Carrier Pigeons, used to carry communications during World War I, proved to be instrumental in the war. Because advanced telecommunications had yet to be developed, the carrier pigeon was often used by both sides, not only for critical dispatches, but also often sent from the front line carrying status report messages back to the main headquarters. The messages could then be relayed to the proper military authorities. In all, it is estimated that more than 100,000 carrier pigeons were used by both sides during the war. They are recorded as having a 95% success rate in navigating successfully to their intended destination.
Though communications during WWI were still crude, the telecommunications at that time was still the preferred method of communication. However, oftentimes, troop’s positions sometimes took them into areas past the existing lines. They would have to delay their communications until new line was laid down – this sometimes delayed their transmissions for days. In some cases, the terrain was so difficult, laying wire was impossible.
Carrier pigeons were fitted with a small carrier, which was attached to the pigeon’s leg. Once a message was completed, it would be folded and placed inside the canister. The pigeon would then be released to fly back to headquarters.
During the First Battle of the Marne, pigeons were shown to be the most effective means of getting messages to the French headquarters. Astonishingly enough, even if the pigeons were gone when the pigeon lofts advanced with the troops, when they returned, they still managed to find their loft. Their ability to find their way back to those who used them as messengers, was vital. Along with its acute homing instinct, the pigeon was also able to travel at great speeds, making it almost impossible to shoot one down.
Carrier pigeons were also found on board warships and seaplanes, where they could be used as a backup should radio communications, for any reason, break down.
US Army Signal Corps
One of the oldest groups of soldiers was known as the US Army Signal Corps. During WWI, they were given 600 pigeons to use as a means of communication. These are the men who were (and always have been) responsible for assuring that messages between units, as well as those from the other branches of the US service, got through.
At the start of the First World War, the United States received the pigeons as a donation from Great Britain bird breeders. Then, it was up to the American Soldiers to train them for their jobs.
One of the most noted carrier pigeons from WWI was named Cher Ami – translated Dear Friend. This pigeon, in the fall of 1918, spent several months on the front line and flew 12 vital missions. It is believed the most important message, however, was carried on 4 October 1918.
The day before, US Army Major Charles Whittlesey and 500 of his men found themselves trapped in a small hollowed area on the side of a hill. They were surrounded by the enemy. Many of the men trapped were killed or wounded on the first day. By day two, just over 200 were alive and unwounded. Major Whittlesey sent out a number of pigeons to inform his commanders, not only of his position, but alert them of how dangerous the trap was.
The following day, Cher Ami was the only pigeon he had left. That afternoon, the US sent some protection. The only problem was they were unsure of the American’s exact location so some of the artillery they were firing was landing right on top of Whittlesey and his men. The Major wrote a quick note instructing the men firing the artillery guns of his location and asking them to cease.
As Cher Ami was released, the German soldiers spotted the pigeon and began opening fire. Whittlesey and his men thought they were doomed, as they observed Cher Ami plummeting to earth. The pigeon, however, did not stay down for long. He managed to once again spread his wings and rise. Cher Ami flew high above the enemy fire and covered 25 miles in just 25 minutes. When he arrived at his coop, he was found severely injured, but the silver canister, which contained the all-important message, was still attached. The bird’s perseverance is credited with saving more than 200 lives.
Dedicated medics from the 77th Infantry Division worked valiantly to save Cher Ami. Though successful, they were unable to save his leg. They did, however, carve him a wooden leg. When the French soldiers (who the American’s trying to assist) received word of Cher Ami’s courage and determination, they awarded him one of France’s great honors – the Crois de guerre with a palm leaf.
Once the pigeon was well enough to travel, it was sent by boat to the United States. Back in the states, Cher Ami’s story was all over the news. But eventually, on June 13 1919, less than a year after his brave journey, Cher Ami succumbed to his wounds. He was preserved by a taxidermist and has served as inspiration for millions over the years. In fact, Cher Ami, one of the most well-known carrier pigeons of World War I, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.
It should be adequately noted that this legend has grown and changed over the years. Some feel it actually occurred during the Lost Battalion mission sometime in October of 1918. In the telling of that story, no mention is made of Cher Ami being wounded just out of the pocket. However, it is not important where or when Cher Ami was wounded. What is important is that this World War I carrier pigeon’s bravery and determination is, in fact, still completely accurate.