The pigeon who saved the lives of soldiers
FLY AWAY HOME
War heroes don’t often have wings. When we talk about bravery in battle, we usually think of people who have risked their lives to help others. We don’t often think of birds, which is why the tale of Cher Ami is so extraordinary. In 1918 in France, during the First World War, the little pigeon managed to save almost 200 lives.
Homing pigeons like Cher Ami are incredible birds. Each one learns to know where its home is, and will return there even when that home is many, many miles away. For this reason, homing pigeons—also called carrier pigeons—have been used for hundreds of years to send messages across long distances, with small notes attached to their legs.
The message Cher Ami carried for many miles.
BRAVERY IN BATTLE
In the First World War, the United States Army used more than 600 birds to carry messages across the battlefields of France. None of them was quite as heroic as Cher Ami. She had already delivered more than ten important messages during the war, but her final mission was her most famous.
On October 4, 1918, she came to the rescue when a battalion of American soldiers found themselves in a very dangerous situation. The soldiers, led by Major Charles Whittlesey, were being fired at by both the enemy and their own side, who didn’t realize they were there. They needed to get a message out to stop the attack—and fast. The major wrote a note that read: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.” It was tied to the leg of Cher Ami, and while bombs and bullets whistled through the air, the bird rose into the sky.
Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal for bravery.
The enemy knew exactly what was happening and shot at Cher Ami. She was hit almost immediately, in the breast, leg, and eye, and fell to the ground. But her injuries weren’t enough to stop her. Amazingly, she took off again, flapping upward through another storm of bullets and flying 25 miles in less than half an hour to reach her base. She arrived blinded in one eye and coated in blood, but her message was still dangling from her wounded leg.
Orders were given to stop the attack straightaway, and 194 of the American soldiers that had been surrounded were rescued. Cher Ami means “dear friend” in French, so the bird’s name was a very good one—she was celebrated as a hero. The medics at the base made her a wooden leg to replace the one that had been shot, and she was given the French Croix de Guerre, a war medal.
Whole books have been written about Cher Ami. Her story has even appeared in films. After the war, she returned to America by boat and was made part of the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame. Her one-legged body is still on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. It’s a fitting way to remember a very determined bird and the long, courageous flight she made while the battle raged around her.
“So with the message tied on tight,
I flew up straight with all my might;
Before I got up high enough,
Those watchful guns began to puff.
Machine-gun bullets came like rain,
You’d think I was an airplane;
And when I started to the rear,
My! the shot was coming near!
But on I flew, straight as a bee,
The wind could not catch up with me.”
—excerpt from the poem “Cher Ami,” by Harry Webb Farrington