Pigeons played a vital part in World War One as they proved to be an extremely reliable way of sending messages. Such was the importance of pigeons that over 100,000 were used in the war with an astonishing success rate of 95% getting through to their destination with their message.

French soldier with pigeons carried on his back

Pigeons were used extensively in World War One. Man-made communication systems were still crude and unreliable, so dogs and pigeons were used. Pigeons would have been found just about anywhere on the Western Front. At the First Battle of the Marne in 1914, French troops stopped the German advance on Paris. As the French troops advanced and pushed back the Germans, so their pigeons advanced with them. In the heat and disorientation of battle, pigeons proved to be the best way of sending messages to the French headquarters. At the Marne, the French had 72 pigeon lofts. As the French advanced, the lofts advanced with them – but many of the pigeons were ‘on duty’ carrying messages and could never have known where their loft had moved to. Incredibly, all the pigeons at the Marne returned to their lofts – despite the fact that they would have flown ‘blind’ not knowing where their loft was.

Regulation 21A

Killing, wounding or molesting homing pigeons is punishable un the Defence of the Realm Regulations by
Six Months Imprisonment or £100 Fine

The public are reminded that homing pigeons are doing valuable work for the government, and are requested to assist in the suppression of the shooting of these birds.

£5 Reward
will be paid by the National Homing Union for information leading to the conviction of any person SHOOTING HOMING PIGEONS the property of its members.

Information should be given to the Police, Military Post or to the Secretary of the Union, C C Plackett, 14, East Parade, Leeds 

This ability to get home was vital for those who used them as messengers. A pigeon’s great strength was not only its extraordinary homing instinct but also the speed at which it flew. Shooting one down would have been all but impossible. In many senses, a pigeon would always get through. The only natural way to counter them was to bring birds of prey to the front line and let one of nature’s great battles occur. A falcon could bring down a pigeon – a marksman almost certainly could not.

An apocryphal tale about pigeons is as follows:

In October 1918, as the war neared its end, 194 American soldiers found themselves trapped by German soldiers. They were cut off from other Allied soldiers and had no working radios. The only chance they had of alerting anybody about their desperate situation was to send a pigeon with their co-ordinates attacked to its leg. The pigeon’s name was Cher Ami. When released it flew 25 miles from behind German lines to the Americans headquarters. Cher Ami covered the 25 miles in just 25 minutes. The pigeon was, in fact, shot through the chest by the Germans but continued to fly home. With the “Lost Battalion’s” co-ordinates, the Americans launched a rescue and the 194 men were saved. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm for its astonishing flight. As with other pigeons, it would not have known where the American’s nearest headquarters was – its natural homing instincts took over.