Homing pigeons, a variety of common domestic pigeons. Public domain.
Le Vaillant and his peers
Le Vaillant and his peers
Homing pigeons, the war’s liaison officers
Pigeons’ capacity to return home combined with their exceptional levels of endurance in flying long distances, sometimes hundreds of miles, meant that pigeons have been used for thousands of years to assist humankind with its need to communicate.
A legendary bird
The first reference to a carrier pigeon is in the Bible’s Old Testament. After the flood, when the Earth was covered in water, Noah released a dove which returned carrying an olive branch thus announcing that peace had been made with God. The dove is also associated with important episodes in the history of Christianity and symbolises the Holy Spirit.
In Ancient times, the pigeon was worshipped and important civilisations (Egyptian, Persian, China, Greek and Roman) used pigeons to send official, commercial and strategic messages during war time. The carrying of messages by pigeon was also employed in Arab countries from the late 7th century by a network that linked together the towns and cities of Damas, Bagdad, Mossul, Alep, Gaza, Cairo and Alexandria. Charlemagne turned pigeon breeding into a noble privilege which became a sign of wealth but the Revolution put an end to this privilege when every citizen had the opportunity to own birds. Their sense of direction continued to be exploited for many decades to follow. Men in finance used pigeons to exchange information on the stock exchange. Shipping companies employed them to inform their correspondents at the destination ports to help them prepare to sell the cargo en route. Even press agencies owned their own dove.
A useful bird
For centuries, the pigeon served as an irreplacable liason officer during the Franco-Prussian War of 1879 and the First and Second World Wars, confirming the importance of this courier of the skies. In 1870, Paris was besieged. The River Seine, the railways, the roads and the telegraph, all the means of communication that existed at the time, were placed under Prussian control. The air was considered as an alternative channel of communication and so a system of transmission was put in place in which pigeons would play a pivotal role.
Mail intended for the suburbs would leave Paris by hot-air balloon (64 balloons set off between 18 September 1870 and 28 January 1871) carrying pigeons on board. At the whim of the winds, the pilots were able to cross the enemy lines. Before being released, the pigeons were kitted out so they could transport messages to the city’s population under siege. Immediately, the system proved a success, but seeing that some messages comprised a few sheets of silk paper, the operators quickly understood that the system was inadequate for the intended high volume of traffic. An ingenious process of miniaturisation offered a solution to the problem. Microfilms, referred to as pigeongrams, combined with a new technique of fixing information on flexible materials, helped to significantly increase the number of messages transported. Each pigeon was then able to carry hundreds of messages, not only dispatches for the attention of the authorities, but also private correspondence. The miniscule film was collected as soon as the pigeons arrived. A magic lantern projector, identical to the model shown, was used to project the contents of the microfilms. The messages were then transcribed by hand and distributed to their intended recipients by the city's postmen.
Estimates put the number of letters transported by pigeons at over a million, enabling Paris to keep in contact with the rest of the country. This fact confirms the effectiveness of pigeons and encouraged soldiers to create pigeon fancying instruction centres dedicated to the armed forces.
A military liaison officer
During the First Wold War, each camp had pigeon “units". These trucks were specially converted into mobile pigeon houses for the countryside. By moving around in relation to the movements of the front line, these vehicles could be swiftly transported to create efficient transmission centres. Some pigeons achieved real feats to the point of being honoured as if they were soldiers. One of the most famous, Le Vaillant, the last pigeon under Commander Raynal, released from the Vaux Fort on 4 June 1916, was awarded the Order of the Nation. During the Second World War (1939-45), 16,500 English pigeons were parachuted onto French soil. They supplied the commanding officers of the allied forces with information on the enemy positions, information provided by the resistance. The messages were carried in tubes.