Strolling through the fields of north-east France, a couple spot something metallic glistening in the light. Looking closer, they realize it’s a tiny canister, with an even smaller note tucked inside. Back in the days of World War I, soldiers used capsules such as these to send messages via carrier pigeon, reaching compatriots many miles away. But this one arrived more than 100 years too late.
Today, the region of Ingersheim is a sleepy corner of France’s Alsace region, full of vineyards and rolling hills. But in the early years of the 20th century, it was a far less peaceful place. In 1871 the area had been handed over to Germany by France, landing it on the losing side of the bloody conflict to come.
Was the note found in the field a relic from the battlefields of World War I? Or a missive from another violent engagement? According to experts, the hard-to-decipher message depicts a disastrous military encounter in either 1910 or 1916, during which a unit dubbed Platoon Potthof sustained a number of losses.
Determined to leave a record of the carnage, one soldier had apparently scrawled the note and attached it to a carrier pigeon. Loyal and true, these incredible birds were known to carry messages for miles at great speed – no matter what threats faced them at every turn. But this time around, something prevented it from reaching its destination.
Of course, the reason that this particular brave bird never made it to its destination has been lost in the mists of time. But the note that it left behind has revealed a fascinating glimpse into the past. For decades, pigeons such as these formed an essential part of the war effort, helping messages get through where all other means of communication failed.
But who came up with the idea of using pigeons to send messages in the first place? According to reports, the practice has been around since at least the sixth century B.C., when King Cyrus II of Persia used the birds to communicate across his empire. And some 500 years later, this unlikely method of correspondence was still being used.
In the middle of the first century B.C., the Roman emperor Julius Caesar used carrier pigeons to aid in the conquest of Gaul. Meanwhile, off the battlefield, the birds were dispatched to keep citizens up to date with sporting events. And in ancient Greece, a similar system had spread word of the winners and losers in the latest Olympic Games.
Later, in the early 13th century, the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan utilized carrier pigeons as he ruthlessly conquered great swathes of Europe and Asia. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that these clever creatures really began to develop a reputation in the modern world. And one of the first to benefit was Nathan Rothschild, a banker whose descendants remain wealthy and influential even today.
According to legend, the family’s wealth owes a lot to his carrier pigeons, which bore news from the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. As the only person in London to know which side had been victorious, Rothschild was able to make a number of prudent financial decisions, doubling his fortune at a stroke.
Then in 1870 war broke out between the French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. In Paris, fighters initially communicated by sealing messages inside metal balls and sending them down the River Seine. But unsurprisingly, this method proved to have a number of flaws. As the enemy approached, it became evident that a better system was needed.
On September 19, 1870, Prussian forces began their assault on Paris. But less than a week later, the French released three carrier pigeons from a hot air balloon above the besieged city. Within six hours, the birds had returned to their home roosts, their messages safely delivered to allies elsewhere in France.
By the end of the war, it’s estimated that more than 400 carrier pigeons had been put to work in a similar manner. As well as bullets and cold weather, the birds also had to deal with the threat of enemy falcons, trained to take them down before their messages could be delivered. So just how many of them managed to make it back to their owners in one piece?
Sadly, just 73 French carrier pigeons survived the Franco-Prussian war. But this rather drastic death toll did little to prevent the birds being used in combat again once World War I rolled round. After all, when the conflict broke out in 1914 neither the telephone nor the telegraph had developed enough to offer a reliable means of communication.
During World War I, pigeons were utilized on both sides of the conflict. At the First Battle of the Marne, which took place near Paris in 1914, the French army brought more than 70 avian units with them as they marched. Meanwhile, within the German ranks, the birds were equipped with cameras and put to use as aerial spies.
In April 1917 the United States joined World War I, bringing their own army of carrier pigeons into the fray. And at least two of these brave birds soon became legends in their own right. But how exactly did they distinguish themselves in such a memorable way? Well, they displayed remarkable bravery that likely put some of their human counterparts to shame.
On October 4, 1918, an American battalion was trapped behind enemy lines during the Meuse-Argonne offensive on the Western Front. To make matters worse, they were being subjected to friendly fire from units unaware that troops from their own side had advanced so far forward. Desperate to stop the barrage, the men dispatched a carrier pigeon with a note revealing their location.
After successfully delivering her message – and saving the men of her battalion – the pigeon was ambushed by Germans on her way home. But despite suffering grave injuries, she made it back to her battalion alive. In gratitude, medics attempted to save the bird’s injured leg. And when they were unable to, the men fashioned her a false limb out of wood.
After the war, the bird – named Cher Ami, or dear friend – was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a military honor typically reserved for human soldiers. And just one day after her daring dash across the battlefield, another bird performed an equally heroic act. This time, it was a carrier pigeon known as President Wilson.
Also attached to an American battalion engaged in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Wilson was dispatched to seek help when the men of his unit were attacked by enemy forces. But this time, the Germans fired on the bird before his message was even delivered. Nevertheless, Wilson struggled through a hail of bullets, delivering the note in just 25 minutes.
Sadly, when Wilson finally landed, the soldiers realized just how brutal his ordeal had been. Left with a wound to his chest, the bird’s left leg had been gravely wounded. But like Cher Ami, he was a survivor, ultimately going on to enjoy a long retirement in New Jersey. Today, his stuffed remains can be seen on display at the United States Department of Defense HQ in The Pentagon.
Over the course of the war, it’s believed that the Signal Corps branch of the U.S. Army flew a total of about 600 birds. But even that impressive figure pales in comparison to the French avian forces, which are thought to have numbered some 30,000 pigeons. So, it seems reasonable to assume that the skies over France were positively bustling with birds during the 1910s.
Interestingly, back when World War I broke out, Ingersheim – where the two hikers made their incredible discovery – was still not actually part of France. Over the years, the area, which is part of the Alsace historical region, has undergone a number of changes and upheavals. And at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 it had been handed over to Germany in accordance with the Treaty of Frankfurt.
More than 40 years later, the borders of Europe were plunged into uncertainty once more with the outbreak of World War I. Located on the cusp of Germany and France, the people of Alsace found themselves at the center of a bloody dispute. And eventually, in 1919, the region, including Ingersheim, was given back to the French.
As time passed, the horrors of both world wars faded away and Ingersheim settled into the sedate commune that it is today. But a chance discovery in September 2020 brought thoughts of unsettled times flooding back. That month, two hikers stumbled upon a lost carrier pigeon capsule, abandoned in a field.
After carefully opening the aluminum capsule, the couple realized that there was a message still tucked away inside. And like any good citizens would, they decided to take their find to an expert for closer examination. As luck would have it, the Linge Memorial Museum in Orbey was just ten miles away.
A piece of World War I history that has largely been forgotten, the Battle of Le Linge began in July 1915 and continued for three months. From their lofty camp in the Vosges mountains, a group of German soldiers fought off French troops trying to make their way to the nearby city of Colmar. And although this particular battlefield is often overlooked, it was actually one of the most violent and bloody struggles of the entire conflict.
In total, some 17,000 men died in the trenches of Le Linge. Might the carrier pigeon message have been penned by one of these tragic souls shortly before meeting their demise? Or did it come from another beleaguered battlefield? At the nearby museum, curator Dominique Jardy got to work uncovering the story behind the note.
But that was easier said than done. According to reports, the message inside the capsule was barely legible, written in an elaborate German Gothic script. In the end, Jardy called in a favor from a German-speaking friend to help with the translation. And eventually, the message was received – more than 100 years after it had been penned.
Dated either 1910 or 1916, the message was apparently written by a soldier to a superior officer, detailing a series of military maneuvers. According to some reports, the man who penned the note was based in Ingersheim, meaning the pigeon had not flown far before its journey was interrupted. Yet others claim that the author was in Colmar, some three miles to the east.
But what did the 100-year-old message actually say? And were there any dire consequences as a result of it going astray? Translated, the note read, “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.”
So who were the men of Platoon Potthof, and did help ever arrive? In a surprise twist, Jardy revealed that the note had not actually been written in a real warzone at all. Instead, it was penned during a military exercise, recounting estimated losses in a completely fictitious scenario.
Apparently, notes such as this one once formed a relatively common part of military exercises conducted in this part of the world. Moreover, Jardy noted that some of the terminology used in the message was typical of theoretical maneuvers, rather than actual warfare. As such, he concluded that Platoon Potthof was likely never in any real danger.
Interestingly, Jardy was also able to shed some light on the date of the message. Unable to recall any military exercises taking place in the area in 1916, he guessed that the note was probably penned in 1910. So, the tale of Platoon Potthof likely played out some four years before the start of World War I.
But even though it might not have been written from the trenches, the note is still considered an incredible find. Speaking to CNN in November 2020, Jardy explained, “It’s really very, very, very rare. It’s really exceptional.” Apparently, although many carrier pigeons were shot down in the line of duty, the messages that they died for have not generally stood the test of time.
According to Jardy, this particular capsule must have slowly made its way to the surface over the years. And now, the container – and its chilling message – are set to enjoy a new lease of life as exhibits in the Linge Memorial Museum. Interestingly, the note is far from the only wartime letter to resurface after years in obscurity.
In 2015 for example an envelope addressed simply “Postmaster / Newaygo, Michigan” arrived at its intended destination. But what was inside was no ordinary letter. Instead, it was a bundle of notes written by Nelson Shephard, a soldier serving in the American Civil War. At the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., they were pronounced genuine – so where had they been for the past 150 years?
Eventually, thanks in part to publicity from Smithsonian magazine, the mystery was solved. Back in 1978, yard sale fanatic Marvin Cramblit had passed away, leaving his vast collection of junk to his wife, Nancy. And one day, she was sorting through it when she discovered the letters, addressed to Shephard’s family in Newaygo. Hoping to reunite the find with any surviving descendants, she sent them to the postmaster of the small town.
Unfortunately, reports do not mention whether or not any surviving family members were ever found, and the letters are now on display at the National Postal Museum. A few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the institute’s counterpart in London hosted another collection of wartime notes that had miraculously resurfaced after a long absence. This time, it was mail that had been rescued from a World War II shipwreck off the Irish coast.
On February 16, 1941, the S.S.Gairsoppa was en route to Britain from India when it was struck by a German torpedo. In just 20 minutes it sank, taking its cargo of tea, silver and iron – as well as letters from soldiers serving abroad – to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. And for the next 70 years, the wreck and its contents lay undisturbed.
Eventually, though, remote-controlled submarines made a startling discovery: a cache of over 700 letters preserved in an air pocket on the wreck of the Gairsoppa. Carefully, they were brought to the surface and restored, where they were put on display at London’s Postal Museum. Years after they were penned, they reveal a glimpse into military life from another time – just like the carrier pigeon capsule that emerged from an Ingersheim field. So how many more treasures like these might be out there waiting to be discovered?