Cry ‘Havoc’ And Let Slip The … Pigeons of War?

By Robert Bateman

We all know that being a historian is sometimes a slow way to spend one’s days. Hmmm, well, actually it is always slow.  But that is part of what we love.  At times, however, even the best of us know that it can be a periodically mind-numbing experience to spend day after day among the stacks of a major libraries or deep in the bowels of yet another archive in search of the ever-elusive “smoking gun” which will bring life to your current project. Yet interspersed in those hours spent pouring over the arcane scribblings of obscure War Department clerks long dead and gone, there are moments. One might have the much-treasured experience of finding some long lost letters of T.J. Jackson, or perhaps the luck to stumble upon a previously unsuspected battle plan written by Patton prior to a major training event, before he was famous.  Moments like those are the stuff of legends, repeated by military historians with a hushed tone of awe and passed on into the lore of the profession when ere several or more gather at the local watering holes during the academic conference season.  These moments make a career.

This is not about one of those moments.

The United States Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, is a wondrous place for a historian to lose himself. Housed in their archives are the personal papers of military leaders, famous and obscure, from the late 19th through the 20th Century.  The attached library, as well as that of the Army War College itself (which is the major tenant of Carlisle Barracks), also contains a magnificent collection of works on all aspects of the art and science of war.

So it was that one fine spring day a few years ago that I found myself spending day after day examining the archival files for materials in support of my own quest for knowledge.  As the topic du jour was the interwar (1918-1941) Army of the United States, there was a host of material from which to choose, and the days seemed to fly past. At least that was the case so long as the weather outside was gray and overcast. But with the coming of the spring and the sun breaking through the clouds, even the spirit of a dedicated historian may wander and require a periodic break from the seemingly overwhelming task of synthesis.  Fortunately the USAMHI is blessed not only with a top-notch team of archivists, but ones with a sense of humor and a finely tuned acuity for the absurd.

As any budding academic historian soon learns not long after entering graduate school it is an utterly futile exercise to ever attempt to best an archivist. These people are the Ents of the academic world. Operating without the burden of classes, but with a fine education and sufficient time (often measured in decades) to dedicate to the pursuit of knowledge in their own areas of interest, archivists will always know more than any mere graduate student, no matter how obscure the topic. If their archive has the material, one can rest assured that the archivists know not only who the last person was that came looking for that material but they have at least a rough idea of what is in the files.  Thus, the simplest and most effective research tool in the world is to be very, very, friendly to all archivists. After all, they hold the keys.  At Carlisle Barracks that very intelligent and wonderfully well-balanced (see?) individual that had the ‘keys’ I needed was the Chief Archivist, Mr. David Keough.

Keough also has a well-developed sense of the absurd.

“Dave,” I started, rubbing my eyes as another full day of staring at chicken-scratch took its toll, “bring me something light, huh? I swear, if I have to read another report on the nature and effect of Amplitude Modulation of radio waves in the interwar army I’ll go nuts.”

Dave smiled his somewhat inscrutable smile and disappeared into the stacks. After a few moments he returned and dropped a single thin file onto my desk.  Pushing back slightly from my hunched over position at the desk I opened the file. There was a black-and-white photo of a World War One era flatbed truck in what was obviously a victory parade. The caption indicated that this was 1919, in Poughkeepsie, New York. Standing at the position of “port arms” with their Springfield rifles on each end of the flatbed were two scowling doughboys.  Though they looked about 19, these men wore serious expressions befitting the nature of their guard duty.  This was serious duty.  Between them was a large cage made of chickenwire.  Hanging down the side from the bed of the truck was a massive sign, at least six feet long and several feet high, explaining to all in capital letters just what was in the cage.


In seconds I was rolling with laughter.  All I could think about was the title of this blog entry (bellowed in a fine Shakespearean voice), or alternately, the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knights confront the dreaded beast guarding the cave of doom.  (“Yes, but he’s a vicious bunny, with teeth like this!”)  Like I said, Dave had a finely tuned sense of the absurd. The rest of the file contained similar artifacts.

One rarely hears a serious belly laugh booming through an archive.

So, am I alone here? Who else has found themselves, when deep in the halls of an academic shrine, be it a library or an archives, laughing uncontrollably about some artifact of history you’ve uncovered?  (And a note to my non-historian friends, feel free to contribute as well.) Leave your comments below.






6 thoughts on “Cry ‘Havoc’ And Let Slip The … Pigeons of War?

  1. Ok, belly laughter was not my reaction in the instance I’m about to describe. More like an amused shake of the head. But perhaps others will find this entertaining. In 1995, in the Federal Military Archive in Freiburg, Germany, I came across a letter from Franz Halder, Chief of the German General Staff from 1938 to 1942, to one of his former comrades. He had received an inquiry from an American historian, who wanted to know when the German generals had recognized that the war was lost. In his letter, Halder complained that this was a ridiculous question, that everyone knows that wars offer political opportunities long after they appear militarily hopeless, and that, in truth, a war is only lost when one gives up. (Then he added that he could not possibly say such a thing to an American, without raising the spectre of evil German militarism.)

    Halder wrote the letter in 1953.

    There, in a nutshell, is an illustration of German strategic thinking. +facepalm+

  2. Pingback: Let’s Sweep the Pigeons of War (sorry, that’s really bad, I know). | Old, Unhappy, Far-Off Things

  3. Enjoyed another piece from the Society of Military History on the occasional joys of archival work.

    Thought they might like this piece from the BBC on a WWII pigeon carrying a one time use cypher. Apparently the (long deceased) bird’s leg was swept out of a chimney in Surrey. That’s one way to conduct research.

    Here’s wishing the public luck in cracking the code!

  4. I love archive research for just that reason. In the middle of a bundle of state papers will be the itemized bill for destroyed stuff for when John Evelyn let Peter the Great rent his London house, or ridiculous sniping between rival Royal astronomers.

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