It was “the war to end all wars.”
On the Western Front the Allied Powers hoped wireless radio and telephones would keep its rear-echelon commanders in touch with their front line troops.
But when the shelling started these lines of communication were all too easily broken or intercepted, and carefully laid plans could quickly descend into chaos. (BBC)
Homing pigeons were used in World War I to deliver messages when other means such as telephones, telegraph, radio or dispatch riders were unavailable. They proved their value carrying messages from front line outposts to pigeon lofts at command centers, which they returned to by instinct and training. (Croseri)
The US Army first tried using pigeons in the 1870s during the Indian wars in the Dakotas. The experiment was a failure, on account of the large numbers of hawks that kept killing the birds, but by World War I, pigeons had become an invaluable military asset. Some birds even carried cameras that snapped photographs of enemy positions.
Even in World War II, when radios and walkie-talkies were available, pigeons were used as an emergency means of communication. Paratroopers in the invasion of Normandy carried pigeons with them when they jumped deep behind German lines, in order to maintain radio silence. (AP; Devil’s Lake Journal)
At the start of the First World War, the United States received the pigeons as a donation from Great Britain bird breeders. Then, it was up to the American Soldiers to train them for their jobs. (Armed Forces Museum)
Carrier Pigeons, used to carry communications during World War I, proved to be instrumental in the war. Because advanced telecommunications had yet to be developed, the carrier pigeon was often used by both sides, not only for critical dispatches, but also often sent from the front line carrying status report messages back to the main headquarters.
The messages could then be relayed to the proper military authorities. In all, it is estimated that more than 100,000 carrier pigeons were used by both sides during the war. They are recorded as having a 95% success rate in navigating successfully to their intended destination. (Armed Forces Museum)
One pigeon was hatched in January 1918 in a dugout just behind the lines in France. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, he was one of the most active pigeons in the Army, and his barrage-dodging skill was apparent in many exciting flights from the front line trenches to divisional pigeon lofts.
On October 21, 1918, at 2:35 p.m., this pigeon was released at Grandpre from a front line dugout in the Meuse-Argonne drive with an important message for headquarters at Rampont, 25 miles away. The enemy had laid down a furious bombardment prior to an attack.
Through this fire, the pigeon circled, gained his bearings and flew toward Rampont. Men in the trenches saw a shell explode near the pigeon. The concussion tossed him upward and then plunged him downward.
Struggling, he regained his altitude and continued on his course. Arriving at Rampont 25 minutes later, the bird was a terrible sight. A bullet had ripped his breast, bits of shrapnel ripped his tiny body, and his right leg was missing. The message tube, intact, was hanging by the ligaments of the torn leg.
Weeks of nursing restored his health but could not give back the leg he lost on the battlefield. The pigeon became a war hero and earned the name “John Silver,” after the one-legged pirate in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
He was retired from active service and in 1921 was assigned as a mascot to the 11th Signal Company, US Army Signal Corps, Schofield Barracks, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. John Silver died December 6, 1935, at the age of 17 years and 11 months.
Thereafter, on each Organization Day of the 11th Signal Company, the name John Silver was added to the roll-call. When his name was called, the senior non-commissioned officer present responded, “Died of wounds received in battle in the service of his country.” The Army Signal Corps presented John Silver to the museum on December 19, 1935.
Since at least the mid-1930s, many people have called this one-legged pigeon ‘Stumpy’ John Silver. The ‘Stumpy’ nickname, however, has been a matter of contention.
The Signal Company commander of the Hawaiian Division at Schofield Barracks (John Silver’s commanding officer at the time the bird died) felt it was disrespectful and is reported to have said in 1961 that anyone who called the bird “Stumpy” would have been summarily thrown out of the area.
Nonetheless, a 1937 Signal Corps Headquarters document states that “’Stumpy’ John Silver” was on display at the Army Aeronautical Museum, Wright Field, Ohio, which later became the National Museum of the US Air Force. (Air Force)
When the Army disbanded the Pigeon Service in 1957, the last 1,000 birds at Fort Monmouth were offered for sale to the general public. The more famous birds were parceled out to zoos.
Hundreds of veterans and pigeon-racing enthusiasts descended on the fort in hopes of getting at least a few of the pigeons. A newspaper account says there was an overflow crowd of about 200 people who couldn’t get in. (AP; Devil’s Lake Journal)