Thursday 19 April 2018

Fight or flight: First World War pigeons finally honoured

Columba livia, Rock Dove.
Columba livia, Rock Dove.

Jasper Copping in London

Locked in combat in the mud of the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917, British troops needed to get an urgent signal back to their headquarters from the front line.

A messenger was despatched on a journey that should have taken 20 minutes. But shortly after setting off, while near the Menin Road -- a notoriously vulnerable ridge -- the courier came under fire.

A bullet broke a leg and passed out of the body through the back, while the small metal message cylinder was left embedded in the side.

Despite the horrendous injuries, the messenger dutifully continued, until finally completing the mission, delivering the message, after an agonising journey of more than 21 hours -- before dying the next day.

But this feat of endurance was achieved not by a soldier but by a pigeon, known only as 2709, one of thousands to serve -- and die -- in the First World War.

The creatures are credited with helping to save the lives of thousands of servicemen and influencing many key moments in the conflict, but their contribution has been largely overlooked.

However, ahead of the centenary of the war's outbreak later this year, the service of 2709 and others is now being honoured by the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA).

The organisation is staging an exhibition at its annual conference in Blackpool, north-west England, next weekend to commemorate the role played by the creatures.

It will feature highlights from its archives of 10,000 documents and photographs, revealing the extent to which the birds were used during the First and Second World Wars.

The Great War's most celebrated pigeon was Cher Ami, donated by British fanciers but serving with the Americans. The bird is credited with saving the lives of 200 men from the 77th Infantry Division, known as the Lost Battalion, who had become trapped behind enemy lines with little food or ammunition, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive, in October 1918.

The men had also started to be bombarded by their own side, who did not know their location. After two pigeons had been shot down, Cher Ami, the last pigeon, was sent up into the heavy enemy fire.

The bird was shot down but managed to take flight again and succeeded in getting word back at her loft at division headquarters 25 miles to the rear in just 65 minutes.

© Telegraph

Irish Independent

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