The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 – Chapter 10

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«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Chapter X
Chapter IX Chapter XI

Chapter X.


The German Retreat in March, 1917. — Cable Wagons. — Wireless and Two-way Visual under Mobile Warfare Conditions. — Position Warfare Resumed before the Hindenburg Line. — The Position Battles of 1917. — Increase in Artillery Activity. — Transport Troubles. — Deeper Advances than on the Somme. — Signal Forward Policy. — Forward Parties Involved in the Fighting. — Germans Adopt Principle of "Defence in Depth." — Temporary Revivals of the Field Line System. — Signal Preparation and Rehearsals. — Buried Cable still the Signal Officer's Best Servant. — Artillery Movements in the Last Week before Zero Cause Congestion. — Lapses of Signal Discipline: Necessity for esprit de corps. — Signals in the Attack. — Over-hearing Precautions Relaxed. — Forward Signals Standardized and the Signal Officer given Authority by the Publication of S.S. 148. — General Discussion of the First Staff Manual for Intercommunication in Battle. — Signal Operation Orders. — Forward Signals in the Attack. — Troubles due to the large Absorption of Untrained Personnel after the First Great Re-organization.

The final attacks of the offensive in the autumn and early winter of 1916, which had left the British armies in a more favourable position than they had ever held before, were destined to have their reflection in the early actions of the following year. Throughout the winter months, particularly in the months of November, 1916, and in January and February, 1917, though warfare on an extended scale was impossible, continual small attacks were carried out on the front between the Ancre and the Scarpe. The result of this policy was seen in March, 1917, when the German retreat became general. For a short distance — about fifteen miles in greatest depth — the British forces pressed close upon the heels of the retreating Germans and for two or three days conditions of mobile warfare once more came into existence along a considerable portion of the front.

The retreat had been well thought out beforehand and, although considerable dumps of stores, such as permanent line and airline stores, passed into our hands in good condition, the German telephone and telegraph system had been so thoroughly destroyed that it was of little use. Many poles had been cut down and all lines had been cut and dragged aside until the tangle of wires was such that it was necessary to re-lay the routes in order to obtain speedy and reliable intercommunication. Most of the poles, indeed, had been so thoroughly destroyed that the stumps could not even be utilized to support comic airline or poled cable. They were so short that lines thus suspended would have been a constant menace to traffic and even to dismounted troops.

From the signal point of view, the main interest of this short interlude lay in the approximation to mobile warfare conditions. This came in very timely fashion to test in a real advance the results of the training schemes which had been persisted in whenever signal companies and sections were in rest during position warfare. It had long been an axiom of signal training that "fast" cable should be laid by all cable sections when in rest, and that airline sections should be employed frequently in moving schemes. Opportunity was now given to test the efficiency of the sections. Cable detachments with Divisional Signal Companies followed up their Brigade headquarters with lines six or more miles in length, a thing that had been unknown since the autumn of 1914. Corps, Divisions and Brigades, all moved forward across the evacuated country by graduated stages - Brigades moving frequently, Divisions less often, and Corps headquarters once or twice only by large stages. In the meantime, the new Signal Construction Companies pushed forward the permanent routes as quickly as possible to the new Corps headquarters, Corps airline sections followed up the Divisions with semi-permanent or comic airline routes, and Divisional Signal Companies kept pace with the movements of Brigade headquarters, building poled cable which would be replaced by buried cable as soon as the situation should once more settle down.

For two or three days, with the exception of the small local actions with the German rearguards, the conditions of peace manoeuvres were approached. Staffs accustomed themselves to less general telephone facilities; a system of wireless was often of great value when the advance outran the cable; and two-way visual with lamps, heliographs and flags provided all the communication required forward of Brigades. As the enemy's retreat was accelerated by our advanced guards, the isolated forward actions were almost exact replicas of field-days at home. Lines to Report centres were through shortly before the Staff arrived, and they remained through throughout the battles. A series of messages describing the course of the operations was delivered to the Staff rapidly and at regular intervals, and when the battle ended with a further withdrawal of the German-rearguard, the signal office was closed down and the advance resumed. There was an air of unreality about the whole proceedings to the officers and men who had been engaged in the intensive fighting of the previous year.

For the troops on the front affected, it was a pleasant breathing space before position warfare of an even more intensive character was resumed in the immediate neighbourhood of the immensely strong "Hindenburg" line in front of Cambrai and St. Quentin. The smoothness of the signal communication achieved reassured signal officers as to the efficiency of their units under mobile conditions, and the effect of this slight practice was to be demonstrated in the more far-reaching of the operations of the coming summer.

As the outlying bastions of the new trench system were approached, the resistance of the German rearguards stiffened and once more the enemy artillery, which had been silent for some days, opened up in full fury from their new positions in rear of the prepared defences. Assault on superior forces in a position chosen by the enemy and without adequate artillery support or any prepared positions west of the old evacuated German defences, was out of the question. Isolated actions on short fronts for particular objectives were pressed home, but the general advance slackened and finally stopped. By the end of March the situation was stabilized and signal activity was confined to the building up of a new position warfare system over the new country.

The result was a buried system which approximated far more closely than any previous system to the ideal grid. The German buries were examined, but proved to be of little use. They contained far too few pairs to be equal to accommodating our own artillery and they were ill-adapted in many ways to the requirements of the British Command system. The history of the Signal Service on this portion of the front during the next few months — in fact until the Cambrai offensive in November — contained little incident of special interest. The modifications in forward signals which were the result of the isolated actions having for their object the penetration of the Hindenburg line will be included in the general discussion of the position battles of 1917.

With the settling down of the situation in the southern portion of the British line, the centre of interest shifted further to the north. The plans for the offensives of the summer had long been made and the unexpected happenings of the spring were not allowed to modify them in their main outlines. Commencing with the Battle of Arras in April, the summer and autumn of 1917 were characterized by a series of fierce position battles which culminated in the Third Battle of Ypres and the capture of the Messines and Passchendaele Ridges. For three or four months the British armies battered their way forward steadily, the objects in view being to break through the German lines if that should prove possible of attainment, and, if not, to attract large enemy forces to the threatened front and to inflict as many casualties as possible upon them. Artillery action on both sides was vastly increased even over that of the Battle of the Somme. Troops on either side advanced to the attack or defended their lines under a hail of shell from guns of every calibre. Villages and hamlets disappeared in a rain of brickdust and stone; larger towns were shelled until they were a hotch-potch of stones, bricks and rubble without definitely recognizable features. Whole stretches of the open country were churned into an unholy devastation which resembled nothing so much as a storm-tossed sea, frozen into immobility in the height of its fury, and strewn with the debris of countless wrecks.

After this increase in artillery action, the feature which had most effect on the nature of the battles was the adoption by the enemy of the principle of "Defence in Depth." From the point of view of signal practice, the new policy had two direct effects. The depth of the advance of our troops in the early stages of a well-prepared attack was much greater (reaching on occasion to as much as from two to five miles), while the process of mopping-up was so prolonged that the signal forward parties became quite frequently involved in the fighting and on many more occasions found it difficult or impossible to occupy the positions laid down in operation orders.

By the deepening of the advances — far beyond the limits of the Somme battles — the warfare was liable to become temporarily of a semi-open character. Advances of over two miles needed re-arrangements both of our own and the enemy's guns. On the one hand, movements of batteries and groups took place during the battle, involving the improvization of a fresh series of artillery signal communications, often without a buried cable system on which to base them. On the other hand, such an advance often involved the capture of considerable numbers of the enemy's guns and the hasty withdrawal of the remainder to positions well to the rear of the new line on which he had succeeded in slowing down our advance. Thus in each battle of greater magnitude, where the British attack was attended by a considerable measure of success, the Signal Service could rely on a short period when enemy retaliation was feeble and overground lines could be laid and maintained with a fair degree of ease and certainty. Such temporary revivals of the field line system where ground and poled cable, and even comic airline, crept up for a few days to well within the Divisional areas, was a decided feature of the 1917 battles. This was, however, a phase which, while extremely useful and often responsible for signal successes at critical periods, was temporary only. Such conditions might persist for some days, but, as the enemy artillery reserves once more accumulated and the retreating guns again came into action, artillery retaliation rapidly increased. The signal officer was then compelled to get his lines under ground or, if this was impossible, to rely to a great extent upon alternative methods of communication.

The main phases of the battles of this year can be readily distinguished. The offensives were all of the nature of set-pieces. Preparation and rehearsal had both been brought to the status of a recognized science. The former, as in 1916, involved the laying down of an extensive preliminary intercommunication system. This was planned to include lines for all units that might reasonably be expected to swarm into the area during the last few weeks before the offensive. Once more the buried cable system was the main feature of the signal preparations in the area of frequent shelling. Behind this was an ordered system of permanent and semi-permanent lines; while parallel with it was an alternative visual and wireless system which was, however, seldom used. In front of the buried cable was carried out a standard policy of forward signals which will be referred to later in more detail.

Rehearsal was also an important part of signal preparation for the 1917 offensives. The principle of detailed dress rehearsals of all main attacks, over ground prepared by artificial means to resemble as closely as possible the actual terrain over which the advance was to take place, was a feature alike of Infantry and Engineer preparation during the year. The forward signal parties were practised daily with full equipment and apparatus over country prepared with replicas of the landmarks where their relay posts and report centres were to be set up. These rehearsals were of great value and much diminished the chances of detachments losing their way and failing to reach their destinations. As shown by the records, however, a considerable margin of error still existed. Everything possible was done, it is true, but no amount of careful preparation could enable parties to find landmarks which had been obliterated by their own artillery. No amount of training, either, would teach unarmed or partially-armed and overburdened signallers how to oust machine-gun posts and garrisons from cement emplacements or pill-boxes. In such cases the best had to be made of a bad situation and an office was set up in a shell-hole or crater short of the original destination until a suitably-armed mopping-up party, a tank, or, in extreme cases, a friendly section of field artillery, had come to the rescue and dealt with the human element of the obstruction.

The first period of the offensive — that of preparation — lasted for two or three months, and the last week or two was usually accompanied by considerably increased enemy artillery retaliation. It was very unlikely that three months of extensive preparation, carried out necessarily by day as well as by night, would escape notice. The word "surprise" has taken on an entirely different meaning in position warfare in modern days. The aeroplane had taken the place of the cavalry as the "eyes" of the Army and with the aid of its own "eyes" — its observer, and still more its camera — it was much more efficient than its predecessor. It was no longer possible entirely to conceal happenings far behind the line. The most that could be hoped for, was that a march might be stolen on the enemy by concealing from him the first few weeks of preparation and the actual day and place of the main attack. Some time before the offensive could be launched, his aeroplane photographs would betray to his Intelligence Staff the steadily increasing network of light and other railways opposite to a certain portion of his front. The fine tracery of tracks and buries would also alter and increase in definition from day to day. His artillery would then commence to play its part in countering these preparations and delaying the offensive by harassing fire.

It was now that the greatest test of the Corps and Divisional system might be expected. If the buried system had been carried sufficiently far back, had been conscientiously dug to a depth of 6 ft. or deeper, and had been adequately planned, the signal officer might sleep in comparative peace. His system would not fail him and, with one solitary exception, might reasonably be expected to serve his needs until his formation advanced beyond it and he was faced with an entirely different problem which would indeed tax his ingenuity to the utmost. The solitary exception occurred when the system was planned so that the main trunks passed close to battery positions or other places likely to be systematically shelled by the enemy, or when enemy shelling was so widespread and continuous that it was impossible to fill in the frequent shell holes along the route. In either case, it was found by experience that no buried system, however deep, could be considered safe. The deeper it was, too, the more difficult it would be to repair when it was broken. Fortunately such cases were not of widespread occurrence. It was seldom that enemy attention was so universal that it was impossible to repair the ravages made by his shells along the routes. Usually he fired to a time-table at certain definite positions and tracks which could often be determined beforehand by the exercise of forethought. The real solution of the difficulty lay in the direction of the greater perfection of liaison between artillery and "signals." One of the lessons learnt during these battles was that the artillery must be kept well-informed of the main signal routes and must exercise some consideration in their choice of positions. Sometimes sufficient alternative positions were not available and then the best had to be made of a difficult situation. More often, the exercise of co-operation between the artillery command and the signal officers of the higher formations would practically eliminate this source of trouble.

One of the main troubles of the senior signal officer during the preparation period of the great position battles, was an absence of full knowledge of the amount of artillery he might expect to come into his area for the operations. Estimates which appeared on the extreme liberal side at the time they were made were frequently falsified in the event. The number of pairs carried forward in each main trunk route was limited by the supply of cable and had always to be kept as low as possible. If this consideration was given too much weight, on the other hand, preparations proved hopelessly inadequate and endless confusion resulted. If similar situations recur in future wars, an effort should be made to forecast with more accuracy the needs of the artillery. This can only be done by the General Staff, since it involves calculations based on policy and on the supply of new guns and ammunition.

Another respect in which the Signal Service was much hampered in carrying out a general scheme of signal preparation was the lateness of arrival of formations and units at their posts for the offensive. Here, it must be admitted by anyone who seriously studies the records, that the Staff did not in many cases live up to the standard laid down by themselves in "Intercommunication in the Field." One of the principles enunciated in this book was that all new units and formations should be in position at least a week before an offensive commenced. Artillery groups, Tank battalions, heavy and field batteries, and all the other free lances of position warfare, were usually still dribbling into position 24 hours before the attacks were arranged to commence. The result — from the Signal Service point of view — was that the connection and allotment of circuits was hopelessly congested in the last two or three days and much unnecessary confusion resulted.

Another result, equally disastrous, was that impatient artillery commanders, finding that their needs could not be attended to at a moment's notice, began to revert to their former practice of strewing the field of battle with numerous ground cable lines. These as usual were destructive of all attempts at order, were a menace to free intercourse on the battlefield, and were destined in many cases to betray the batteries that relied upon them. Such lines were swept away in their dozens by peripatetic tanks or were flung to the four winds of heaven by the enemy barrage in the opening phases of the battle. They brought discredit on the signal unit which laid them and they nullified to some extent the shooting of the group or battery which endeavoured to use them. To these defects, they added the grave drawback that at this stage of the battle they were entirely unnecessary and thus a waste of so much field cable that might have been invaluable later in the action. More care in organization and an earlier concentration would have enabled the main signal system to have accommodated by far the greater number of the units using such lines.

One other way in which the Signal Service suffered at the hands of many units of other arms, deserves mention in the hope that it may not recur. This was the interference of impatient battery and battalion signallers with lines allotted to other units. In a carefully planned system such as was the main feature of the Corps buried systems of the battles of this year, refusal or neglect to abide by the decision of the Area Signal Officer was productive of unnecessary confusion. The esprit de corps and discipline of all intercommunication personnel, should have been too high to permit of any such defiance — whether wilful or thoughtless — of the orders of even the most junior signal officer, provided always that the instructions given referred to lines which were under his direct control. Intelligent, self-sacrificing co-operation is essential to the maintenance and working of the intricate modem intercommunication systems. So long as the reports of signal officers contain strictures on signal personnel for interference with lines and test-boxes, and neglect of instructions, then the Signal Service cannot claim to have reached the high level of efficiency and comradeship to which it properly aspires.

Following the preparatory phase of the battles, when the main signal system received its first great test, came the actual attacks themselves. Here the same phases may be recognized as have already been referred to in the consideration of the Somme battles. The attack with limited objective, the far-reaching general attack, and the slowly moving siege warfare were all represented and each gave its characteristic features to the intercommunication problems connected with it. The main methods by which these problems were met and solved remained much the same, though the difference in their application marks the principal advance in signal practice in 1917.

Before proceeding to examine more in detail the signal organization and the changes in signal practice which characterized the battles of this year, there are two aspects of the general problem which require consideration. Both are connected with forward signals and mark important developments which gave distinct form to the Signals of the year.

Enemy overhearing had first been countered with definite success in the winter of 1916-1917. The danger of the indiscriminate use of telephones and buzzers within 3,000 yards of the front line had by now been driven home to all ranks both within the Signal Service and without. Telephones were still installed, in many cases as far forward as company headquarters, in some cases in the front line, but except for artillery observation their use forward of battalion headquarters was forbidden in normal trench warfare. Many officers were already in favour of entirely forbidding their use forward of Brigade headquarters. The buzzer had by this time been replaced to a great extent by the fullerphone and definite orders had been given that no messages were to be sent by buzzer or vibrator in advance of Brigade headquarters. This was tantamount to the abolition of these instruments during periods of stationary warfare, for sounders were now installed at most Brigade headquarters. The latter instrument was universally preferred to the more clumsy vibrator with its raucous, nerve-wearing note. The early troubles with the fullerphone were by now largely overcome, and improved instruments and a well-directed educational campaign were rapidly popularizing these substitutes for the "D3" buzzer. The summer sun of 1917 shone on a front which approached much more nearly than ever before to the silence which was the ideal of the Intelligence Officer and which it was the aim of the signal officer to achieve. How was such a state of affairs going to suit offensive warfare? This was a question which was of paramount importance, for an Army compelled to advance in telegraphic and telephonic "silence" and hedged about with cipher and code restrictions, was going to be deprived of a very large proportion of its available means of communication. It was admitted by the Intelligence Staff, however, that the enemy would be too much occupied when our attacks had commenced, to be able to pay much attention to individual remarks made over the British telephone system. In addition, a successful British advance would involve the destruction, capture, or withdrawal of his listening posts. Also, even if news of importance was overheard, it would be practically impossible to convey it to the responsible Staff in time for it to be of use before the situation had radically changed. All these considerations tended to revolutionize the whole situation immediately the advance commenced. Particular care was, therefore, taken that nothing was given away before the date fixed for an offensive, but, once the attack was under way, all restrictions on the use of the telephone and telegraph were either swept away or allowed to go by default. Buzzers, forward telephones, even earthed lines, made their appearance whenever and wherever the situation demanded. Wireless code and cipher regulations were not entirely relaxed, but much more latitude was allowed to the individual officers who framed the messages transmitted by this means. Earth induction sets, also, played their very important, if restricted, part in these operations. It was not until the situation hardened once more and position warfare conditions again set in, that precautions were resumed and restrictions re-imposed. In the meantime, it is likely that little harm was done and there is no doubt that persistence in restrictive legislation would have so crippled the signal system that an infinitely greater amount of damage would have resulted than can ever have been the effect of the uncontrolled use of the telephone and buzzer and the temporary suppression of code and cipher regulations.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the reaction between the ever-changing conditions of warfare and signal practice as applied to the position battles of 1917, was the development of signal forward policy which found its expression in this year. Now, for the first time, a great reform in signal policy owed its inception to the direct co-operation of the General Staff with the Signal Directorate. The operations of the Signal Service had come to assume an increased importance in the plans of the General Staff, while its co-ordination with the rest of the Expeditionary Force, and its position with regard to the other branches of the Army, was still far from satisfactory. Recognition of this fact had already found expression in the greatly enhanced powers given to senior signal officers. The situation was now ripe for a decisive step which should put the coping stone on the new policy and at the same time standardize signal methods throughout the Army and give to the heads of the Signal Service an authoritative manual to which they could point when they required to enforce the recognition of the principles on which their system was based.

Hitherto, every formation Staff and every formation signal officer, had held his own theories about forward signals. These were based partly on individual experience, partly upon what they had heard or seen in other formations, partly upon the literature which embodied the experience of other officers in other battles and which was freely circulated, if less freely read and acted upon. Systems of forward signals had gradually been evolved which were similar in their main outlines but which differed in many details in individual formations. If a formation had recently come from a low-lying inundated country, the signal officer placed his faith less in buried cable and more in alternative means of signalling. If a signal unit had recently been operating over a good and safe buried line system, its alternative chains of visual and wireless stations might have been neglected. Further forward, some officers had had unfortunate experience of pigeons, some considered the power buzzer worse than useless, some disliked visual, few had much use for forward wireless telegraphy. All had, however, been compelled to recognize one underlying truth. Successful forward intercommunication depended upon the thorough organization of some or all of these means, side by side with the best forward lines it was possible to lay and maintain.

From the other side of the question, there were similar anomalies which were often the cause of trouble to the unfortunate signal officer. His Staff might have a particular fancy for some method of signalling which he was convinced would not suit the particular set of conditions he had to face. It is true that in the last resort he could follow his own judgment, but he did this strictly at his own risk and had the uncomfortable and enervating feeling that in the event of a quite possible failure the "I told you so" of his General or G.S.O.1 might carry sufficient weight to transfer him summarily to other and less congenial scenes of labour. He had no authoritative written support either for the adoption of a general policy or for the exercise of a measure of discretion in fitting means to ends and adjusting his somewhat meagre resources to serve his needs and the needs of his Staff under all conditions. Then, again, unreasonable Staffs recognized no obligation to keep their signal officers informed in advance of their intentions in the event of the various contingencies which might arise in the forthcoming operations. Also, it was still not nearly often enough recognized that changes in disposition at the last moment were productive of disorganization to a rigid signal system which was quite irreparable at short notice.

The arrival of three or four Brigades of artillery in a Corps area within 24 hours of zero of an important offensive was enough to make the signal officer concerned wring his hands in despair. Yet such occurrences happened commonly without the slightest notice and had to be dealt with as best could be. Altogether, the relations between the Staff and the Signal Service, though immensely improved, were, at this date — early 1917 — capable of considerable further improvement.

Most of these anomalies were swept away by the appointment in March, 1917, of a combined Staff and Signal Conference and the publication, as the result of its deliberations, of S.S. 148[1], the first Staff manual devoted entirely to intercommunication problems. The book, as it originally stood, was by no means ideal, the principal failing being a certain rigidity in the advocacy of particular methods which was not justified in view of the varying conditions to which the standardization must necessarily be applied. It was, however, an immense advance in signal policy and marks as does nothing else a revolution in Staff and Signal Service relations. By its publication the Signal Service was definitely recognized as a collaborator of the General Staff. The necessity for mutual consideration between Staff and Signal Service was explicitly pointed out in such paragraphs as that which laid down that formations and units must arrive in a new theatre of operations one week before an offensive was scheduled to begin. It is true that this was often not lived up to, but the occurrence of the regulation in an authoritative manual was a constant reminder to the Staff and a comfort to the signal officer. In many ways, the possession of "Forward Intercommunication in Battle" was a support and a clinching argument in the discussions which were inevitable between signal officers and the best-intentioned Staffs.

Amongst other things which were recognized as the basis of the standardized intercommunication scheme, the control of the A.D. Signals of the Corps over the main telegraph and telephone system as far as the forward limit of the buried cable was laid down for the first time in authoritative form. Divisions still had to provide a proportion of the personnel for maintenance of the system in their areas, but it was intended that the buried cable system should be carried out under the orders of the Corps and that lines in that system should be allotted at the discretion of a Corps signal officer appointed to supervise it. Signal instructions, which were already in very general use, were insisted upon, and were, so far as possible, to conform in type to a standard form, a list of essential points being given in the Manual. It was laid down that such instructions should be prepared by the General Staff in conjunction with the senior signal officer of the formation. In point of fact, they were usually prepared by the signal officer and submitted by him to his Staff for approval. In any case, if the greatest effect was to be obtained from the support which the General Staff was expected to give according to the new Staff Manual, it was best that they should be signed by the Chief of the General Staff and issued from his office as an integral part of the operation orders of the formation. As such, they were binding on all arms and carried the weight of a mandate. When issued by the signal officer himself, as was frequently done in earlier days, all subordinate commanders were at liberty to misconstrue them or to ignore them at will. The worst that could come of such misinterpretation or neglect was a failure in the local communications of the officer concerned which his own signal officer was expected to put right and for which the latter was in any case compelled to accept responsibility.

Complete sections of the new manual were devoted to the consideration of forward signals in the attack from entrenched positions, from captured country, and in open warfare. These were amongst the most debatable portions of the book. It was here that a certain rigidity and tendency towards dogma somewhat invalidated the usefulness of the earlier edition. Sufficient play was not left to the imagination of the individual signal officer, or regard paid to his special knowledge of local conditions. In the coming battles, the most successful signal officer was he who did not follow too slavishly the precepts of S.S. 148, but, on the other hand, all reports and all individual experience went to show that the most successful units were those who based their intercommunication systems on the broad principles enunciated in this book. Modifications were necessary to cope both with local conditions and with the succeeding phases of a long-drawn-out action. It was to the incorporation of these modifications and to the adoption of a more tentative attitude towards all three problems that the successor of S.S. 148 (S.S. 191 — Intercommunication in the Field) owed its popularity and success.

The first attempt at standardization of methods and at the strengthening of the position of the signal officer was, however, the important step forward in policy. From the point of view of historical interest, therefore, the less valuable book, considered intrinsically, has by far the greater significance. Having regard to the authoritative tone in which it was written, to the source from which it emanated, and to the principles which it advocated, it was undoubtedly the greatest visible expression of that advance in the status of the Signal Service which was the most marked feature of signal development during the war. Considered from this point of view its importance, in spite of its faults, cannot be over-rated. In order to understand fully the difficulties with which the responsible heads of the Signal Service were faced at the commencement of the 1917 offensives, some reminder of the situation of the Signal Service in April of this year is necessary. The first great reorganization which has been described in the previous chapter had just taken effect. The new signal units specially needed for this type of warfare were just completed to strength, and signal units of older constitution had but just absorbed the raw material which had been drafted to them to swell them to their new establishments. A general re-sorting of signal personnel had been necessary in order to make the best use of the trained men and to absorb as successfully as possible the very raw recruits sent out from the various depots at home. In the artillery, in particular, where the trained personnel formed the minority of the signal sub-sections and sections, the result of the first essays of the new units caused some dissatisfaction. Sappers transferred from field companies, raw recruits with their civilian habits but thinly veneered by military discipline, even Post Office and railway telegraph operators and linemen, could not be expected to become used at once to service conditions of a peculiarly trying nature. In the first few weeks after their formation it is questionable if the new units were not less efficient than the old skeleton organization, inadequate as that was.

Every effort was made to combine training with the urgent preparative work for the forthcoming offensives. The best possible use was made of the small proportion of trained N.C.O.'s available to stiffen and train the new material. Many signal officers parted with their most efficient and most valued men in the purely patriotic endeavour to help other less fortunate units. Indeed, it was only by self-sacrifice and altruism of this kind that it proved possible to train the new units in time. Success was achieved at the expense of many drastic changes in companies and sections where officers and men had served together so long that it required a real wrench, brought about by a true zeal for the good of the Service as a whole, to permit of close ties being broken, and valuable men spared for duty elsewhere.

Careful selection of the best men to fill the vacancies as N.C.O.'s was the next problem to be surmounted, but this was much easier. Casualties since the Somme had been comparatively few. There were many Sappers in the ranks of the signal units who were fit for non-commissioned rank, and many junior N.C.O.'s who could carry further promotion with ease to themselves and with good results to the efficiency of their units. By these means, vacancies were filled and the large proportion of raw material trained in the way it should go.

At the same time, enemy artillery activity was such that a week or two of forward work would accustom any man to a reasonable amount of shelling. By the opening of the summer offensive, the new units were most of them tested, and though mistakes occurred, and many-things at first gave rise to doubts in the minds of the artillery as to the wisdom of the change, things gradually settled down. Units bought their experience dearly in many cases and the casualties to the Signal Service in these battles were higher than they ever had been before.

Nevertheless, reinforcements were steadily absorbed to replace the casualties of war and in the meantime the surviving personnel grew more and more equal to their work. Within a month, the advisability of the reorganization was placed beyond doubt. In a very few weeks more, and only a very small minority of artillery commanders would have still wished to revert to their old tried but insufficient gunner organization. As regards the gunner signallers themselves, their status, their prospects of promotion, and their pay, were all improved by the transfer. In a very short time all but a few "irreconcilables" were glad of the change and would have been aghast at the prospect of a reversion to the old order of things.

The Signal Service as it now existed was destined to survive the war in all its main features, the only changes in the future being minor reorganizations and the redistribution of some of the smaller units among the different formations.[2] The great position battle experiences of the Signal Service as reorganized for this type of campaign took place in 1917, between April and September. No better place could, therefore, be chosen for a review of the working of the Service on its new basis, and amidst the conditions for which the reorganized units were intended.


  1. S.S. 148 was produced in eight days— a four-days' conference and four days writing up notes. The proofs were corrected and the book in print within a fortnight. Its early publication was so vital that there was no time for that considered discussion which might have served to relax the rigidity with which the main principles were laid down.
  2. An extensive re-organization of the Divisional Signal Company was approved in the summer of 1918, but was not actually given effect.

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