About History: The humble Pigeon goes to War
First broadcast on BBC1 on October 5th, 1989, ‘Corporal Punishment’ is the second episode of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, which is the fourth series of the BBC sitcom ‘Blackadder’. In the episode, the eponymous ‘hero’ Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) faces a court-martial and is sentenced to execution by firing squad for shooting and eating a carrier pigeon. Not just any old carrier pigeon, but none other than ‘Speckled Jim’ the finest carrier pigeon in the British Army and General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett's (Stephen Fry) ‘delicious, plump-breasted’ pet. Needless to say, a rollicking satirical farce ensues which rather overlooks the pivotal role of pigeons in war.
Homing pigeons have an uncanny ability to return home and so were used to take messages back to their loft or coop. The arrival of the railway system enabled these birds to be easily transported, which made long-distance pigeon racing hugely popular and led to the realisation that they could fulfil a military role. During the 19th century’s Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), besieged Parisians used carrier pigeons to transmit messages outside the city; in response, the besieging Prussian Army employed hawks to hunt them. The French military used balloons to transport homing pigeons past enemy lines. Microfilm images containing hundreds of messages allowed letters to be carried into Paris by pigeon from as far away as London. More than one million different messages travelled this way during the four-month siege. At the end of the 19th-century the British Admiralty introduced a pigeon service, but scrapped it in 1908. When the Great War began in 1914, Alfred Osman, founder of ‘The Racing Pigeon’ magazine, provided pigeons for fishing trawlers that were minesweeping the North Sea, as well as for ships and seaplanes of the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).
As the Great War progressed, pigeons continued to be released in emergencies to fly home with messages to pigeon lofts on the East coast. One illustrative example occurred in September 1917. After trying to intercept two Zeppelins, a DH 4 aircraft had to turn back to Great Yarmouth only to ditch in the North Sea. An H.12 Large America flying boat landed on the water and rescued the crew but then could not take off as the sea was too rough. Pigeon N.U.R.P/17/F.16331, one of four carrier pigeons released by the crew as they anxiously waited to be rescued, flew 50 miles back to the Norfolk coast carrying a message relaying the crew’s position. Sadly, he died of exhaustion in the attempt, but to commemorate his self-sacrifice, this plucky pigeon was preserved in a glass case at the flying boat station at Great Yarmouth. He now resides in the collection of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon in the same case that still sports a brass plague inscribed ‘A very gallant gentleman’ (above right).
Throughout World War I, and again in World War II, carrier pigeons flew messages back to their home coop behind the lines. When they landed, wires in the coop would sound a bell or buzzer alerting a soldier of the Signal Corps that a message had arrived. The soldier would go to the coop, remove the message from the canister attached to the bird’s leg, and then forward the message by telegraph, field phone, or messenger.
Aware that pigeons were carrying important messages, soldiers often tried to shoot them down making the bird’s role fraught with danger. One homing pigeons, a Blue Check cock named ‘Cher Ami’ (right), was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for delivering 12 important messages during the Battle of Verdun. On his final mission on October 4th, 1918, he was struck by either a bullet or shell fragment, which severed the right leg and cut across the breast, leaving the message capsule hanging off the tendons of the severed leg. Despite these injuries, the message providing Americans with the exact location of the surrounded men to aid in their relief was safely delivered. The US 77th Division’s ‘Lost Battalion’ was ultimately rescued on the evening of October 7th having incurred almost 70% causalities. By contrast, another less well remembered pigeon named ‘Spike’ flew 52 missions without receiving a single wound.
During World War II, the United Kingdom used about 250,000 homing pigeons for many purposes, including communicating with those behind enemy lines. Their value is perhaps best expressed by the 32 pigeons decorated with PDSA’s Dickin Medal , the highest possible decoration for valour given to animals.
The UK maintained the Air Ministry Pigeon Section during World War II and for a while thereafter until 1948 when pigeons were declared of no further use by the UK armed forces, Yet pigeons continued to have a role for a few year into the Cold War. Up until 1950, the UK maintained 100 carrier pigeons in preparation for any eventuality.
Adkins, R. & Adkins, L. (2022), ‘Flying to Victory’, BBC History Magazine May 2022, p.39.
1. The PDSA Dickin Medal (right) was instituted in 1943 in the UK by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in World War II. It comprises a bronze medallion, bearing the words ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’ within a laurel wreath, carried on a ribbon of striped green, dark brown, and pale blue. It is awarded to animals that have displayed ‘conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units’. The award is popularly referred to as ‘the animals' Victoria Cross’.