Behind the books – carrier-pigeons

Behind the books

Before writing the first draft of each book I carry out a lot of research, often going down a cul-de-sac (which can be fun but not lead anywhere), or travelling roads that give me atmosphere but no concrete information. But sometimes I find a fascinating fact that will inspire the direction and content of the story. However, in a picture book the detail will not always make it into the text or images. I add a fact file at the end of the story, but still there is just not enough room to include everything. I have therefore decided to write a series of blogs sharing more of the context because what is the internet for, if not for sharing.

Carrier-pigeons in the First World War

I knew very little about pigeons before writing the picture book Vlad and the First World War. When I started to research the role animals took (and think about the host for my flea narrator Vlad) I realised what a huge part pigeons had played and how essential they had been. Importantly, they had been used by all the forces and would literally have a bird’s eye view of the action. During the Great War, if anyone needed the equivalent of a mobile phone, they took the early twentieth century version – a pigeon.

Previously I had thought that most communications relied on telephone wires. This was mainly based on my memory of reading a biography of Winnie-the-Pooh creator, AA Milne, and his time as a signalling officer, along with films and dramas where invariably an officer picks up a phone receiver to talk to HQ or takes a message off a human runner. These things happened, but pigeons were very much more prevalent than I had imagined.

At the outset of war the pigeons was initially seen as a threat by a government that needed to control communications and decide what was fit for public knowledge. Pigeons were literally detained and grounded. Transport of pigeons was stopped and orders issued that their wings should be clipped to prevent them carrying sensitive information into the hands of the enemy. If a pigeon handler signed up to serve in the forces their pigeons could not be sold and many were destroyed. The loss of these pigeons was quickly stopped however, as it became clear that they had a future role in the action.

A Voluntary Pigeon War Committee was assembled under Lieutenant Colonel Alfred H Osman and Defence of the Realm Regulation 21 was issued stating that no one could release a pigeon without a permit – flying illegal pigeons had become a treasonable act. During the war 500,000 licences were issued and food supplied to keep the birds in good condition.

In 1914 pigeons were deployed onto naval boats and fishing smacks. They were able to report back on mine clearing in the North Sea, skirmishes with German U-Boats and send for help when boats were attacked. In Vlad and the First World War my pigeon begins his story in this way. He was a real pigeon and his release saved all the crew on his boat, except the captain who died in the attack.

The British Army was slow to appreciate how effective the pigeons would be. The French, Italian and German armies were using them and by the end of the Battle of Verdun they were the only means of communication as all cables and lines had been cut. During the Somme the French used 5,000 pigeons with only 100 birds failing to make it through the artillery fire and fighting. As messages were often sent more than once this was considered an extremely effective method of receiving updates. Previously as Belgium was invaded they destroyed their pigeons to prevent them falling into German hands.

As their value became more obvious to the British military, birds were sent to France and Italy and battalions of men carried birds into the trenches to send messages back as needed. By 1918 they were also carried in aircraft to enable pilots to send a message of their location if they came down during a fight.

By far the strangest and unlikely tales involve the use of pigeons in intelligence gathering. Pigeons (along with a set of instructions) were placed in a basket under a balloon which was then released into occupied France or Belgium. Hopefully a friendly person would find the bird, fulfil the request for information and then release the feathered spy to fly home. The Germans were so alarmed by this that they issued proclamations that anyone caught releasing a bird would be shot, towns involved would be fined up to 100,000 francs and in the hope of identifying offenders they laid double-agent decoy German birds that returned to them instead. When the balloon system began to fail Belgium parachutists were employed to jump with a bird on their back – although as flight was still in its infancy many of these spies were anxious when it came to the jump and planes were made with a trap-door that dropped them at the appropriate moment – ready or not!

There were instances when using a pigeon suddenly seemed less ideal. At least one occasion is recorded when a bird had a message strapped to it and in the confusion of battle started to walk across no-mans-land towards the enemy. The only way to stop it was to open fire and hope to scare it into the air, or eliminate it before it was captured. Likewise live enemy pigeons were prized as they could be used to spread false information.

In 1918 when the Americans joined the war, British pigeon fanciers donated 600 birds for their communication services. Amongst them was possibly the most famous bird known as Cher Ami. He was responsible for saving a Platoon of soldiers who had been stranded and were being shelled by friendly fire; he is now in the Smithsonian Institute, minus the leg he lost during his heroic flight. Sadly, I have been unable to find my hero, Crisp VC. He was preserved after death and for a time returned to Lowestoft, the hometown of his namesake Captain Thomas Crisp VC but later he was transferred to a London museum and there the trail runs cold.

The pigeons used during the war were given voluntarily by the handlers who had raised and trained them, including a number from the royal loft at Buckingham Palace. As people signed up to serve, many pigeon owners gave their birds freely for the war effort. There is no doubt that this act and the voluntary work of the Pigeon War Committee saved thousands of lives over the next four years.

The information in this piece is taken from the publication Pigeons in the Great War. A complete history of the carrier-pigeon service during the Great War. 1914 to 1918. By Lt Col AH Osman.

Crisp VC appears in Vlad and the First World War written by Kate Cunningham and illustrated by Sam Cunningham.

To find out more about Kate’s visits discussing editing a story click here.