Following on from my post last week about animals who have been used as spys, I thought it would be interesting to write about war pigeons – something I discovered on a visit to Bletchley Park (where the Enigma machine was decoded) last year.
Pigeons have been used for centuries, during wars, to carry messages. This is due to their homing ability, speed and the ease with which they are trained. War pigeons were able to find their way home over long distances, and were selectively bred to enhance this skill. They have also displayed a remarkable ability to do so regardless of the adverse conditions through which they may have to navigate. In addition to being called ‘war pigeons,’ military homing pigeons were also referred to as ‘pigeon post,’ and were in many ways more reliable than other means of communication.
During WWI, it is believed that over 100,000 pigeons were used to send and receive messages with 95% of them being successful. Man-made communication was still in its developmental stages, and the most important messages were relayed by these birds. The British government passed a law declaring that it was illegal to shoot pigeons, as they were doing valuable work for the country. Anybody who was found to have done so would be fined, and possibly imprisoned for up to six months. During WWII pigeons were also extensively used by the UK, with over 250,000 employed until 1948 when the military stopped using them for war purposes.
Homing pigeons would travel with different branches of the military, including the air force. These travelling companions would be released from planes in order to take a message to their home command. The French army would take their pigeons’ lofts on the battlefield, and the birds would return to them even though the army was constantly on the move. This showed the importance that pigeons played in the way in which the war developed. It was also very hard for the enemy to shoot down pigeons because of the speed with which they were able to fly. The only suitable method of getting rid of the pigeon population was to employ birds of prey to catch them in flight.
One of the most touching war pigeon stories is that of Cher Ami. In October 1918, when WWI was almost over, a group of 194 American soldiers had been cornered by the Germans. Their radios were broken, and the only way that they had of transferring a message was by carrier pigeon. They chose Cher Ami and sent her out with their co-ordinates and an SOS message. The amazing pigeon covered the 25 miles of German territory in 25 minutes, despite being shot in the chest. The loss of its right eye proved to be no hindrance in its ability to find its way, and a rescue mission was immediately planned with the soldiers being saved as a result of the bird’s courageous last mission. Cher Ami was honoured with the Criox de Guerre with Palm for the role she played in saving the soldiers lives.