• 10.30am - 3.30pm
  • FREE
  • Chelsea, London
National Army Museum
  • 10.30am - 3.30pm
  • FREE
  • Chelsea, London

Animals

The British Army entrusted its secrets to birdbrains

HM Pigeon Service fixing a message to a bird before leaving a trench,  1917

HM Pigeon Service fixing a message to a bird before leaving a trench,  1917

HM Pigeon Service fixing a message to a bird before leaving a trench,  1917

Disruption on the line

Communication was a major problem for the British Army during the First World War (1914-18). Human runners and dog messengers were vulnerable to enemy fire and telephone lines could be destroyed in shell blasts. Early wireless sets were bulky, immobile and unreliable. Their messages were easily intercepted. Not until 1917 did reliable sets become widely deployed in the trenches.

Carrier pigeon message capsule, 1916

Pigeon power

Pigeons were therefore used to carry coded messages from the front. With a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour, they could quickly fly up and out of range of sniper fire.

Unfortunately, they could not be used after dark. They were also susceptible to gas. Casualties were fairly high, with around 10 per cent of the birds employed during the Battle of Messines (1917) falling foul of the enemy.

Pigeons were more reliable than any other form of communication. Ninety-five per cent of messages sent by pigeon were received!

This page from ‘Carrier Pigeons in War’ shows how to tie a message around a bird’s leg.

A bird in the hand...

Pigeons were used so extensively during the war that the British Army issued an official pamphlet 'Carrier Pigeons in War' in 1918.

The pamphlet contained guidelines for soldiers on how to care for the birds and the best ways to use them to send messages.

The British Army used around 12,000 pigeons during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. 

By 1918 it had 20,000 birds available for duty. A force of 380 men handled them.

 A messenger pigeon being released from the side of a British tank, 1918 © IWM (Q 9247)

A messenger pigeon being released from a British tank, 1918

 A messenger pigeon being released from the side of a British tank, 1918 © IWM (Q 9247)

A fully fledged service

The British Army continued to use messenger pigeons after the First World War. They were still in use in the Second World War, even being sent across the Channel to carry messages back to Britain on D-Day in June 1944. 

Until 1950 the British armed forces paid civilian pigeon fanciers to maintain 100 birds for their use.

Some armed groups still use pigeons today. In 2016 it was reported that Islamic State fighters were using the birds to carry messages. 

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