Battered, bruised and bloodied, the fierce combatant struggled to complete his battlefield mission. Despite a wound to his breast and a nearly severed leg, he delivered what may have been a lifesaving message to American commanders, becoming a symbol of courage under fire during World War I and winning the French military award, the Croix de Guerre With Palm—quite an achievement for a creature who weighed only one pound.
Given the severity of the wounds that would kill him months later, the fact that the carrier pigeon Cher Ami “still got back to his loft is incredible,” says Frank Blazich, a curator of military history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where the bird is mounted for display as a taxidermy specimen. “It would be the equivalent of a human getting gut-shot and holding their guts and still walking 100 miles back. It’s just mind-blowing—with a broken leg, I should add.”
Cher Ami was among hundreds of carrier pigeons, a breed of rock pigeon (Columba livia), employed on the European battlefront during World War I and trained to serve as messengers of last resort when the enemy cut telephone lines and when human runners faced too much danger. “Injured birds,” Blazich says, “actually manage sometimes to walk to their loft over tens, maybe hundreds of miles” after their wounds made flying impossible. Typically, the pigeons bore messages in a tiny capsule attached to one leg.
Since ancient times, humans have used rock pigeons to deliver information without fully understanding how the creatures manage to find their way back to their home bases. Recent research suggests the birds—which can fly up to 15 hours per day without interruption, covering 500 to 700 miles, and at speeds up to 60 miles per hour—navigate using changing landscapes and the Earth’s magnetic field. As Mike Dash reported in Smithsonian in 2012, “the general principle that carrier pigeons could make communication possible in the direst of situations was firmly established in 1870.” At the cusp of the 20th century, pigeon messenger services existed in Spain, Russia, Italy, France and Germany.
Cher Ami attracted international fame because of the bird’s purported connection to the “Lost Battalion,” 554 men from 9 infantry and machine gun companies of the 77th Division, who for five long days in October 1918 found themselves separated from other American troops—and surrounded by Germans. Commanded by Major Charles W. Whittlesey, these tired, cold and hungry soldiers were fulfilling orders to push forward even if their flanks were not covered.
Theirs was an extremely deadly part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the bloodiest campaign that U.S. soldiers have ever fought, says Blazich. The battle in Eastern France along the German border would eventually lead to the November 11, 1918, signing of the Armistice—and the end of the war. About 1.2 million American soldiers participated, with more than 120,000 casualties, including about 26,000 killed in action. In this massive operation, however, Allied commanders became uncertain of the location of the doughboys of the Lost Battalion, who soon fell under attack from both enemy German artillery, as well as friendly fire from the Americans.
With rations running low and many of his soldiers wounded or dead, Whittlesey eventually turned to pigeons to communicate with the American command. Though there remains little conclusive evidence, Cher Ami is believed to have been the pigeon that delivered details of the Lost Battalion’s position, Blazich says. The myth of the Lost Battalion also argues that Cher Ami delivered news leading the U.S. military to cease firing on the soldiers’ location, but in reality, he says, shelling of Whittlesey’s troops ended about five minutes before the pigeon reached its home base. The bird’s extremely urgent note did carry crucial information—the Lost Battalion’s exact location:
“We are along the road parallel 276.4.
Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us.
For heaven’s sake, stop it.”
When the battalion was subsequently rescued, only 194 of its men could walk away from the spot where they had been captives of fate.
Through news reports, the Lost Battalion, Whittlesey and Cher Ami became a legendary part of the American public’s understanding of a complex war whose beginnings remained unclear to many. Cher Ami died in June 1919 from the wounds he suffered eight months earlier during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The bird’s body was given to the Smithsonian Institution, where it was conserved taxidermically using arsenic, a common preservation technique employed as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. and only discontinued in the 1980s. Cher Ami has been on display for most of the 104 years since his death, but he has remained a figure of mystery in many ways over its long stay at the Smithsonian. For one, the bird’s sex was not determined until a DNA test was done just two years ago, confirming the pigeon was, in fact, a male.
This month, for the first time since his arrival at the Smithsonian, Cher Ami was made ready for a departure from his venerable home so that he can play a role in tonights multimedia performance “November 1918: The Great War and The Great Gatsby” at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The planned move necessitated fresh preservation work. Independent conservator Lisa Goldberg worked to repair a broken neck and restore other damaged parts, such as Cher Ami’s cere, roughly equivalent to human nostrils. Goldberg also replaced missing feathers, using those from ducks and geese that had been colored to approximate a pigeon’s. “I preened the feathers, and he looks really pretty now,” she says.
At Carnegie Hall, Cher Ami will appear tonight in a production that highlights Whittlesey and three other World War I figures: the British nurse and author Vera Brittain, who wrote a World War I memoir, Testament of Youth; ragtime and jazz musician James Reese Europe, a member of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment or “Harlem Hellfighters;” and the young pilot Quentin Roosevelt, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt whose aircraft crashed behind enemy lines. Beyond seeing the war through the experiences of these individuals, the production also traces ties between World War I and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. “It seems either Fitzgerald modeled Gatsby on Whittlesey or Gatsby modeled his war experience—we’ll never know,” says Meredith Wagner, executive producer of the show and president of American History Unbound, the organization presenting the event. In other words, was Gatsby written to be a man who led a lost battalion, or was he written as being duplicitous in making that kind of claim?
The World War I program is the fourth in a series presented by American History Unbound at Carnegie Hall. John Monsky, who organizes and narrates the productions, began putting together small shows for friends in his living room as a means of showcasing the collection of flags that he began amassing as a child. The New-York Historical Society heard about his shows and offered to host them. Later, he received a call from Carnegie Hall inviting him to stage a presentation there. Now, what used to be intimate living room gatherings are big stage productions interweaving multimedia displays with performances by Broadway singers and actors participating alongside an orchestra or band. After a successful beginning, Carnegie Hall suggested presenting a series of these programs. Monsky, a lawyer and historian, also put on a World War II program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C last year.
Among the four people spotlighted in this production, only one—Brittain—was alive four years after the war ended. She survived World War I and its immediate aftermath, but she lost her brother, her fiancé and two close friends in the war. She was 21 when she began serving in a Voluntary Aid Detachment early in the war. She lived until 1970, and her 1933 memoir remains a revered piece of literature in the United Kingdom, although it never gained tremendous attention in the United States.
Quentin Roosevelt became a featured player in American life when his father took over the presidency in 1901 after the assassination of William McKinley. The six Roosevelt children captivated the nation, with the small rough-and-tumble boys becoming infamous for playing rambunctiously in the White House. Quentin was the youngest, and when he died at the age of 20, many Americans felt they had lost a once-rascally younger brother or son. The production uses his death to show the “whole devastation of the families” who lose a member in war, says Monsky. Just months after the war’s end, the former president’s widow, Edith, went to her son’s crash site, where she knelt in the mud and prayed.
James Reese Europe survived the war but not its consequences. As a veteran soldier, band leader and supporter of African American rights, he celebrated a joyous homecoming. On a triumphant band tour, he died six months after the Armistice. During a break in a Boston performance, he was fatally stabbed with a penknife in May 1919. The killer, who had served with Europe overseas, apparently suffered from what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and possibly other health problems.
Cher Ami remains inextricably tied to the Whittlesey story. While the Army major was celebrated as a national a hero, he too fell victim to PTSD, then known as “shell shock.” He and two other officers connected with the Lost Battalion received the Army Medal of Honor and were asked to participate in the burial of World War I’s unknown soldier in Arlington National Cemetery during the autumn of 1921. About two weeks later, Whittlesey jumped to his death from the deck of a civilian ship. In an apparently well-planned suicide, he left letters for family and friends. After his death, those close to him reported that he was overwhelmed by memories of dead soldiers and nightmares of the war. Monsky believes his suicide diminished the hero worship that had been directed toward him.
World War I was the first military conflict in which the psychological dangers of battle were identified and studied. At that time, it became clear that war deaths did not end with an Armistice. Often, the war came home with soldiers who never fully readjusted to civilian life, and some committed violent acts against others or died at their own hands.
As a part of this presentation, says Monsky, Cher Ami serves as “a symbol of the valor of these American troops that, a long way from home, sacrificed everything.” Whether he was the pigeon that delivered Whittlesey’s crucial message or not, Cher Ami served bravely despite injury and bolstered the American cause.