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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: The French army still sends messages by carrier pigeon

Pigeons saved many lives during two world wars, but did you know they are still a vital part of the French military today?

French history myths: The French army still sends messages by carrier pigeon
The French army still has a carrier pigeon unit. Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Myth: The French army still uses carrier pigeons to send messages, for reasons of security.

It’s a myth that the French army still relies on carrier pigeons instead of more modern methods of communication – but pigeons remain to this day an official part of the French military.

French carrier pigeons helped the allies greatly during both of the World Wars and during the Franco-Prussian War in the 19th century, when pigeons were used to carry mail from a besieged Paris to the unoccupied parts of the country.

During World War I a pigeon named Cher Ami saved an encircled American battalion that was being accidentally fired on by the Allies.

As Cher Ami tried to deliver his vital message, the German military spotted him and opened fire. The bird was shot down, but managed to take flight again. Travelling 40km in just 25 minutes, Cher Ami helped save 194 lives even though he lost a leg and was blinded in one eye in the process.

The heroic pigeon received the French Croix de Guerre award and his body is now on display in Washington DC, at the Smithsonian Museum of American History under the exhibit the “Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” 

Cher Ami was part of the US Army’s pigeon corps (although he was hatched in the UK) but the French army counted at least 15,000 trained carrier pigeons at the start of the war, using them to communicate between Paris and the eastern front.

Pigeons were still used during World War II, but although communications technology has moved on a bit since then, the French pigeon corps remains.

The French Defence Ministry still has a special carrier pigeon unit – one troop of pigeons lives not far outside of Paris, in a 19th-century fortress in Surenes.

120 carrier pigeons – some of whom are the descendants of war heroes like Cher Ami, live and train there. Their role? To step in (or fly in, rather) if telecommunications in France are ever knocked out. 

France is not the only country to continue to recognise pigeons’ potential: the Chinese military also reportedly has trained several thousand carrier pigeons as well. 

Pigeons’ ability to navigate remains a mystery – some theories exist, such as following certain scents, learning roads and landmarks, and even sensing the electromagnetic field. So far, no single theory has been outright proven.

That being said, France remains one of the few countries to continue to recognise these birds’ strategic capabilities.

This article is part of our August series looking at popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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FRENCH HISTORY

22 of the biggest myths about French history

From the guillotine to the croissant, Marie Antoinette to Josephine Baker (as well as that story about Napoleon and the pig) French history is rife with misconceptions, misunderstandings and myths.

22 of the biggest myths about French history

A lot of exciting and interesting things have happened in France – from the arrival of Rollo the Viking in Paris in about 900 to the invention of the bikini in 1949 – but French history has also proved a fertile breeding ground for myths and legends.

From historical inaccuracies to legends hijacked for modern purposes and ‘well-known facts’ that were simply never true, it can be hard to unpick the history from the stories. 

Here, in roughly chronological order, are the 22 biggest myths from France’s history;

1 France is the birthplace of wine

Vineyards and wine production are pretty synonymous with France, and the country certainly drinks a lot of wine, but the delicious fermented grape juice was not actually invented here.

Fermenting things to make alcohol caught on relatively early in human history, but historians believe that the first country to make what we would think of as ‘wine’ was in fact Georgia.

Wine production in France is a relative newcomer, existing for a mere 2,600 years.

Find the full story of French wine HERE.

2 There is buried treasure in Rennes-le-Château, south west France

The treasure is said to have originated during the time of the Cathars, one of the most bloody and turbulent periods in the history of what is now south-west France.

However the modern story dates from 1885 when the new – and penniless – priest of the town began a costly restoration project. Asked how he funded this, he said he had stumbled on a fabulous hoard of ancient buried treasure.

The story continued to inspire treasure-hunters right up until the post-WWII period and forms the basis of part of Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code.

The real explanation for the priest’s sudden wealth? Historians are pretty sure that he had been stealing from church funds.

Read about the legend of the treasure HERE.

3 The ‘two fingers’ insult comes from the battle of Agincourt

Legend has it that the insulting two-finger gesture dates from one of the many times when the French and English fought each other – this time at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The English army had some new weapons tech, the longbow, which was wreaking havoc with French forces. The French vowed to cut off the first two fingers of any archer they captured – so they wouldn’t be able to shoot again – and in defiance the English army waved their fingers at them.

It’s a great story, but there are just two minor problems – first there is no contemporary or near-contemporary record of this novel form of insult and second rude ‘finger’ gestures go all the way back to antiquity.

Read all about the Agincourt archers and their fingers HERE.

4 Joan of Arc disguised herself as a man to fight the English

Fifteen years later and the French and English were still fighting (spoiler alert – it’s the Hundred Years War) when along came a very unlikely French saviour – a peasant girl who claimed she heard the voice of angels.

It’s true that Joan of Arc did end up leading the French army and inflicting stinging defeats on the English and it’s true that she wore male clothing and armour to do it.

But she never disguised herself as a man or claimed to be male and in fact, during her lifetime, she was known as La Pucelle (the maid).

The issue of male clothing would become important later on though, indirectly leading to her conviction and hideous death. Read more about Joan of Arc and what she means to modern France HERE

5 Marie Antoinette said ‘let them eat cake’ when told about the starving poor

Marie Antoinette will always be remembered as the out-of-touch royal who, when told that the poor could not afford bread, responded Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

Leaving aside quibbles over whether a brioche is really cake or sweet bread, Marie Antoinette would have to have been a time-traveller in order to have coined this phrase.

By the standards of French royalty at the time – admittedly an extremely low bar – she was actually quite compassionate towards the poor. Find out more about her HERE.

6 The Bastille was stormed in order to free political prisoners

France’s most famous and – we would argue – best festival commemorates July 14th 1789 when a mob of Parisians stormed the Bastille prison, an event that came to be seen as the start of the French Revolution.

But while the Revolution itself was undoubtedly a political act, the storming of the Bastille was less political than you might think.

There were only seven prisoners incarcerated at the time, none for political crimes. What the building did contain, however, was weapons, as well as being a well-known symbol of royalist power.

Read more about the storming of the Bastille HERE.

7 The inventor of the guillotine was executed by his own machine

But we all know where the Revolution ended up – the period of political instability known as the Terror which saw a great many people (including brioche-loving queen Marie Antoinette) losing their heads.

The guillotine had been invented many years previously – maybe even in ancient Egypt – but was made the only official method of state execution in France after the Revolution.

Its introduction was part of a pretty radical overhaul of death penalty rules that meant an end to hideously cruel methods such as burning or being torn apart by horses, brought in a single method of execution for everyone from aristocrats to paupers and ended the practice of discriminating against the families of executed criminals.

The man who championed these principles was Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. He gave his name to the new execution machine, but he never fell victim to it – he died at home in Paris in 1814 at the age of 75 and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery.

Read more about the use of the guillotine in France HERE.

8 The French invented the Metric system

The Revolutionaries were extraordinarily busy in the years following 1793, bringing in a new legal code, new execution method, changing the calendar and even (briefly) the way France told the time.

Although the time experiment was swiftly abandoned, they did succeed in moving France away from its pre-Revolution system of measurement, which included 800 different weights and measures which varied from town to town.

Instead they brought in the metric system – standardised measurements all divisible by 10. It was a hit and (most of) the rest of the world swiftly followed suit.

But while we can definitely thank the French for the fact that we no longer have to remember how many feet are in a mile, fluid ounces in a pint and pounds in a ton (unless you live in the UK or US, of course) they did not in fact invent the system.

Instead, let’s give a big hand to the Dutch.

Find more HERE on the metric system.  

9 The French invented croissants

Talking of things the French might have unfairly taken credit for – the delicious buttery, flaky breakfast pastry is not originally French.

But we think the French can make a strong case for perfecting the – originally Austrian – pastry, turning it from a slightly pedestrian sweet curved bread roll into the crumb-scattering flaky pastry triumph that we know and love.

Full details on the development of the croissant HERE.

10 Napoleon Bonaparte was a short man

He was a man who definitely made his mark on history, but his enduring linguistic reputation is for something that wasn’t even true.

Yes, despite the well-known phrase ‘Napoleon complex’ (indicating short people acting in an aggressive way) Napoleon Bonaparte was of perfectly average height for his time – the ‘short man’ myth was in fact wartime propaganda created by the English.

He’s perhaps the world’s best known Frenchman, but these days Napoleon’s status in France is pretty complicated due to, among other things, his policy of re-introducing slavery.

Find out exactly how tall Napoleon was HERE.

11 It is illegal to name a pig Napoleon

He might not be everyone’s idea of a hero, but one charge that cannot be made to stick is the idea that naming a pig Napoleon was once illegal – due to the insult to the head of state.

This is a curiously enduring myth, but in fact no-one has ever been able to produce any evidence that it is, or ever has been, illegal to name a pig Napoleon.

Until very recently, however, it was illegal to insult the president of the day – until the European Court officially ruled that telling Nicolas Sarkozy to ‘get lost, dickhead’ (casse-toi pauvre con) is the right of every citizen of the republic. 

Find out more about the mythical pig law HERE.

12 Alexandre Dumas was white

Talking of misrepresented historical figures, the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was mixed race – his grandmother was an enslaved black woman on the island of Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti).

This was well known during his lifetime, when Dumas was a celebrity both because of his writing and his active social life, but seems to have been forgotten since his death in 1870.

So much so that a recent TV adaptation of The Three Musketeers which cast a mixed-race actor as Porthos was accused of historical inaccuracy and revisionism.

Find out more about Dumas HERE.

13 A ‘phantom’ once haunted the Paris Opéra

Dumas was a regular at the Paris Opéra, constructed in 1862, so he probably heard the stories of both the mysterious underground lake and the ghost that haunted the building.

However it was his fellow novelist Gaston Leroux who used these tales as the base for his best-selling 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera.

Although the ghost stories probably aren’t true, there is indeed an underground lake beneath the opera house, which these days is used by Paris fire crews to learn underwater rescue techniques.

Learn more about the phantom HERE and the secrets of subterranean Paris HERE.  

14 France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the USA

It’s pretty well known that New York’s iconic Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the USA, intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the declaration of independence (although it wasn’t finally erected in its finished form until 1886, 110 years after the declaration).

France has its own Statue of Liberty – 12 of them in fact, scattered around the country – but it also sent a second statue to the USA.

This version was smaller and it travels – it was sent in 2021 as a symbol of Franco-American friendship and will be touring the USA until 2031. Find out more HERE.

15 Vincent Van Gogh cut his ear off to impress a girl

Dutch by birth but a long-time resident of France, Van Gogh is widely known for two things; his stunning and ground-breaking impressionist paintings and the fact that he cut off his own ear.

The ear story is often treated as a bit of a joke – and in fact was used by a Paris local authority this year as a ‘funny’ way to tell people to turn down their music – but in fact is much darker than that, with no romance attached.

To find out what really happened click HERE

16 The French army still sends messages by pigeon

During World War I, the French, British, American and German armies all used carrier pigeons to send messages. By the time World War II came around communications technology had improved, by pigeons were still used by several military units.

However in the decades after WWII, most military forces quietly scrapped their pigeon units, preferring to rely on more modern technology.

The French army is today one of only two global military forces that still maintains a carrier pigeon unit. It doesn’t actually use them for messages though, they’re kept as a backup communication option, just in case . . .

Find out more about the French military pigeons HERE.

17 The French army always surrenders 

Talking of the French army, we must address the persistent stereotype that French soldiers are notorious for surrendering.

Throughout the long history of France, its army of course suffered defeats, but this story seems to have really come about because of the fall of France in 1940, reinforced by some pretty vicious political propaganda from the 1990s.

You can find out what really happened in 1940 (and in 1990) HERE.

18 Everyone was on the barricades in 1968

One type of conflict that no-one has ever accused the French of shying away from is strikes and demonstrations and perhaps the biggest and most famous in France’s history was in May 1968.

Undoubtedly a big deal – both in terms of participation and the impact it had on society – support for the demos was not as widespread as you might believe, especially if you listen to a soixante-huitard.

19 All French presidents all have mistresses

OK, this one is nearly true. The (all-male) presidents of the Fifth Republic are notorious for their extra-marital affairs.

There are, however, a few exceptions – men who either stayed faithful to their wives or who were better at hiding their indiscretions.

Find the full history of presidential philandering HERE.

19 The French government claimed that Chernobyl fallout stopped at the border

Most French history myths are simply funny, but this one is still having an impact on public health almost 40 years later.

The story of how it became a widely known ‘fact’ that the French government tried to cover up the impact of the radioactive cloud after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 is one of fear, paranoia and terrible government communication.

Read the full story HERE

20 It was technically illegal for women to wear trousers in France until 2013, because of a never-repealed law

Unlike the Chernobyl story, this does have a grain of truth in it, however;

  • it was never actually illegal for women to wear trousers
  • the rule requiring a ‘trouser permit’ only ever applied in Paris
  • Marlene Dietrich was never arrested in Paris because of her trousers (or for any other reason)
  • it was not repealed in 2013

Other than those details, it’s entirely true.

Find the real story – which includes a fascinating insight into cross-dressing Parisians in the 1800s – HERE

22 Jospehine Baker is buried in the Panthéon

Josephine Baker – the US-born dancer who became a naturalised French citizen, Resistance hero and civil rights activist – died in 1975 and was buried in Monaco, where her body remains. 

She was, however, given the enormous honour of being Panthéoniser in 2021. At a moving ceremony attended by her family, French officials and president Emmanuel Macron she was formally inducted into the Paris landmark – but the coffin they carried in was filled with earth. 

Find out what really happened HERE.

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