The use of pigeons as carriers of messages has a long history. The British Admiralty had a naval pigeon service in the period 1896-1908, when it was abandoned. The army had a short-lived pigeon post service based at Aldershot in 1900-1901. By 1914 the German, Turkish, French and Belgian armies all had one, but the British Army went to war without one and soon had to reconsider. It had been reported that at one time the French were even considering the use of swallows for the purpose.
The basics of a pigion service were that paper messages were affixed to the bird’s leg. They were sent, for example, from the front line to the pigeon’s base at a home called a loft – relying on the bird’s homing insticnt. On the pigeon’s arrival at the loft, an electric bell rang to alert the keepers. The message was taken off and passed to a motor cycle despatch rider who carried it to the nearest relevant signals office, for onward transmission.
On 11 September 1914, fifty pigeons were handed over to British headquarters by the French authorities. “These birds were used for intelligence purposes only, but from this small beginning was destined to grow a great branch of the Signal Service which in 1918 numbered 20,000 birds with a personnel of 380 experts. No less than 90,000 men in battalions and other units had been trained to care for and fly pigeons“. [source 1, below]
These birds were said to be controlled by the British Intelligence Corps and their employment is rather uncertain. It is however known that the army requisitioned control of all flying of pigeons in British-held areas as a defence against potential espionage.
Other birds, as the service developed, were supplied from home or obtained or requisitioned overseas. In France, the Saint-Omer district and much of French Flanders was noted for its “pigeon fancying” enthusiats and for its pigeons lofts and birds.
But unlike mechnical and electrical means of signalling, birds needed rather more care and although they proved valuable they provided a far from an infallible technique.
“Under favourable conditions a carrier pigeon can cover a distance of 15-200 miles at an average air speed of 30 miles per hour. To get the best out of him he must be conditioned as carefully as a greyhound, and be trained along the line of flight over which it is intended to use him“. [source 2, below]
Rats, all too common vermin in the forward areas of the battlefield, were a particular nuisance to the care and feeding of the birds.
Amongst the many lessons from battles of 1914 and 1915 was that the Royal Engineers Signal Service was at full stretch, using its combination of existing methods. It was often too slow for commanders to obtain information from battlefield and act accordingly. There was a clear need to develop an additional and efficient messaging service for forward area, and pigons provided it.
In May 1915 during the latter stages of the Second Battle of Ypres, pigeons were successfully used to bring situation reports and requests for artillery support. II Corps formed a Pigeon Service under control of the signal company at its headquarters. It certainly brought a useful improvement, bt there were pros and cons:
Pigeons could not be used at night or in heavy mist of fog. The French army pioneered work in this aspect and in the latter part of 1918 the British Second Army experimented with a pigeon loft that was kept dark but had gentle red light illumination and a lit landing stage. Trials with night flying to and from these lofts proved successful but the method had not come into operational use by the time of the Armistice.
Centralisation of control and standardisation of pigeon methods became a responsibility of the Director of Signals at General Headquarters in June 1915. It was decided to establish ten pigeon stations within each Army’s area and the same number for the Cavalry Corps. This needed at least 60 new men – men with exiusting knowledge of pigeon handling – to operate them.
Newspapers at home soon began to publish details of the type of men being sought: aged from 19 to 45 and with no requirement to have any military experience but a background in “pigeon fancying”, they would join the Royal Engineers. Recruits were instructed to report to Leeds where they would complete enlistment. Twenty of the men would be immediately made acting corporals and receive 2 shillings and 6 pence basic pay per day plus an additional engineers rate of 6 pence per day.
The standard establishment for each station was to be as follows.
|Sergeant (RE Signal Service)||1||Motorcycle despatch rider|
|Corporal (RE Signal Service)||2||Motorcycle despatch rider|
|NCOs or Privates (drawn from infantry or from cavalry regiments in the case of a Cavalry Corps station)||20|
|Driver (Army Service Corps)||1||To drive birds to stations and to carry them for training. Equipped with a motor car.|
Battlefield realities soon led to the number of stations being increased. Pigeons were usefully employed by First Army in the Battle of Loos, at loss of 14 casualties to the birds. A development from this time was a smoke bag to protect pigeons against poison gas when they were in their baskets.
Lessons from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 called for many more birds in the forward area. It was said that, for example, battlefield communications from Longueval / Delville Wood practically relied on the pigeon service. The limited supply of birds being a constraint, the idea developed of a mobile loft to take birds (collective names are a band, a dropping, a flight, a kit, a loft, a passel, a plague, or a school) to where they were needed, in addition to fixed loft sites further in the rear. Birds could be trained to fly in a new location within a matter of weeks. Assembly of a larger number of birds for a given operation became a practical proposition. Proposals were made for the addition of 6 motor (50 birds each) and 60 horse-drawn lofts (75 birds each), to house a total of 4,800 pigeons. The horse-drawn losfts were built at the Val de Livre Ordnance Works in Calais.
The first new mobile loft was handed over in France on 19 March 1916, stocked with 80 birds. It was at first positioned 7km from General Headquarters to allow staff to inspect it. After trials, it was ready for service on 10 April 1916 and called Number 1 Pigeon Loft. By then, 9 of its birds had been lost and 2 wounded. Number 1 Pigeon Loft departed for Cassel and the next three lofts were taken over on 9 April 1916. They were soon supplied with 180 “squeakers” (immature birds) for training.
There was frequent review of the organisation and to the extent to which command and control of the service should be decentralised. GHQ added an officer with specific responsibility for the carrier pigeon and messenger dog service, but the operational work of the pigeon service, like the various other signals technologies and methods, came within the remit of the Corps and Divisional Signal Companies of the Royal Engineers and at the fighting fronts, and was part of the work of the signals section of each brigade headquarters. The brigade section would normally have two dedicated pigeon men with its forward detachment. Increasingly, pigeon posts would be within each battalion and company area and the birds handled there by the infantrymen concerned. They needed to be trained in how to handle the birds, provide care for the period that a bird was with them, and to attach messages before sending it flying rearwards towards its loft.
Despite the addition of mobile lofts, the value of the pigeon service declined when the army was on the move, either in advance or retreat. It took time for birds to become accustomed to a new location, and it was found (for example, in the Cambrai advance in late 1917) that the forward units did not return pigeon baskets ad soon ran out of pigeons.
Pigeons were provided to the tank crews from their initial use in September 1916. A bird would be sent from a tank to its loft, and Tank Corps despatch riders would take them on to the relevant tank command.
Getting pigeons in baslets to the foreard units was often no easy task. Pigeons were dropped from aeroplanes to forward troops in the devastated Ypres battlefield by using baskets suspended from parachutes.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig mentioned the service in his despatch from France and Flanders of 25 December 1917:
“The Carrier Pigeon Service has also been greatly developed during the present year, and has proved extremely valuable for conveving information from attacking units to the headquarters of their formations.”
Serious disorganisation resulted from the start of the great German offensive of late March 1918. Thick fog, the rapidity of the German penetration of the British front, and the intensity of shelling and poison gas meant that very few messages came rearward, borne by the birds that had been in the most forward posts. The gutted remains of some 40 mobile lofts fell into enemy hands but only after being destroyed: this was partly due to enemy fire but in some cases pre-existing orders that the loft must be destroyed by the pigeon men if it appeared likely that it would other wise fell to the enemy. The majority of the birds within these lofts at the time perished. It is believed that no loft complete with its birds fell into captivity. A lesson was learned not to concentrate too many lofts too close to the front: the service would in future be echeloned in greater depth than before.
An interesting side-effect of this battle is that a mutual and co-ordinated pigeon service was set up between the British and French General Headquarters and Paris: birds going direct from Montreuil-sur-Mer and Paris would necessarily fly over German-held ground.
The service was quickly wound down once hostilities had ceased, and auction sales of army pigeons were held at Lille, Tourcoing and Courtrai in 1919.
Locations in France and Flanders mentioned by GHQ War diary . Dates given are when first mentioned as location of loft(s).
- Acheux. 4 September 1915.
- Acq. 1 March 1916. Site identified for loft.
- Agnez-les-Duisans. 1 March 1916. Site identified for loft.
- Aire-sur-la-Lys. 1 October 1915.
- Albert. 1 August 1916. Loft under construction.
- Armentières. 7 September 1915.
- Arras. 1 August 1916. Loft under construction.
- Bac St. Maur. 7 September 1915.
- Bailleul. 7 September 1915.
- Barly. 2 May 1916.
- Bécordel. 14 August 1916. Loft under construction.
- Bertancourt. 2 October 1915.
- Béthune. 2 August 1915.
- Blendecques. Cavalry Corps loft, 24 October 1915.
- Bus-en-Artois. 24 April 1916.
- Cassel. 4 December 1915.
- Contalmaison. 14 August 1916. Site identified for loft.
- Corbie. 5 September 1915.
- Doullens. 13 September 1915.
- Dranoutre. 10 December 1915.
- Estrée-Blanche. 4 October 1915.
- Etinehem. 15 January 1916. Decision made to site a loft.
- Etoile. Cavalry Corps lofts, 4 September 1915.
- Gauchin-Legal. 13 March 1916. Took over two lofts from French Army.
- Gouy-en-Artois. 4 April 1916.
- Haute Avesnes. 1 March 1916. Site identified for loft.
- Heilly. 15 January 1916. Decision made to site a loft.
- Kruisstraat. May 1916. Loft for young birds.
- Labuissière. 10 September 1915.
- Lacouture. 10 September 1915.
- Lavieville.24 April 1916. New site chosen for loft.
- Les Brébis. 21 February 1916.
- Mailly-Maillet. 13 September 1915.
- Mazingarbe. 18 October 1915.
- Méaulte. 16 August 1916. Loft under construction.
- Merville. 4 October 1915.
- Nieppe. 14 October 1915.
- Pas (presumably en Artois). 28 February 1916. Loft under construction.
- Philosophe. 18 October 1915.
- Ploegsteert. 22 October 1915.
- Pont Noyelles. 15 January 1916.
- Poperinge. 9 November 1915.
- Sailly-Labourse. 7 September 1915.
- Sains-en-Gohelle. 1 March 1916. Two lofts taken over from French Army.
- Savy. 1 March 1916. Site identified for loft.
- Senlis. 17 January 1916. Decision made to site loft.
- Treux. 6 April 1916.
- Vignacourt. Cavalry Corps lofts, 4 September 1915.
- Vlamertinghe. 25 January 1916. Reserve pigeon depot of 60 birds to be set up in front of chateau.
- Warloy-Baillon. 8 October 1915.
- Watou. 22 November 1915.
- Westoutre. 22 October 1915.
- Ypres. 6 January 1916. Reserve pigeon depots to be set up at (1) a dugout in the ramparts near the Menin Gate, and (2) a wood behind Zillebeke Lake. This was soon subsequently changed to a location near Dickebusch Lake.
Deaths of men of the pigeon service
This list is drawn from the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is likely to be incomplete. It only picks out men whose decription includes information that they had been serving with the Carrier Pigeon Service and who lie in cemeteries in the forward area. Those who are buried in depot locations, for example at Etaples, or at home are not listed.
Pioneer 231031 Alan Blackshaw, Royal Engineers. Killed in action 4 April 1917, buried at Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension, France. His service record exists and shows that he attested under the Group System and was mobilised to begin service on 24 January 1917. He was immedaiately appointed to the pigeon service and sent to France on 17 February 1917, evidently after receiving the barest minimum of military training at Chatham. Alan said that he was a boot manufacturer but as his service record states that he was a qualified pigeon flyer it is probably reasonable to assume that he had such experience from his civilian life. He was married and aged 30.
Pioneer 230624 Harry Longbottom, Royal Engineers, with XVIII Corps Signal Company. Killed in action 19 July 1917, buried at Gwalia Cemetery near Poperinge, Belgium. Harry had been a grocer before he enlisted.
Pioneer 230632 Harold Mayo, Royal Engineers. Killed in action 26 April 1918, buried at Klein-Vierstraat British Cemetery, Belgium. Was brought in there post-war from a small French cemetery nearby: his details there had said he had died on 27 April.
Gallantry awards relating to pigeon work
13 Pte. H. J. Roe, R, Fus.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on several occasions in locating and killing enemy snipers. On one occasion he attacked and captured an enemy strong point of fifteen men single-handed. He was acting as battalion pigeon carrier at the time, and was always at hand when messages had to be sent. His disregard of danger did much to
encourage his comrades in the capture and retention of the enemy position, which proved an important key to another part of our line.
(“London Gazette”, Distinguished Conduct Medal awards, 26 July 1917)
1724 L./Cpl. T. Murdoch, Tank Corps (Ayr).
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. When his Tank had been knocked out by direct hits and his officer and sergeant wounded, he took charge of the remainder of the crew and brought them to a place of safety. Afterwards, under heavy shell and machine gun fire, he returned to the derelict Tank and fetched pigeons, by means of which a message regarding the position of the infantry was sent off. He then assisted two wounded men to the dressing station under very heavy shell fire. His coolness and disregard of danger throughout the operation were worthy of the highest praise.
(“London Gazette”, Distinguished Conduct Medal awards, 26 January 1918)
Lt. Arthur Charles Pollard, Canadian Infy.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty as signalling officer. He went forward with the assaulting troops and established a centre whence he maintained communication throughout the day under very heavy and continuous shelling. When communication by telephone became impossible, he substituted lamps, pigeons and runners, and
displayed the most marked coolness and ability in keeping up communication under very heavy fire, thus materially assisting in the success of the operation.
(“London Gazette”, Military Cross awards, 7 March 1918)
2nd/Lt. (A./Lt.) Arthur Byfeld Frost, R.W. Surr. R.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when in command of the centre company of an attack. When the line was checked he personally reconnoitred the cause, and, collecting a few bombers, led them against a hostile concrete fortress, out of which he successfully bombed the enemy. Although wounded, he continued to lead his men as far as the first objective, and afterwards to a new position. He kept higher authority continually posted as to the course of events. By quickly informing corps headquarters by pigeon, he enabled the artillery to break up a heavy concentration of the enemy.
(“London Gazette”, Military Cross awards, 23 April 1918)
109910 Gnr. E. Rolfe, R.G.A. (Cippenham).
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty whilst accompanying an officer as pigeonier during an attack. When one basket of pigeons had been sent off with messages he went back a distance of over a mile, under heavy fire, for another basket, thus enabling his officer to send back more information.
(“London Gazette”, Distinguished Conduct Medal awards, 21 October 1918)
Capt. George Stanley Smith, 5th Bn., Scot. Rif., T.F., attd. 1/7th Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion its duty during an attack. As forward observation officer to his brigade he maintained his forward position for nine hours under very heavy shell fire and rendered valuable reports by pigeon to his brigade. Later, he carried out a dangerous reconnaissance under heavy fire and returned with most valuable information. (“London Gazette”, Military Cross awards, 2 December 1918)
149184 Mtr./Cyc./Cpl. S. F. Cross, C Corps Sig. Coy., R.E. (Wandsworth).
He has always performed his duties in a manner worthy of the highest praise. Later, in charge of pigeons, he did fine work in keeping in touch with the infantry during the advance on the Somme.
(“Edinburgh Gazette”, Distinguished Conduct Medal awards, 15 March 1920)
Pigeons at home
The following public regulation was published in the “London Gazette” of 30 November 1914 in connection with the Defence of the Realm Consolidation Act, 1914:
“No person shall keep or have in his possession or carry or liberate or bring into the United Kingdom any carrier or homing pigeons, unless he has obtained from the chief officer of police of the district a permit for the purpose, and if any person without lawful authority contravenes the provisions of this regulation he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations, and the chief officer of police or any officer of customs and excise may, if he considers it necessary or expedient to do so, cause any pigeons kept or brought into the United Kingdom in contravention of this regulation to be liberated detained or destroyed, or, in the case of pigeons brought into the United Kingdom, to be immediately returned in the ship in which they came. Any person found in possession of or found carrying or liberating any carrier pigeons shall, if so required by any naval or military officer or by any sailor or soldier engaged on sentry patrol or other similar duty or by any officer of police, produce his permit, and if he fails to do so, may be arrested.” 
The “London Gazette” of 28 January 1916 added a rider to the regulation:
“If any person—
(a) without lawful authority or excuse kills, wounds, molests, or takes any carrier or homing pigeon not belonging to him; or
(b) having found any such carrier or homing pigeon dead or incapable of flight, neglects forthwith to hand it over or send it to some military post or some police constable in the neighbourhood, with information as to the place where the pigeon was found; or
(c) having obtained information as to any such carrier or homing pigeon being killed or found incapable for flight, neglects forthwith to communicate the information to a military post or to a police constable in the neighbourhood; [then]
he shall be guilty of a summary offence against these regulations.”
-  “Work”
-  War diary of Carrier Pigeon Service at General HQ in France (National Archives WO95/123)
-  “London Gazette”
- British Newspaper Archive