'Patriotic Pigeons': Pigeon Politics and Military Service in War-Time South Africa, Ca.1899 - 1945

By Snyders, Hendrik | African Research & Documentation, May 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

'Patriotic Pigeons': Pigeon Politics and Military Service in War-Time South Africa, Ca.1899 - 1945


Snyders, Hendrik, African Research & Documentation


Introduction

Contrary to P.S Thompson's contention that the Great War in Natal was "chiefly the concern of the British community",1 contemporary evidence indicated that this and other conflicts were equally the concern of the 'animal community' including that of pigeons. In fact, history abounds with the tales of pigeons fulfilling a critical intelligence role in both local and overseas conflicts, including the Anglo-Boer War, First World War and World War Two. Indeed, in all cases special war measures were promulgated to regulate the keeping, general treatment, utilisation and transport of the birds. The Dickin Medal, also known as the Victoria Cross for Animals and awarded to recognise conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty of animals and birds associated with or under the control of any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units under the British Imperial Army, was awarded to 32 pigeons. Although the role of pigeons in the great wars has been acknowledged in a number of international studies, very few academic studies and in-depth research into the socio-political aspects of the subject have thus far been undertaken. The existing studies mostly deal with the military contribution of these 'patriots' to the war efforts of the United States, United Kingdom and the armies of continental Europe.2 Locally, beyond Swart's groundbreaking study of horses and the Anglo-Boer War3 and McGill Alexander's limited study on the military use of animals in South Africa,4 no new research on animals and war has been published. This lacuna is confirmed by Van der Waag's bibliography of existing secondary source history of the South African National Defence Force between the years 1912 - 1995.5 Katz suggested that the over-emphasis of certain topics to the detriment of others in South Africa's military history can be ascribed to the strong political undertones that characterised the field locally.6 It is, therefore, not surprising that the role of animals in general, and of pigeons in particular, in shaping the history of the nation is neglected and that their wider impact on the shaping of society is not recognised.

This article, starting with investigating the existence and influence of an empire-wide 'military pigeon consciousness', traces the role of these animals throughout the South African War (1899 - 1902) up to the end of the Second World War (1939 - 1945). An attempt is also made to map the efforts of the animal welfare movement and of pigeon fanciers to advance their own agenda following the strategic elevation of pigeons and other war-time transport animals.

'Military pigeon consciousness' in the British Empire

The role of pigeons as war-time messengers, as previously indicated, is a widely acknowledged fact in the history of humanity. Its use offered the military authorities a greater measure of secrecy since there was very little danger of having messages intercepted as well as enabling continuous communication in situations where difficult terrain might interrupt radio communication. In the years preceding the South African War, when developments in the field of radio communication were largely in their infancy, newspapers in various parts of the British Empire frequently reported on developments in the field of pigeon military affairs in Europe and in the process created, what might be called, a 'military pigeon-consciousness'. The Tuapeka Times in a speculative report reflected upon the state and use of pigeon services in France, Germany, Italy and Russia in 1888 and concluded that carrier pigeons would "play an active part in the next great European war."7 The West Coast Times, in turn, quoting from the Pall Mall Gazette and following the use of pigeons during the Franco-Prussian War (1871), listed the essential requirements for war-pigeons as possessing the right homing instinct, a sense of accuracy and having the desired colour. It also went on to describe the growing use of these birds as "a small shoot from the mighty tree of militarism". …

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