Battlefield communications between frontline units and headquarters during World War I were a study in contrasts. Co-existing with the new technologies of wireless radio and telephone land lines were methods as ancient as warfare itself: human runners and messenger, or carrier, pigeons. Sometimes the success or failure of an attack – or the survival of a unit – in that war depended on those ancient methods and not the modern ones. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of October 1918, it was carrier pigeons, particularly one Black Check Cock homing pigeon named Cher Ami (“Dear Friend”), that helped save the “Lost Battalion” under the command of Maj. Charles Whittlesey.
As a result of heavy casualties suffered by the division during the first phase of the offensive, for the second phase Whittlesey found himself commanding an under strength (554 men) battalion that was a composite force assembled from five different units. Once the attack began his only communication with headquarters would be through human runners and pigeons. The attack began on the morning of October 2. By 6 p.m., Whittlesey’s men had reached their objective and taken up defensive positions in a deep ravine. What Whittlesey didn’t know was that his unit was the only American force to break through.
As dawn broke on Oct. 3, the Americans came under enemy artillery fire. Whittlesey quickly dispatched a carrier pigeon with a message containing this news and requesting artillery support.
By mid-morning reconnaissance patrols he had dispatched confirmed they were surrounded. A second pigeon was sent out with an update. By mid-afternoon, the situation had dramatically deteriorated. German artillery, trench mortar, rifle, machine gun, and sniper fire were decimating his troops. At 4:05 p.m., Whittlesey sent out a third pigeon. That pigeon’s message stated they were low on ammunition and effective strength had been cut by half, to just 245 men.
Whittlesey hastily wrote on a message paper the unit’s position and added: “Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” That message was put into a canister and strapped to the leg of their last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami.
The following morning Whittlesey lofted two carrier pigeons, the second pigeon’s update contained an urgent request for help to come “at once.”
Headquarters was trying. But German defenses blocked every attempt. Headquarters then decided to provide indirect assistance with an artillery barrage. Soon the besieged Americans were heartened by the sound of friendly artillery fire landing on enemy positions nearby. Then, to their horror, the barrages began landing on them. Whittlesey hastily wrote on a message paper the unit’s position and added: “Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” That message was put into a canister and strapped to the leg of their last carrier pigeon, Cher Ami.
Pvt. Omer Richards, the pigeon’s keeper, lofted Cher Ami into the air. But instead of flying to headquarters, Cher Ami perched on the branch of a nearby tree and began preening his feathers. Richards, together with a few others, stood up and, ignoring enemy fire, began shouting, waving their helmets, and throwing sticks and stones to goad the bird into flight. This only caused Cher Ami to fly to another branch.
Richards muttered, “What the hell,” and shinnied up the tree. Upon reaching Cher Ami’s branch, he grabbed and shook it. This time, the pigeon took off. As soon as Cher Ami began circling, the Germans focused their fire on him. Cher Ami was hit and crashed to the ground. The astonished Americans then saw the wounded bird weakly fly back into the air. About a half-hour later, he crash-landed in the headquarters’ pigeon loft, about 25 miles away.
A buzzer would sound when a pigeon arrived in the loft, alerting the officer in charge of an incoming message. When the officer opened the loft’s door, he discovered a bloody Cher Ami, hopping on one leg, with a message canister dangling from torn ligaments, all that remained of his mutilated second leg. Cher Ami had also been shot through the breast, and had lost an eye. His message was immediately passed along and the barrage lifted. Cher Ami had saved what the press was calling the “Lost Battalion.” Finally on Oct. 7, the survivors, numbering roughly 200, were rescued.
As for Cher Ami, medics performed emergency surgery and saved his life. One enterprising soldier also carved a wooden leg for him. Captivated by his story, the French Army awarded Cher Ami the Croix de Guerre with Palm. Cher Ami received additional honors, and his exploits were told and retold in America, making him one of the most famous heroes of the war. Cher Ami died in 1919 and was mounted and enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution. In 1931 he was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame.