Thursday, January 8, 2015

Don't Let the (Carrier) Pigeon Drive the Bus!

 The charming childrens' book by Mo Willems. It has absolutely nothing to do with the First World War.

The carrier pigeon is a variant of the domestic pigeon, Columba livia domestica. It has been used for at least 3,000 years in both peace and war. For example, pigeons were used in antiquity to spread news of the winners of the Olympic Games. News of victory at Waterloo reached London by carrier pigeon in 1815, and the Indian emergency services retired carrier pigeons as back-up communication in 2002. Today the Taliban supposedly uses carrier pigeons to avoid signals intercept.

However, during the First World War carrier pigeons remained in use by all warring parties. Some became quite famous, for example Cher Ami, a pigeon that helped save the “Lost Battalion” of the United States’ 77th Division during the Battle of the Argonne in October 1918. Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his efforts. Le Vaillant, the last pigeon released from Fort Vaux at Verdun by the Major Raynal’s determined defenders was awarded the Order of the Nation.

A plaque dedicated to Le Vaillant.

Despite the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century and the subsequent development of wireless communication, carrier pigeons remained quite relevant during the First World War. They required little food, they were easy to transport and they are fast fliers, reaching speeds well in excess of 60 mph. As opposed to messenger dogs, they were not distracted by, say, food. A captured pigeon did not betray neither its point of origin nor its destination, and they would keep trying to home even if injured. They could also carry messages through artillery fire and gas clouds. It is estimated that more than 100,000 homing pigeons were used by the British Army alone, and it is also estimated that 95 percent of all messages sent reached their destination. The density of the pigeons loft was usually fairly high, and the French deployed 72 pigeon lofts at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914.

There were, however, times when even the carrier pigeons couldn’t make it back to their lofts. A lieutenant Alan Goring (no relation to the German aviator and future Reichsmarschall) described being cut off with his men and relying on carrier pigeons to call in artillery support: “We had two pigeons in a basket, but the trouble was that the wretched birds had got soaked when the platoon floundered into the flooded ground. We tried to dry one of them off as best we could, and I wrote a message, attached it to its leg, and sent it off. To our absolute horror, the bird was so wet that it just flapped into the air and then came straight down again, and started actually walking towards the German line. Well, if that message had got into the Germans’ hands, they would have known that we were on our own and we’d have been in real trouble. So we had to try to shoot the pigeon before he got there. A revolver was no good. We had to use rifles, and there we were, all of us, rifles trained over the edge of this muddy breastwork trying to shoot this bird scrambling about in the mud. It hardly presented a target at all.”

The British Army’s carrier pigeons were subordinated to the Director of Army Signals, General Headquarters, and a number of lofts were deployed with the divisions. Lofts were either stationary, “motor mobile” or “horse drawn mobile”. Three signallers in each brigade allocated to carrier pigeons, with two men tending to the pigeon loft and one motor cycle dispatch rider who transported wicker baskets with pigeons to and from the front lines. Two birds were typically sent out with copies of the same message to ensure that the message reached its destination.

Both France and Britain used vehicles with pigeon lofts to create communication networks, not entirely unlike military radio relay systems used today for higher-level communications. The British may have had the most ambitious vehicle, though: the 1999-20005 LGOC B-type bus converted into a pigeon loft, which was a regular London public transportation bus converted to military use. These buses were typically deployed a mile or two behind the front lines to provide back-up or supplementary communications when telephone wires were destroyed by enemy action or when the wireless stations didn’t work properly. They were painted in distinctive patterns to enable the pigeons to recognize their loft.

Bus and despatch cyclist ready for action.

A former London double-decker bus (B.2125), camouflage painted. Pernes, 26 June 1918 © IWM (Q 9000)

Although the buses may have been a good way to increase mobility for the pigeon lofts, finding drivers was a bit more difficult. Drivers needed mechanical skills as well as driving skills, and both were comparatively rare during the First World War. Not only bus drivers, but also taxi drivers, truck drivers and the odd tram driver was recruited to keep the bus fleet moving. The drivers were provided with little or no military training: one day in the fall of 1914 they would be following their route in London and a couple of days later they would find themselves in Flanders. The initial recruitment efforts were however deemed to be less than satisfactory by Frank Pick, the public relations officer of the London Underground, and London Underground posters were printed to stimulate recruitment. The British government commandeered over a thousand B-type buses during the first months of the war to provide operational mobility for the army, and conversions included turrets, ambulances and pigeon lofts. The buses served the British Armed Forces up to the Armistice.

Loft and despatch rider with pigeon basket.

Captured enemy carrier pigeons on display by American troops.


Le Vaillant and his Peers. Chemins de Memoire <>

London Buses at War. <>

Jasper Copping. Honoured: the WW1 pigeons who earned their wings. The Telegraph, January 12, 2014 <

Mike Dash. Closing the Pigeon Gap. Smithsonian Magazine, April 17, 2012 <>

James Fizgerald. Goodbye Piccadilly: The Role Of The London Bus In WWI. Londonist, June 2, 2014 <>

Emily Retter. World War 1 battle buses went from the streets of London to the Western Front. The Mirror, July 27, 2014 <>