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How Canada and the Allied Used Homing Pigeons to Send Urgent Messages During World War 1

At WorldWar1Archive.com, we love to bring you lesser known facts and images of World War 1. One of the stranger units of World War 1 was Canada’s Pigeon Corps, which used homing pigeons to send important messages to and from the front lines. Messages were inserted into canisters attached to the legs of pigeons, which then carried the coded cypher to its recipient.

Canadian Dispatch Rider Carrying Pigeons In Basket on His Back, Western Front, 1917. The motorcyclist would take his basket of pigeons to the front lines where they would be loaded with messages. The number of messages that could be sent was limited by the number of pigeons that could be carried in these baskets.

Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages in wartime since at least 1600 in Europe, but they really came into widespread use during World War 1, because the vast forces involved and the need to coordinate troop movements and artillery strikes made it necessary to have a means of sending messages to and from the front lines securely and rapidly. Although both sides made extensive use of radio and telephone to convey messages, pigeons were a valuable method of communication which offered unique advantages as well as challenges. Radio transmissions could be intercepted and telephone wires could be cut by enemy artillery but pigeons could not be intercepted. However they had to be moved into position and kept healthy during the fighting, so the Pigeon Corps had to develop some innovative methods to ensure that their pigeon couriers did the job.

In this series of photographs from the Western Front, we see members of the Canadian Pigeon Corps handling their pigeons during World War 1.

Close-up of the truck in the preceding photo. Note the large pigeon coop mounted on the back of the truck, which is where the pigeons lived when they were not being transported in wicker baskets or cages to the front.

The basic idea is that once released, a homing pigeon will fly back to its home and carry your message with it. Pigeons would be carried in cages to the front lines, from where they would be loaded with messages and released to fly back to headquarters. In this way, units at the front could safely convey messages back to the rear areas.

Transporting the pigeons required an elaborate system of mobile aviaries, ranging from large truck-mounted pigeon coops to cages carried on the backs of soldiers like a large backpack. These photos show Canadian soldiers using homing pigeons as messengers during World War 1.

Canadian Soldier Carrying Pigeons on His Back - 1917
Carrying Homing Pigeons to the Front, 1917: Here a lone Canadian soldier makes his way to the front line carrying a wicker basket on his back. The pigeons were kept in the basket until ready to be used on a mission.

Members of the Pigeon Corps Trying a Message to the Leg of the Bird
Members of the Pigeon Corps Trying a Message to the Leg of the Bird

Canada was not alone in using pigeons to carry messages. Both sides made extensive use of the little flying couriers and in fact the British were still using homing pigeons during the Second World War. Some of the brave little birds even participated in the D-Day Landings, ferrying priority messages from the beachheads back to Headquarters in England.