Pidgeons of war

Posted by Aidan Haughey on June 21st, 2015

When our 32 students arrive in Flanders to visit the frontline of World War I they will have in their hands a smart-phone with the ability to take photos, record video, find their position on a detailed map and send all-this information home in a matter of seconds. They can call and even video call anywhere in the world. Just imagine what the soldiers of World War I would have done with this technology. Unfortunately for them they had to rely on a more simple technology that would often fail and cost many lives.

Although telephones and radio were available to troops as forms of communication during World War I, they were often unreliable. Radio was in its infancy and was incredibly temperamental and failed more often than it worked. Lines of communication were laid from HQ, through the trenches to the front lines, for more reliable methods of relaying messages by telephone and telegram. However the amount of shelling meant lines were often cut and destroyed, meaning hours or days of engineering to repair.

Both sides of the war needed a back-up plan when these inevitable breakdowns in communication would occur, so they turned to a surprisingly simple solution. For centuries, pigeons were used to send messages from place to place. The bird’s innate homing ability was well known for years and their ability to fly long distances at speed made them the perfect option. Pigeons can find their way home from hundreds of miles away, the longest recording is up-to 1,800KM. They can also travel fast with an average speed of 80KM per hour and a max speed of 140KM per hour. These speeds were phenomenal in the early 20th century.

Pigeons were used to send critical dispatches back to HQ, to warn of enemy advances and to send regular reports and supply requests. They often became the target from enemy lines. If a pigeon was spotted flying from a trench, all guns would be aimed at the feathery target to try and stop vital information being shared. Despite the rain of bullets Pigeons had a 95% success rate in delivering the messages they carried in tiny metal capsules tied to their feet. If communication lines were down and a platoon found themselves stranded at the front line, pigeons would be parachuted to them in special boxes. A German inventor even created a camera pack fitted to the bird’s chest to take aerial photographs. Over 100,000 pigeons were used throughout the war and they became heroes in their own right, some even awarded bravery medals. Some pigeons were even paraded as “Prisoners of War” through the streets of New York in a van.

The pigeon was so important to the war, if a hungry soldier on poor rations was seen eating one, he would be shot! So next time you see a pigeon - throw it a crumb. Maybe its ancestor was a war hero.