CARRIER PIGEONS IN WW1

CARRIER PIGEONS IN WW1

Thursday, July 15, 1915

Trenches – Ploegsteert

The Battalion War Diarist wrote nothing for this day:  [1]


THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “On the 15th Pte. F.W. Heather was fatally wounded in one of the craters, and several additional casualties occurred before the tour was completed on the night of July 18th, amongst the wounded being Copr. L.W. Taylor.  Pte Heather, who fell in a spot exposed to both rifle and machine gun fire, was gallantly carried to shelter by Capt. W. G. Turner, acting Battalion M.O.” [2]

Although both sides were busy tunnelling through the war in the Ploegsteert sector “nineteen mines were blown, five were not used and one was abandoned.  One exploded in 1955 during a thunderstorm, killing a cow, near ‘Plugstreet,’ where there are three others as part of the Bird Cage cluster. Another is under La Petite Douve Farm, south of the Island of Ireland Peace Park; this one was found by the Germans and abandoned by the British.  Another is by Peckham.”  [3]

THE USE OF CARRIER PIGEONS

Canadian carrier pigeons at Vimy
Water for the carrier pigeons – Vimy [c.1917]
The Canadian Centre for the Great War has on its web-site an article about the use of homing pigeons for communication during the First World War. They have “posted this photograph of two Canadians signalers watering their messenger pigeons at Vimy Ridge…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 conflict. Both men have signaler’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…. 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 headquarters was using runners or pigeons.

A former London double-decker bus converted to a mobile pigeon coop.
A former London double-decker bus converted to a mobile pigeon coop.

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.” [5]

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, July 15, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089763.jpg
[2]   R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pp. 64-65.
[3]   Gareth Hughes, “Visiting the Somme & Ypres Battlefields Made Easy: A Helpful Guide Book for Groups and Individuals,” (Google eBook), Pen and Sword, Sep 11, 2014 ,  FN 2, pg 138.
[4]   The Canadian Centre for the Great War, D.W. Oliver Collection, https://greatwarcentre.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/carrier_pigeons_vimy.jpg
[5]  The Canadian Centre for the Great War,  https://greatwarcentre.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/carrier_pigeons_vimy.jpg
[6]   http://michelleule.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/BusPigeonLoft-WWI-IWM-Q_6230.jpg

 

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