Canaries on the Western Front

Canaries were a special kind of British hero of the First World War trenches. The nature of their dangerous underground work with tunnellers forged close companionship. More than this, however, the relationship between soldier and canary came to symbolise a view of British spirit that was used as a powerful image in wartime propaganda. But there were tensions in the depiction of British forces as sensitive and caring because a more urgent national message was that our men had the strength to win the war.

The Mines Committee recommended that two or three canaries were kept at rescue stations to test tunnels below the trenches for carbon monoxide.[1] Reaching beneath the German front was an underground network of chambers that could be packed with explosives to destroy the enemy from below. When German digging teams came across Allied tunnels and blew them up, the atmosphere of the underground labyrinth was flooded with poison gases. Miners had to be swiftly rescued. But the tunnels could only be re-entered once a bird had breathed the air.

Pci 1

A sapper from the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company’s Mine Rescue Station carries a small cage for a canary or a mouse.[2]

Stories of the bravery of canaries at the front made the national press at home. The Daily Mail, in a piece called ‘V. C. Canaries’, told of a bird called Dick who after his job underground would ‘often as not reach the surface again a limp little form lying at the bottom of his cage. He never failed us though.’[3] The sensitivity of canaries to carbon monoxide meant they gave early warning to its presence, not necessarily when they stopped singing, but when they panted for breath or could no longer grip their perch. To ensure their sensitivity as gas detectors, birds were even given pedicures so that their claws could not grip too tightly.[4]

While canaries had this official role in the war, they were also objects of affection. There was an intimate relationship between soldier and bird, derived in part from domestic life where they were often kept as caged songsters in working-class homes. In the trenches too they were sometimes kept simply as pets. In a letter published in the Daily Mail, one rifleman wrote to a friend that ‘our only companion is a little canary we rescued from a deserted house’. The little bird would get ‘so black with smoke that it’s a job to distinguish it from a sparrow’, he wrote. Nevertheless, the canary seemed to ignore the shells and sang beautifully.[5] Such tales of cheery endurance clearly echoed popular and propagandist ideals of plucky British fighting spirit. Canaries impressed with their resilience and lifted spirits with their song.

In the trench conditions of chaos and the constant threat of death, soldiers could easily fall in love with their canaries. One Company Commander kept a careful eye on his avian tunnelling team. ‘After a canary had been gassed three times, he classed it as “P.B.,” and promoted him to the headquarters dugout, where his only duty was to sing to the Commanding Officer,’ one report said.  P.B. stood for Permanent Base, meaning a soldier was only fit for service at home. Love was certainly needed and cultivated in the trenches. Letters to and from home were an important ritual, but immediate intimacies were needed as well. Camaraderie between men crossed and joined together the social classes of officers and ranks, and as the military historian John Keegan has shown, this was evidenced in displays of ‘fellow-feeling’ beyond conventional class distinctions. There was strength to be gained in these linkages, as there was in cross-species fellowship between humans and birds.

Pic 2

An officer and one of his soldiers tending canaries in France, May 1918.[8]

A series of pictures taken by official war photographer Thomas Aikten captured the relationship between men and canaries for home audiences. The photograph above was published in the Daily Mail in May 1918, but what would the Press Bureau, who approved and distributed official photographs, have wanted it to communicate to readers? The caption reveals a great deal: ‘Battlefield canaries. They have been rescued from the ruins in shelled areas in France. Hundreds were found dead through gas and wounds; the survivors in the photograph are being well cared for’.[9] That British soldiers were ‘rescuing’ caged canaries left behind in French villages as the Germans retreated suggested that in spite of the necessities of combat, our men were still gentle, kind and civilised. These birds had not been in combat in the way that mining canaries had, but they were still cherished by the troops. Such depictions stood in contrast to the stories of the cruel and barbarous ‘Hun’, whose apparent atrocities the press had made vivid in British minds.

Pic 3

Soldiers with a cage of canaries they found among the ruins in Amiens, France, May 1918.[10]

Another of Aikten’s photographs appeared in the Illustrated London News in August 1918 (above). Amid the mess of war, soldiers seemed to proudly display canaries as mascots of freedom, the caption reading: ‘A cage full of canaries rescued from ruins in Amiens. A British soldier’s discovery’.[11] This photograph was displayed in the newspaper alongside more obviously propagandist scenes of German prisoners of war, Allied artillery in action and a captured bridge. In another of Aitken’s staged pictures, an elderly French woman hands over her precious canaries to a British soldier for safe-keeping.[12]

These photographs may have been staged but they were not faked. Aitken wanted to depict genuine sensitivity in British troops. For home audiences, these rescue pictures and the stories of stoic mining canaries underlined a rapport that went well beyond the birds’ functional role on the Front. Men and canaries shared a partnership in survival that made the bond between them one of love as well as work. It was a comforting message for all those involved in the war.

This blog was written by Michael Guida, tutor in Media & Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. He recently completed his PhD about the place of nature during wartime in twentieth-century British culture.

[1] Hugh Gladstone, Birds and the War (London: Skeffington, 1919), 22.

[2] Un-named Australian Official Photographer, IWM, catalogue number E(AUS) 1683.

[3] ‘V.C. Canaries’, Daily Mail, 12 September 1918, 2.

[4] W. Grant Grieve and Bernard Newman, Tunnellers (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1936), 314.

[5] Soldier’s Letters. ‘A Trench Canary’, Daily Mail, 1 February, 1915, 8.

[6] Grieve and Newman. Tunnellers, 312.

[7] John Keegan, Face of Battle (New York: Penguin, 1978), 196. See also John Laffin, Letters from the Front, 1914-18 (London: J. M. Dent, 1973), 9, 34, 108.

[8] The photographer is assumed to be Thomas Aikten, IWM, catalogue number Q 10949.

[9] Daily Mail, 29 May 1918, 4.

[10] Thomas Aitken, IWM, catalogue number Q 11138.

[11] This appears in a panel of photographs entitled ‘The Great Advance: Battle Incidents and Scenes of Interest behind the British and French Lines.’ Illustrated London News, 31 August 1918, 230-231.

[12] Thomas Aikten, IWM, catalogue number Q 10992.

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