Cher Ami Fact Sheet: A Century of Myth and Public Memory
Cher Ami is arguably the most famous pigeon in the world, having come into the limelight after World War I for service with the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Pigeon Service. Books, films and poetry have been inspired by Cher Ami’s heroism. The bird is currently on display in the World War I section of “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War” exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
As wired communications and human messengers proved vulnerable to disruptions due to artillery fire, pigeons became a reliable means of communication between the front and command posts. In July 1917, the U.S. Army Signal Corps established a Pigeon Service, the first members of which joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France in November that year. In May 1918, the British Home Forces Pigeon Service donated 600 young British pigeons to the American forces. One of these birds would later be known as Cher Ami. The bird was first identified by the band on its left leg marked NURP 18 EAD 615, which translates as “National Union Racing Pigeon,” born in 1918, bred at the loft registered to “EAD,” bird number 615. “EAD” is believed to be E.A. Davidson of St. James’s House, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England.
In October 1918, a composite battalion of U.S. soldiers of the 77th Division advanced rapidly in France’s Argonne Forest ahead of the forces on its flanks and found itself surrounded by German forces. Known as the Lost Battalion, this group of men were trapped and cut off in the forest with limited resources for almost a week. Forced to rely on homing pigeons for communication, the commanding officer, Maj. Charles W. Whittlesey, sent seven messages over Oct. 3 and 4 to seek help for his beleaguered force.
His last pigeon, released at 3 p.m. Oct. 4, arrived back at its loft an hour and 15 minutes later. Upon examination, the bird was found to have been struck by either a bullet or shell fragment, which severed the right leg and cut across the breast, leaving the message capsule hanging off the tendons of the severed leg. The message provided Americans with the exact location of the surrounded men to aid in their relief. The Lost Battalion was ultimately rescued on the evening of Oct. 7, incurring almost 70% causalities during their gallant stand.
Cher Ami’s fame is connected in history to this key message from the Lost Battalion Oct. 4, 1918. Yet even though it is certain Cher Ami delivered critical messages from the battlefield in the fall of 1918, the pigeon’s service is clouded in myth because of inconsistent narratives. Military records are unable to specify which pigeon delivered the key message of the afternoon of Oct. 4 from the Lost Battalion, and multiple publications conflict when referring to Cher Ami as both a male and female pigeon.
While news stories about the Lost Battalion mentioned how pigeons proved an essential communication element during the war, there is no record of any single pigeon listed by name. When a select group of hero pigeons returned to the United States April 16, 1919, Capt. John L. Carney of the Pigeon Service proclaimed Cher Ami to be the pigeon that saved the Lost Battalion.
In the subsequent weeks that stretched into years, countless articles would refer to Cher Ami as both a male and female and crediting the bird with multiple heroic acts. The official U.S. Army record for Cher Ami from February 1919 states that the bird was a Black Check Hen having “Delivered 12 important messages from the Verdun Front to loft at Rampont. Average distance 30 kilometers. Average time 24 minutes. Returned on last occasion with leg shot away, message tube containing important document hanging by tendon. Missile which carried away leg, also passed through breast. Wonderful vitality of bird enabled it to recover quickly. In this seriously wounded condition number 615 flew 40 kilometers in 25 minutes, being liberated at 2:35 P.M., arriving loft at 3 o’clock. Point of liberation Grand Pre.”
After the war ended, Cher Ami was taken across the Atlantic. Despite medical care, the pigeon did not fully recover from its war injuries and died June 13, 1919. Rather than bury the bird, the Signal Corps opted to preserve Cher Ami and to donate the remains of the heroic WWI pigeon to the Smithsonian Institution, so the bird’s story and achievement could be told.
The body was turned over to Nelson R. Wood, a taxidermist in the biology department of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for mounting. Cher Ami was officially transferred to the United States National Museum in November 1920. Months later, in June 1921, Cher Ami first went on public display in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building. At the time, the exhibition label did not mention any connection to the Lost Battalion. Cher Ami was described as a male bird and one of 600 English pigeons donated to the war effort. The sex of the pigeon was referenced in a memorandum from the Signal Corps, albeit without explanation.
What is the true story of Cher Ami’s heroism? Extensive research by the National Museum of American History’s modern military history curator, Frank A. Blazich Jr., who holds a doctorate in modern American history, finds several possible scenarios. What is known is that Cher Ami did deliver a vital message despite grievous wounds. Recent DNA research, performed in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Center and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, has confirmed that Cher Ami’s Smithsonian designation as a male pigeon is correct.. The beloved patriot pigeon continues to function as a memorial to all the military homing pigeons who served without choice, and as reminder of the sacrifices made in WWI.
For more detailed information, refer to:
Frank A. Blazich Jr., “Feathers of Honor: U.S. Army Signal Corps Pigeon Service in World War I, 1917-1918,” Army History, 38, no. 4 (fall 2020): 32–51.
Frank A. Blazich Jr., “Notre Cher Ami: The Myth and Memory of a Humble Pigeon,” Journal of Military History, 85, no. 3 (July 2021): 646–77.
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