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Authors: Terry Deary

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BOOK: The Pigeon Spy
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I got stronger and my feet got used to the heavy boots. At dinner the other men moaned about how much they hated the army food. I ate everything they put in front of me.

After dinner, some of the men went into the towns on the lorries to drink English beer. But I went down to the other part of the messenger troop: the pigeons.

The soldier in charge of the pigeons was Corporal Bobby Mason – a man nearly as old as Pa, with hair going grey at the sides. He didn't call me Dummy and he listened when I told him about how I trained my birds back home. Now he taught me the way the army did it.

‘We get our birds from the pigeon men of Britain,' Corporal Mason told me. ‘They're tough little fellers and don't seem to mind the gunfire. Some fly all the way from
France to England. They reckon nineteen out of twenty get through safely.'

‘What happens to the others?' I asked.

‘The Germans shoot them down, or send up hawks to hunt them. And of course some get eaten by our soldiers.'

‘What?' I gasped.

‘Every troop takes two or three pigeons into battle. If the men get stuck and their
food is cut off, they eat the pigeons. Makes sense,' Bobby told me.

I remembered Mr Lamarr and his White Dove restaurant. I wasn't sure I could eat a pigeon myself, not one that I'd looked after. But, like Bobby said, it made sense if you were hungry.

When I'd been in England a week the corporal said, ‘The pigeon trainers they sent me aren't much good. They've never cared for birds before.' He looked away from me.

‘What's wrong?' I asked.

‘I did something I shouldn't,' he said. ‘I went to the sergeant and asked if he could give you a transfer to be a pigeon trainer. He said yes. I hope you don't mind.'

‘Mind?' I almost screamed. ‘Mind? It's the best job in the army!' I could have kissed the guy.

Of course I didn't know how close the pigeons would come to getting me killed.

Chapter 4
France and friends

I sailed across the English Channel to France and into the Great War. It wasn't all about soldiers stuck in the same trench for years. This was Autumn 1918 and the enemy were being pushed all the way back to Germany.

The British, the French and the Americans were marching forward every day. The Germans kept stopping and turning their machine guns on them. But every day the enemy were driven back.

I had to follow them with the pigeons.

The British called nesting boxes ‘pigeon lofts'. I trained the birds to fly back to the lofts. The armies were moving forward, and the lofts were moving with them, every day closer to Germany. And still the birds found their way back.

Every day an army messenger would arrive and pick up a basket of three or four birds. Then he'd head back into the battle, ten to thirty miles away.

Most days the birds came home to the lofts and I was waiting. There was a little can wrapped around each pigeon's leg and I'd unfasten it as soon as the bird had its corn and water. Then I raced with the message to the signal trooper. Most of the messages told the men on the big guns where our foot-soldiers were. They told the gunners where to drop their shells to clear the enemy out of the way and not kill our own men.

The men in my troop said we'd be in Germany by November. ‘There's nothing going to stop us now,' the messengers told us when they came to collect the birds.

But Pa always had this saying: ‘If anything
go wrong then it
go wrong.' And Pa was right.

It started when a soldier from the 77th Battalion limped into our camp. He was
a big man for a runner – most of them were little fellers. But this one looked like a boxer, battered face, fists like tins of plum-and-apple jam, and broken teeth.

‘Birds,' he said to me.

‘How many, sir?' I asked.

‘I'm not a sir. I'm Private Owens of the 77th. Friends call me Wolfie because I eat like a wolf.'

‘I'm Private Clay,' I said. ‘Friends call me Dummy because I'm stupid.'

‘I'm not your friend. Get me three messenger birds.'

‘Yes, sir – I mean, Wolfie.'

He grabbed me by the front of my uniform and lifted me off my feet. His nose was an inch from mine. ‘You're not my friend. It's Private Owens to you.'

I glanced at his shoulder. ‘You're bleeding, Private Owens,' I said.

‘A machine-gun bullet caught me on my way here. The enemy are closing in to cut off the 77th. That's why I need to hurry.'

‘But the doctor can look at that, can't he, while I find three birds?'

He grunted, and lowered me to the ground. Wolfie was a rough, hard man but I liked him, so I found my three best birds. Of course you just want to know about the best and bravest of them all, the black one the Brits called Cher Ami. They told me that was French for ‘Dear Friend'.

I didn't want to send Cher Ami into the fighting. Some birds didn't come back alive. But I put him carefully into the basket with the other two.

I lived to be glad I did that.

Chapter 5
Bandages and bullets

Wolfie Owens came back from the hospital tent with his arm in a sling, raging and ranting at the sergeant.

‘How can I fight with my arm bandaged up like that?' Wolfie asked.

‘You were told to stay in the hospital for a couple of days to let the wound heal,' my sergeant said.

‘My company is under attack and low on food,' the big man said. ‘You want me to
lie on a bed in a hospital while my friends starve and get shot at?'

‘Yes. You can't help them if you can't fire a rifle.'

The big fists were tight. ‘But they need to get messages out. I have to take the pigeons back to them,' he argued.

‘You can't carry a rifle and a box of pigeons.'

‘I can try.'

I stood watching the argument with the basket in my hands and the three birds making a soft ‘coo-coo' sound.

The sergeant caught sight of me. ‘Trooper Clay here can carry the pigeons to the 77th. He's a runner.'

Wolfie took a deep breath to hold in his temper and looked at me. ‘Trooper Clay?'

‘Yes, sir?'

‘Have you ever been close to the battle front?'

‘No, sir.'

‘Do you know the way?'

‘No, sir.'

Wolfie turned back to the sergeant. ‘See, sarge? Hopeless.'

The sergeant gave a grim smile. ‘In that case you can both go. The Dummy can carry his birds and you can show him the way.'

Wolfie looked at me and spread his huge hands. I shrugged. ‘I suppose so,' he said.

‘I suppose so,' I said.

BOOK: The Pigeon Spy
4.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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