On October 3, 1918, a French battalion of 500 soldiers serving in World War I was trapped in a hillside behind enemy lines, taking on fire from their fellow Frenchmen, who were unaware of the battalion’s position. Just over a day later, half of the battalion had been killed in the crossfire.
Two attempts to contact the main army failed when German troops, quite literally, shot and killed the messenger. A third attempt appeared to befall a similar fate, when an on-loan American named Cher Ami, carrying a short message (“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!”) also found himself on the wrong end of a German bullet. The bullet blinded Ami, bloodied his body, and would cost him use of his left leg. But he survived and traveled 25 miles back to the main army, successfully delivering his message.
His life in the balance, medics nursed him back to health. They fashioned him a wooden leg and when he was healthy enough to travel, put him on a boat back to the United States, where he was personally seen off by General John J. Pershing (pictured above), one of two Americans to be given the highest-available Army rank, “General of the Armies” (George Washington being the other). Cher Ami was, in every sense of the term, given a hero’s sendoff for his sacrifice.
For any man, this would be quite the honor. But Cher Ami was no man. Literally. He was a homing pigeon.
Cher Ami (above) received the Croix de guerre – an honor given by France (and Belgium) to military personnel “who distinguish themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces.” He passed away 1919 from injuries suffered at war. Had he survived a few decades longer — unlikely, given that the average life span of a pigeon is a roughly decade — he would have probably earned a Dickin Medal, given to animals who have performed exemplary acts in the line of duty. He can be viewed on display (stuffed, of course) at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Bonus fact: Homing pigeons can reach speeds of 110 miles per hour over short (<100 miles) distances and can sustain speeds of 50 miles per hour over much longer distances. In Cher Ami’s case, he made the 25 miles trip — wounded — in 25 minutes (60 mph).
From the Archives: The Christmas Truce: Another piece of evidence that World War I warfare was much different than today’s.
Related: “Fly, Cher Ami, Fly,” a children’s book about the bird discussed above.