The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 – Chapter 15

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«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Chapter XV
Chapter XIV Chapter XVI

Chapter XV.



Effect of the Retreat on the New Stationary Warfare System. — Buries Back to Corps Headquarters. — The Signal System of the G.H.Q. Reserve Line. — Shortage of Material Produces a Relatively Slender Line System. — The Human Element in Buried Cable. — Education of the Working Parties. — The Bury of the Future. — General Characteristics of the 191 8 Summer Signal System. — Development of Wireless. — C.W. W/T liaison with the French. — Silent Days. — The Signal Service thoroughly Efficient. — G.H.Q. and L. of C. Signals. — Traffic Statistics for 191 8. — Standardization of Stores. — Field and Armoured Cable. — The Four-plus-three Buzzer and the Test Panel. — Signal Repair Workshops. — Air Force Signals. — Reorganization of Divisional Signal Companies. — Revision of Signal Service Qualifications and Trades. — The Commanding Officer's Certificate. — Formation of S.D.6 and Appointment of D. Signals, G.H.Q. Home Forces. — Training American Signal Units. — Artillery Effects on Signals in 1918. — Maintenance Difficulties. — End of Trench Warfare.

The signal system which sprang into existence in the short period between the retreats of the spring and early summer of 1918, and the advance in the autumn of the same year, while it closely resembled previous position warfare systems, had certain characteristics which were directly due to the withdrawals. Certain lessons had been learnt, certain inconveniences had been caused.

Amongst the changes which were the outcome of the lessons of the retreat, was the tendency to adapt the intercommunication system to a much greater extent than formerly to the requirements of the principle of "defence in depth." Not only were the rear signal arrangements much more carefully planned, but forward signal personnel were kept much better informed as to the routes which existed in the rear and upon which they would have to fall back in the event of a retreat.

One feature of the new system was the extension of the "tail" of the buries to dug-outs well behind Divisional headquarters. This, again, was the result of the experience of the recent battles, where it had been conclusively shown that airline or poled cable forward of Corps headquarters could not be expected to survive the fierce bombardments preceding any attack of considerable magnitude. Buries which had formerly stopped at Divisional headquarters were now usually carried well to the rear and terminated within the Corps maintenance area, sometimes at Corps headquarters itself. The extension of the buried cable still further to the rear can be seen in the laying down of elaborate systems in the G.H.Q. defence line which was an important factor in the new defence scheme. The proposed line was marked out and partially dug and behind it trenched cable routes were prepared. One such route was dug for each Divisional front of 4,000 yards, and routes were carried back for a maximum distance of 4,000 yards also. Shortage of cable permitted of the laying of ten pairs only in each trench, but, skeleton system as it was, it was a. great advance on anything of the kind that had been attempted before.

Fortunately, the trend of the war did not make necessary the use of these emergency lines. Had the troops been compelled to fall back so far, however, they would have retreated upon a zone which was wired up with a six-foot buried system extending well forward to the front line trenches and to all important observation posts. There could have been no question of defence being made impossible by lack of adequate intercommunication.

The forward buried system was also affected by the same shortage of material and the result was a telegraph and telephone system which catered for essential needs only. One outcome of the loss of stores which accompanied the March retreat was a simplicity of signal communications quite unlike the former complicated position warfare system. In view of the speed with which the situation was again to dissolve, there can be no doubt that this enforced simplicity was a blessing in disguise. All officers were obliged to cut down their telephone conversation to a minimum even when the line system was in complete working order. Before the losses of cable and instruments could be made good, the autumn advances had commenced, and elaborate line communication was impossible from entirely different reasons.

It was only in those Divisions which had been holding the line at points other than those affected by the spring battles, that Staffs and commanders had not become reconciled to a decrease in signal facilities. In such cases, the necessary experience was to be gained in a few hectic days in August and September, when relations between Staff and Signal Service were strained almost to breaking point.

The two salient features in which the buries of the summer of 1918 differed from those of earlier stationary warfare days, have been emphasized in the preceding paragraphs. In all other essentials the systems were practically a replica of the late 1917 buries. Further refinements of camouflage were attempted, and protection was still considered to be a matter of supreme importance. Before passing finally from the consideration of stationary warfare signals, however. some space should be devoted to the human element in the buried cable problem which has not yet been referred to at any length.

Buried cable could only be laid down to any great extent by the systematic exploitation of the labour of large infantry working parties. The supervision of such parties had, indeed, become an important element of the normal work of the majority of the officers of the Divisional and Corps signal units. It was only to be expected that the work should be intensely disliked by the infantry. Troops in the line could not, of course, be employed. Sufficient reserves were rarely available to admit of labour battalions being specially told off for this very important but equally unpleasant task. The brunt of the work therefore fell upon the men of the infantry battalions which had been withdrawn from the line for a short spell of "rest." This practice had many disadvantages both from the point of view of the infantryman and of the signal officer.

To the former, the work was anathema. Summoned from his rest billets he was forced to march long distances in the dark, and often in the wet, across shelled areas, to the site of the work. He then had to toil for several hours under most unpleasant conditions at a task in which he had usually not the slightest interest. The majority of the men would almost certainly have preferred a longer spell in the line with shorter but uninterrupted periods of rest. The signal officer was certainly doing work which was in the ordinary course of his duties and in which he had a proprietary and a technical interest. On the other hand, no task could have been so unpleasant to him as that of victimising unwilling infantrymen with whom he had the greatest sympathy.

The work had to be done, however, and unfortunately under the existing conditions no better means of carrying it out was available. Infantry working parties were essential if a safe intercommunication system was to be built up. No amount of thought on anybody's part could discover an alternative; no amount of grumbling could alter the necessity for the work.

There were, however, ways by which hardship could be palliated and the interest of the working parties stimulated. One cause of frequent and most unnecessary injustice, it was, unfortunately, not within the power of the Signal Service to eliminate. It quite often happened that working parties arrived at the scene of their labours already utterly tired out. To a practised eye it was quite easy to distinguish between the ordinary "tired" malingerer and the man who really was utterly played out. Inquiry would usually show, either that the men had done a hard day's march before arriving at their work, or that the particular section of the party which was affected had been employed for several hours during the preceding day on R.E. Field Works or other heavy fatigue duties. Such men were, of course, worse than useless. They could not accomplish their task. and, if they were not used, they demoralized their neighbours by their inactivity. If they were employed, on the other hand, it necessarily meant leaving a portion of the trench open for future completion. This, in its turn, probably entailed special attention from the enemy's artillery on the following night. Such occurrences were, of course, the result of bad Staff work on the part of battalions or Brigades concerned. The signal officer in charge of the work might, by the exercise of considerable judgment, minimise the effect of such an error, but it was beyond him to remedy entirely, and only to a limited extent could he prevent its recurrence.

Other troubles were, however, more easily dealt with on the spot or by careful preparation. Otherwise indifferent or actively unwilling working parties might frequently be galvanized into activity by arranging as a matter of course to let them go at the completion of a stated task. Measured tasks would be given to each man, and he would be informed that on the completion of the trench to a depth of 6 ft. 6 ins., the cable would be laid, and that, immediately his particular platoon had finished filling in and their work had been passed by the responsible officer, they might be marched away. Work would be feverish until the trench was completed, and woe betide any man who through laziness or lack of skill with pick or shovel failed to complete his task within reasonable time. By adopting such means, much more work could be obtained from a given party in a given time, but there was one essential — the promise once given must be scrupulously kept. If, through miscalculation, too small a task had been allotted and the party finished earlier than was necessary to ensure their disappearance before the light returned, on no account should an additional task be imposed. The experience gained should be filed for future reference and the men allowed to escape lightly. They could then be expected to return cheerfully, in the assurance of fair play, when their turn came round again.

Another method by which much was done in some Divisions to overcome the natural antipathy of the infantry to signal working parties, was by efficient propaganda directed towards the education of the men in an appreciation of the uses of the cables they were burying. Once a definite connection could be established in their minds between the cable trenches and such things as reliefs, artillery support, rations, etc., they were much more interested in their work and inclined to view it as a necessary evil. Propaganda took the form of typed leaflets setting forth the why and the wherefore of buried cable, and describing as briefly as possible the method of burying and the essential features of a well-dug trench.

These were distributed in large numbers to the headquarters of each battalion in the Division with the request that they should be circulated among the infantry. When this was thoroughly done, the hearty co-operation of infantry officers was ensured, while intelligent and willing work on the part of the men — a still more desirable result — was also often secured. Under no circumstances could the working parties be expected to bring much enthusiasm to bear upon work which was done in what they felt should be their spare time and which was so far outside their normal province. There was, however, all the difference between the tasks which were carried out by men in a sullen spirit working under the compulsion of discipline, and those performed by men actuated by an intelligent desire to complete what they recognized to be an essential link in the chain of signal communication which helped to secure their comfort and safety.[1]

The buried cable systems of this particular period of the war were not destined to be thoroughly tested to any great extent. Isolated offensive and defensive actions took place on short portions of the British front, but the opening of the great autumn offensive was preceded over a great portion of the front by an enemy withdrawal which took the Divisions and the Corps off the freshly-constructed buries. At other points, the 1918 buries formed the backbone of a safe signal system which easily accommodated the traffic of the preparation period and the initiation of the offensive. Even in these cases they were in use for a few days only. The Armies marched off them in August and September, never to return.

The bury was essentially a product of position warfare, and disappeared entirely immediately the situation became mobile. The rapid development of buried cable, like that of almost every other branch of signal activity, may be attributed entirely to stationary warfare waged from and in well-prepared defence positions. It has been described in fairly detailed manner in the preceding pages, because it was of paramount importance from the spring of 1915 to the summer of 1918. Without it, line communication in trench warfare would have been impossible except through periods of altogether sub-normal artillery activity. It will need to be kept in mind and its possibilities developed by the Signal Corps of the future. One obvious direction in which research appears urgent is the development of the mechanical excavator to replace the infantry, artillery, or pioneer working parties of the past. There is prospect of the need for machines that will bury cable to a depth of lo or 12 feet at a reasonable speed and with reasonable quietness. Only by means of such mechanical aids will it be possible to cover the scene of warfare as far back as Army headquarters, perhaps even to the bases, with an invulnerable network of wires sufficient to serve the needs of the modern Army. It is possible that position warfare on a large scale may not recur. It is, perhaps, more likely that line communication will be difficult in the future throughout the whole area of belligerent countries unless through the medium of cables buried to a depth not contemplated even for the most forward routes, in the war of 1914-1918.[2]

Meanwhile, no complete substitute for main line communication behind Corps headquarters has yet been evolved, though an excellent auxiliary means is certainly available in the form of wireless telegraphy.

The effect of the loss of stores in the March retreat on the cable system of the summer was duplicated with similar result on all other means of intercommunication. The loss of visual apparatus had been especially severe. The loss of wireless apparatus, though less serious in amount, was far more difficult to make good. The chief reflection of the battles of the spring on the signal system generally, was seen, therefore, in the reduction of the intercommunication facilities, not only over the lines, but also by all alternative methods. The elaborate chains of visual stations and wireless stations characteristic of 1917 were replaced by a more skeletal arrangement. More attention was perforce paid to the siting of visual stations and to obtaining the maximum range from the wireless sets. Here, again, the greater depth of the defence zone made itself felt, as it had upon the line system. Divisional and Brigade headquarters had been taught by their experiences to keep well back and lines and other signalling chains in a Divisional area were stretched much further out from front to rear.

Means of signalling remained substantially unchanged. Message-carrying rockets made their appearance on a large scale for the first time. Messenger dogs and "loop" wireless sets were also beginning to be used to a considerable extent. The latter, indeed, were already fast displacing the power buzzer in the estimation of the infantry and were also becoming popular for use between observation posts and battery headquarters, and between battery and Brigade. It was a great convenience to forward artillery units to have some means of wireless communication which was common both to artillery and infantry. In the November battle and in the retreats, liaison between artillery and infantry disappeared to a great extent with the breakdown of the line system. In the future, this is likely to be met by the universal use of continuous wave wireless with all the higher formations of both arms. In the past, it has been a distinct drawback which was only partially overcome by a common means of wireless communication in the shape of the forward spark sets.[3]

Continuous wave wireless continued to gain ground in popularity with the artillery and its more general use in the future was foreshadowed. Difficulty in supplying the sets in large numbers prevented full use being made of this method. Complaints of shortage of sets had been particularly common during the retreats.

It was in the May battle between the Aisne and the Marne that C.W. wireless was first used for liaison between the French and British Corps headquarters. A C.W. set with French operators was attached to 9th Corps headquarters for the purpose of keeping touch with the French Army under which the Corps was working, and with the flank French Corps. This method of procedure was improved upon in the final advance, when the flank British Corps and Division were both issued with similar sets to enable them to keep in constant touch with their neighbours to the south.

The importance of wireless and visual in mobile warfare had been emphasized in the recent withdrawal, while, at the same time, the disinclination of the Staff and regimental officers to make the maximum use of these alternative methods of transmitting information had also been brought out. A result of both these circumstances was the more general use of a mode of training which took the form of the institution of what are best indicated by the title "silent days." Certain days in each week or month were set apart during which none but the most urgent tactical messages were permitted to be passed by telephone or telegraph. Alternative methods of signalling — and in particular wireless and visual — were to be substituted entirely for line signalling. The full effect of these days was not always seen, for there was a marked tendency in normal times to save up traffic until the period of the ban was passed and then to launch an avalanche of deferred messages upon the signal office! They had, however, a good effect in proving to officers of all grades and of all arms that the telephone and telegraph, though convenient and speedy, were not essential. A reflection of this teaching was soon seen in the advances of the autumn, when, in some Divisions, the alternative signal routes were relied upon almost entirely for hours together, and were fully used.[4] Many things are considered indispensable until through force of circumstances they have to be done without. The principle of the new training was to anticipate the time when line signalling should become intermittent or impossible and to familiarize the users of the Army signal system with the slower, but — under certain conditions — surer, of the means at their disposal.

Much might be said of this last trench warfare signal system, but the essential differences from former similar systems have been touched upon already. It was the ultimate expression of three years' experience of position warfare, and it completely satisfied the Staff whose needs it was intended to serve. It was slender, indeed,, but it was entirely adequate to the requirements of the situation. The shortcomings of signal officers are speedily reflected in a lack of efficiency in their formations and in the attitude adopted towards them by their General Staff. The good relations uniformly maintained in the last few months of the war between the Staff of the great majority of formations and their signal officers was the greatest tribute to the efficiency of the latter.


Although the signal system of this last period of stationary warfare requires little special notice, a digression should be made to permit of mention of such incidents of the development of the rear Signal Service as have perforce been neglected in the endeavour to convey a connected account of the development of forward signal practice, policy and organization. On the Lines of Communication great increases had taken place, but with little alteration in type of work. As the Army grew, so the number of units on the Lines of Communication and the volume of the administrative traffic increased proportionately. This was met by a series of increases to "L" Signal Company, which culminated in its reorganization on a battalion basis. The various steps of increase from the landing of the Expeditionary Force in France to the conclusion of the Armistice on November nth, 1918, are well shown in the following table: —

Table VIII
Date Establishment Remarks.
  Officers.      O.R.   
Aug. 4th 1914 5 268 Original L. of C. Signal Co.
October, 1915 25 1138 Formation of Telegraph Con Dets. and Rly. Tel. Dets.
March, 1916 25 1218
June, 1916 28 1334
November, 1916 30 1773 Name changed to "L" Sig. Battn.
November, 1917 54 2380
August, 1918 100 3358 Absorption of G.H.Q. Sig. Co.
Nov. 11th 1918 110 4102

The increases were a faithful reflection of the growth of the Administrative Services of the Expeditionary Force. Such changes in organisation as were made were undertaken to facilitate administration and centralise control under the Deputy Director of Army Signals. The latter, until June 1915, had his headquarters with the Inspector-General of Communications, but, after that month, was absorbed into the Directorate of Signals at G.H.Q.

The work carried out by the Lines of Communication construction personnel rivalled that of the G.P.O. at home in times of peace. The skilled personnel were recruited in the main from that department and from the maintenance and operating staff of the telegraph department of the railway companies. Main telephone and telegraph lines were constructed connecting up the ports between Havre and Dunkerque with all headquarters, and with all important centres of supply and administration within the area occupied by the British Forces. The district covered by these operations was roughly 180 miles by 120 miles. Moves of General and Army headquarters involved adjustment of the whole of this complicated system at short notice and such moves had to be foreseen and lines built beforehand to anticipate decisions of the Staff. Provision had also to be made for communication with London, Paris, Allied headquarters, the Independent Air Force and Marseilles. The anti-aircraft defence of ammunition dumps alone involved a very large amount of construction.

About 1,500 miles of main telegraph and telephone routes averaging 20 wires were constructed in the L. of C. area in addition to many miles in Army areas, as well as an immense amount of lesser connections. To this must be added the heavy maintenance work, the diversions, the fortification of signal offices and the burying of routes, made necessary by the bombing raids of 1917 and 1918. Finally, the signal communications required by the Director General of Transportation for the traffic control of the railways, entailed the putting up of many thousands of miles of wire both on existing railway lines and on new construction. These lines, also, were situated in heavily shelled and bombed areas and were particularly difficult to maintain.

Large as were the dimensions reached by the construction establishments, they were never more than equal to the demands made upon them. There was always more work on hand than could well be carried out with the personnel available, and the maintenance of an efficient Lines of Communication signal system was only accomplished by continual labour, often attended, even in the rear areas,[5] by the special difficulties inseparable from a state of war. The signal traffic dealt with was very heavy, the total of the telegrams originated, transmitted and received in the L. of C. area in a single 24-hours period amounting in the latter days of the war to as high a figure as 23,000. Comparative telegraph and D.R.L.S. figures for L. of C. Signals, G.H.O., Army, Corps, and Division are given in Table IX. The figures are approximate only, but may be taken as a fair average for any day of the last offensives of the British armies.[6]

Table IX
Unit.       Telegraph. D.R.L.S.
L. of C. Signals . . 23,000 2,250
G.H.Q. Signals . . 9,000 3,400
Army Signals[7] . . 10,000 5,000
Corps Signals[7] . . 4,500 3,000
Divisional Signals[7] . . 800 450

The control of stores from G.H.Q. has already been mentioned and there remains only the need for some reference to the attempted standardization which was always the ideal aimed at but never fully realized. The continual technical development of the Service stood in the way of a complete standardization of signal stores. Type after type of each instrument was issued as the conditions of position warfare changed or invention made some radical improvement possible. In wireless, particularly, the supply of large quantities of instruments was hampered by this fact.

It was overcome to some extent by a careful standardization of the individual parts from which the instruments were built up — condensers, inductances, switches, etc. — but it was not entirely eliminated until the end of the war had arrived. Certain instruments such as the Wilson set, the Trench Set 50 watt: the Forward Wireless Sets and the C.W. Set, Mark III, were finally adopted as the standard types of transmitters and receivers for certain definite purposes. Even these were, however, liable to minor alterations which interfered somewhat with output.

Fullerphones and trench telephones presented less difficulty and were standardized and the obsolescent types withdrawn. It was intended also to standardize the ringing 'phones used by the rear formations and telephone switchboards, but this was not achieved in practice. To the end of the war, Divisions, Corps and Armies replaced exchanges and instruments when handing over, and the main reason for this was the absence of standardization. As has been pointed out, this interfered very much with the adoption of a standard procedure for such reliefs.

The development of signal stores during stationary warfare had been extraordinary. It would probably have been better if fewer types of burying cable had been adhered to and these turned out in larger quantities, but it was, of course, inevitable that experiment must be made in one direction and another before the final standard types were approved. It should be noted in passing that the British iron-armoured cables were not as suitable as the German types for employment as ground cable. It was found that the heat of the sun was liable to melt the insulation and cause faults. This was overcome to a great extent in the German varieties by an outer layer of insulating tape of good quality which was wrapped round the whole cable.

The production of field cable twisted by manufacturers which first became a recognised article of supply in 1917, was a great improvement upon the improvised twisted cable made in the armies. Not only was the manufactured article superior in quality, but a considerable amount of labour could be diverted to other and more legitimate works.

The instruments which were produced to meet the needs of the position warfare signal system have most of them been referred to earlier in the narrative. Undoubtedly the two principal advances in this respect were the introduction of the 4-plus-3 buzzer exchange and the standardization which was accomplished by the production of the "test panels."

The former instrument, in spite of its bulk and the constant renewal of cords rendered necessary by the rough conditions under which it was used, was a great advance on the old plug commutator board and the endless variety of makeshift "cartridge" exchanges improvised by units. Its great merit was its almost soldier-proof solidity and its immunity to the constant immersions in candle-wax, water and Machonnochie gravy to which its dug-out life exposed it.

The production of the test panel, also, was a great advance towards the standardization of instruments. Complete sets were issued to each Division and, later, to each Brigade in the line. The use of these permitted of interchange of formations taking place with the least interference with the lines and enabled neat wiring to be the rule rather than the exception in the forward signal offices. If a similar standardization of exchanges and ringing telephones can be achieved in the future, the greatest obstacle to the complete hand-over of instruments will be overcome.

One result of the great demand for signal instruments of every description and of the heavy wear and tear of these instruments, was a request put forward by the Director of Signals in February, 1917, for permission to form Signal Repair Workshops at Havre. The application for a special establishment was refused, but the workshops were built and manned from personnel who would otherwise have been held at the Signal Depot awaiting distribution to units. In May, 1917, German prisoners of technical trades were employed as artisans in the shops, supervision being exercised by personnel from "L" Signal Battalion. From this date, the signal repair shops flourished and dealt with considerable quantities of instruments too badly damaged for repair in the army workshops. They were also successful in completing large orders for the manufacture of instruments and small stores which were not of approved pattern, but were required from time to time to meet special needs. Excellent work was done by the German prisoners who formed the bulk of the tradesmen employed, and a considerable increase to the manufacturing power of the Signal Service was achieved at a minimum cost and expenditure of British labour.

It was in 1918, during the period covered in the present chapter, that the final reorganization took place which left the Signal Service of the Royal Air Force on a satisfactory basis. Until this year, the ground communications of the Royal Flying Corps had been dealt with by G.H.Q. and Army Signals. The various wings and squadrons had been accommodated with circuits on the Army telegraph and telephone systems, and the instruments and the special exchanges — where such were necessary — were manned by R.F.C. personnel. With the formation of the Royal Air Force, however, it became evident that a Staff officer was required who would be in a position to co-ordinate the signals of the whole force and represent its special needs to the Director of Signals. The appointment of an A.D. Signals R.A.F. with a small establishment was approved in 1918.

Shortly afterwards, the formation of the Independent Air Force raised a similar question. The demands of the new service for direct communication could not possibly be accommodated on the general Army system. The aerodromes, workshops and parks of the Independent Air Force were distributed over an area measuring 100 by 120 miles. This involved very considerable construction and maintenance responsibilities. The immediate requirements of the situation were met by attaching an officer and 70 men to the force to construct a nucleus of communication, while, at the same time, an establishment consisting of A.D. Signals with a small headquarters staff, a signal construction company and two airline sections was recommended. A senior officer was appointed provisionally to act as A.D. Signals in July, and in August the new establishments were approved

296 by the War Office. The addition to the Signal Service was seven officers and 229 men. Divisional signal companies once more shared in the reorganizations which took place in the last year of the war. This unit still remained considerably smaller than the minimum required to meet its responsibilities in position warfare. Even in mobile warfare it was quite impossible to maintain forward wireless or visual communication with the establishment of February, 1918, without drawing upon the battalion signallers of the Brigade pool. It had long been felt that the position of affairs had been unsatisfactory in more than one way. The battalion suffered from the loss of its best signallers, while a technical subject like wireless telegraphy demanded the whole attention of men who could only be specially trained to that work during periods of rest, and the use of whom could only be centralised permanently under the control of the Divisional wireless officer. There was also a crying need for more supervision in the infantry Brigade sections themselves. The forward system had grown continually, and it was not within the power of a solitary Brigade signal officer to act as Staff officer for signals to his Brigadier and at the same time exercise general supervision over the battalion signallers. All these reforms were accomplished by a revision of establishments which took place in August, 1918.[8] An increase in the wireless section enabled the Divisional wireless officer to man all stations as far forward as battalion headquarters. The creation of a visual section to take the place of the overworked "Signallers and Despatch Riders" of the headquarters of a Divisional signal company finally disposed of the necessity for the Brigade pool. Finally, the addition of a subaltern to the Brigade section ensured efficient supervision of Brigade signals generally. The new establishment is shown in detail in the 1918 column of Appendix L The increases to the Signal Service were partly counterpoised by considerable decreases in the signal establishments of the infantry and pioneer battalions.[9]The final figures as calculated for the Expeditionary Force at that date were as follows; —

Table X
    Officers.       O.R.    
Increase to Signal Service 144 3936
Decrease to Battn. Signallers       3888
Net increase 144 48

Minor amendments which took place at the same time were the addition of pack horses for the transport of the wireless stations of the infantry Brigade, a slight alteration in the transport of the cable section, and the addition of a very necessary motor cycle for the wireless officer.

It will have been noticeable that almost all the greater reorganizations had involved the forward extension of technical qualifications towards the firing line. This was a necessary corollary to the complexity of method and of technique which was the outstanding feature of position warfare signals. A review of the effect of these changes upon the qualifications of Signal Service personnel is interesting and essential to the understanding of the war development of the Army Signal Service.

The principal feature of the alterations in the nomenclature and qualifications of the signal personnel within a Division — which was the formation most affected — is shewn below in tabular form. It is not intended to be more than approximately correct, but, without going into detail, it gives a good general view of the broad effect upon the forward signal units.

Table XI
The Battalion Signal Section.
Characterized by lack of differentiation into operator and lineman. Men trained to deal with all types of signalling used within their formation.

1914 — Visual (Semaphore and Morse).
1915 — As above, and Buzzer Telephone Lines.
1916 — As above, and Power Buzzer, Pigeon, Fullerphone, Contact Aeroplane (less Semaphore).
1917 — As above, and Amplifier, Forward W/T Set, Buzzer Exchanges.
1918 — As above, and Message-carrying Rockets.

The Brigade Signal Section.
First appearance of differentiation into operator and Lineman.
1914 — Signalmen . . Ground Cable, "D3" Telephones and Visual.
Line Telegraphists
1915 — Signalmen . . As above, and Shallow Buried Cable and Ringing Telephones.
Line Telegraphists
1916 — Signalmen . . As above, and Deep Buried Cable.
Line Telegraphists . . Armoured Cables, P.B. and A. Fullerphone. Contact Aeroplane
1917 — Pioneers . . As above, and Sounder and Forward Wireless.
Brigade Section Hands
1918 — Signalmen "B" . . As above, and Message-carrying Rockets.
Field Linemen (Dismtd.)
The Divisional Signal Company.
Headquarters and No. 1 Section only. (Special Artillery units are not included, as it is desired to keep the comparative tables as simple as possible.)
1914 — Signalmen . . Visual — Flag, Lamp and Helio.
Telegraphists (Office) . . Ground and Poled Cable.
Telegraphists (Line) . . Buzzer and Vibrator.
1915 — Signalmen . . As above, and Visual (Disc).
Miscellaneous Trades . . Shallow Buried Cable, Sounder.
Telegraphists (Office) . . Ringing Telephone, Telephone Exchanges.
Telegraphists (Line)
1916 — Signalmen . . As above, and Visual (Shutter).
Telegraphists (Office) . . Aeroplane Signalling, Deep Buried Cable.
Telegraphists (Line) . . Trench Wireless, P.B. and A. Fullerphone.
1917 — Telegraphists (Office) . . As above, and Forward Wireless and Permanent Line Work
(Wireless Section formed).
Switchboard Operators
Wireless Operators
Cable Hands
Permanent Linemen
1918 — Telegraphists Operators "B" . . As above. (Specialization sets in to a greater extent.)
Switchboard Operators
Wireless Operators
Signalmen "B"
Permanent Linemen . . As above.
Field Linemen (Mounted)
Field Linemen (Dismtd.)

It will be seen that the tendency until 1917 was not so much towards specialisation as towards a multiplication of the technical qualifications asked of the forward signal personnel. In that year, however, it became evident that, except in the most forward units, a measure of specialization was necessary. It was quite impossible for the "miscellaneous" tradesmen to be sufficiently acquainted with all the different branches of signalling to give satisfactory service with any. Another factor which also forced specialisation upon the Signal Service was the large proportion of casualties which occurred in this year, and the still greater increases in strength which accompanied the first great reorganization. The period of training of reinforcements had to be reduced considerably, and this could only be done by training definite proportions of the men for specific duties. The result was the division of telegraphists into telegraph operators "A" and "B," according as they were intended for rear or forward units: of linemen into field linemen, mounted or dismounted: and of signalmen into signalmen "A," for use with artillery units, and signalmen "B" — the equivalent of the old Brigade section pioneer and the "Signaller and Despatch Rider" of the Divisional signal company.

This partial specialisation was attended with good results, and was, indeed, the only way in which any approximation could be secured between the demands of the Armies in the field and the supply of reinforcements. From 1917, onwards, visual signalling was still made the basis of all signal courses. After their preliminary training in flag drill, etc., however, the men were separated out according to the aptitude they displayed. The best signallers were picked out for training as signalmen "A" and "B," less apt recruits were trained as linemen or, if rejected even from this trade, as general duty pioneers. Men who had previously been in the Post Office or allied occupations, meanwhile, specialized as telegraph operators or linemen according to the trade they followed in civil life. To the ranks of the operators, also, were added the most promising of the non-technical recruits.

Finally, the pick of the men in training as operators were given a further course in wireless which converted them into telegraph operators "B." From the ranks of the latter, again, the keenest were selected for still further training as specialist wireless operators.

By this means the men best fitted to make the most of a technical education were given the opportunity to qualify for the more interesting and higher-paid trades, while, at the same time, the period of time spent in training the average recruit was reduced to a minimum.

The new departure involved, of course, the preparation of an entirely different set of qualification sheets and these were drawn out and issued in due course. In the meantime, however, the chief difficulties in the way of re-rating Sappers under active service conditions had been solved by the acceptance of the Commanding Officer's certificate in lieu of the special form for recording the standard tests laid down in the Corps Memorandum. This practice was continued with good results throughout the war, and a conscientious determination of commanding officers, generally, to keep up the standard of qualifications of the service almost entirely prevented its abuse.

Perhaps the most important of all the reforms in organization which took place in 19 18 was the creation of a Signal Service department under the Director of Staff Duties at the War Office. The position as regards the Signal Service direction at home in January, 1918, was as follows.

In the War Office, besides F.W.9, there was a G.S.O.2 attached to the Directorate of Staff Duties who was responsible for technical advice as regards matters of signal policy as affecting the various theatres of war and at home; there was also a captain on the Adjutant General's Staff who dealt with all questions with regard to Signal Service officers. In addition, an official of the Postmaster General's Staff held the appointment of Director of Signals, Home Defence, with the rank of colonel. This officer was responsible for the provision of all circuits asked for by the various departments at home, but was not in a position to criticise demands. The result was a certain: amount of extravagance which, in view of the absence of a competent authority, could not well be stopped. Finally, the Commandant, Signal Service Training Centre, was responsible for the training and supply of reinforcements to all theatres of war. This officer also acted as Director of Army Signals to G.H.Q., Home Forces, but was unable to devote more than a small portion of his time to his duties in this capacity.

It had long been apparent that considerable friction and a not inconsiderable wastage was resulting from a lack of co-ordination between the signal services of the different Expeditionary Forces. The necessity for a senior officer who could make authoritative decisions as between the rival claims of these entirely separate services was as evident as that for a competent authority to control the often unjustifiable increase in the signal services of the home departments and formations.

The formation of a Directorate of Signals at the War Office bristled with difficulties and was ruled out of the question without discussion,, but in February, 1918, it was proposed by the Director of Army Signals, France, that the required purpose might be served by the appointment of a senior Signal Service officer with control over a sub-department of the Directorate of Staff Duties. After considerable discussion the proposal was approved in a modified form and the department "S.D.6" came into existence with the primary object of giving to the Signal Service "adequate weight and representation at the War Office." The G.S.O.1 at the head of the new department became responsible for the co-ordination of the Signal Service throughout the British Expeditionary Forces. He dealt with questions in regard to the training of reinforcements for the Signal Service so far as such questions could be decided at the War Office. He was given the task of keeping in touch with the various arms of the Service and making arrangements for the incorporation of a due proportion of signal personnel in each new formation or establishment created. Finally, he was expected to take a general interest in everything that was being done by the Signal Service in ail theatres of war and in the military signal communications of the Empire.

The question of the growth of home signal establishments and systems was solved at the same time by the appointment of a fulltime Director of Army Signals on the Staff of G.H.Q., Home Forces, with the rank of Brigadier-General. This officer was also charged with the duty of inspection of Army signal units at home. The Commandant, Signal Service Training Centre, was thus enabled to give his whole attention to the selection and training of the recruits for the Signal Service proper, and to the training of signal instructors for artillery and infantry.[10]


There remains to be considered the part played by the Army Signal Service in the training of the signal units of the American Expeditionary Force. As in the case of Britain, the American national army had been grafted upon an entirely insufficient cadre of regular soldiers. The last experiences of the people of the United States in a war of any magnitude dated back to the Civil War between the northern and southern states in the middle of the 19th century. The American Signal Corps was, however, largely composed of men whose professions in civil life were technically allied to the duties they had to perform in their new roles. What was needed, was an experience of the actual conditions under which forward signal personnel worked in the field, and a personal knowledge of the types of instruments in use in the British forward signal units and with which they were themselves to be supplied.

On the arrival of the American formations at their training grounds in England and France, signalling instructors were attached to them to give the men insight by precept and example into modern army signal practice as modified by active service conditions. These men were carefully chosen from the ranks of British signal companies which were in rest or which had been disbanded in consequence of the general reduction of the British Expeditionary Force. At a later stage in the training of the units, selected American officers, N.C.O.'s and men, went up to the line, where they were attached to British Divisional and Brigade signal units and were given personal experience of work under field conditions. The result was that, when — in June, 1918 — the American Divisions commenced to take their place here and there along the British line, the signal units were fully equal to their responsibilities. They began their battle duties with the accumulated experience of the British and French Signal Services to prevent them from falling into the various pitfalls that had beset the career of the pioneers. It was to be expected that the signal systems that resulted should combine the best points of the French and British systems and this expectation was often realized to a great extent.

During the period under review (the last pause before the final offensive that ended the war) the signal system whose salient characteristics were indicated in the earlier portion of this chapter, was built up, and a rear defence system prepared against the possibility of further reverses. Little marked change came over the face of the war along the British front until August, with the exception perhaps of still further activity on the part of artillery and bombing planes on both sides.

All possible measures to counteract the effect of the constant bombardment and raids had been taken. Efficient maintenance, careful choice of routes and diversions, minimised the time of the interruptions and the amount of the damage done. Linemen in forward areas and the personnel of the forward offices were, however, much harassed by the prevalence of gas in the German shells. Elaborrate precautions had to be taken to ensure the preservation of instruments. Men worked for hours wearing their box respirators and suffered considerable discomfort from the consequent hampering of sight and breathing. Casualties in artillery signal units were particularly high, and the troubles of the maintenance personnel were increased by the difficulty to the untrained e3/e and nose of ascertaining whether gas was or was not present in any particular batch of high explosive shells. The inclusion of a proportion of gas had become so common that it was advisable to wear a respirator in any bombardment of intensity in the back areas. This much increased the difficulty of maintenance of the lines. As time wore on, and the enemy realized that a combined offensive on the part of the Allies was imminent, his artillery counter preparation increased in volume and decreased in regularity of programme. It became less and less easy to anticipate the portion of the front which would be subjected to bombardment, or the time at which the bombardment would take place. By so much the more was the work of the maintenance personnel made more dangerous.

In the area dominated by Mount Kemmel, in particular, since the capture of the hill from the French in May, 1918, enemy observation was so perfect that work in daytime was quite impossible. All burying and all the normal routine of ration and ammunition delivery had to be carried out under cover of night and this condition of affairs was once more true of the whole of the Ypres salient. Formation headquarters were frequently shelled, lines were cut by direct hits from 5 '9 and 8-inch shells again and again, and maintenance was only possible by carefully choosing times and by utilising every night to repair the ravages of the bombardments of the previous day.

On the northern portion of the British front during the critical days of June and July, offensive action was confined to small local attacks and raids designed to improve the position of the front line and to facilitate observation. The concentration of over 30 German Divisions in the area was the dominant factor of the situation and all efforts were directed towards the perfection of defensive arrangements without thought of immediate attack other than raids. Further to the south, however, several position battles were fought on a larger scale.

No specially interesting departures in signal practice took place, however, until the failure of the last German attack launched on the 15th July, was followed by the great French counter-offensive on the front to the west of Rheims. The latter ushered in the allied offensive campaign which entirely altered the face of the campaign and brought stationary warfare to an end.


  1. Examples of two typical attitudes adopted by the normal infantryman towards signal fatigues are afforded by two anecdotes, both of which refer to working parties which were engaged on work for which the writer was responsible.

    The purely intolerant attitude of the disgruntled worker was well expressed by the soldier who said within the hearing of the party of Sappers who were overseeing the work: — "If I were digging graves for b----y R.E'.s, mate, I'd be happy."

    A rather more happy frame of mind, which could make a joke out of certainly very impleasant work, is instanced by the second anecdote.

    A Sherwood Forester working party was engaged under intermittent shellfire and continuous and soaking rain, in digging a bury in the district in front of Mount Kemmel. As the officer in charge of the working party passed two of the men they straightened up for a spell. Wiping the mingled sweat and rain from his brow one man said: "Well, Bill, in six days God made the earth. On the seventh day he made the Notts and Derbys to dig the whole b----y lot up again."
  2. It is, however, possible that "shallow" splinter-proof buries may be the ultimate solution in rear of Army H.Q. The enemy is unlikely to be able to bomb the whole of the countryside and numerous shallow routes may give sufficient alternatives with less expenditure of time and labour.
  3. The use of these sets was, of course, much limited by jamming between the only two wave-lengths available.
  4. In the final advance one Division in the north existed for two or three days upon wireless alone. No other means of intercommunication was used between Division and Brigades.
  5. Two chief alterations in signal methods on the Lines of Communication require mention. The first was the introduction of "concentrator" working at the principal transmitting stations of the Force. Concentrator apparatus was first installed at Abbeville towards the latter end of 1916. Later, in 1918, a special type of concentrator was installed at G.H. 0., at Rouen and at Huchenneville. An automatic calling device was added later to relieve the concentrator operators of the considerable amount of work involved in calling distant stations.

    This system of concentrator working undoubtedly effected a considerable saving in man-power, though it was found also to result in undesirable delay to messages in some instances.

    The second innovation was the use of the telephone repeater to enable direct speech to take place over unusually long lines. The first experimental repeater was installed at Montreuil to facilitate communication between the R.A.F. headquarters at Nancy and the Air Ministry in London. This was in April, 1918.

    The repeater was of the single valve type in which both lines in series are balanced against an artificial line. It was fitted inside an old switchboard panel and was placed at one end of the main switchboard. Each panel of the switchboard was provided with a special pair of cords and plugs connected to a pair of jacks on the repeater panel, and the repeater was fitted with a pair of cords to enable the operator to make connection with the pair of jacks which it was desired to use.

    The artificial lines were brought into use by means of telephone keys. About ten artificial lines, several of which were duplicates, were found to be sufficient to balance all the long distance lines entering the office, including the cable circuits to London. To facilitate the work of the repeater operator in selecting the correct balance, a special colour was allotted to each artificial line, duplicates having, of course, the same colour. At the same time the peg bearing the name of each actual line on the switchboard was painted the same colour as the appropriate artificial line. The switchboard operator passing the call would then advise the repeater operator that the balances required were "two reds" or "red and blue," or whatever might be required.

    After the Armistice, repeaters were installed near Namur on the Montrcuil-Cologne and Wimereux-Colognc trunks. Six repeaters were also installed near Abbeville for use on the special London-Paris trunks required by the Peace Conference. These repeaters were in all cases allotted to individual hues and only one artificial line was therefore required for each repeater.
  6. In discussing the traffic over the L. of C. telegraph system, some reference should be made to Press telegrams. Up to March, 1917, no press telegrams were accepted. In that month it was arranged for a total of 10,000 words to be accepted daily. The work was handed in at offices convenient to the Signal Service and was disposed of by Wheatstone direct to the C.T.O., London. It was stipulated that, in order to secure publication in the following morning's paper, the telegrams must be handed in not later than 4.45 p.m. This was necessary to ensure their arrival at the newspaper offices by 10.30 p.m., as desired by the newspapers. Subsequently it was arranged to transmit an additional 2,000 words each morning, and in July, 1918, the total number of words was increased to 15,500. In October, 1918, it was raised again to 21,500. The maximum number of words actually transmitted in any one day was 26,489 on the 8th August, 1918.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Figures are for one unit only.
  8. This re-organization did not actually take effect until after the Armistice.
  9. Infantry Battalion, 53 to 44.
    Pioneer Battalion, 41 to 30.
  10. The organization of the Signal Service in France has been dealt with at some length in Chapter IX. and the present chapter. The chain of command as it finally existed is summarized and shown in graphic form in Plate XVIII.

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