*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
Queen Victoria had a coachman whose name was James Darling. Ordinarily, she’d address him by his surname, but that would mean that when she wanted to return to the palace, she’d be forced to say, “Home, Darling.” Clearly this would never do, so it became “Home, James.” This phrase has come into fairly common parlance when a person gets in a car and says this in jest to the driver. Here it’s being used to capture your attention, but the home part is vital.
Today, communication is almost instantaneous with the use of Internet or satellite technology. Distance is no longer a barrier—you can transmit a message to someone on the other side of the world, or even into space, for that matter, and quickly get feedback. This hasn’t always been the case, and from earliest times, carrier or homing pigeons were used to transmit messages. “Pigeon Post as a method of communication is likely as old as the ancient Persians from whom the art of training the birds probably came. The Mughals also have used them as their messengers. The Romans used pigeon messengers to aid their military over 2000 years ago. Frontinus said that Julius Caesar used pigeons as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. The Greeks conveyed the names of the victors at the Olympic Games to their various cities by this means.”
By the 20th century, other forms of communication such as telegraph, radio, telephone, were already available, yet use of the pigeon as a means of communication continued. It played an important role in WWI, which we’re going to examine here. Technology, while wonderful, was not always reliable. Sometimes “armies outpaced their established lines of communications or when the enemy disrupted communications lines for the telegraphs or telephones, as they often did during battle.” According to the HistoryExtra website, “More than 100,000 birds were responsible for sending rescue messages back and forth from soldiers to their base, with an incredible 95 per cent successfully reaching their destination with their message.”
Right is a drawing entitled Pigeon Liaison, done in France in 1918 by Charles Baskerville, Jr. Charles Baskerville, Jr. (1896-1994) was a student at Cornell when the U.S. entered World War I, and he immediately enlisted and served with the 166th Infantry, 83d Infantry Brigade, 42d Division in France. He served gallantly and was severely wounded; after the war he returned to college and later had a career as a muralist and portrait painter, serving as the official portrait painter for the Army Air Force in World War II. During World War I he kept a visual diary of his experiences, carefully annotating the entries. “Baskerville’s Pigeon Liaison is an intimate record of the close relationship between soldiers and carrier pigeons, one of their most reliable forms of communication during the war. Each unit during World War I was assigned a “Pigeon Officer,” trained by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. These soldiers cared for the unit’s pigeons, often sharing their limited rations with their birds.” (The Great War: U.S. Army Art) This piece of art is part of the Army Art Collection at the Army’s Museum Support Center, Ft. Belvoir, VA.
One type of pigeon deployment was midair, from airplanes. “Launched mid-mission, the birds would fly back to their coops and update ground commanders on what the pilots had observed. Quick updates like this were essential for leaders to know what the battlefield looked like and what the enemy was doing in its own trenches.” They could also be launched from tanks as seen below.
“Tanks carried the birds in order to relay the advance of individual units. Even after the introduction of the radio, pigeons were often the easiest way to help coordinate tank units without exposing the men to dangerous fire. Without a radio set, the soldiers would have had to leave the relative safety of their tanks to relay or receive orders.”
Probably the most common method of deployment was to take birds with the soldiers to the front line and use them to communicate with commanders and planners in the rear. The rear position would be considered the birds’ home loft, and at the front, they lived in mobile units like these. Birds could be taught to fly back and forth. Double-decker buses or converted carriages were commonly used for the mobile lofts. Mobile lofts were particularly useful “when the armies outpaced their established lines of communications or when the enemy disrupted communications lines for the telegraphs or telephones, as they often did during battle.” Below are two examples of mobile lofts.
Pigeons are not big birds—they range in weight between 9.3-13.4 oz., have a wingspan of 19.7-26.4 in., and are somewhere between a robin and a crow in size. Make no mistake about it, however, these birds are tough! Pigeons can fly at altitudes of 6000 feet or more, can fly at average speeds of up to 77.6 mph but have been recorded flying at 92.5 mph, and can fly between 600 and 700 miles in a single day, with the longest recorded flight in the 19th century taking 55 days between Africa and England and covering 7000 miles. Naturally, when the Germans saw a pigeon carrying a message, they tried their best to shoot it down, and no matter how high or fast a bird can fly, it is no match for ammunition. Yet, there are some remarkable stories of what they managed to accomplish.
One named President Wilson is pictured here. President Wilson “supported an infantry unit…during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. On the morning of 5 October 1918, his unit came under attack and heavy enemy fire. The unit released President Wilson to deliver a request for artillery support. Flying back to his loft at Rampont some forty kilometers away, he drew the attention of the German soldiers who fired on him in an attempt to shoot him down. Despite this challenge, President Wilson managed to deliver the lifesaving message within twenty-five minutes, an unmatched AEF [American Expeditionary Forces] speed record. When he landed, his left leg had been shot away and he had a gaping wound in his breast. President Wilson survived his wounds…” (The Great War: U.S. Army Artifacts, p. 13) He lived in New Jersey and did not die until 1929, 12 years after receiving what should have been a fatal wound. The bird was preserved and mounted and given to the Smithsonian, which returned it to the U.S. Army in 2008. Today President Wilson is on display at the Pentagon outside the office of the office of the Chief of Staff of the Army.
Mocker, seen right, “flew 52 missions during World War I before he was finally wounded. On his last mission, his left eye and part of his cranium were destroyed by a shell splinter. Even with his extensive injuries, Mocker still managed to deliver an extremely important message that detailed the location of enemy artillery. Due to Mocker’s valor, the Americans were able to destroy the enemy battery within 20 minutes. Consequently, Mocker’s efforts enabled U.S. troops to capture the town of Beaumont, France.” Amazingly, given that he lost his left eye and part of his cranium, this bird lived until 1935!
Perhaps the most famous World War I carrier pigeon was Cher Ami (French for “dear friend”).
“On October 2nd, 1918, American soldiers from the 77th Division pushed too far into the Argonne Forest and became trapped behind German lines on the slopes of a hill. Cut off from reinforcements and supplies, roughly 550 men from the 306th, 307th, and 308th regiments under Major Charles Whittlesey held their ground against a far larger German force for several days. Far beyond radio range, the only way the Americans could communicate with their own lines was via carrier pigeon. However, it did not take long to realize that the skies were as dangerous as the ground. Trapped in a horrible meatgrinder of machine guns and rain, the Lost Battalion held their ground against vicious German attacks. On October 4th, American heavy artillery started to bombard the Lost Battalion’s position on accident, killing thirty men as they held the line. Major Whittlesey and his men watched as bird after bird fell out of a sky torn apart by German fire. With supplies running out and casualties mounting rapidly, Major Whittlesey desperately sent out his last pigeon, Cher Ami, to the American lines with a note that simply read, “We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” With fire raining down on them from all sides, Cher Ami was now the last chance for the Lost Battalion to walk off that hill alive. The brave bird flew straight into the German fire, dodging bullets as he went. However, his luck did not last for long. Cher Ami was hit in the chest soon after takeoff, as American soldiers watched in horror as their last hope hit the ground. Against all odds though, Cher Ami got up again! Wounded but still alive, the little bird took flight again, charging head-on into wave after wave of gunfire. By the end of the trip, he covered 25 miles in roughly half an hour. He arrived at base heavily wounded, but alive. Army medics were able to save Cher Ami’s life, but his right leg was barely attached to his body and he was blind in one eye. However, because of Cher Ami’s delivery, the artillery stopped and took up new firing coordinates away from American lines. The next day, shells started to fall on German positions, relieving pressure on the bloodied 77th and the battle turned in America’s favor. On October 8th, one hundred and ninety-four men made it back to the American lines thanks to Cher Ami’s sacrifice.”
For her (when the bird was stuffed, it was found to be a hen) heroic efforts, Cher Ami was awarded this French Croix de Guerre medal, one of France’s highest military honors, given for gallantry in the field.
Those messages had to be “short and sweet” to fit in a capsule on a bird’s leg and not weigh it down. Note the capsule on the leg of Mocker, pictured earlier in this post. Here is a picture of a homing pigeon message kit, holding a message book, pencils, and capsules.
In addition to any amazement you might feel at the feats of these birds, you might also wonder just how they do this. How does a bird manage to find its home over those of miles and unfamiliar territory? There have been various theories, but scientists seem to have settled on a combination of two things. In familiar areas, the birds are able to follow landmarks. For further distances and/or unfamiliar territory, the bird is able to use a combination of an internal clock and an internal compass to achieve its mission.
Home, President Wilson! Home, Mocker! Home, Cher Ami! We owe a debt to these and many more unnamed carrier pigeons who helped the Allies win in World War I and World War II. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you might also enjoy this simple animated video about these birds and their exploits.
The Great War. U.S. Army art. Washington, D.C: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2018. Special Collections, D522 .G66 2018.
The Great War. U.S. Army artifacts. Washington, D.C: Center of Military History, United States Army, 2018. Special Collections, D503 .G74 2018.
Not specifically used, but interesting: RAF Pigeon Service Manual. London: Air Ministry, 1919. supplied by Maltese History & Heritage–a project run by the vassallomalta.com website.