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Did a Pigeon Really Save 194 Lives During World War I?

Margaret Lipman
By
Published Jul 02, 2024
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Cher Ami, which means “dear friend” in French, was a male homing pigeon that played a crucial role in carrying messages during the First World War. Cher Ami was one of 600 pigeons donated to the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France by British pigeon fanciers in 1918.

Homing pigeons were used throughout both world wars because of their remarkable ability to navigate across enemy lines and find their way home. In war zones where telephone and radio technologies were often unavailable, small canisters containing messages were attached to the pigeons’ legs, making these birds an invaluable means of communication. Unsurprisingly, it was a dangerous task for the birds, as they were targeted by enemy combatants in an effort to disrupt communications.

In the final months of World War I, French and American troops launched a major offensive known as the Meuse-Argonne campaign. During the offensive, in early October 1918, Major Charles W. Whittlesey’s 77th Division became surrounded in the Argonne Forest by German soldiers. The American infantrymen came under friendly fire from Allied troops who were unaware of their location. In a desperate attempt to communicate their position and stop the bombardment, Whittlesey began sending messages by pigeon. Most of the birds were mowed down by heavy artillery fire until only one pigeon, Cher Ami, remained.

Despite being shot through the breast and sustaining a severe injury to his right leg, Cher Ami successfully returned to his loft at division headquarters with a message outlining the 77th Division’s location and the urgent plea: "Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it."

Cher Ami’s actions helped save the lives of 194 soldiers from the 77th Division, which came to be known as the “Lost Battalion.” For his service and for successfully dispatching a dozen other important messages during the First World War, Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a prestigious French military medal. Due to his injuries, Cher Ami retired from service and was returned to the United States. Sadly, despite receiving medical attention, he died on June 13, 1919. His body was mounted by a taxidermist and displayed at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

In praise of pigeons:

  • Cher Ami’s legacy has endured, even into the 21st century. In 1931, he was inducted into the Racing Pigeon Hall of Fame, and in 2019 he was awarded the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery.

  • In 1907, Dr. Julius Neubronner, an amateur pigeon fancier, developed a time-delayed camera that he attached to a pigeon with a breast harness. This innovation was briefly employed by the German Army in World War I for reconnaissance but was ultimately replaced by aircraft technology.

  • Homing pigeons played such an important part in World War I that the British imposed a serious punishment for killing or wounding one of the birds: six months imprisonment or a £100 fine.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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