2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In addition to humans, the war involved millions of animals - from horses to pigeons to slugs! In this special year, our Laura Brown, Auxiliary Veterinary Nurse writes a series of articles remembering animal helpers, heroes and victims of the war.
In October 1918, nine companies of American soldiers were trapped in the Argonne Forest in France. They had been cut off from other Allied troops and were surrounded by the Germans. They had almost no food; could only get water by crawling to a stream under heavy fire; and were running low on ammunition. To make matters worse, in the confusion of battle their own allies began firing on them.
Sending a human messenger to headquarters was impossible. The soldiers’ only hope was a messenger that could fly above the battlefield -- a carrier pigeon called Cher Ami.
Cher Ami had started life in a loft in Britain. When the U.S. entered the war, she was one of many birds donated by British pigeon-fanciers to American troops in France. The soldiers mistakenly thought she was male (her real sex wouldn’t be discovered till after her death) and gave her a masculine French name meaning “dear friend.”
Cher Ami had already flown 11 missions, but this would be the most important. It was also the soldiers’ last chance. They had had three carrier pigeons, but the other two had been killed as soon as they set off.
The soldiers fitted a tiny canister to Cher Ami’s leg with a note in it saying: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven's sake, stop it.”
Both sides in the war used pigeons to send messages, so when the Germans saw Cher Ami fly out of the brush, they knew why she was there. Immediately she found herself in a relentless stream of bullets. One of them knocked out one of her eyes. Another hit the leg that the message was attached to, leaving it hanging by a scrap of muscle, and then tore through her breast. For a minute she fell to earth, but then she rose up again. Half-blind and covered with blood, she kept on going. Half an hour after her release, having flown 40 kilometres, she arrived at division headquarters with her message still barely attached. The lives of 194 soldiers were saved.
A team of medics worked around the clock to save the gravely injured little bird. They could not reattach her leg, so they made her a tiny wooden one instead. When Cher Ami was well enough to travel, she was put on a boat and sent to retirement in the United States. The leader of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, General John J. Pershing, came personally to say goodbye to her.
Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm and became as well known as any of the human heroes of the war. When she died in 1919, her body was stuffed and put on permanent display in America’s national museum, the Smithsonian Institution.
Cher Ami’s stuffed body in the Smithsonian Institution. Copyright-free photo from the U.S. Department of Defense (via Wikipedia).
No one doubted that Cher Ami was a hero. But were they right?
Some would argue that homing pigeons like Cher Ami are merely following their instinct, which compels them to fly back to their nests no matter how far they have to travel or how many difficulties they face. If you take this view, then it is possible to argue that Cher Ami was no more “heroic” than a robot programmed to make the same journey.
Carrier pigeons being shipped to Dunkirk. Copyright-free image from the Library of Congress (memory.loc.gov)
Our understanding of how animals communicate and relate to their environment has improved tremendously since the 17th century, when Descartes claimed that animals were simply unfeeling machines. But the argument over where instinct ends and thought and emotion begin is still not settled. All we can say for certain is that nearly 200 people owed their lives to Cher Ami, and that normal pigeon behaviour proved to be of tremendous value in a war created by humans.
Belgian army pigeons. Copyright-free image from the Library of Congress (memory.loc.gov).