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Zoe Vogels

It’s always nice to see a good news story, and this week’s one comes from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. A pigeon was caught stealing poppies from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, using them to make a beautiful red nest. Given it’s the 11th of November, how about a departure from veterinary matters in order to talk some more about these two things?

Poppies as a symbol of remembrance

It’s hard to imagine Remembrance Day without poppies: they’re bought as fundraisers, worn at ceremonies, even attached to cars. But why do we have such an association with this little red flower? It all began during the First World War (1914-1918).

In 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian doctor stationed near Ypres, Belgium. The town and surrounding areas were the site of many famous battles and John McCrae would have experienced much horror tending the men wounded in battle. The day after one of his close friends was killed during the second battle of Ypres, he penned a poem titled “In Flanders Fields”.

Published later that year, this simple poem was easy to read and easy to remember for everyday people and it became one of the most popular works of the First World War. The poem and its poppy were used in propaganda posters to recruit soldiers and raise millions of dollars for the war effort. After the war’s end, there was a push to make the poppy the symbol of remembrance for the USA, Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada (if you investigate further you will see that each country has it’s own slightly different spin on the poppy pin).

Unfortunately, Lt. Col. John McCrae never saw the end of the war, or the ongoing success of his poem, dying of meningitis in early 1918.

But why talk about pigeons?

In the last 5 years there have been many 100-year anniversaries of famous battles and events of the First World War. But little fanfare has been made of the war’s smallest heroes.

This excellent article details the role of homing pigeons on the Western Front and is well worth a read. The British Expeditionary Force’s Carrier Pigeon Service was in charge of tens of thousands of pigeons and the training of soldiers to handle them. The birds were carried to the front lines in wicker baskets and, when released, they headed home (to mobile lofts behind the front lines) carrying vital messages back to command.

The birds started their journeys under a hail of bullets, and on occasion under the attack of hawks let loose by the enemy. One famous pigeon was Cher Ami – who saved the lives of 200 American soldiers that had been trapped behind enemy lines. She was shot down, but managed to get back in the air and fly to headquarters 40km away in a bit over an hour – with a broken leg and a blinded eye amongst her wounds.

Pigeons continued to be valuable in the Second World War. More than thirty individual pigeons – such as GI Joe, Commando, Winkie and Mary – were honoured with the Dickin Medal: which is awarded to animals displaying “…conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving in wartime”. A pretty impressive effort for birds that only weight 300-400g.

So this Remembrance Day, as well as reflecting on the soldiers who fought and died in war, remember what it might have been like for the doctors and nurses who tended to them, and the animals who also serve.