When looking back into our ancestor’s lives, it is very hard to ignore how much the wars affected how their future played out. The sacrifices that every person made during that time will forever be remembered. But many forget that it was not just people that helped us achieve the world we live in today.
In war, communication is key, but it is also very, very dangerous. Radios were highly used in WW1, but they were easily intercepted by the opposition. People were used but most of the time they could not travel fast enough, and too many never reached their intended destination.
So, what could they use that had a strong sense of direction, ability to avoid being caught, have the element of speed and most importantly were cheap… Pigeons!
Around 100,000 pigeons were used in the First World War, they were perfect. They could be transported easily, had very small levels of upkeep and had an incredibly strong homing ability. Small messages would be secured within a metal canister attached to their legs and released either on the battlefield or even from a plane. They became so important for the war effort that the British government issued a 6-month jail sentence to anyone found to be causing harm to our feathered friends.
Looking at pigeons today, whether that be congregated outside high street shops or flocking through parks, it’s important to remember that they were of huge importance during the war… The most notable of these history-changing birds was Cher Ami.
In 1918, over 550 American men were trapped behind enemy lines, surrounded and receiving friendly fire and enemy bombardment. As you can imagine, it was not long before the 550 men became 194, those that remained had little hope left.
Soldiers were sent as runners to get the word out, but the group were so heavily surrounded, every one of them was intercepted. As a last resort, the man in charge, Major Charles White Whittlesey, sent two pigeons with SOS messages attached. Both were shot down.
Whittlesey and his men were on their last legs, and time was running out. Cher Ami, thought to be a male pigeon, was taken out of its carrier and the following message was written.
“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.’
Cher Ami took off and flew above enemy lines, dodging hundreds of bullets trying to take him down. But it was not long before a bullet caught him, shooting him down and tearing up his breast in the process. Cher Ami took a couple of seconds but was up and in the sky again. 25 minutes later he arrived at his loft having flown 25 miles, but with the addition of being blinded in one eye and a leg connected only by a sole tendon.
Because of Cher Ami’s determination, he saved all the 194 American soldiers. He rightly received many awards, including the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery. Oh, and let us not forget a specially carved wooden leg!
It was not until after he died in 1919 and was being seen by a taxidermist that it was discovered that he, was actually a SHE!
So, the next time you see a pigeon, remember; without their ancestors, your family tree may have been completely different or not even there at all!