Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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Winged Warriors

Last Saturday was my Mum’s birthday. She would have been 100 years old and eligible to receive a telegram from the Queen. It would have thrilled her had she lived that long. I can never forget my Mum’s birthday as it falls on Anzac Day.

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that originally commemorated those who fought at Gallipoli in 1915. This was a terrible battle which dragged on for months. Many Aussies and Kiwis - and many Turks - died. However, the fighting spirit of the Australian and New Zealand troops lived on long after the battle and created a powerful legacy. So much so that the Turkish people also celebrate Anzac Day with us, and regard those that lost their lives on this land their sons as well.

Nowadays, we commemorate Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. We also remember the contribution and suffering of all those who have served - and for me, this always includes the animals used in warfare.

Many animals served, suffered, and died alongside soldiers. Horses, donkeys, camels, mules and even elephants were used to transport soldiers, weapons, ammunition and food. Dogs were used to track the enemy and locate injured soldiers. And then there were pigeons.

There are those today only too willing to deride pigeons as "rats of the air". They are seen as dirty, smelly, disease spreading vermin. Yet these amazing birds have been through many wars with us, often being injured by artillery fire or dying from exhaustion after delivering their messages.

Their ability to find their way home is legendary and they have multiple navigational aids to help them. Researchers still argue about which ones are used, and whether some are relevant at all, but basically, this is the list:

  • An internal compass that senses the Earth’s magnetic field
  • An internal compass that uses the position of the Sun.
  • Ultrasonic hearing
  • Ultraviolet vision
  • Ability to create an odour map. (For years, people thought all birds had a poor sense of smell but it turns out they were wrong. Some birds have incredible olfactory abilities.)

You can set a racing pigeon free 965 km (600 miles) from a place they’ve never been before, yet it will find its way home. They fly through uncharted territory and average 97 km (60 miles) an hour. And they won’t stop for food, rest, or water until they arrive at their destination. It was this steadfastness that made carrier pigeons so vital to the war effort.

One famous winged warrior was Cher Ami. British pigeon fanciers donated her to the U.S. Army - although at this stage she had been mistakenly registered as a cock, not a hen. For those who know French, her name means "Dear friend" in the masculine. On October 3, 1918, there were over 550 men trapped behind enemy lines without food or ammunition. The men attempted to get help but the Germans shot all the human and feathered messengers they sent. To make matters worse, the trapped men were being hammered by friendly fire as well as by enemy fire. Finally, they dispatched Cher Ami with a note, written on onion paper, in a canister on her left leg. The note said:

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 her rising out of the brush and opened fire. After several seconds they shot her down, but she bravely took flight again. She arrived back at her loft at division headquarters 40 km (25 miles) to the rear in just 25 minutes, helping to save the lives of the 194 survivors. Her injuries were extensive - shot through the breast, blinded in her left eye, right leg hanging by a tendon.

Cher Ami became a hero for saving the men of the 77th Infantry Division. Army medics worked to save her life but could not save her leg, so they carved a small wooden one for her (which didn’t work, but it’s the thought that counts). When she recovered enough to travel, they put the now one-legged bird on a boat to the United States. However, in 1919, she died from the wounds she had received. In her short life, she delivered 12 important messages during battle and was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal for heroic service.

A taxidermist hired to mount her body discovered that he was actually she, although some dispute this. Cher Ami will undergo some conservation and testing to determine sex in 2021. (Really, I think a qualified taxidermist has seen enough of bird organs to correctly identify ovaries from testes.)

Cher Ami

There are many stories extolling the bravery of these winged warriors and the many lives they saved (more here and here). I cry reading about their exploits and injuries, and not only because I hate what war does to this wonderful planet of ours. It saddens me that they these animals suffered serving us, even though I am grateful of the role they played. With pigeons though, I am even sadder that their beauty and resilience seems lost on people today. Horses and dogs are adored, pigeons are reviled.

Last November, a Canberra newspaper ran a story about a pigeon who stole poppies from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She then made a nest in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.

Image: Ian Roach. Published in The Canberra Times, 2019.

I like to think it is Cher Ami come back to live out her life as she should have done, but knowing the legacy she has left. The one thing these winged warriors have taught me is that unlikely heroes are the most engaging and heartbreaking. Something I try to remember in my writing.

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