Unsung Heroes of World War I: The Carrier Pigeons

This month’s hashtag party is for the birds, literally—share your feathered friend related content on Friday, April 7, 2023, on Instagram and Twitter by using #ArchivesHashtagParty and #ArchivesForTheBirds! Today’s post from Garet Anderson-Lind was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.

World War I was one of the first great wars during the industrial revolution. From the introduction of airplanes to the use of tanks and railway guns on the battlefield, soldiers had to contend not only with each other but with the productions of the factory floor. Even the recent invention of the telephone made its way into battlefield units, where soldiers used it to convey orders or direct artillery fire.

In a conflict of the size and duration of World War I, communication was key. Unfortunately, technology—like the telephone or the telegraph—was not as reliable as the commanders of Europe would have liked. In an attempt to improve combat communications, the leaders of World War I turned to a much older form of communication: the carrier pigeon.

Carrier Pigeons (Signal Corps). 2nd Lt. Milne, S.R.C. and the pigeons he is raising for the Army, 1918. (National Archives Identifier 55166221)

Unsung heroes of World War I, the carrier pigeons of both the Allied and Central Powers helped assist their respective commanders with an accuracy and clarity unmatched by technology.

The National Archives has a vast collection of messages that these feathered fighters delivered for American soldiers. Using these messages and the history of the carrier pigeon in battle, we can look at what hardship these fearless fowls endured and how their actions saved American lives.

One of the most impressive things about the war records of the carrier pigeons was how widely the birds were used. Their service as battlefield messengers is their most known use, and the pigeons found homes in every branch of service.

Photograph of the Western Front. Pigeons were used at the front to keep commanders in the rear up to date on the action and enemy movement. (National Archives Identifier 17391468)

The rudimentary airplanes of the embattled countries used pigeons to provide updates midair. Launched mid-mission, the birds would fly back to their coops and update ground commanders on what the pilots had observed. Quick updates like this were essential for leaders to know what the battlefield looked like and what the enemy was doing in its own trenches.

Tanks carried the birds in order to relay the advance of individual units. Even after the introduction of the radio, pigeons were often the easiest way to help coordinate tank units without exposing the men to dangerous fire. Without a radio set, the soldiers would have had to leave the relative safety of their tanks to relay or receive orders.

The birds’ most effective use was on the front line, as they were brought forward with their armies to help update commanders and planners in the rear. When the birds were away from their home lofts, they stayed in mobile units, which were usually converted horse carriages or even double-decker buses.

Photograph of a mobile station that was used to house pigeons when they were deployed away from their home. (National Archives Identifier 17391470)

The mobile lofts were useful when the armies outpaced their established lines of communications or when the enemy disrupted communications lines for the telegraphs or telephones, as they often did during battle.

While the other Allied powers were first to use birds, the United States did not lag far behind when we entered the fray. During the course of the war, many birds performed heroic deeds in the course of service and became heroes in their own rights.

One bird of renown was known as “President Wilson.” Born in France, President Wilson assisted both the American tank corps and U.S. infantry men in their fight against Germany. His most famous moment came when assisting the 78th Infantry near Grandpre during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

President Wilson 111-SC-67518_2009_001_AC
Photograph of President Wilson, when he was stationed at the Pentagon in the care of the Army. (111-SC-67518, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives)

Engaging the enemy on the morning of October 5, 1918, President Wilson’s unit released him to request artillery support. However, his flight was not an easy one. Seeing Wilson rise above the opposing lines, the German soldiers opened fire on him, peppering him with bullets. While he sustained numerous injuries, President Wilson was able to make his flight back to headquarters in record time—in under 25 minutes.

The pigeon known as Cher Ami also gained fame during World War I. Cher Ami’s moment of heroism came during the actions of the so-called “Lost Battalion.” During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the German army surrounded elements of the 77th Division, besieging them for five days.

Cher Ami 111-SC-93245_2009_001_AC
Cher Ami was stuffed and mounted after his death and is now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. (111-SC-93245, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Office, National Archives)

At one point during the battle, the American artillery forces—attempting to shell the Germans—started firing on their own men. Unable to get previous messages through, Cher Ami was the last pigeon available to the Americans and the only way they could indicate to their artillery to stop firing.

Released as their last hope, Cher Ami flew through a hail of gun fire, sustaining shots through the breast and leg. Despite these wounds, Cher Ami survived and was able to deliver the message, and the artillery stopped the friendly fire. For the bird’s service, the French government awarded Cher Ami the Croix de Guerre with Palm.

Cher Ami’s message from Captain Whittlesey to the commanding officer of the 308th Infantry, 10/4/1918. (National Archives Identifier 595541)

For over a century there was confusion over Cher Ami’s gender. The U.S. Army’s Signal Corps recorded Cher Ami as a hen (female) but the Smithsonian labeled Cher Ami as a cock bird (male). Through modern DNA analysis the mystery has been solved: the Smithsonian has conclusively identified Cher Ami as male.

World War I “Homing Pigeons,” film by the U.S. Signal Corps, produced in 1936. (National Archives Identifier 24725)

Visit the National Archives website for a resources related to World War I.

One thought on “Unsung Heroes of World War I: The Carrier Pigeons

  1. Here is the summary of Frank Blazich’s very interesting article, “Notre Cher Ami: The Enduring Myth and Memory of a Humble Pigeon,” which appeared in Journal of Military History in July 2021 (Vol. 85, No. 3), pages 646–677:

    “The legend of the military homing pigeon Cher Ami has captured the public’s imagination; but the story of this pigeon helping save the lives of the Lost Battalion is rife with inconsistencies and falsehoods. This article delves into archival records to retrace Cher Ami’s life and deconstruct the myth about the bird. There is nothing conclusive linking the pigeon to the actions of the Lost Battalion. Cher Ami did survive severe wounds transporting a message, but exactly where and when are uncertain. The U.S. Army chose to link Cher Ami with the Lost Battalion’s story to promote the contributions of the Signal Corps’ Pigeon Service. The Smithsonian Institution preserved and displayed Cher Ami with benign indifference. The public treated the pigeon as a memorial, a place of remembrance and reflection on the heroism of the Lost Battalion and of the war’s combatants.”

    Blazich’s article is a fine example of the historian’s craft – and healthy skepticism towards received wisdom.

    Tank Corps accounts also lack references to President Wilson. Signal Corps photos are of course an extremely valuable resource, but sometimes one wonders where caption information came from. Occasionally, it is demonstrably false. One must remember, of course, that errors are inevitable when the Signal Corps was handling so much material. This just emphasizes the need for historians – any anyone else – to treat any source with due caution.

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