BRITISH CARRIER PIGEON SERVICE
Over 100,000 pigeons served with British forces in the Great War.
On the Western Front, the birds were kept in mobile pigeon lofts. These lofts were either horse drawn or mounted on lorries (or converted London buses) and kept behind the front line.
When needed, pigeons were taken from the lofts to the trenches in wicker baskets. Their homing instincts meant they could return to their loft even if it had been moved.
These birds not only had to contend with enemy fire but also with trained hawks which were employed to bring down the pigeons. However, despite these dangers, the success rate for despatches sent by pigeon was around 95%.
When Major Alec Waley, the commander of the British carrier pigeon service, visited the British Expeditionary Force’s II Corps on July 31, 1917, he was informed that “75% of the news which had come in from the firing line had been received by pigeon”.
These birds were saving the lives of British soldiers. Testimony by infantry company commander A.L. Binfield paid tribute to “the wonderful service rendered by pigeons”. After his men had captured the village of St Julian August 3, he wrote:
“It was observed that the enemy were assembling for a counter-attack, and, as a last resource [sic] our last pigeon was sent up asking for an artillery barrage to be put down … the barrage came down in 14 minutes after the release of the pigeon as a direct result of the message we sent. The German counter-attack was launched but failed to reach the shell-holes we were holding – a very fortunate matter for us, as S.A.A. [small arms ammunition] and Lewis-gun ammunition was practically exhausted.”
Homing pigeons were a proven communications resource and had been used for thousands of years. Both their value and danger were immediately recognized when war broke out in 1914. The Alien Registration Act of August 1914 prohibited foreign nationals from having weapons, radio transmitters and homing pigeons without the prior agreement of the Chief Constable.
This legislation resulted in a flurry of prosecutions, including several registered aliens who were sent to jail for up to six months for keeping homing pigeons without this authority.
The shooting of homing pigeons became a serious offence, ameliorated slightly if the dead pigeons and their messages were immediately handed in.
In September 1914, the Birmingham and Midland Federation of Homing Pigeon Societies, which had over 2,000 members, offered 30,000 birds to support the war effort. In May 1918, the British Government had welcomed, from pigeon-breeders of Australia, the offer of 2,000 young homing pigeons.
Despite their one limitation – which was that they could find their way home but not back again – over 100,000 homing pigeons were used in WWI. They accompanied troops to the front line and airmen on their reconnaissance and bombing missions. They also sailed with ships of the Royal Navy and the merchant marine. Their ability to deliver messages over hundreds of miles helped to achieve military objectives and save countless lives. They could comfortably fly 50 miles an hour and, rather horrifically, were more difficult to shoot than a courier. Several were decorated for their war efforts, many with great fanfare, others more low key:
Imperial War Museum, Historic UK
The Pigeons of Passchendale (The conversation.com)
A year of war 1917-18 Frank’s diary (Frank Whitehead)
I would like to thank Keith Kellaway for this contribution. I know he would welcome any further information you might have on the use of pigeons during World War 1.