Sunday, May 15, 2016

Pigeon Post, Part 1

The war pigeon, Dreadnought, gazing rather lovingly into the eyes of a Royal Engineer.
Part of the "Royal Engineers Signal Service on the Front, 1914-18" collection.
 © IWM, item Q 11954
Hello, dear readers,

The Ghosts of 1914 are here today to add to our little collection of pigeon posts. Previously, we've reviewed a bit of the history of Chere Amie, the brave messenger pigeon, and Martha, the last of the passenger pigeon species that was once enormously plentiful in the United States.

For this pigeon series, I wanted to step back and get a better sense of the story of combat pigeons in the First World War. I've been filling in some answers to the who, what, where, why, and when questions with which I started my research. Slowly, but surely, I've drummed up some details on the history of combat pigeons in the Great War. I'll tell this story in parts; today's installation sets the stage with some essential background information.

To start, Cher Amie and Martha were not members of the same species, in case you were wondering. Combat (sometimes called "messenger", which, as I'll explain later, doesn't really describe the extent of their combat roles completely) pigeons were, as far as I've been able to gather, strictly of the homing variety.

[T]he whole secret of carrier pigeon service depends upon the attachment of the pigeon for its home, no matter how distant that may be...
       --The Contributor, Nov. 1887,  Vol. IX, No. 1. 

Homing pigeons are known and have long been bred for a remarkable ability to fly 'home', averaging impressive speeds and covering great distances. These birds are equipped with what seems an as-yet-not-fully-pinpointed biological navigational system that allows them, when released, to point themselves homewards and simply go!

Some have speculated that the homing pigeon uses magnetic navigation, while others have pointed to a subtle innate sound-based biotechnology. Yet others have proffered a sense of smell as the reason for this bird's wondrous gift.

Whatever the source of their magic, homing pigeons have a few thousand years of messenger service and sporting history across Asia and the Middle East. In the last two hundred years, their talents became even more widely known and employed. Major destinations in the long-haul flight of homing pigeon history in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere include

  • The Belgian Concourse of 1818, where pigeons raced long distance from Toulouse, France, to Brussels. This inaugural race set off a passion for pigeon racing clubs and contests.
    Envelope used as part of the pigeon post preparation process to get messages into France.
  • The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, during which pigeons were used in place of a disabled telegraph system to deliver thousands of messages to Paris.

By the time of the Great War, homing pigeons were recognized for their speed, endurance, reliability, and efficiency as carriers for crucial information. This species was well-established as a viable communications option, particularly in conditions that made other technologies impossible. While some might consider pigeons a rather rudimentary system alongside such contemporary communications tools as radio and telegraphy, I'm learning that the art and science of pigeon messaging was just as sophisticated, complex, and daring as any others. In fact, as recently as 2009, a homing pigeon beat a South African DSL service in a (rather amusing) data transfer contest. Messenger pigeons show us that modern machinery does not always outperform a bit of ingenious collaboration between the human and animal world.

In our next posts, we'll dig into the nuts and bolts of pigeon training, transportation, and service on the Great War battlefront. Till then, we're sending this post off to wing its way to you.

Thanks for reading!

© Fiona Robinson