Pigeons in the Great War

By Lieutenant-Colonel A.H. Osman, O.B.E., (Late O.C. Pigeon Service, G.H.Q., Home Forces).
Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXII, February to November, 1927

Prior to the Great War both the Army and Navy had made experiments in the use of pigeons and discarded them owing to unfavourable reports. The war showed that that decision was a mistake; but it proved also that to obtain successful results with these birds as messengers the service must be in the hands of experienced technical breeders and the lofts must be in charge of men possessing long experience of breeding, training and handling pigeons. Without this practical knowledge the birds will never give good results.

When war was declared in 1914 all pigeon lofts in Great Britain were visited and birds compelled to fly out. This removed the danger of their use to carry messages over the water, and police permits were then issued to all keepers of flying pigeons; 355,000 permits were so issued. It is possible that in peace time, keepers and breeders of pigeons in the United Kingdom may number quite two million.

One hundred thousand pigeons were used in the war on all fronts. These were bred and given to the Service by the owners and breeders without charge of any kind.

The selection of the birds must at all times be left in the hands of experts, because it takes many years of study to become a successful breeder and judge of this class of stock. Not a single bird left England to go to the front unless it had been examined and passed for service by O.C. Pigeons.

Pigeons will only fly to their objective and loft; they cannot be "sent" a journey. But lofts can be moved and the birds quickly taught to find them in their new position. Thus a large stationary loft containing 200 birds was moved from Harwich to Felixstowe and in ten days after its removal the birds were at work flying with messages from seventy to eighty miles over the North Sea to Felixstowe.

The Navy was the first to make use of pigeons in the war. It was found that trawlers used for mine sweeping had no means of reporting their work, many of the craft not being fitted with wireless. Volunteer pigeon owners were then called upon, and birds were at once put in training with the result that valuable information was often carried from these craft by means of the birds. Thus when the first Zeppelin attack took place it was made upon a fleet of trawlers at work in the North Sea when mine sweeping. The message describing the failure of the Zeppelin to gain its objective was sent by means of one of the writer's own pigeons called "Sweeper's Hope"; it described the attack by the Zeppelin on the mine sweepers and reported that all were safe.

The reliability of pigeons is very great, as an example of this one may quote the fact that one bird, "Little Hope," made no less than 153 journeys between the North Sea and the Coast from 1916 until the end of hostilities, never once failing to deliver its message. Since the end of the war, "Little Hope" has been flown in many races, including the 430 miles race, for eight years in succession; she has won hundreds of pounds in prizes, is twelve years old, and as one of the survivors of the war has now gained her pension.

Many aviators' lives were saved by pigeons when their machines were hopelessly down in the sea. For instance, Pigeon 104 N.U. 17 G.P.S., Blue Chequer Cock, on one occasion saved the lives of pilot and observer. The bird seemed to know the importance of its message and flew twenty miles in twenty minutes. This message was the sole means of saving these men's lives. In 1919 the Air Ministry issued a list of some hundreds of birds that had performed meritorious services during the war.

In connection with the land forces they proved invaluable when flown from tanks. In fact, when the tanks were in advanced positions pigeons very often proved the only means of communication and carried valuable information to the base. For intelligence they were also most valuable and must prove so in the future, as they carry their messages silently and leave no trace of their flight. They can be liberated at night and will home early to their lofts next morning—or can be trained to fly at night to night lofts specially constructed with a red light to guide them, but the danger of these illuminated night lofts is that enemy aircraft may observe and attack them.

During seven months of 1916 one military loft in France received twenty-four pigeon messages from airplanes which had been captured or which had met with disaster of some kind. These messages contained the last observations or told the fate of between forty and fifty airmen.

It was no mean performance to carry fairly large documents such as photographs or passports over the enemy lines, but the writer found by experiment that by threading small wires through the outside feathers of the tail and fastening the package under the tail quite a decent sized plan or package could be carried.

When it was decided to drop agents from aircraft by means of parachutes over the enemy lines with a basket of pigeons, the difficulty of avoiding injury to the birds was overcome by packing the birds in paper and tying string round their wing butts, again packing them in straw in a basket strapped to the man's back like a fisherman's creel. We lost only one man in this venture, he and the pilot having crashed; yet they lived long enough to release their birds. At first the agents who had been instructed to jump from the aircraft when in position lost courage and would not leave the aircraft, but eventually they were forced to jump and had no opportunity of refusing, as a sliding bottom was made to the aircraft which opened on the release of a spring by the pilot and the man and his pigeons were let loose, the parachute opening and working automatically as it was strapped in position.

Much of the work that could be performed by pigeons in the future cannot well be foreseen. Even though wireless is making great strides, and beam wireless may be further improved, it must always reveal some form of activity, whilst successful efforts are being made by clever inventors to block its use when desired. Pigeons may therefore still prove of value. For this reason encouragement should be given to the pigeon breeder in the production of these birds. The war proved how unnecessary it is for the Services to maintain an established pigeon service in peace time. The whole service on mobilization can perfectly well be created and staffed from the great body of pigeon fanciers who in the future will assuredly render the same services as in the past.

All pigeon racing in France is under military control. No foreign pigeons are allowed to enter the country except for racing and immediate liberation in the presence of the police. This step is taken to avoid pigeons being imported and secreted by agents in whose hands they might prove a danger. Permits are issued to all pigeon keepers and foreigners have great difficulty in obtaining permits to keep pigeons in that country.

No finer example of courage on the part of a pigeon can be quoted than that of No. 2,709. This pigeon was in the action fought off the Menin Road on 3rd October, 1917. She was dispatched with a message from the front line to Divisional Headquarters, nine miles away, early in the afternoon. How far she had gone on her way when she was hit by a bullet which broke one of her legs and drove the message carrier into her body we do not know. Hours passed. Night came on with rain; and when 2,709 did not return to her loft, she was given up for lost. But she was not lost. She was not dead. She had lain out in the wet all night and in the grey morning, with plumage wet and bloody, she fluttered into the loft, and died before the officer on duty could read the message she had brought. No. 2,709 is known as the V.C. pigeon. [Footnoted: "This pigeon is preserved in the R.U.S.I. Museum.—Editor."]

When Commandant Raynal was surrounded at Vaux there were times when pigeons were his only means of communication with Verdun. His last bird but one flew in through a terrible enemy fire and received the Croix de Guerre. His last bird, body mangled, dropped dead as it came in to deliver his message. It was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, and a diploma framed in the colours of the decoration and bearing a brief and dignified citation was hung at headquarters in Chantilly.

Here is a typical carrier pigeon war story. Somewhere on the North East Coast of England night was approaching under a drizzly mist, while a raw wind ripped land and sea around the lonely group of buildings forming a Royal Air Force station. It was tea time and a welcome hour too, when a bell rang. A pigeon had come in. A N.C.O. set down his cup of tea untasted and opened the door leading to the pigeon loft. From the corner, where it had huddled, he lifted a blue hen pigeon, 376 S.N.L. 14, very wet and bedraggled, skilfully removed a small aluminium cylinder from its right leg, slipped the bird into a pigeon basket and carried it into the mess room. The message read, "Machine wrecked and breaking up, 15 miles SE. of Rocky Point. Send boat." Darkness had fallen, and, out at sea, two men wet and chilled still clung to a wrecked seaplane. They had little hope that their message had been delivered, or, even if it had been, that help would come in time to save them. The wind had risen and the waves were gradually tearing away portions of the wreck which sank lower and lower into the water. At last there came a sound—the sweetest music they had ever heard—the siren of a motor boat. Again and again it sounded, each time nearer; then the bewildered men arose and sent up a wild shout in answer, and a hissing bow shot towards them from the darkness. They had been in the water twelve hours. On the top of a little basket by the fire in the mess room sat No. 376 quietly preening her damp feathers. And the next morning the British papers reported: "Seaplane N64 lost in the North Sea, fifteen miles Southeast of Rocky Point. All the crew were saved."

As a pigeon fancier and breeder of long-distance racing pigeons, one cannot help being proud of the work pigeons did in the Great War. The work was entirely voluntary, and some day I hope to write the story in full, but so many painful incidents and the loss of so many old friends are associated with the service that I hesitate to start.