, bearing the message ‘Men are suffering. Can support be sent?’ That too, was gunned down. Whittlesey scrawled a final message onto onion paper: ‘We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.’ The note was then dispatched by a third pigeon, ‘Cher Ami’ (French was ‘dear friend’).

As Cher Ami took flight, the Germans saw her rise out of the brush and opened fire. The hearts of Whittlesey and his men sunk – it seemed there was no hope for them. But then, a miracle. Despite being shot through the breast, blinded in one eye and suffering trauma to a leg that meant it was hanging on only by a tendon, Cher Ami took flight again. She arrived back at her loft at division headquarters in just 25 minutes. Allied forces took up new firing coordinates away from the bloodied 77th Infantry Division and rained shells down on German positions, relieving pressure on the battalion. The battle turned in the Americans’ favour, and 194 soldiers made it back to American lines with their lives – all thanks to Cher Ami’s sacrifice.

That little bird became the hero of the 77th. Once the war was over, she (and her replacement wooden leg) was sent back to the United States, personally seen off by General Pershing who said, “There isn’t anything the United States can do that’s too much for this bird.” Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest military honours, and while she died less than a year later, her story has lived on in the hearts and minds of Americans across the decades. She is now displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

We will remember them

Cher Ami United States of America 1910 - 1919
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