March 31, 1917
Planes and Pigeons
We watched an airplane go down this morning, about thirty kilometres inside occupied French territory, near Urcel. As far as I could tell it was a British bi-plane, perhaps a Bristol Scout. At least it landed without a smoke trail. Perhaps the Germans had failed to see it. We, Hugo (not his real name) and I, standing beside a small farm house, could hear the engine sputtering.
"Mon Dieu," Hugo muttered, his grey eyes wild under thick eyebrows.
"Should we go before the Bosche find him?" I asked.
It looked like we were much closer to the fallen pilot than anyone else, and if he'd survived the crash he would need to be rescued—especially since he could be carrying valuable information.
Hugo grunted with a nod as we slid into the front seat of the lorry we'd been using. He slammed the vehicle into first gear and stomped on the pedal causing the machine to lurch wildly on the mud slick road.
Hugo, my colleague for the last five days, is a survivor from the Battle of Kousséri in French Cameroon. His wounds have left him with a pronounced limp and a cantankerous disposition. However, he is also a very effective and experienced French operative who never backs down from any challenge. I would trust him with my life.
Hugo spoke loudly over the noise of the engine. "If the Bosch get to him first, he will shoot himself."
The road we were on was used by the farmer's horses to pull wagons full of hay and a recent rain had filled holes which sprayed mud as we splashed through. When we finally crested the hill we could see the crumpled plane below us, with its nose in the ground and its tail hoisted into the air. One of the wings had collapsed onto its mate, the struts breaking on impact.
The pilot struggled out of the nacelle—a relief to find him alive—and rolled out of the aircraft landing on one foot and then collapsing onto the ground.
"It's catching on fire!" Hugo shouted. He drove so quickly across the bumpy ground, I feared I was about to be catapulted out, then came to a sudden stop, which almost had the same result.
Catching my breath, I jumped out of the lorry and yelled to the airman in English, "Can you stand?"
The surprised pilot nodded as he got to his feet. The flames were gaining strength from out of the engine cowl, and I pointed to the tarpaulin covered rear of the lorry. "Get in!"
His eyes flashed with question—could he trust us or not? I repeated in English again. "Get in. We'll take you to safety."
He seemed to find reassurance in the fact that I spoke the Queen's English and he raced to the back of our vehicle. It was already too late to rescue anything he might have had in the cockpit.
Hugo gunned it, and were soon off the horrible farm trails, and heading west on a secondary road to Urcel, avoiding the main roads in order to avoid any Germans who might have seen the plane go down. Looking back, I could see a trail of dark smoke streaming into the sky.
After a while, we began to hear the sounds of heavy artillery from the front. Hugo chose a secluded spot in the forest to pull over. We jumped out to talk to the pilot.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
"No, I seem to be all right," the man said as he shakily stood up and then jumped out of the back. In his early twenties, he had a slim build, dark, wavy hair, and brown eyes. "I wasn't shot down. My engine failed. I don't know if any of the Bosche have seen me. Thank you for coming to my rescue."
"Of course,"Hugo said. "Thank God we saw you when we did."
"I'm Lieutenant William Page, " the pilot said, shaking our hands. "I have information I need to get to a field commander at Compiègne immediately. Do you have access to a radio or phone?"
Hugo and I shared a look.
"No, Lieutenant," I said. "This area is behind enemy lines, as you know, and the radio cables have either been cut or destroyed by artillery. There is no wireless anywhere near here."
"Damnation!" The lieutenant said, taking off his pilot's cap and slapping it on his leg. "Heavy gun batteries are being moved to the Chemin des Dames ridge. I don't think the French or the British know this. If the allies plan on taking back Arras, they are in for a most unpleasant surprise. I need to get this information out immediately."
I thought for a moment and then turned to Hugo. "Isn't there a pigeon loft in Urcel?" I had heard another French operative mention it.
Hugo rubbed his shin as he nodded. "Oui. On a farm south of the village. I think I know which one."
Thirty minutes later, we were standing in front of what looked to be like a wooden chicken coop built on the top of a rusty lorry. It was parked behind a huge old barn and out of sight from anyone passing by on the nearby roads. The sound of cooing and the fluttering of wings passed through two narrow slots cut into the side of the structure.
The wiry farmer who'd come to our aid announced solemnly, "This sounds like a job for The Captain." He climbed a wooden ladder to reach the loft. "This bird has been trained by the British for Compiègne. He will find it."
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Page leaned on the hood of our lorry, madly scribbling in the smallest handwriting possible to still read on a small piece of rice paper the farmer had given him. The farmer reached into one of the narrow slots and, after a moment, came down the ladder with a grey pigeon in one hand.
In our training, we had an opportunity to spend a day working with a few of these famous "military messengers". With the ability to fly at an average speed of about fifty miles an hour, these pigeons have been known to find their "home" from as far as a thousand miles away, carrying important messages about troop movements, or trapped soldiers behind enemy lines. Some had even been used to fly reconnaissance missions with cameras strapped to their chests. We were told stories of birds finding their way despite having an eye or a leg shot off as they winged over enemy positions. It was estimated that the birds had an overall success rate of ninety-five percent.
Truly a marvel.
"The Captain has flown twenty-five missions so far," the farmer said with a note of pride. "He has saved many lives. Héros de la guerre. A true war hero!"
As he stroked the pigeon's head, it was obvious the farmer was very fond of the little bird. We watched in solemn silence as he carefully rolled the piece of rice paper and placed it into a tiny metal canister that he then tied to the bird's right leg.
The farmer lifted the bird into the air and it immediately took flight, heading directly west toward the sound of distant artillery.
How can so much depend on something so small and fragile looking? I shielded my eyes and watched the bird disappear over the trees.