Going Over The Top: Cry Havoc, and let slip the Pigeons of War

By David Flin

Of the seven American aviators who won the Croix de Guerre in the First World War, six were human. In the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, there stands the body of a decorated American hero from WWI. Cher Ami had been awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm for conspicuous bravery under fire, by which the American 77th Division was rescued from a desperate situation.

Cher Ami was, of course, a pigeon, and became one of the great American heroines of the First World War.

But before I move on to the subject of the outstanding courage shown by Cher Ami (the citation describes it as outstanding courage, and who am I to argue?), it’s worth looking at the role played by pigeons during the First World War.

Before reliable radio, pigeons were often the quickest and most effective way of sending messages. Over 100,000 were used in the war, and around 95% of messages got through to the destination. The ability of homing pigeons to be able to find their way back was vital. This, combined with their speed, made them effective messengers, although doubt has been cast on their ability to clarify a message.

Naturally, attempts were made to counter them, and birds of prey were found to be the most effective means of countering the pigeon menace, and that led to falcons and falconeers being deployed to the front. These were mostly withdrawn once gas became widely used. It is not easy to fit a falcon with a gas mask.

At the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, the French Army had 72 pigeon lofts with them. As the French advanced and pushed back the Germans of them, they took these lofts with them. When they did so, many of the pigeons were away on missions, and had not been informed of the new positions of the lofts. Despite this, all the pigeons were able to find their way back.

It wasn’t just the infantry that made use of pigeons. Tanks carried the birds to relay the advance of individual units. Even after the introduction of the radio, pigeons were often the easiest way to help coordinate tank units without exposing the men to dangerous fire. To use a radio set, the soldiers would have had to leave the relative safety of their tanks to relay or receive orders.

The Germans used pigeons with miniature cameras set to take time-delayed photographs on reconnaissance missions, although without a great deal of success. They discovered that pigeons aren't very familiar with photographic techniques.

Pigeons were also used by pilots in aircraft, where they (the pigeons, not the pilots) would be used to carry mid-mission reports back to headquarters. Observers would write messages, attach this to the pigeon, and then fling the pigeon out to report back. It was discovered, after a few attempts, that observers needed to be trained in a special way of releasing the pigeon. Without this, the pigeon generally passed through the propeller, with unfortunate effects on both propeller and pigeon.

However, this article is about one pigeon in particular, Cher Ami. The astute will notice that while the pigeon in question was female, the name is in the masculine form. There is, of course, a logical reason for this. When she was conscripted, she was thought to be a male pigeon, and the disguise was only discovered when she was wounded in action. The US Army felt that female pigeons didn’t have the endurance to be effective messenger pigeons.

It was in October 1918 that Cher Ami performed her gallant action. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, soldiers from the US 77th Division pushed too far into the Argonne Forest, and became isolated and trapped on the slopes of a hill behind enemy lines, and they came under heavy attack. Cut off from reinforcements and supplies, 550 men from the 306th, 307th, and 308th regiments held their ground. They were far beyond radio range, and the only way that the senior surviving officer, Major Charles Whittlesey could communicate with his own lines was via carrier pigeon.

The stuffed body of Cher Ami on display at the Smithsonian Institution

On 4 October, American artillery started to bombard the Lost Division’s position by accident, killing 30 men as they held the line. Bird after bird was sent with messages back to the American lines, and bird after bird was shot out of the sky by German fire. Finally, Major Whittlesey turned to Cher Ami. It is not recorded whether Cher Ami volunteered for the near-suicidal mission. The message she carried read: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.”

Without hesitation, the brave bird flew through a storm of German fire, dodging bullets as she went. Her luck did not last for long, and soon she was hit in the chest. Against all odds, though, she survived, and continued with her mission, despite being grievously wounded. She flew through wave after wave of fire, being hit again, but continuing on without thought for her own safety.

She arrived at the American lines, almost dead from her wounds, and Army medics worked desperately to save her life. This was when her true gender was discovered. The medics were able to save her life, although she was now blind in one eye, and had lost a leg. Engineers fashioned a wooden leg for the brave little bird.

Because of the message, the American artillery was now able to target German positions rather than American positions, and on 8 October, 194 survivors of the 77th Division were able to return to American lines.

For her role, Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry on the field of battle, only one of seven such medals awarded to American aviators during the war. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, said: “There isn’t anything the United States can do that’s too much for this courageous bird.”

Cher Ami returned to America to a hero’s reception, and a parade given in her honour. When she died, her body was preserved and presented to the American Government, and was given a place in the Smithsonian Museum as a mark of honour, in the Price of Freedom exhibition, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s, was held up to children across America as an example of courage and self-sacrifice.

This, despite the humorous phrasing, is a true story. In the next article, I’ll be looking at the reception returning black American soldiers received.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow