During World War II, transferring intel from the spies in France…the resistance, was difficult. To fly a plane through the anti-aircraft fire was dangerous, and often not successful. To send a spy on foot was not only something that would take far too long, not to mention the possibility of being caught. The intelligence community had to come up with a way to get the information to the generals and to the president quickly…and it had to be a way to succeed without massive loss of life.
After much discussion, they happened on the idea of using homing pigeons to take messages back and forth between the spies, the resistance, and even the citizens of France. The idea was to drop the pigeons in a cage that was parachuted into the country. Once the pigeons were on the ground, the people were to write notes on small pieces of paper, place it in the canister attached to the pigeon’s leg, and release the bird to fly home. These pigeons were a huge help to the war effort, and were used in at least two wars.
Years later, a couple stumbled onto a capsule containing a cryptic note dated to either 1910 or 1916. Jade Halaoui was hiking in the fields near Alsace, France this September 2020. Ahead of him, he noticed something shiny. Upon further inspection, he found a small capsule partially buried in the ground and opened it. Inside was a note, written in German in cursive script by a Prussian military officer. Most likely the canister has been attached to a carrier pigeon, but never reached its destination. Halaoui and his partner, Juliette, took the artifact to the Linge Memorial Museum in Orbey.
A curator took a look at the canister and it’s note. He sat down at a table and delicately lifted the frail-looking slip of paper with tweezers. The note was very old, thin, and worn. It was written in spidery German cursive script. It was determined that the message was likely sent by a Prussian infantry officer via carrier pigeon around the onset of World War I. Dominique Jardy, curator at the Linge museum, told one reporter that the note was written in looping handwriting that is difficult to decipher, however, while the date clearly reads July 16…the year could be interpreted as 1910 or 1916. World War I took place between 1914 and 1918. With that in mind, it was concluded that the note was likely written 1916.
Jardy enlisted a German friend to help him translate the note. The note read in part: “Platoon Potthof receives fire as they reach the western border of the parade ground, platoon Potthof takes up fire and retreats after a while. In Fechtwald half a platoon was disabled. Platoon Potthof retreats with heavy losses.” The message, which was addressed to a senior officer. It appears that the infantryman was based in Ingersheim. The note refers to a military training ground, which lead Jardy to think that the note likely refers to a practice maneuver, not actual warfare. If this was the case, and the note was written in 1910, it could refer to a preparation for war. If it was written in 1916, this could have been training in anticipation of a long time of war.
Jardy mentioned that military officials typically sent multiple pigeons with the same message to ensure that crucial information reached its destination. One can only hope that is true, because if this was vital information, and it did not get through, finding it now is unfortunately more than a century too late. Halaoui discovered the long-lost message just a few hundred yards from its site of origin, so Jardy suspects that this capsule slipped off the homing pigeon’s leg early in its journey. I hope that is true, because some of these pigeons were shot down. Others were caught by the hungry citizens and used for food, but some made it home and they were heroes of war too, because they brought important intel to the Allies.