If you picked up a newspaper anywhere across the country in the spring of 1919, you’d see the amazing story of Cher Ami.
Cher Ami, or “dear friend,” was the First World War homing pigeon hailed for saving the U.S. doughboys of the Lost Battalion. He had come home from battle-scarred France minus a leg and with a deep wound in his chest. In newsrooms everywhere, gleeful writers pecking at their typewriters celebrated the “dear friend of liberty.”
“Where in the annal[s] of warfare can a stouter-hearted little hero be found than Cher Ami?” crowed the Whittier News in California. “Just a handful of muscles, feathers and nerve, Cher Ami, as lovable a pet as ever bred, knew only the path of duty.”
The bird met his moment in October 1918 with the 77th Infantry Division northwest of Verdun. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was underway. Hundreds of men under Major Charles W. Whittlesey advanced into the Argonne Forest and got ahead of units on their flanks. They took up positions on a slope of a ravine and were surrounded by the Germans, who let loose with rifle fire, grenades, trench mortars and machine guns.
Then on the afternoon of October 4, to the horror of the Americans in the “pocket,” U.S. artillery in the rear began raining shells on them — friendly fire that resulted from jumbled coordinates. Germans joined in the carnage.
Cher Ami, the last of Whittlesey’s eight pigeons, was sent aloft with a plea from the commander: “We are along the road parallel 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.” The paper message had to reach the American lines, the men believed, or their fate was sealed. A private remembered, “We knew without a doubt this was our last chance. If that one lonely, scared pigeon failed to find its loft, our fate was sealed. We would go just like the others who were being mangled and blown to pieces.”
The bird circled, flew downhill a bit and landed in a tree. The men yelled at it, and threw rocks and sticks to get him going, but he moved to a higher branch. Whittlesey’s “pigeoneer” raced down the hill amid the torrent of gunfire, shimmied up the tree and shook the branch until Cher Ami took off. The bird circled again. Germans shot at him. A shell hit beneath him, sending him fluttering to the ground. But somehow, half dead, he took flight again and made it back to the lines, the capsuled message hanging on what remained of his right leg. The shelling stopped soon afterward.
On the evening of October 7, after Whittlesey’s beleaguered command had been cut off for five days, an American patrol reached them. The Germans had withdrawn. Of the more than 600 soldiers who had ventured into the ravine, only 194 walked out unaided.
An eager American press had kept on top of the unfolding drama. A United Press editor sent a telegram to his reporter, “Send more on Lost Battalion,” and the name stuck. The editor didn’t mean they were lost because no one knew where they were, but that they had been given up for dead.
When the Lost Battalion was saved, newspapers cast a false light on its struggle: “Though it had encountered terrific opposition, it was found to be almost intact, few of its members being killed or wounded.”
Whittlesey came home from “over there” a national hero, receiving the Medal of Honor at the end of 1918. A fawning public also embraced Cher Ami, who arrived in the States the following April.
Captain John L. Carney, in charge of breeding and mobile lofts for the Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Service, brought Cher Ami home on the transport Ohioan. He kept the bird in his cabin during the trip across the Atlantic. Other pigeons that had distinguished themselves were aboard, as well. When the ship docked at Hoboken, New Jersey, reporters wanted to know which bird saved the Lost Battalion. Carney said it was Cher Ami, and the newshounds were off and running.
“Cher Ami is her name, and that she proved herself truly a dear friend of liberty is attested by the circumstances that she left a leg in the Argonne; that across her dauntless breast there is a ghastly scar that marks the trail of a German bullet that spilled her blood but failed to chill her spirit, and that she wears the symbol of her homeland’s gratitude for her brave and able service – the Distinguished Service Cross, conferred upon her by Gen. Pershing himself.”
That’s how the New York Herald helped feed the winged courier’s fame. But the paper understandably got his sex wrong, assumed a bullet caused his chest wound when it might have been a shell fragment, and gave him a prestigious medal he didn’t have. Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for bravery in combat.
Carney, who had once trained homing pigeons as a hobby, took Cher Ami and three other hero pigeons – President Wilson, The Mocker and Lord Adelaide – in a wicker basket to Washington and his hometown of Pittsburgh on a public relations tour.
“I nursed this bird like a baby clear across the ocean,” he told the Pittsburgh Daily Post, holding Cher Ami in his hands a few days before a Press Club banquet. “Even before we started, it was doubtful if the bird would ever reach this side alive, so I took a taxidermist with me if he died. He has lost so much flesh, though, that I doubt if he can live much longer.”
The black check pigeon was a year old at the time. He’d been bred in eastern England and was among hundreds of English birds pressed into service with the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front.
Reporters wrote that Cher Ami was severely wounded while carrying a message that informed headquarters of the Lost Battalion’s desperate plight, leading to its rescue. But the fact the pigeon’s mission came during a friendly-fire artillery barrage didn’t appear in any accounts.
I asked Finding the Lost Battalion author Robert J. Laplander about that. “From an Army point of view,” he emailed, “the fact that thirty were likely killed in the Charlevaux Ravine by U.S. fire was enough to keep a lid on things. … Slowly through the years, it came to be known the barrage was American, and especially as the war got further into the past, people were more willing to accept that tragic things happened and it wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
As for Cher Ami, gushing reporters turned him into an anthropomorphic avian preening with patriotism. “Cher Ami was one of the most faithful servants of the USA when everything was in turmoil,” the Buffalo Morning Express reported. “In all the wonderful work in which Cher Ami served, he never shirked for a minute, never complained or talked back to his associates or superiors. It has never been told whether he was compelled to salute the officers – but the odds are he didn’t.”
Laplander dismisses talk of Cher Ami’s bravery as postwar hero-building by the press: “The bird did what the bird was taught — he flew where the food was. It had a brain the size of a bottle cap which did not have empathy toward those men, the situation, or anything else. It was a bird who did not love ‘his guys’ or hate the Germans; he only did bird stuff. When he was released, he flew up in a tree, scared by the noise and flying junk, which was a very bird-like thing to do. When he was wounded, he got up and kept on going, not out of some sense of duty, but toward the food.”
What’s more, Cher Ami didn’t actually save the Lost Battalion. By other means, the American artillery unit had already learned its shells were landing on the doughboys in the pocket. Several minutes before the bird arrived at the mobile loft with Whittlesey’s urgent message, the shelling stopped.
Still, that doesn’t take away from the maimed pigeon’s extraordinary feat — flying twenty-five miles in less than half an hour. And, Laplander says, you couldn’t tell anyone who’d been with the Lost Battalion that it wasn’t Cher Ami who saved them.
The tale of the world’s most famous pigeon is still evolving more than a hundred years after his iconic flight. A new chapter was brought to light in 2021 by the curator of military history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.
Mining archival records, Frank A. Blazich, Jr. found no proof that Cher Ami was the key messenger for the Lost Battalion. The bird was severely injured carrying a message, Blazich wrote in the Journal of Military History, but the records are muddled as to when and where that happened. He says the Army identified Cher Ami as a Lost Battalion luminary to promote the Pigeon Service.
Laplander, the leading authority on the Lost Battalion, believes it was Cher Ami who flew Whittlesey’s plea to the American lines.
“There is documentation that says it was indeed the bird known as Cher Ami, and there is some contradictory documentation that says it wasn’t,” he told me. “Do I think that the particular bird known as Cher Ami and now stuffed and on display at the Smithsonian was the bird that carried the message out? Yes I do, as documentation shows the bird that carried the message was wounded in the chest and lost a leg, and that bird there has those same wounds.”
Other “bits and pieces of info,” Laplander added, also point to Cher Ami.
Despite the best care available, Cher Ami died of his wounds June 13, 1919, at a loft called the Hall of Honor of the American Pigeon Service in Potomac Park, Washington, D.C.
“Cher Ami, Pigeon Hero of World War, Has Joined His Comrades in Great Beyond,” headlines read. The Lexington Leader in Kentucky solemnly marked his passing, mistaking him for a hen: “No more will her white wings bear her thru the shrapnel rain, over No Man’s Land, over camouflaged artillery that wise Cher Ami knew so well, thru the smoke and din of battle, never swerving until the goal was reached.”
My sources for this blog:
Newspapers.com, including all images
Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WWI Epic, by Robert J. Laplander; second edition, January 2007; presented by The American Expeditionary Foundation, Waterford, Wisconsin; printed by Lulu Press
Notre Cher Ami: The Enduring Myth and Memory of a Humble Pigeon, by Frank A. Blazich, Jr., Journal of Military History 85:3 (July 2021): 646-77
Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion, by Edward G. Lengel, 2018, Da Capo Press, New York