Pity the pigeon: Messengers of the First World War

Carrier pigeons - Vimy. [c1917] Canadian Centre for the Great War, D.W. Oliver Collection
Carrier pigeons – Vimy. [c1917] Canadian Centre for the Great War, D.W. Oliver Collection
We posted this photograph of two Canadians signallers watering their messenger pigeons at Vimy Ridge yesterday on our Twitter feed and got a really excellent response from our followers. The photograph is part of a scrap book assembled by Dudley W. Oliver, who appears to have worked at the War Records Department in London, before returning to Montreal, and assembled his souvenir of the war using Canadian official war photographs, which were available to the public for purchase after the end of the end of the conflict. Both men have signaller’s insignia on their sleeves and it is most likely that this scene took place at their dugout; you can see the opening behind them as well as spools of telephone wire at their feet.

Homing pigeons, along with runners and in some cases messenger dogs, played a large role in communications between the front and rear lines. I have written about communication during the war before on this blog, particularly about the rise of what is now modern communication, but it is interesting to consider it again from this very “old-school” vantage point as well. As many modern analyses of the war point out (as well as memoirs like Victor Wheeler’s 50th Battalion in No Man’s Land), communicating, even during the relatively quiet periods on the front, was enormously difficult. Signallers like the men in the photograph spent hours laying telephone wire to positions in front of the line and repairing the inevitable breaks in the lines as they were shelled or cut by machine gun fire. Many times in the heat of battle the only way to communicate with head quarters was using runners or pigeons.

Both faced a nearly fatal task; runners, who had to navigate not only their own trenches but significant stretches of open ground as well, were well aware of the fact that they probably would not survive. In fact, when a message had to be taken, there were always substitutes waiting to take the message when the first was shot. Pigeons were a much smaller target to be sure, but still had to fly great distances in shell filled skies and then fly back. Signallers like these ones would move up the lines into their positions carrying their pigeons in baskets. Losing a pigeon was a grave offense and they were cared for carefully; being taken into the dugouts during bombardments and protected as much as possible from the effects of gas. In some ways, though their lives were short, pigeons were probably treated better than the thousands of horses used for front line transport. They were kept in dugouts with gas curtains and certainly kept as clean as possible. The pigeon used by Captain Raynal at Verdun, while besieged at Fort Vaux during the battle of Verdun, became a minor celebrity after delivering its crucial message to Pétain detailing the German siege of the fort. Many however, like the horses, dogs and men of the war, performed their duty without celebrity and remain unnamed.

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