MARCH 16, 1918.
MEN V. PIGEONS.
By HAMILTON FYFE.
WAR CORRESPONDENTS’ HEADQUARTERS,
“We will send a ‘runner’ with you,” said the adjutant, when I was starting from a certain battalion headquarters to find another unit whose guest I was to be.
That was the first time I had heard the term “runner” used. I have heard it very often since, and I have come to look upon the “runners” of our Army as both a very useful and a specially gallant lot.
As guides they are invaluable. They know all the roads, all the cuts across country, all the ins and outs of the duck-boarded trenches. At-night they seem to have a sixth sense, like that of animals, which tells them how to keep their direction in the dark. But it is as bearers of news in battle that they have earned undying glory and fame.
You ask in amazement, “What about the telephone of which we have heard so much?”
Well, the telephone may in some places be all right so long as no heavy bombardment rages. But as soon as a battle begins wires may be cut by the violence of the shell-fire. Even an ordinary barrage is apt to have this effect. In several of our raids lately the enemy has been handicapped by having his telephone lines destroyed.
Pigeons are sometimes useful for despatch carrying. I pass a van frequently near the roadside filled with cooing, amorous “carriers.” But they are not to be relied on. They may be shot or they may take the wrong turning.
By the men who have charge of them they are often reckoned a great nuisance. One day during an engagement on a big scale a certain headquarters staff was very anxiously awaiting news. For a long while none came. Then a pigeon flew into sight, circled several times, and alighted on a roof.
A man was sent up to catch it. He brought down the packet containing the message. The staff gathered round the officer who took the message out. They listened with intense eagerness to learn the news. What the officer read out was: “I am fed up with this blasted bird.”
One of the surest means of getting news or messages away from the battlefield is to employ runners. Every staff has them, every battalion: no unit is without. They get no extra pay for their toil and peril. Whatever they are given to do they do well. Many have been killed trying to pass through the barrage of shells in order that they might deliver their messages.
In one battle one division lost ten runners. They did not stop to think about plunging into the fire-zone. Their orders were to go straight on until their errand was accomplished. They went straight on and fell in the gallant performance of their duty. The Army has no braver men.
I have heard one specially sad, yet specially noble story of a runner’s death in action. He was a boy of eighteen. His father had applied for his discharge, but he refused to take it. He would not leave the Army.
He was runner to his company commander. The two were always together in any fighting. In the battle of Cambrai they went into action side by side as usual, and side by side they were found after the battle, killed by the same storm of bullets from a German machinegun.
A runner may go out with a raiding party and carry back reports of progress, requests for artillery assistance, and so on. He is frequently in peril of his life as he runs full tilt across No Man’s Land, or, it may be, if the enemy’s guns are busy, creeps from crater to crater until he reaches our own line. Yet runners never shrink from their jobs.
I have often thought, when I have seen them, of that Greek Army runner celebrated in a poem by Browning. Will no poet celebrate our no less heroic British Army runners of to-day?