Gervase Phillips reports on the vital role of the ‘pigeon post’ amid Passchendaele’s waterlogged crater-fields.
For Major Alec Waley, the commanding officer of the British Expeditionary Force’s Carrier Pigeon Service, 31 July 1917 was a peculiarly tense day, but ultimately a very satisfying one.
It was the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres – or ‘Passchendaele’, as it is more often remembered. The conduct of this offensive was facilitated by the most destructive technologies yet devised: modern artillery, machine-guns, tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, and poison gas. Total casualties, Allied and German, were probably in excess of 500,000.
What place, in the midst of industrialised slaughter on this scale, could there be for Waley’s fragile little birds, carried ‘up the line’ in their delicate wicker baskets? By the evening of the first day, Waley had an answer: visiting the BEF’s II Corps, he was told that ‘75% of the news which had come in from the front-line had been received by pigeon’.
OLD TECH OR NEW TECH?
Where cumbersome, insecure, and unreliable wireless sets, along with telephones, signal lights, and flares failed, pigeons succeeded. When human runners could not pass through walls of barrage fire, pigeons rose above the explosions and the gas and flew swiftly to their lofts, bearing dispatches in tiny cylinders attached to their legs.
The usefulness of pigeons in modern warfare had come as something of a surprise to the British. Pigeons were a proven, indeed time-honoured, form of communication. Originally domesticated around 4500 BC, they had marched (or rather flown) with the armies of Ramesses II, King Solomon, Julius Caesar, and Genghis Khan. Yet, by the latter half of the 19th century, while pigeon fancying was becoming an increasingly popular hobby, especially among the working class, for military purposes they seemed to have been entirely supplanted by the telegraph.
Events during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, however, had reaffirmed their military utility. Prussian cavalry patrols pushing rapidly into France had severed telegraph lines, and isolated French garrisons soon resorted to sending dispatches by carrier pigeons loaned by local fanciers.
Officials in Paris, besieged for four months during the conflict, also organised a carrier-pigeon service that delivered hundreds of thousands of messages for the beleaguered city. The military implications of this achievement were not lost on Continental soldiers, and by 1914 extensive networks of lofts had been established across Europe by the armies of all the leading powers.
BEHIND THE CURVE
The British were the exception. Believing the birds to be unreliable under wartime conditions, being apt to ‘get discouraged or lost’, the War Office abolished the Army’s small carrier-pigeon service in 1907. The nature of the fighting on the Western Front soon revealed that decision to have been an error.
Alec Waley, a lieutenant in the Intelligence Corp in late 1914, had borrowed some pigeons from the French and, as a fellow officer remembered,
under his enthusiastic impulse [the pigeon service] proved its value, for when … the Germans were closing in on Ypres, and the roads through the town became shell traps, Alec Waley was a well-known figure taking to the front-line the pigeons that saved the life of many a dispatch rider.
The following July, this extemporised Carrier Pigeon Service was officially taken over by the Director of Army Signals, with Waley as ‘officer commanding’.
Over the same period, back in Britain, A H Osman, editor of the Racing Pigeon journal , was commissioned into the Army and given responsibility for organising a carrier-pigeon service for home defence, and for supplying both birds (thousands of which were freely given to the war effort by patriotic fanciers) and suitably qualified men for both the Army and volunteer trawler crews involved in minesweeping at sea.
Waley only ever had around 380 men under his direct command, but Osman made sure they were experienced with birds in civilian life and could not only manage the Army’s lofts but, crucially, train infantrymen to care for and ‘toss’ the birds.
By the end of the war, Waley and his ‘pigeoneers’ would be responsible for lofts operating around 20,000 birds and for having trained some 90,000 soldiers (British Empire, Portuguese, and American) to handle pigeons.
Building this organisation took time . While pigeons proved their worth in the battles of 1915 and 1916, there were never enough available in those years to meet demand, which came not just from the infantry, but from the artillery, the ‘Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps’ (that is, tanks), and the Royal Flying Corps.
By early 1917, however, the Carrier Pigeon Service had established an extensive network of lofts, both fixed and mobile, the latter either motorised or horse-drawn. In the interests of the speedy delivery of messages, mobile lofts were often boldly pushed up close to the front-line; Waley, rather uneasily, recorded their presence within 2,000 yards of enemy positions on occasion.
Each was typically manned by a sergeant or corporal of the ‘pigeoneers’, commanding a small squad of a pioneer or two (soldiers trained for specialist labour and basic engineering duties), an orderly, and a couple of dispatch riders who carried the birds forward for units entering the front-line. When a pigeon flew in from the line , its message was immediately relayed to its intended destination, such as brigade or divisional headquarters.
Although this sounds like a cumbersome procedure, it delivered – by First World War standards – remarkably quick communications. Indeed, in some circumstances pigeons even out-paced the telephone. In May 1916, Waley recorded that,
[a divisional signals officer] mentioned that when messages were over 30 words the pigeon nearly always beat the wire, as a certain amount of time was always lost in re-transmitting the wire from Brigade to Divisional Headquarters.
At Passchendaele, pigeons ensured that even the heaviest guns, although the batteries were placed well back, could be brought to bear very rapidly when infantry requested fire support. Waley recorded in August that ‘from the forward lofts birds are being sent to Heavy Artillery Groups and messages are coming in excellent times averaging 6 minutes’.
For the infantry, such timely support was often the difference between victory and defeat. On 3 August 1917, Captain H L Binfield’s company of the 13th Royal Sussex was defending a line of shell-holes in front of the village of St Julian, which they had just seized from the Germans. His men were now desperately short of ammunition and they could see enemy infantry forming up for a counter-attack before them.
Binfield released their last pigeon, calling for support from the gunners. Fourteen minutes later, and in the nick of time, the barrage fell between them and their attackers, whose assault withered away.
Yet, overall, August 1917 was a month of unremitting fighting with limited success. Sir Hubert Gough, who initially directed the main thrust, struggled to secure the crucial Gheluvelt Plateau. The German infantry suffered agonies under the relentless pounding of the British guns, but they endured, contesting every shell-hole line with bomb and bayonet.
Then heavy rain intervened, turning the battlefield into a swamp. Gough was replaced by the methodical Sir Herbert Plumer. He paused the offensive, built up his artillery, and meticulously planned the next move, aiming for limited but achievable objectives.
When the weather improved, in late September and early October, he struck. In three operations – Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde – he dealt hammer blows to the defenders, seizing narrow objectives in terms of ground, but relying on his artillery to destroy the ensuing German counter-attacks, inflicting heavy casualties.
Some have argued that Plumer’s victories forced the Germans to consider a major withdrawal that would have threatened their whole position in Belgium. Pigeons played their part fully in these victories. This entry in the war diary of the Carrier Pigeon Service for 21 September 1917, reveals the extent of their duties:
[the loft at Vlamertinghe Chateau] had supplied 80 birds to tanks, assaulting troops, and intelligence OPs [observation posts]. Forty messages had come in and a large number of birds had also brought in maps. [V Corps loft] had sent up 120 birds for the offensive and 50 messages had been received in excellent times from assaulting troops, tanks, artillery OPs, and intelligence OPs.
RAIN AND MUD
But the skies opened again and the offensive floundered in the mud. Most military historians agree that it was unnecessarily prolonged at this stage, reaching its dismal climax when the indefatigable Canadian infantry finally captured Passchendaele and its environs in early November.
Pigeons were still doing useful service to the end, but their losses were mounting. Many young, semi-trained birds were being sent up the line and released into gales, driving rain, and snow, only to disappear.
Even when the battle ended, Waley’s command never really got a chance to recover. The German spring offensives of 1918 saw many lofts and their birds destroyed, to avoid their capture.
Remarkably, Waley kept the service in being, salvaging all he could (and simultaneously establishing a messenger-dog service for the BEF too).
During the allied counter-offensives of summer and autumn 1918, the war became more mobile. As the distance between advancing troops and lofts opened up, the pigeons became more of a supplementary means of communication. They never entirely lost their value for attacking troops, but the plans laid for 1919 placed greater emphasis on dogs and wireless.
Passchendaele remains one of the most controversial battles of the 20th century, and historians still debate its significance, but, for Waley, his ‘pigeoneers’, and their gallant little birds, it was their finest hour.
Gervase Phillips is Principal Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He specialises in human conflict, specifically looking at the military use and treatment of animals in war.