Winged warriors: pigeons in the First World War

In the centenary year of the First World War, the UK is reflecting on the bravery of the men and women involved in the conflict. Yet often the pivotal role of animals in the war is overlooked: from camels that carried wounded men to safety on the North West Frontier of India, to dogs fitted with apparatus for laying telephone wires. Here, Lee Fribbins from Racing Pigeon magazine explores one of the most important war animals – the humble homing pigeon

French soldiers with carrier pigeons, 1914/15 © INTERFOTO / Alamy

With the advantages of communication technology today, it is easy to forget that homing pigeons were often the difference between life and death for First World War service men and women. Said to be one of the toughest birds on the planet – voluntarily flying more than 20,000 miles a year – the birds used their natural instincts, following landmarks by aerial recognition, as well as their sense of smell, to ensure messages were safely delivered.

More than 100,000 birds were responsible for sending rescue messages back and forth from soldiers to their base, with an incredible 95 per cent successfully reaching their destination with their message. But the First World War wasn’t the first time pigeons have been used to convey messages. The earliest record of a pigeon being used as a messenger bird is in ancient Egypt, during the reign of Ramses III (1187–56 BC), when they were used to convey news between cities regarding the flood state of the Nile.

Pigeons also had an important role in the Roman Empire, when they helped ships to warn their homeport of their arrival. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, carrier pigeons were affectionately known as ‘The King’s Angels’. They were brought to Europe by the Crusaders in the medieval period.

An official pigeon postal service existed throughout France in the 1800s, and was expanded between capitals so that a postal service by carrier pigeon between London and Paris was advertised in 1870.

During the Second World War, more than a quarter of a million pigeons were donated by British fanciers to help in the war effort in all three of the armed services and the civil defence. Many bomber and reconnaissance aircrafts that left RAF stations, both at home and abroad, carried two homing pigeons, which would be used to send rescue messages back to their base in the case of their aircraft making an emergency landing.

Pigeons were also carried by ground forces and dropped by parachute to resistance workers on the continent. The pigeons, when released with a message or other intelligence such as maps strapped to the pigeons’ back in a special tube, would use their natural homing ability to get home.

German forces also used pigeons as message carriers during the war. They were so concerned about intelligence getting back to the Allied forces on mainland Europe and in England, that they employed hawk handlers along the coast of the North Sea to use these birds of prey to attack the pigeons. To try to prevent the devastation the loss of the pigeons would cause, the British Government ordered a cull of these birds of prey along the south coast of England, where they were most prevalent.

There has been some significant recognition of pigeons’ contribution to the war effort. Of the 63 Dickin Medals – the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross – awarded to date, 32 were given to homing pigeons. Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), created the Dickin Medal in 1943 to acknowledge outstanding acts of bravery displayed by animals serving with the armed forces or civil defence units in any theatre of war, worldwide.

One such winner was Dutch Coast, recognised “for delivering an SOS from a ditched Air Crew close to the enemy coast 288 miles distance in 7.5 hours, under unfavourable conditions, while serving with the RAF in April 1942”. Another was Royal Blue, “for being the first pigeon in this war to deliver a message from a forced landed aircraft on the Continent while serving with the RAF in October, 1940.” The bird was donated by King George VI.

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