War pigeons: The King's Angels
PUBLISHED: 18:00 08 September 2014 | UPDATED: 18:00 08 September 2014
In the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, Mike Charity pays homage to our fearless feathered friends who braved storm and injury to get messages back to Blighty
This year the Royal Pigeon Racing Association celebrates its 40th aniversary since establishing their headquarters in Cheltenham.
The organisation began life in Leeds in 1896 as the National Homing Union. The royal title and change of name was added much later, though even in its early days, both the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York maintained teams of racing pigeons in the royal lofts at Sandringham. Our present Queen Elizabeth II, a keen pigeon racer, is Patron of the RPRA.
The pigeon’s aid to man flies back over the years to 1200BC, when they conveyed information regarding the state of the Nile floods to Ramses III. The Arab world held the creatures in very high esteem, calling them the ‘King’s Angels’ for the news they brought from every corner of the realm.
It is said the first news of the outcome of the battle of Waterloo indicated Napoleon had won, causing stock markets to crash, but Rothschild, via his carrier pigeon, heard the victor was Wellington. He gambled on the bird’s information and made millions.
The move to Cheltenham by the RPRA in 1974 brought them to the Reddings area, little knowing their new venue was putting another feather in the cap of the borough’s pigeon history.
A fact not known today by most new arrivals to the town, and many original inhabitants, is that Cheltenham owes its Spa title to these amazing birds. It came about in 1716, when locals noted a flock of pigeons pecking on land now the site of Cheltenham Ladies’ College in Bayshill Road. Finding the birds attracted to minerals in the soil, a hole was sunk and the first of the town’s natural consumable wells came on tap. Hundreds of folk, like the pigeons, flocked to partake of the minerals as news spread of the health-giving properties they offered.
By 1788, Cheltenham’s name became known to ailing folk over many a mile away, as a venue of hope.
King George III, complete with entourage, arrived, staying five weeks and setting a fashion for ‘taking the waters’. His visit put Cheltenham on the map and the town coffers filled to overflowing, much as the spa outlets poured out the elixir of life.
Accepting pigeons as the creators of its fame and wealth, it was acknowledged by Council Elders commissioning needle-worked images of pigeons on the town crest with an embroidered motto, ‘Salubritas et Eruditio’ (Health and Education)
Moving on over many decades to the present day, 2014 brings the 100th year since the beginning of World War One and a unique military link to pigeons.
For embedded in the terrible battles of Europe, these most peaceful of birds became invaluable message carriers to the major warring factions in the supposed War to End All Wars. So important was their work in those dark days of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, when Word War Two broke out, 25 years later, thousands of birds were donated by Britain’s pigeon fanciers, and even the Royal family, to the war effort. At the height of hostilities, nearly a quarter of a million pigeons were depended upon by the Army, RAF, Home Guard, Civil Defence and Police - even Bletchley Park, for vital information to be brought back to Blighty, such as enemy positions, troop casualties, downed aircraft and needed rescue missions.
Maria Dickin, founder of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), created in 1943 the Dickin Medal, which became known as the ‘Animal VC’, awarded to creatures for outstanding wartime bravery. Of the 64 awards to animals, which included one cat (for killing rats on the Yangtze River), three horses and 28 dogs, pigeons were the recipients of 32 medals, reflecting the respect with which they were held for work during the last war and since in Afganistan, Iraq and Iran.
Military history of the 1914-18 and 1939-45 battles is inundated with accounts of creature courage. In the Second World War, aircraft and crew had two other passengers – pigeons, flying letters on a wing and a prayer. Should the plane be brought down, any survivors would release the birds with notes of their position for possible rescue. Countless times the birds proved to be worth much more than their grain and water.
These modest birds, often reviled, sometimes described as ‘rats with wings’ by folk who should know better, have been the greatest of friends to Britain and its armed forces in two world wars. Without their flights of daring through bullets and bombs, without their tenacity to fly home through storm and injury, vital communications would never have got back or been responsible for saving thousands of lives.
Pigeons have a lot about them to fancy. Witness the fact Britain today has 25,000 active pigeon-fancier members in the RPRA, with 20,000 individual lofts where the association is expecting members this year alone, to breed and register one million birds. That is quite a flock of ‘King’s Angels’ in the air – sorry, I should have used the word ‘kit’ to describe a flock of airborne pigeons – not many folk know that, with the exception I fancy of about 25,000 pigeon lovers!
This article is from the September 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.