L Archive/Alamy Stock Photo (background); Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photo (pigeon)
The Pigeon Hero of World War I

The incredible true story of Cher Ami, the bird that saved nearly 200 American soldiers during World War I

By Lauren Tarshis
From the March 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to plan a museum exhibit drawing on key ideas and details from a nonfiction text

Lexiles: 830L, 940L
Other Key Skills: text structure, key ideas and details, figurative language, text feature, inference, author’s craft

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As you read the article and study the images think about what life was like on the battlefield during World War I.    

The American soldiers were doomed.

It was October 1918, not long before the end of World War I. This was a war more brutal than any before in history; it would leave 17 million people dead and pull more than 135 countries, including the United States, into battles around the globe.

Right now, in a dark, rainy forest in northeastern France, several hundred American troops were in a fight for their lives. The men were surrounded by enemy German soldiers. Machine guns rattled. Bombs rained from the sky. The Americans needed help. Their only hope was to get an urgent message to their commanders, 25 miles away.

But how? There were no walkie-talkies or cell phones in 1918, no computers to send emails, and the army radios weren’t working.

Luckily, there was one brave warrior who had been trained for a moment exactly like this. She took off with the message, on a life-and-death race across the forest.

Her name was Cher Ami, and she was not a soldier. She was not even a human.

She was a pigeon.

The American soldiers were doomed.

It was October 1918, not long before the end of World War I. This was a war more brutal than any before in history. It would leave 17 million people dead and pull more than 135 countries into battles around the globe.

Right now, in a dark forest in France, hundreds of American troops were in a fight for their lives. They were surrounded by enemy German soldiers. Machine guns rattled. Bombs rained from the sky. The Americans needed help. Their only hope was to get a message to their commanders, 25 miles away.

But how? There were no walkie-talkies or cell phones in 1918. There were no computers to send emails. And the army radios weren’t working.

Luckily, there was one brave warrior who had been trained for a moment just like this. She took the message and raced across the forest.

Her name was Cher Ami, and she was not a soldier. She was not even a human.

She was a pigeon. 

Allen H. Hanson/Getty Images

A GLOBAL CONFLICT 

World War I (1914-1918) was fought across Europe as well as in Africa and the Middle East. The major allies were Great Britain, France, Russia, and the U.S. on one side and Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire on the other.  

Incredible Powers

Cher Ami (French for “dear friend”) was one of thousands of pigeons that served with American soldiers during World War I. These particular birds, which are a breed known as carrier pigeons (or homing pigeons), had an important job: to carry messages.

Why would the military employ pigeons as messengers? For one thing, these pigeons are fast—some can fly up to 90 miles per hour. They are also smart. A pigeon’s brain is no bigger than a wad of bubble gum. But like the tiny chip in an iPhone, that pigeon brain is packed with power. For example, pigeons can be trained to recognize letters and words and even misspellings.

But what truly makes these pigeons ideal for carrying messages is their innate ability to return to their home nest, no matter how far away it is. Nobody needs to show them how to get home. They just know. These humble gray birds can travel over seas and mountains, across hundreds of twisting and turning miles, and they almost never get lost. It’s this remarkable navigational power that makes pigeons such effective messengers.

During war, to use a pigeon as a messenger, you would establish a home nest for the bird. Then you would take the bird with you as you traveled with your troops. When you wanted to send a message, you would write it on a piece of paper and place it in a pinkie-sized metal tube attached to the pigeon’s leg. You’d release the pigeon, and it would carry your message back to its home nest, where other troops would be waiting to read it.

Cher Ami (French for “dear friend”) was one of thousands of pigeons that served with American soldiers during World War I. These birds, a breed known as carrier pigeons (or homing pigeons), had an important job: to carry messages.

Why would the military use pigeons as messengers? These pigeons are fast—some can fly up to 90 miles per hour. They are also smart. A pigeon’s brain is no bigger than a wad of bubble gum. But like the tiny chip in an iPhone, that pigeon brain is packed with power. Pigeons can be trained to recognize letters and words and even misspellings.

But what truly makes these pigeons ideal for carrying messages is their innate ability to return to their home nest, no matter how far away it is. No one needs to show them how to get home. They just know. These humble gray birds can travel over seas and mountains, across hundreds of miles, and they almost never get lost. This remarkable navigational power makes pigeons great messengers.

During war, to use a pigeon as a messenger, you would establish a home nest for the bird. Then you would take the bird with you as you traveled with your troops. When you wanted to send a message, you would write it on a piece of paper and place it in a small metal tube attached to the pigeon’s leg. You’d release the bird, and it would carry your message back to its home nest, where other troops would be waiting to read it.    

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

ONE-WAY TRIP

Though carrier pigeons were effective messengers, they could only be used to send messages one way

Brutal Battles

Long before the days of phones, texts, and FaceTime, the only way to send a message over long distances was to send human runners—or pigeons. Ship captains used pigeons to send weather reports back to shore. Knights took pigeons with them into battle and used them to send news back to their kings. At the first Olympics, nearly 3,000 years ago, pigeons carried the results of chariot races and gymnastics tournaments to surrounding cities.

In the 1800s, new inventions like the telegraph and the telephone transformed the way humans communicated. But in wartime, getting information across long distances was still difficult, especially during battles.

And in World War I, the battles were bigger and bloodier than the world had ever seen. New weapons unleashed terror and death on a massive scale. Machine guns fired hundreds of bullets a minute. Poison gas caused blistering burns and scorched lungs. Grenades injured or killed multiple people at close range. Tanks plowed across lines of defense, and airplanes dropped bombs that triggered colossal explosions.

Modern technologies had made killing all too easy. But when it came to sending messages from a battlefield, no new invention was as reliable as a pigeon. 

Long before the days of phones, texts, and FaceTime, the only way to send a message over long distances was to send human runners—or pigeons. Ship captains used pigeons to send weather reports back to shore. Knights took pigeons with them into battle and used them to send news back to their kings. At the first Olympics, nearly 3,000 years ago, pigeons carried the results of chariot races and gymnastics tournaments to surrounding cities.

In the 1800s, new inventions like the telegraph and the telephone changed the way people communicated. But in wartime, getting information across long distances was still hard, especially during battles.

And in World War I, the battles were bigger and bloodier than the world had ever seen. New weapons unleashed terror and death on a huge scale. Machine guns fired hundreds of bullets a minute. Poison gas caused blistering burns and scorched lungs. Grenades injured or killed multiple people at close range. Tanks plowed across lines of defense. Airplanes dropped bombs that triggered colossal explosions.

New technologies had made killing all too easy. But when it came to sending messages from a battlefield, no new invention was as reliable as a pigeon. 

Fear and Rats

Cher Ami was born in England and trained by one of the country’s most famous pigeon experts. She was brought to France to serve during World War I. Cher Ami’s home nest was at the American army headquarters near the edge of a forest called Argonne.

In peacetime, Argonne was a fairy-tale forest of towering trees and babbling brooks. But by the time Cher Ami arrived in France, World War I had been dragging on for four years. The forests and fields of France had been transformed into blood-soaked battlefields, haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers.

These battles were fought with something called trench warfare. Trenches were deep, narrow ditches that stretched for miles. Soldiers would stay inside the trenches, which offered them some protection from bullets and grenades, until it was time to push forward. During a battle, opposing forces would attempt to take each other’s trenches, advancing from one to the next. Progress was slow—and bloody. Each time the men left their trench, they faced a storm of gunfire and bombs.

But men didn’t just fight from the trenches. They lived in them—24 hours a day, often for weeks at a time. They coped with knee-deep mud, with the sickening stench of garbage and human waste, with rampant disease, with constant fear. The noise of machine guns and bomb blasts made sleep almost impossible. Soldiers who did manage to fall asleep often awoke to find rats scurrying across their chests.

Cher Ami joined the men of the 77th Infantry Division, part of a large battalion of American soldiers. The man in charge, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been ordered to lead his troops in an attack on the Germans in Argonne. Cher Ami was one of eight pigeons brought on the mission. The birds lived together in a cage, and their caretaker, a young soldier from New York, did his best to keep them safe as the troops moved through the forest. 

Cher Ami was born in England and trained by a famous pigeon expert. She was brought to France to serve during World War I. Her home nest was at the American army headquarters near the edge of a forest called Argonne.

In peacetime, Argonne was beautiful. But by the time Cher Ami arrived in France, World War I had been dragging on for four years. The forests and fields of France had become blood-soaked battlefields.

These battles were fought with something called trench warfare. Trenches were deep, narrow ditches that stretched for miles. Soldiers would stay inside the trenches, which offered them some protection from bullets and grenades, until it was time to push forward. During a battle, opposing forces would try to take each other’s trenches, advancing from one to the next. Progress was slow and bloody. Each time the men left their trench, they faced gunfire and bombs.

But men didn’t just fight from the trenches. They lived in them, often for weeks at a time. They coped with knee-deep mud, with the sickening stench of garbage and human waste, with rampant disease, with constant fear. The noise of machine guns and bomb blasts made it hard to sleep. Soldiers who did manage to fall asleep often awoke to find rats scurrying across their chests.

Cher Ami joined the men of the 77th Infantry Division, part of a large battalion of American soldiers. The man in charge, Major Charles Whittlesey, had been ordered to lead his troops in an attack on the Germans in Argonne. Cher Ami was one of eight pigeons brought on the mission. The birds lived together in a cage. A young soldier from New York took care of them.  He did his best to keep them safe as the troops moved through the forest. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R01996/ CC-BY-SA 3.0

This automatic camera strapped to Cher Ami took photos of the battlefield as she flew home.    

Under Attack 

Deep in the forest, on October 3, Whittlesey’s men marched into the path of a large German force. The Americans were soon surrounded and under fierce attack.

The men—there were about 550 of them—tried to fight back, but they were low on ammunition, badly outnumbered, and exhausted. After all, many hadn’t had much sleep for weeks. Food had run low. The only way for the men to get a sip of water was to risk crawling through the mud to a stream.

The Germans pummeled the American troops with artillery—blasting them with powerful explosives and grenades and rapid-fire machine guns. With each passing hour, more men were killed or wounded.

Whittlesey kept sending out pigeons carrying desperate requests for help. But one by one, the pigeons were shot or disappeared.

Finally, the next day, American planes appeared overhead. Whittlesey’s men cheered, believing the planes would drop much-needed food, ammunition, and other supplies. But it wasn’t food and bullets those planes were dropping.

It was bombs.

Whittlesey understood with horror that the Americans didn’t realize that he and his men were in this part of the forest. The bombs were meant for the Germans, but instead, they were killing Whittlesey’s men.

The major frantically scrawled a message announcing their location in the woods and that they were under American attack.

The message ended with a plea: FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, STOP IT.    

Deep in the forest, on October 3, Whittlesey’s men crossed paths with a large German force. The Americans were soon surrounded and under attack.

The men (about 550 of them) tried to fight back. But they were low on ammunition, badly outnumbered, and exhausted. Many had barely slept for weeks. Food had run low. The only way for the men to get a sip of water was to risk crawling through the mud to a stream.

The Germans blasted the American troops with powerful explosives and grenades and machine guns. With each passing hour, more men were killed or wounded.

Whittlesey sent out pigeons carrying desperate requests for help. But one by one, the pigeons were shot or disappeared.

Finally, the next day, American planes appeared overhead. Whittlesey’s men cheered. They thought the planes would drop much-needed food, ammunition, and other supplies. But it wasn’t food and bullets those planes were dropping.

It was bombs.

Whittlesey understood with horror that the Americans didn’t realize that he and his men were in this part of the forest. The bombs were meant for the Germans. But instead, they were killing Whittlesey’s men.

The major frantically scrawled a message announcing their location in the woods and that they were under American attack.

The message ended with a plea: FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, STOP IT.    

A Feathered Missile

By this time, only two pigeons were left: Cher Ami and one other. It was the other pigeon that was pulled from the cage first. But the bird was so terrified that it flapped away before the message could be placed into its tube.

Now it was up to Cher Ami.

Hands reached into the cage and gently lifted her out. When the message was secure, she was set free. She fluttered up to a tree branch and perched there, rock still. It was as though she needed a moment to gather her courage.

And then she took off, like a tiny, feathered missile.

The sky was a storm of bullets and shards of bomb-shattered trees. Almost immediately, a bullet hit her in the eye. She began falling toward the ground, bleeding. But Cher Ami didn’t give up. She flapped her wings and rose skyward again.

Another bullet hit her, this time in her chest.

But she kept flying.

A third bullet struck her right leg and nearly tore it off.

But she kept flying.

Twenty minutes after she’d taken off, Cher Ami—bloodied, half-blind, with her leg hanging by a thread—arrived at headquarters with her message. The bombing was halted and soldiers were sent to rescue Whittlesey and his embattled men.

Meanwhile, medics worked frantically to save Cher Ami’s life. Her leg had to be amputated, but Cher Ami survived. She was fitted with a tiny wooden leg. News of her miraculous journey spread around the world. She was awarded a medal and sent to America, where she was greeted as a hero who had saved the lives of nearly 200 men.

World War I ended five weeks after the last flight of Cher Ami. This terrible war caused death and suffering for people around the world. But in the midst of this misery emerged stories of great bravery and heroism. Like the story of Cher Ami, the courageous pigeon hero of World War I. 

By this time, only two pigeons were left: Cher Ami and one other. The other pigeon was pulled from the cage first. But the bird was so terrified that it flapped away before the message could be placed in its tube.

Now it was up to Cher Ami.

The message was placed in her tube. Then she was set free. She fluttered up to a tree branch and perched there, rock still. It was as though she needed a moment to gather her courage.

And then she took off, like a tiny, feathered missile.

The sky was a storm of bullets and shards of bomb-shattered trees. A bullet hit her in the eye. She began falling toward the ground, bleeding. But she didn’t give up. She flapped her wings and rose up again.

Another bullet hit her, this time in her chest.

But she kept flying.

A third bullet struck her right leg and nearly tore it off.

But she kept flying.

Twenty minutes after she’d taken off, Cher Ami—bloodied, half-blind, with her leg hanging by a thread—reached headquarters with her message. The bombing was stopped. Soldiers were sent to rescue Whittlesey and his embattled men.

Medics worked to save Cher Ami’s life. Her leg had to be amputated, but she survived. She was fitted with a tiny wooden leg. News of her miraculous journey spread around the world. She was awarded a medal and sent to America, where she was greeted as a hero. She had saved the lives of nearly 200 men.

World War I ended five weeks after the last flight of Cher Ami. This terrible war caused death and suffering for people around the world. But in the midst of this misery emerged stories of great bravery and heroism. Like the story of Cher Ami, the brave pigeon hero of World War I.