Jade Halaoui was hiking in the Alsace region of France this September when a glint of metal in a grassy field caught his eye. Intrigued, he dug the small capsule out of the ground and opened it, reports Nicolas Roquejeoffre for local newspaper Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace (DNA).
To Halaoui’s surprise, the two-inch-long aluminum cylinder contained a century-old note written in spidery German script. The hiker and his partner, Juliette, took the artifact to the Linge Memorial Museum in Orbey, where curators determined that the message was likely sent by a Prussian infantry officer via carrier pigeon around the onset of World War I, per Aurelien Breeden and Isabella Kwai of the New York Times.
Dominique Jardy, curator at the Linge museum, tells CNN’s Jack Guy that the note was written in looping handwriting that is difficult to decipher. The date clearly reads “July 16,” but the year could be interpreted as 1910 or 1916, Jardy adds in an interview with DNA. (World War I took place between 1914 and 1918.)
Jardy enlisted a German friend to help him translate the note. As Agence France-Press reports, the note reads, in part: “Platoon Potthof receives fire as they reach the western border of the parade ground, platoon Potthof takes up fire and retreats after a while. In Fechtwald half a platoon was disabled. Platoon Potthof retreats with heavy losses.”
The message, which was addressed to a senior officer, appears to have been sent by a Prussian infantryman based in Ingersheim. The note refers to a military training ground, which leads Jardy to think that the note likely refers to a practice maneuver, not actual warfare.
“It’s a little report on a battle simulation,” he tells the Times.
“I’ve never seen this in 40 years,” Jardy adds, calling the find “exceptional.”
The paper is well-preserved but quite fragile, so the museum plans to put a facsimile on display, the curator says to DNA.
Jardy tells the Times that military officials typically sent multiple pigeons with the same message to ensure that crucial information reached its destination. Halaoui discovered the long-lost message just a few hundred yards from its site of origin, so Jardy suspects that this capsule slipped off the homing pigeon’s leg early in its journey.
Today, Alsace forms part of eastern France. But Germany annexed the region at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and it remained under German control until after World War I, when it was returned to France under the Treaty of Versailles.
Homing pigeons played a pivotal role in military communications during World War I. As Mike Dash reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2012, the birds required little food, were easy to transport and could fly as fast as 60 miles per hour.
“Captured homing pigeons betrayed nothing of their point of origin or their destination, and those that made it through completed their journeys tirelessly and as rapidly as possible,” Dash explained.
One famous American carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, delivered 12 important messages. On his final mission in 1918, the bird was shot and badly injured, but he still managed to deliver his message, arriving blind in one eye with the correspondence dangling from his wounded leg. The message aided the relief of 194 American soldiers; for his heroic service, the French government honored Cher Ami with the “Croix de Guerre.” The pigeon’s stuffed body now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.