The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 – Chapter 1

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«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Chapter I
Author's Preface Chapter II

Chapter I.


Comparison of the Signal System of an Army and the Nervous System of an Organism. — Signals in the Nineteenth Century. — The South African War. — The First Official Tribute. — Suggested Co-Ordination of Telegraphs and Signalling.— The Need for an Organized System of Orderlies. — Appointment of Committees to Study Intercommunication Problems. — Experiment.— Alternatives Considered. — The Formation of the Signal Service. — Co-Ordination of all "Message Routes" under One Director of Army Signals. — The Duties of the New Service.— Signal Practice, 1904 to 1914. — Introduction of the Telephone and Motor Cyclists. — Early Criticism of the Telephone. — Army Wireless Telegraphy in its Infancy. — Visual; Semaphore versus Morse. — Lessons of the Russo-Japanese War. — The Signal Service in 1914. — Mobility the Premier Consideration. — No Control of Artillery Signals. — Total of the Signal Service at the Outbreak of War. — Its Responsibilities. — Looseness of Organization and Absence of the Magneto Telephone. — Summary of the Position as Regards Signals in August, 1914. — Battalion Signallers. — Individual Influence of Commanding Officers. — Initial Shortage in Establishment Particularly of Motor Cyclists.

Just as the student of the comparative anatomy of animals can trace a gradual complication and elaboration in the nervous system of the various types as he ascends the evolutionary tree, so the student of military history will find a system ever increasing in complexity as he reads the pages of a history of the Signal Service. Just as the primitive organisms have only simple and scattered nervous connections, so the army of the Middle Ages relied for its liaison entirely upon mounted orderlies or esquires — or at the most on very primitive visual appliances.[1]

The zoologist finds, however, that the higher forms of animal life have nervous systems which reach a high degree of complexity and sensitiveness and are controlled by a central body (the brain).

Similarly, in the modern large and specialized army, the signal system which carries the orders correlating the activities of the parts, becomes more varied and more complex, and has its main trunk system centreing at one point (G.H.Q.) to which all important information is carried and from which all important instructions emanate.

The likeness does not end here, however. Just as the nervous system of the human body is liable to disease through parasites or through abuse, and to destruction through accident; so the army signal system needs the exercise of constant care and thought. Continual attention is necessary to prevent its interruption either by the forces employed against it by the enemy, or from the more insidious troubles which may arise from lack of organization or conscientiousness within the service itself. Diseased nerves will convey the instruction of the brain incorrectly, as in "locomotor ataxia," or may fail to convey them at all, when paralysis sets in. In a similar fashion, a message transmitted by an inefficient Signal Service may arrive at its destination altered out of all recognition, in which case wrong action may result[2]; or may not arrive at all, when plans may be marred by the immobility of the formation affected.

Efficiency can only be ensured by constant study of the successes and failures of the past, and by constant research to forestall and avoid the dangers of the future.

An impartial history provides the means by which the former study may be carried out, and, at the same time, the foundation upon which all future researches should be based.


The story of intercommunication within the British Army to the date of the conclusion of the South African War has already been written in the general history of the services of the Royal Engineers in that and preceding campaigns. Upon the experience of the Army in South Africa was based the reconstruction which resulted in the formation of the Expeditionary Force as it existed prior to the European War.

Intercommunication personnel was vitally affected by these reforms and the formation of the Army Signal Service was the immediate result. In 1920, it appears likely that the European War just completed will be followed by a similar sweeping reform which will terminate the existence of the Army Signal Service as at present constituted.[3]A fit period for treatment in a single unit would therefore seem to be the history of the Army Signal Service from its formation in 1912 to its abolition and the creation of the Royal Corps of Signals, in 1920. It is this period that it is intended should be the main theme of the present work. In order, however, that the formation of the Service may be understood, it is necessary that a summary should be given of the previous history of intercommunication in the British Army. In particular, some account should be written of the steps which led up to these reforms and of the considerations which guided the responsible authorities in determining the exact form that the new Signal Service was to take.


In the early days of the nineteenth century, opposing forces were of so small a size, and scientific signalling equipment was so little developed, that an army's requirements in the way of intercommunication could be efficiently met by the judicious use of mounted officers attached to Staffs for the purpose of carrying orders.

In the smaller units, mounted or foot orderlies, or visual signalling were employed.

Since this time, until the South African War, the British Army had been engaged only in wars against uncivilized tribes and nations in inaccessible, sparsely populated, and hostile countries. In such wars, the striking forces usually consisted of a single column or of a number of columns acting independently. Communication between such columns was impossible save when they were advancing on parallel lines, or during the final stages of a converging movement. Then visual was employed, usually with conspicuous success.

Within the columns themselves, distances were so small that visual with the heliograph, with flags, or with the primitive signalling lamps then available, proved ample for the requirements of the force. Along the lines of communication, the succession of small armed posts or blockhouses, rendered necessary by the presence of a hostile population, served admirably the purpose of relay posts for inter- communication purposes. Communication in the latter case was by visual, by runner, or by mounted orderly, or— in the later years of the nineteenth century — by telegraph along a route which followed the line of advance of the troops.

With a highly trained Staff who required the minimum of information and instruction from the rear, and with an enemy who was technically inefficient and therefore unable to interfere with, to obscure the meaning of, or to tap, the primitive signalling apparatus then in use, the post of signal officer would have been a sinecure. It was not until the introduction of the telegraph brought in its train constant increase in the complexity of this branch of army work, that the Staff were unable to find time to look after their own intercommunication problems. When this state of affairs arose, however, a specially trained signal service was at once required.

Considerable developments in army telegraphy had taken place during the years which immediately preceded the South African War. Telegraph Sections had become a recognized part of the establishment of civilized armies. In November, 1899, the British forces landed in South Africa included a complete Telegraph Division which was followed shortly afterwards by ? reinforcement of one hundred linesmen and telegraph operators.[4]

As the Boer resistance was gradually overcome, and the various columns moved forward, communication with the bases in Cape Colony or Natal was kept by cable and airline with great success. In the later stages of the war a good system of rapid communication along the line of blockhouses which divided up the country for the better isolation of roving bands of Boer guerillas played a dominant part in the extermination or dispersal of these bands and the final pacification of the country.[5]

In Lord Roberts' report occur the words: — "The main line telegraph was extraordinarily well done, and the way repairs were made, lines renewed, and new lines started was quite admirable throughout." This was probably the first official recognition of the value of the signal arm as a separate entity in the operations of the modern army.

Thus, at the conclusion of the South African War, the value of the signal detachments of the Royal Engineers had become generally recognized. During the succeeding years a normal system of inter- communication based on these experiences and on subsequent yearly manoeuvres was evolved.

This normal system will be described later in the chapter, but it is now necessary to consider the radical changes in signal organization which were brought about as a corollary to the reorganization of the British Expeditionary Force which was the outstanding feature of army development in the early years of the 20th century.

As reorganized, the Field Army consisted of Army Troops, one Cavalry Division, six Infantry Divisions, and a Lines of Communication organization. To serve this the "Director of Telegraphs" had at his disposal a relatively strong complement of Telegraph Companies, and the "Director of Army Signalling" controlled in some measure an entirely separate organization of signallers who were trained solely under regimental arrangements.[6]There was no co-ordination between the two branches of the inter-communication service, while an equally unsatisfactory feature of the uncoordinated scheme was the entire absence of any central organization for the provision of the necessary quota of orderlies to convey messages to and from signal offices and stations.

As it stood, the disadvantages of the intercommunication scheme were obvious alike to Staff and Signal officers. At each of the yearly manoeuvres its drawbacks were emphasized. As early as 1906 a committee appointed to report or the intercommunication services made strong recommendations for the organization of all "Message Routes," whether telegraphs, telephones, signalling, or orderlies, under one central controlling authority. The formation of the Signal Service was foreshadowed by the resolution that the committee "recommend the provision of communication units for each formation to work under the General Staff of the formation." It was proposed that one common "Director of Telegraphs and Signalling" should be appointed and that communication detachments should be formed with brigades. Indeed, the committee of 1906 were so far in advance of their time that they strongly advised that the "Communication Service" should take over artillery signalling as far forward as battery headquarters, a degree of prevision which was afterwards nullified by considerations of economy and simplicity.

Experiments with communication units were at once commenced, first in the Irish Command which afforded the maximum facility for extended manoeuvre, and later in the Aldershot Command. The new departure involved, however, a relatively considerable increase in expenditure. The history of the embryonic and experimental Signal Service of the next few years is therefore one of constant readjustment in the endeavour to strike a balance between the minimum of intercommunication services considered necessary by the General Staff and the maximum expenditure which could be admitted by the Finance Member of the Army Council. It was not until 1912 that, as a result of further strong representation of a committee which met in 1911, the new Service was recognized in fact and the provisional establishments approved.

The alternatives considered by the committee of 1911 were the formation of a Signal Corps, the creation of an intercommunication branch of some already-existing Corps, and the formation of signal companies by the selection of the most suitable men from any branch of the Service.

The first and last alternatives were ruled out by considerations of precedent, economy, and difficulties affecting the promotion of officers, and the Signal Service was finally created in 1912 as a branch of the Royal Engineers. A feature of the scheme as finally adopted was the seconding of subalterns with suitable experience as brigade signal officers. This provision was made with a view to linking up the intercommunication services of regimental units with the Army Signal Service. Officers so selected remained with the Signal Service for a period of four years, while remaining on the promotion roster of their own units. At the conclusion of their period of attachment they returned to their regiments. In due course this policy would have had the result of distributing throughout the Army in consider- able numbers officers with a technical knowledge of intercommunication problems and with close and cordial relations with the Signal Service. This was undoubtedly one of the most valuable features of the revised intercommunication organization and as such is being incorporated in the regulations governing the constitution of the Signal Corps.

It was this committee which reversed the decision of the committee of 1906 as regards artillery signalling, while it agreed with the latter body in leaving unit signalling in battalion, regiment, battery, etc., in the hands of the units concerned. The dividing line was fixed through the recognition of the fact that the regimental signaller was a soldier first and that his signalling duties were of secondary importance. This being admitted, it was essential that the control of such men should be vested in their commanding officers. Consideration of the provision of extra-regimental personnel to be responsible for unit signals was ruled out on the score of economy, a negative decision being strengthened by the obvious evils of a divided command within such small units.

The reorganized service was much as it remained in 1914. Continued experiment resulted in various minor changes, but the main reforms were regularized by an Army Order published late in 1911.[7] In this Order, the duties of the responsible officers of the new Signal Service were defined and the scope of the responsibility of the service and of regimental signalling organizations was laid down. The division of the new cable and airline signal companies into sections was foreshadowed by the ruling that "the unit for employment is the section of two detachments." The sequel to this was the breaking up of these companies into cable and airline sections, the headquarter detachments forming the nucleus of what became the G.H.Q., and Army Corps Headquarter Signal Companies.

With the acceptance of the recommendations of the committee of 1911, the old R.E. telegraph units disappeared. A comparative picture of the nomenclature of the intercommunication units in 1904, 1907, and 1911, is given below in Table I.

Having summarized the chief features of the reorganization which brought the Signal Service into existence, it is now necessary to review shortly the means at the disposal of that Service at the date of the outbreak of the European War. Two principal advances in signal practice during the period under consideration were the introduction of the telephone for forward work in 1907 and the addition of motorcyclist despatch riders to the establishments of signal units which took place in 1911. As regards the former, an interesting report on its use during manoeuvres shortly after its introduction strikes at once a note of criticism. The writer of the report first refers to its inaudibility due to the noise of the artillery firing, and he concludes with a summary of certain moral objections to its use. His conclusion is: —

"It is not difficult to realize the many situations in which it would not be advisable to call verbal messages down the telephone in the hearing of all and sundry in the neighbourhood, whereas the most secret messages could be transmitted in the Morse code without any moral effect upon the bystanders. Nor is the employment of the Morse code considered to contain any insuperable difficulties."

It was very slowly, indeed, that the telephone won its way to the respect and confidence of the General Staff[8]who distrusted the new instrument particularly because it did away to a great extent with a written record of their instructions. From this opposition much comfort might have been drawn by the discouraged supporters of wireless telegraphy during the early years of the war. Indeed, in signalling as in every other branch of human activity, pioneers will always be faced with the problem of overcoming the distrust with which the normal conservative human being views the introduction of anything new. They must draw their inspiration and courage from the successful outcome of similar battles waged by their predecessors in the past.

Army Formation 1904 Signal Units.* 1907 Signal Units. 1911 Signal Units.
(a) Line of Communication Three Telegraph Divisions

Three Lines of Communication Telegraphs

2 Telegraph Companies Signal Company (L. of C.)
(b) Advanced Base to Army H.Q. 2 Airline Telegraph Companies Signal Company (Airline)
(c) Army Headquarters 2 Cable Telegraph Companies Signal Company (Cable)
(d) Divisional Headquarters 6 Divisional Telegraph Companies Signal Company with each Division
(e) Cavalry Division Three Cable Sections (as part of Field Troops) Three Cable Sectoins (as part of Field Troops) Signal Squadron
(f) Army Headquarters to Cavalry Headquarters   2 Wireless Telegraph Companies Signal Company, Wireless.
* In addition three Volunteer Telegraph Sections and a “Nucleus” to remain at home for P.O. requirements.
† In addition a small establishment of signallers sufficient to man one visual station at each headquarters.
‡ Contain a proportion of Visual Signallers, Motor Cyclists and Orderlies, in addition to telegraph and telephone personnel.

By the end of 1910, the buzzer telephone had, however, fairly won its place as a recognized part of the signal equipment of all linemen in rear of Divisional Headquarters. By 1914 it was firmly established as an essential portion of the equipment of all pack cable detachments: further forward it was not to penetrate until position warfare set in.

There was, however, one more direction in which a revolution in signal practice was foreshadowed. The development of wireless telegraphy had appealed to the imagination of the more enthusiastic army Signal officers and as early as 1903[9]a small experimental staff had commenced work at Aldershot on the development of this branch of signalling along hues suitable for army work. In 1905, wireless telegraphy was accepted definitely as a distinct part of the army signal organization and the first Wireless Section was formed. By August, 1914, however, this science had not proved its value as applied under the restrictions inseparable from army work. Its use was, therefore, confined to certain definite functions particularly concerned with the operations of independent cavalry. It was looked upon with suspicion and dislike by the General Staff as a whole.

This attitude was justified to a certain extent, wireless in its then state of development having two main drawbacks which reduced its value for army purposes. The primitive types of portable army stations were unreliable. The fact that the enemy could overhear every word or group sent made it necessary to use code or cipher for any messages of importance. These objections to the use of wireless telegraphy have, indeed, militated against its effectiveness throughout the war, though special methods of employment which were never contemplated in these early days have been found for it.

Of the two methods of flag signalling — semaphore and Morse — the latter was the favourite of the signal officer himself. It was foreseen that future technical signal developments would inevitably involve the use of the Morse alphabet, the latter being applicable to almost any type of instrument which could be devised. The other arms of the service, however, and particularly the artillery, preferred the quicker semaphore method, ignoring or overlooking the fatal fact that this means of signalling could only be made use of for visual work and involved a considerable measure of exposure to hostile fire and observation. This divergence of opinion was the cause of much trouble during the earlier months of the War before the universality of the Morse alphabet carried the day and semaphore signalling was relegated to a less important place in the Training Manual and in army signalling generally.

The experience on which the British Army Signal Service had been formulated and built up, had all tended to emphasize the importance ol mobility. In the last fifty years — since the Crimean War in fact — the British Army as a whole had not been engaged in any prolonged and great sieges. The lessons of the Russo-Japanese War, when for the first time nation-sized armies confronted each other for weeks and months across intricate systems of trenches, had not been sufficiently driven home to Western European nations. The possibility that the war for which our little Expeditionary Force was intended might resolve itself into a protracted struggle between two nearly equal forces snugly ensconced behind earthworks or burrowing in trenches, saps, or dugouts, was not visualized either by our own Staff or by those of other European nations. Many considerations pointed towards the likelihood of the next European War being a short sharp campaign where the army most mobile, and therefore most ready to take advantage of the opportunities presented by a rapidly changing situation, would win. Financial experts believed that a European War could not last many months without universal bankruptcy; statesmen believed that the Balance of Power could not be accurate enough to produce a deadlock for any long period of time; generals knew that — to be decisive — war must be a war of movement.

It was this last consideration that carried most weight, and justly so as events have since proved. The immediate effect of cutting down equipment to obtain mobility at all costs was, however, to be seen in the second year of the War. The rapidly increasing demands from all branches of the army for more and better intercommunication to cope with the fast-crystalizing state of stationary warfare, then almost snowed under the service which was called upon to meet them with utterly inadequate resources.

If there was a period of the War when the Signal Service in France was within measurable distance of becoming inefficient, it was in late 1915 and early 1916, before the first reorganizations relieved the situation. That this position did arise was not the fault of the personnel of the Service but was unavoidable in view of the change in the functions which it was expected to fulfil.

Before the War, the Signal Service was designed to be the servant of the General Staff only. Its work (which lay practically entirely between G.H.O. and battalion headquarters) was to ensure that a message written by the Staff was safely and rapidly delivered to the addressee. Long before the termination of the position warfare period this delimitation of responsibility no longer held good. To take a single instance of the growth of Signal Service activity, it may be mentioned that previous to the War, artillery communication, which was so soon to become a very major portion of the duty of the Army Signal Service, was outside the sphere of its activities. Such primitive form of liaison between artillery and infantry as existed in those days was the responsibility of the artillery them- selves, while communication within artillery units was also carried out by signallers provided, trained, and controlled by that arm. The strength of the Signal Service proper on August 4th, 1914, is shown in the following two tables. Table 1 1 a. shows the units which proceeded to France with the original Expeditionary Force, and Table IIb. the partially trained signal units of the Territorial Force.

Regular Signal Service Units, August, 1914
Name of Unit. Establishment No. of units in E.F. Total nos. personnel.
Offr's. Men. Offr's. Men.
"L" Signal Company 5 263 1 5 263
G.H.Q. Signal Coy. 5 75 1 5 75
Army Corps H.Q. Sig. Coy. 4 63 2 8 126
Divl. Signal Coy. 5 157 6 30 942
Cable Section 1 35 8 8 280
Airline Seciton 1 57 5 5 285
Cavalry Sig. Squadron 8 198 1 8 198
Sig. Troop with Cavalry Bde. 1 23 3 3 69
Sig. Trp with Independent Cav. Bde. 1 42 1 1 42
Wireless Section (incl. Motor W/T Det.) 2 66 1 2 66
August 4th, 1914.      Grand Total A.S.S. with E.F. 75 2346

Territorial Signal Service Units, August, 1914
Name of Unit. Establishment No. of units in U.K. Total.
Offr's. Men. Offr's. Men.
Divl. Telegraph Coy. 2 57 14 28 798
Army W/T Telegraph Coy. 3 66 5 15 330
Army Cable Telegraph Coy. 6 159 5 30 795
Army Airline Telegraph Coy. 6 194 5 30 970
August 4th, 1914.      Grand Total A.S.S. with T.F. in U.K. 103 2893

N.B. — In addition to the above should be considered the Indian Telegraph units of the Indian Army and the Divisional Signal Company of the 7th Division which was then concentrating before completing its training with the Division.

In addition to the units shown in these tables, the signal companies of the University Officers Training Corps (where such existed) might be considered as a source of reinforcements, particularly of motor cyclist despatch riders and of men likely to be suitable for training as junior commissioned officers. These latter, with such officers and men as could be spared from the engineering and telegraph departments of the General Post Office, might be looked to to relieve the situation in the future.

With the exception of the despatch riders, however, who required little further training, and who were in any case so urgently required that refinements of training had to be dispensed with, these reinforcements could not be considered as immediately available. Technical; engineers who were admirably qualified to build telegraph routes and oversee telephone and telegraph offices, required training in military discipline and army methods of procedure. The partially trained cadets of the Officers' Training Corps, on the other hand, required in many cases further technical experience. In almost all cases, a further insight into army organization and a final polishing up in drill was necessary before such men could be considered fit to take command of regular sections or detachments.

Thus, on the landing of the Expeditionary Force in France and its advance until it obtained touch with the German armies at Conde, Mons, and Binche, the signal requirements of the Force had to be met by 72 officers and approximately 2,200 men. It is true that this personnel was exceptionally well-trained and efficient. The total, however, compared very unfavourably indeed with that of the signal units which would have been allotted in 1917 or 1918 to an Army of two Army Corps each containing three Divisions. (See Appendix IV.).

As can be seen from a study of the units in Table II a and from, the 1914 column of the Table of Comparative Establishments in Appendix II, the Expeditionary Force was served by "L" Signal Company, one G.H.Q. Signal Company, two Army Corps H.Q. Signal Companies, and six Divisional Signal Companies — that is, one signal unit for each formation of the Force. In addition, a Signal Squadron, and a Signal Troop served the Cavalry Division and an independent Cavalry Brigade. Wireless was represented by "Q" Wireless Section, consisting of three wagon and one motor wireless detachment, which was attached to G.H.Q. Signals.

These units were responsible for the intercommunication, not only from the Base on the coast of France to Battalion Headquarters, but, actually, owing to causes which will be mentioned later, the Divisional Signal Companies were soon obliged to exercise close supervision over, and, indeed, in many cases, to carry out line communication right up to the front line posts and trenches. This was an extension of their work which was never intended when they were formed and to cope with which their establishment was not suitable either as regards numbers or equipment.

Two important characteristics were common to the whole of the above units. These were the complete reliance on the telegraph and message work for all purposes, and the looseness of the organization. Each unit was self-contained, and its senior officer was of similar rank and equal standing with those of the units which succeeded it both up and down the chain of communication. The result of the latter feature of the organization was that, although all units worked loyally together, there was within the Signal Service itself nothing even remotely resembling the chain of command which is so necessary to the smooth working of the military machine.

At G.H.Q. was a senior Signal Service officer, the Director of Army Signals of the Expeditionary Force, who exercised technical control over the whole of the units under his supervision. It was, however, impossible for the latter, with the very small staff he possessed in 1914, to keep in personal touch with the signal units of so many diverse formations. In practice, therefore, commanders of signal units were responsible only to the General Staff of their formation for the technical working and efficiency of their units.

In dealing with intercommunication problems, affecting as they necessarily do not only the formation in question but those immediately superior and subordinate, the lack of technical control step by step up the chain of command was naturally very severely felt. A considerable portion of the administrative reform of the first two years of the War was directed towards putting this matter on a more satisfactory footing.

It is a little difficult to understand how, in view of the high degree of technical efficiency to which the civil telephone of the country, and indeed of civilized nations generally, had been brought, the telephone had been so completely subordinated in the scheme of signals evolved for the British Army. In this respect both our French allies and our German foes were far in front of us at the outbreak of war. The magneto telephone had already obtained an important position in their intercommunication services, although these were in many other respects far behind our own in efficiency.

Here, again, it seems probable that considerations of mobility had been allowed to overrule all other ideas of greater convenience and of the value of personal interchange of ideas between Staff officers of different formations. Be this as it may, certainly the outbreak of war found the British Army relying almost entirely on the tele- graph for the transmission of orders, reports, and urgent information throughout the higher formations. It is true that forward signals relied to a certain extent upon a portable type of telephone,[10]but the instrument was not popular with the Staff, who preferred to do without conversation altogether, or, in the event of a personal explanation being considered necessary, to carry it out through the operators in the Signal Offices.

August, 1914, thus found the telegraph (Wheatstone and Duplex on the lines of communication, Simplex forward of G.H.O., and Vibrator in divisions and brigades) in general use for all urgent messages. To deal with less urgent despatches, motor cyclists, mounted orderlies, and cyclists were used as occasion demanded, while packets and letters for the administrative services, together with the private correspondence of the troops, were dealt with by the Postal Section of the Royal Engineers whose activities were outside the sphere of the Signal Service. The not unnatural inability of this branch fully to live up to its responsibilities in this respect was later responsible for the commencement of the regular D.R.L.S.[11]

In addition to the above-mentioned methods of despatch which, were relied upon to deal with all normal communications in the higher formations, other means of signalling over short distances and. in face of the enemy were provided.

These first assumed prominence in the Divisional Signal Company where — although no men were available specifically for this purpose — certain of the mounted and cyclist orderlies were trained in visual signalling. A small amount of visual signalling apparatus — heliograph, night lamps, and flags — was also provided in the company mobilization store table. As the formation became of less size, and distances decreased, while proximity to the enemy increased, visual signalling assumed greater and greater prominence. Brigade signal sections were issued with pack cable-laying apparatus and a light cable of comparatively poor insulation. Each section had as part of its composition a telephone detachment which was responsible for laying lines to Battalion Headquarters on the occasions when it was considered necessary to link these up with the headquarters of the brigade. Here, however, the visual training of the men was of greater importance, and considerably more stress was laid upon visual work, the whole personnel of efficient brigade sections being exercised in this method of signalling.

In the battalion, which did not lie within the jurisdiction of the Signal Service, the battalion signallers under the control of the signalling sergeant and under the nominal supervision of the adjutant, were expected to be efficient in visual alone. In certain battalions — whose officers later reaped the reward of their enterprise — the commanding officer had equipped his signalling section with cable and telephones at his own expense. This was, however, exceptional. In some such cases, a still further keenness for the maintenance of efficient intercommunication and a realization of its importance, had led to the unofficial retention of a signalling officer although such a post had been officially abolished. Such a sacrifice — for it was a very real sacrifice when the tendency was to withdraw more and more officers for courses as specialists and thus to limit severely the number available for regimental duty — was offset by the possession of an unusually efficient signalling section with a smoothly working regimental organization as a natural consequence. Alike in peace manoeuvres and in war, the battalion with the well-trained and efficiently supervised signallers scored heavily over its less enter- prising rivals. The money and care expended was, however, only destined to be repaid in full when, in the autumn of 1914, the deadlock between the rival armies became accentuated and the deadly mono- tony of trench warfare settled down across the north of France. Fortunate, indeed, then, was the commanding officer who had husbanded his signallers; doubly fortunate was he who had been far-sighted enough to retain his battalion signalling officer and so ensure the maximum of efficiency in what was to become a more and more vital specialist section of his battalion.

The signal units had been calculated, in common with the other branches of the British Army, on the absolute minimum with which it was possible to carry out the least amount of work compatible with efficiency. It was, therefore, to be hoped at least that these units would be complete, and, on mobilization being ordered, could be filled up at once with fully trained men. Owing, however, to a lack of trained signallers in the reserve — the result possibly of miscalculation of the number required, possibly of unexpected casualties — it proved extremely difficult to complete various units to their war strength with fully trained men of the requisite army trades. This was particularly felt in divisions where battalion commanders, themselves harassed with similar shortages, felt unable to spare to the Divisional Signal Company the battalion signallers destined by Army Order to help towards the complement of the brigade sections.

In some cases, the vacancies had to be filled with partially trained pioneers, in others with men who were beneath the age limit of twenty years. The latter alternative was preferred since it did not affect the technical efficiency of the company to any great extent, and in view of the European climate was not likely to cause trouble to the men themselves.

A more serious shortage still was that of motor cyclists. To ensure good service in this important branch during mobile warfare, men of exceptional intelligence, endurance and courage, and, especially, men possessing initiative of a high order, were required. In the event, there proved to be a sufficiency of such men in the country and, as casualties occurred, little difficulty was found in filling up vacancies with good men. In the early days, however, when all was hurry and every department was working overtime on unfamiliar problems, the shortage could not be made good at once. Although the University Officers' Training Corps came to the rescue with a particularly good type of men for the purpose, the mobilization and equipment of civilians took time. Many units suffered from the fact that the majority of their despatch riders were late in reporting, while some formations even departed overseas with a deficiency.


  1. Such primitive visual arrangements still persist in the rude code of smoke or flare signals used by certain primitive tribes to this day.
  2. A classical example which has value as a powerful and amusing illustration is offered by a story current in the present day Signal Service. A chain of orderlies was being exercised in conveying verbal messages from the front line to battalion reserves. One message started as "Going to advance; send reinforcements." It is stated to have been received by a mystified Adjutant at Battalion Headquarters as Going to a Dance; lend me three-and-fourpence."
  3. Since this chapter was written this reorganization has become an accomplished fact.
  4. These men were largely drawn from the permanent staff of the G.P.O. They did excellent work in the field under unaccustomed conditions. An army reserve of Post Office operators existed prior to the South African War.
  5. f Many telephones were utilized in this inter-blockhouse signal system.
  6. In the South African War a miniature Signal Service of trained battalion signallers was formed to supplement telegraph lines. These men were distributed all over the Transvaal and Orange Free State on kopjes. They were equipped with heliographs, lime lights, etc., and their duty was to keep touch with mobile columns and to take up messages if the Boers cut the telegraph lines — as they frequently did.
  7. Interesting paragraphs of this Army Order were those specifically defining these duties and responsibilities. The Director of Army Signals was made the supreme arbiter of the Signal Service and he was given power to "communicate direct with his representatives on all matters of administrative and technical detail connected with the Army Signal Service." The commanders of the different companies were his representatives at the headquarters of the lower formations. They were empowered to "act as technical advisers to their commanders and to be responsible under his (the D.A.S.'s) orders, for the general organization, maintenance and efficiency of the service of intercommunication other than the Postal Service." Finally, the regimental signal personnel were "(1) to provide such visual signal stations as may be necessary to complete the intercommunication between themselves and their superior commander and neighbouring units. (2) to arrange for intercommunication within their unit."
  8. One factor which perhaps militated against the popularity' of the telephone to some extent was the fact that in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, the Japanese on more than one occasion suffered seriously from over-reliance upon a field telephone system. In considering such cases, however, a distinction should be drawn between defects inherent in the telephone itself and others due to the employment of an ill- balanced intercommunication scheme. The instances quoted were due to a failure to supplement the line system by other more reliable, if slower and more expensive, means. This was a lesson that was to be taught to the British Signal Service, also, in the critical years 1914 and 1915. It should not, however, be held to detract from the value of a good field telephone system which, in the Japanese Army, was normally the safe basis of a signal system which was unusually efficient for its day.
  9. Wireless was also tried in South Africa in 1899.
  10. The unpopularity of these instruments may have been due to the undoubted fact that in the case of the two earlier types efficiency had to a great extent been sacrificed to portability. Neither the D, mark I, nor the D, mark II, telephone was a satisfactory instrument to use, the latter especially, which had been issued in large numbers just previous to the outbreak of war, being particularly unpopular. This was largely due to the fact that both hands were occupied in using it, the one in holding the receiver to the ear and the other in the act of pressing down the button which corresponded in this type to the more convenient pressel switch of the D, mark HI, and the later types of hand telephones. Had the last mentioned type been in general use before the outbreak of war there is little doubt that its efficiency and comfort would have greatly enhanced the popularity of the telephone, and from the good buzzer telephone to the better magneto telephone is — as was proved by subsequent developments — a very short step indeed.
  11. Despatch Rider Letter Service.

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Author's Preface Chapter II