The origin of tweeting? A tribute to the British War Pigeons 1901-2

Keeping with the wildlife theme, I couldn’t resist sharing this little discovery… It’s a summary of the contents of WO 108/27 (The National Archives, Kew).

“The pigeon post was just beginning to work admirably when peace was declared, and it is only to be regretted that it was not started earlier in the war”
So wrote Major R Napier, late DAAG Intelligence, Cape Colony on 19 September 1902 from Pretoria.

This sentence caught my eye whilst I was looking for something completely different. So, being inquisitive as I am, I diverted my attention to take a closer look.

In all, it’s a rather dreary, typically official report on the setting up of pigeon post during the Anglo-Boer War (or South African War) of 1899-1902. There is one official report which I did not find typically boring and that is John Buchan’s one on his investigation into the missing Kruger millions – I do recommend it (fiction or not) if you haven’t yet read it: The Buchan Papers by JDF Jones – and in looking up a link for those interested readers, I got distracted by this obituary of JDF Jones as numerous books of his adorn my shelves…

But there are some nuggets of interest in this story.
The pigeon post was established on 1 September 1901 by the Intelligence chaps under General Sir John French and Lieutenant EHE Abadie had the task of managing the pigeons from their main base in Middelburg through to the end of the war in May 1902.

The purpose of the pigeon post was to provide rapid and secret communication of news between scouts and forces where telegraph communication was difficult. Birds were also left with loyal farmers to communicate if necessary. During this time, 45 stations (28 main posts) were established over the Cape – but I won’t bore you with the list. How frustrating though for the men who set up the last two posts just in time for peace to be declared! All that anticipation for nought!

I found it quite difficult to believe that these birds were quite difficult to conceal and put the loyal farmers at considerable risk from the Boers. However, on reflection it makes sense – how often do you see groups of pigeons in obscure rural areas in South Africa? The pigeon lofts would also be a give-away as would the transport baskets.

The cost of providing a station of 50 birds was £7 pounds with an average working cost of £20  12 shillings per loft per month. The birds were first supplied by Homing Societies and when enough could not be sourced, the British Admiralty supplied 300 ‘selected birds’ – some of which were donated by notables, including the then Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward VII). As with any special initiative, there was opposition – in this case strong opposition from the editor of Racing Pigeon. (The editor, AG Osman was later to organise the ‘first Carrier Pigeon Service in the British Army’ during World War 1)

Due to the Embarkation Officer at Southampton Dock’s forethought to install a ‘large comfortable loft’ for the birds on the poop deck of the Orient, only 3 (1%) lost their lives on the voyage from England – arriving after peace was declared. In all, 1500 birds (including the 300 who never got to see active service) were enlisted by the British Army serving in South Africa.

Considering birds are meant to fly, these birds seemed to experience a variety of modes of transport. In addition to the Orient, some were transported on horseback despite no suitable form of basket being found. In contrast, conveyance by bicycle was far more successful – not surprising given that they only travelled on roads whereas the horses didn’t.

The comfort of the birds was of great importance as seen by the detailed instructions supplied on the kind of loft, its size and positioning. Guidance was given on the raising of young birds and exact details on how to train them to be carriers. The attention to detail is remarkable. Specific mention was made  of a ‘yearling bird’ who had travelled over 2000 miles needing to be rested and that others were overworked, not least because of the ‘trying weather they ,,, often [had] to fly through’ – it should be noted that the birds could not fly in the dark or fog.

By the end of the war, 1600 messages had been sent at a cost of 50 shillings (today £1=£94.72) per message of 250 words in ordinary manuscript (this was the limit a bird could carry). Added to this was the 8% of birds who had lost their lives in service, through capture by hawks and the discomfort of travel. A few fell foul of bullets during the heat of battle but only 13 were recorded as ‘captured by the enemy’ (4 were executed and the rest allowed to return home). Of their keepers, 2 were killed, 1 died from exposure and 2 were captured.

Passing mention is made of the Australians who supplied birds for service in the Transvaal. Perhaps another day another file will come to light somewhere on this, perhaps the first use of bird power and tweeting in the modern British Army.

Napier may have regretted the coming of peace in May 1902, but for the majority of those caught up in the war – human and animal – peace was more than welcome.

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One thought on “The origin of tweeting? A tribute to the British War Pigeons 1901-2

  1. Pingback: I want to ride my bicycle … by Queen, the King and Kaiser soldiers | Anne Samson - Historian

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