Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cher Ami

During a bout of recent fevery illness, my addled mind fixed itself on carrier pigeons; their tattered wings and messages buttoned onto their ankles flapping around my head.

I found myself, hunched back, propped up by a rake of hot water bottles and pillows, trawling the internet looking for story after story of carrier pigeons. I thought my intrigue couldn't be sated until I found this daft story about a pigeon called Cher Ami.

Cher Ami was a pigeon used in World War I. He's got his own Wikipedia page and seems to be quite the hero in American primary schools. I made this drawing of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Whittlesey and Cher Ami.

The following is the story of Cher Ami. I loved the register used in the website so much I'm just going to quote it here verbatim if you don't mind.

Good man Cher Ami
Stuffed and preserved for posterity

On October 3, 1918, Charles Whittlesey and more than 500 men were trapped in a small depression on the side of the hill behind enemy lines without food or ammunition. They were also beginning to be bombed by their own troops who did not know their location.

Surrounded by the Germans, many were killed and wounded in the first day and by the second day, only a little more than 200 men were still alive. Whittlesey dispatched messages by pigeon. The pigeon carrying the first message "Many wounded. We cannot evacuate." was shot down. A second bird was sent with the message, "Men are suffering. Can support be sent?" That pigeon also was shot down. Only one homing pigeon was left: 'Cher Ami'. He was dispatched with a note in a canister on his left leg,

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!

As Cher Ami tried to fly back home, the Germans saw him rising out of the brush and opened fire and for several minutes, bullets zipped through the air all around him. The men of the Lost Battalion saw Cher Ami tragically shot down, but miraculously, he was airborne again soon. He managed to arrive back at his loft at division headquarters 25 miles to the rear in just 25 minutes, helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors. In this last mission, Cher Ami had delivered the message despite having been shot through the breast, blinded in one eye, covered in blood, and with a leg hanging only by a tendon.

Cher Ami had become the hero of the 77th Infantry Division, so army medics worked long and hard to save his life. They were unable to save his leg, so they carved a small wooden one for him. When he recovered enough to travel, the little one-legged hero was put on a boat to the United States, with General John J. Pershing personally seeing Cher Ami off as he departed France.

Cher Ami died of his multiple war wounds on June 13, 1919--less than a year after he had completed his service to the United States Army Signal Corps. Upon his death a taxidermist preserved the small pigeon for future generations, a bird with a story that became an inspiration to millions over the years.

And there you were thinking this post was going to be all about writing cringey letters to French penpals.

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