Whether it is horses ridden fearlessly into battle, or the ancient general Hannibal crossing the Alps with his troops of “war elephants,” for almost as long as human beings have engaged in war, we have enlisted help from animals to do so. And in the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, one of the most important animals we conscripted into our forces was also one of the humblest and most unlikely.
During World War I and II, many thousands of homing pigeons were used to ferry written messages from the front line back to command headquarters; the American forces utilized more than 600 pigeons in their French campaign alone. The birds could fly swiftly and accurately, and at such an altitude to make shooting them from the sky all but impossible. What’s more, unlike radio and telegraph messages, the pigeons’ messages could not be scrambled, nor interfered with, required no electrical supply to be communicated, and took up less space than heavy and bulky transmission equipment. Many World War I tanks had room inside to keep a brood of pigeons so that messages could be relayed from the front line even within the most brutal battles.
It was during one of these World War I efforts that one pigeon made an almost unbelievable contribution to the Allies’ campaign.
The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was one of the longest, bloodiest, and fortunately latest episodes of the Great War. Lasting almost four weeks, the campaign took place in northern France in late September of 1918 and involved more than one million Allied soldiers—over 25,000 of those, would lose their lives. And in the midst of all of this, a so-called “Lost Battalion” of 500 men became stranded at the foot of a hillside valley, surrounded by German troops. After just one day of fighting from this unenviable situation, barely 200 of the men remained alive.
To make matters worse, the Allied forces had no clue that this stranded battalion was there and, presuming the area to be fully swamped with German troops, began shelling the entire hillside. If the men were not able to get word back to their side, they would be killed by Allied friendly fire long before the German troops surrounding them even managed to advance.
The commander of the stranded men, Major Charles Whittlesey, knew that his and his men’s only chance of survival lay with the trio of carrier pigeons they had with them. Messages were written, but the first two birds the men released were shot down almost instantly by the surrounding German forces. The men’s survival, ultimately, rested with their final pigeon— known as “Cher Ami”, which was released with a simple message reading: “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.”
Against all odds, Cher Ami escaped the rain of gunfire that commenced almost the moment he was sent up into the air and flew the 25 miles back to the Allied lines. He landed, having been shot in the breast and blinded in one eye, with the lost men’s message dangling perilously from a bloodied, almost severed leg. The Allies, however, managed to read the note, ceased their shelling instantly, and were eventually able to organize a military advancement on the enemy territory to break the battalion out and return them to safety. Cher Ami’s extraordinary journey, against all odds and while suffering some truly terrible injuries, had saved the lives of some 200 men.
Incredibly, Cher Ami survived his ordeal but never fully recovered from his injuries and died the following year back at Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey. His body was saved, taxidermied, and is today on display in the Smithsonian Museum.
Before his death, however, Cher Ami’s remarkable tale was recognized in an equally remarkable way: he was awarded the Croix de Guerre (19141918), a French military medal usually only handed out to French and Allied soldiers who had performed especially valorous service during World War I. As a Croix de Guerre honoree, ultimately, Cher Ami took his place alongside the likes of Charles de Gaulle, US Generals George S Patton and Douglas MacArthur, and British fighter-ace pilot Vernon Castle.