As many people throughout the world recognize the 100th year anniversary of the start of WWI, it is good to also remember the contributions of the soldiers of a different kind. As men went to battle, they were joined by a large menagerie of animals that fought loyally beside them in the trenches and at sea. While there are many remarkable and noted stories of heroic dogs and horses, there were also other species who contributed greatly to the war effort.
One of those often overlooked species are homing pigeons. These pigeons were so successful at completing their job that they were considered weapons of war. During WWI, Germans would execute all pigeons in the countries that they occupied, and anyone found harboring them were punished for possessing war contraband.
The pigeons used during the war were not the regular pigeons found in the parks, but instead they were a special breed of messenger birds developed in Belgium. These birds were known to be able to fly on average 500 miles, with some flying further at 800 miles and up to 1,000. They also traveled on average at 60 miles per hour. In one case, going with the wind, one pigeon was clocked going thirty-eight miles in twenty minutes, or roughly 114 miles per hour.
Cher Ami was one of the most famous homing pigeons. Serving with the American Army, Cher Ami delivered 12 messages on the Verdun front and lost a leg in the Argonne. He was hit by a bullet when he was leaving Grand Prè. As the soldiers watched, he wobbled and fluttered around, but he recovered and flew through the battle. He arrived at his loft in Ramont and staggered in on one leg, the other having been shot. The tube bearing the message was still attached to the ligaments . The same bullet that had taken his leg had also gone through his breast bone.
Another pigeon was honored in the United Services Museum in Whitehall, London, England.
“Captain Crisp was in charge of the trawler Nelson when it was attacked by a German U-boat. Crisp fought well, but was mortally wounded. Before he died, he sent Red Cock with a message for help. Red Cock flew to a nearby ship for assistance and therefore helped to save the surviving crew. For this action, Red Cock was renamed Crisp, V.C. and was honored at the museum.”
Pilot’s Luck was stationed on a seaplane that had engine trouble and had been attacked 200 miles from the loft. Pilot’s Luck flew the 200 miles in 5 hours. During Pilot’s Luck’s career, he helped to save several sea planes.
One brave little blue hen was on a seaplane that had been out patrolling for German submarines in the North Sea. On the way home, the plane went down into the water and was threatening to sink with the men on board. Someone remembered the pigeons, and when the basket was found, two of the three birds were dead and the remaining bird was wet and chilled. One of the officers bundled it into his woolen muffler and tried to warm her up. After a brief wait, it was decided to send the bird off, as it was growing late. The officer climbed to the highest point and launched the bird, but she fell to the water. Just before she hit the surface, she recovered and began to fly away. The weather was wet and windy, but the little pigeon arrived at her loft and delivered her message. All of the crew were saved.
Throughout the war, many thousands of pigeons were used to help the war effort, with a surprisingly low rate of birds not returning to their lofts. They frequently were shot or had to fly through mustard gas as well as in all weather conditions. And yet these brave birds continued to serve valiantly throughout the war, helping to save countless lives.
More stories of pigeons as well as other brave and valiant animals that served in WWI can be found in Susan Bulanda’s book, Soldiers of Fur and Feathers: The Animals that Served in World War I – Allied Forces.