BIRD WATCH: In ‘Lost Battalion,’ hopes that a hero gets a proper salute

“CHER AMI AND the Lost Battalion” sounds like the title of a French movie.

These words don’t bring visions of pigeons to mind unless you know Cher Ami’s story.

During World War I, homing pigeons were used by both American and French forces as part of communication operations.

Cher Ami was one of 600 homing pigeons donated to the Americans by French pigeon breeders.

Short messages written on paper were rolled up tightly, placed in tiny metal canisters and fastened to a bird’s leg.

The birds would be tossed into the air, and their homing instincts guided them through enemy lines to their home cage back at Army headquarters.

The military bird trainers backpacked the birds in cages when the soldiers marched into battle. Several birds were carried in a pack cage.

When a message needed to be sent, the birds were released on the battlefield to carry them back to headquarters and their home cages.

On Oct. 3, 1918, Maj. Charles Whittlesey was the commander of the American 77th Infantry Division.

He and some 600 soldiers were taking part in the battle known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Cut off and surrounded

This division became cut off from other forces and surrounded by the German troops.

After two days of battle, there were only 200 men still alive. They were having difficulties getting their request for reinforcements back to headquarters.

Three pigeons carrying three different messages were sent off. The first two were shot down by the German soldiers.

Cher Ami was the third bird tossed into the air. Despite heavy enemy fire and being severely wounded, the bird got through.

Twenty-five miles away, across German lines, the American commanders received this message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heavens sake stop it.”

When the American pigeon handlers retrieved Cher Ami and the message, they saw that the bird was severely wounded.

One leg dangled from a piece of skin and couldn’t be saved. A hole the size of a quarter went through the bird’s breast and one eye was gone.

Surgeons worked to save the pigeon’s life and it was sent home to the United States.

Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American forces in France, escorted Cher Ami home.

By that time, the pigeon had become a hero. It received several awards, and one of those was the French Croix de Guerre with a Palm Leaf Cluster.

On Oct. 7, 1918, the “Lost Battalion” of almost 200 men had been rescued.

I had never heard of Cher Ami, even though the exploits of homing pigeons have been well-documented for many years.

A new look

Reading about this bird has made me feel more than a little guilty of my less-than-flattering ideas of pigeons.

Our rock pigeons (formerly rock doves) can be a nuisance when their numbers get out of hand. They make a terrible mess and are the bullies at the feeders.

Now, I can never look at them quite the same.

Cher Ami looked just like what we often call “park pigeons.”

After her death, a year after being so badly injured, she died and her stuffed body was placed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Yes, after her death, it was determined that Cher Ami was a blue check hen, not a black check cock, as she had always been identified.

Now, I am going to try to watch the movie “The Lost Battalion” to see if my favorite character gets proper credit for the rescue.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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