The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 – Chapter 2

Jump to: navigation, search
«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Chapter II
Chapter I Chapter III

Chapter II.


The Advance to Mons. — Signals in the Battle of Mons. — Utilization of the Local Telephone System. — Commencement of the Retreat. — Intercommunication by D.R. only. — Battle of Le Cateau. — Loss of a Cable Detachment. — Visual at Le Cateau. — The Retreat Resumed. — Use of Permanent Lines of the Country. — Triumph of the Motor Cyclist Despatch Rider. — Organization Improves. — Signal Establishments Proving Insufficient. — G.H.Q. Signal Company Hard Pressed. — Lessons of the Retreat. — Replenishment of Stores. — Wireless Telegraphy. — Forward Signals in the Battle of the Marne. — The Liaison Officer. — Lessons of the Advance. — Position Warfare on the Aisne. — Duplication of Forward Routes. — Increase in Enemy Artillery. — Growth of the Signal System Generally. — Poled Cable. — Visual Signalling Falls into Disrepute. — Artillery Signals. — The Appearance of the Magneto Telephone. — Wireless Receiving Sets with Heavy Artillery.

On August 20th, 1914, the landing and concentration of the Expeditionary Force being completed, the march northward was commenced under peace time conditions. Such communication as was required was carried out by motor cyclist despatch rider by day and telegraph by night. On the 22nd, the Force deployed along the line of the canal from Conde, through Mons, to Binche; touch was obtained with the enemy, and a British force went into action on a large scale for the first time since the South African War. Ample time was available for the creation of a good system of signal communications and the task of the forward sections in particular was heightened by the fact that the Army was operating in country which was the centre of a large French mining and manufacturing district. The gently undulating landscape was covered with small mining villages grouped round towns of larger size and greater importance. The whole district was connected up by a very efficient and complete telegraph and telephone system which was a great help to the brigade sections. Thus, at the outset of the campaign, we have an intercommunication system where, through favourable circumstances, the forward circuits were more numerous than was again achieved until much later in the war. Behind the divisions, also, permanent lines were used to a certain extent, though the advisability of making the fullest use of these was not at once realized by the higher formations. One reason for this was that the latter had the means of laying lines of their own which would be under their own personal control and would not give rise to the same necessity for liaison with the local authorities. A more weighty reason, perhaps, was the unwillingness of the French authorities to hand over the lines required and thus jeopardize their own traffic.

As will be seen from the diagram of corps communications for this battle (Plate I.), cable was used to a great extent. The consequence was that when the enemy broke through the British line and orders to retreat were received, it proved impossible to recover the greater portion of this cable and it had to be abandoned.

The presence of a good line system in this position was all the greater boon because of the enclosed nature of the country. Visual, except over very small distances, was impossible. Lamps and flags were both used by battalions to a small extent, but the major formations relied entirely upon the telegraph system which served satisfactorily through the action. Care was taken to cut all permanent lines running towards the enemy, the usual procedure being to destroy one complete bay in front of battalion headquarters.

In the retreat to Le Cateau which followed, the retirement was so hurried and units were so harassed by the attentions of the enemy's cavalry and artillery, that no attempt at line communication was of much avail. Already much cable had been lost at the Mons position, for, though the civilian exchanges and telephone systems which had given so much help to the Signal Service in that battle had been thoroughly destroyed, time to reel up the cable lines could not be spared. During the night succeeding the first day's retirement some sections did connect up their formation headquarters, but these lines also had to be abandoned the following morning, and the spectre of shortage of cable which was to haunt signal officers for several years was already beginning to appear.

No immediate supplies were to be expected from the Base, and, indeed, until conditions settled down, there would be no leisure to permit signal units to think of the replenishment of stores. It was quite clear that greater use must be made of the permanent system of the country. With this in mind, the Director of Signals and his staff at G.H.Q. were already improving the system of liaison with the French telegraph authorities. Arrangements were made to take over considerable responsibilities as regards the French telegraph system in the zone in which operations were being carried on by the British Army.

It was evident that the mainstay of the intercommunication system in a rapid retreat must be the despatch rider and the orderly, assisted to a small extent only by the occasional use of permanent lines which were connected to headquarters by short spurs of cable laid by the cable detachments in anticipation of particular spots being selected as command posts or billets.

On August 25th, the British Army turned to bay before the pursuing German Army Corps. A hotly contested battle fought on the Le Cateau line held the enemy up long enough to allow of the evacuation of the civil population in the threatened area. Le Cateau was more of an impromptu action than Mons and much less time was available for the preparation of an elaborate system of communication. General Headquarters and Corps Headquarters, retiring along railways and main roads, were comparatively easily accommodated with lines along the permanent routes, but news of the forthcoming stand was only received in the divisions late in the evening before the battle.

Fought in an agricultural district, there was no friendly system of telegraph lines with sufficient ramifications to enable it to be made use of for formations lower than divisions. Once more units were compelled to utilize their already diminishing stocks of cable. Time was of the utmost importance and immediately orders were received, cable detachments limbered up and, forgetting their natural fatigue after the previous day's gruelling work and marches, laid cable at the canter across country until all brigades had been linked up with divisions by line.

The importance of subordinate formations informing the superior under whom they are working of their exact location was here emphasized by the loss of a complete cable detachment which was ambushed by the Germans and captured while proceeding to Le Cateau to lay a line to a brigade which was to act during the forthcoming action under the orders of its division. Thus, the first serious casualty to the Signal Service in the War was an avoidable one, the result of an absence of exact information which was often destined to give trouble during the early years of the campaign.

Intercommunication cannot be secured under moving warfare conditions unless signal commanders of each formation realize that it is a paramount duty to keep the signals of the formation under which their own is working constantly and accurately informed of their position and when possible of their immediate future movements. If this is not done orders and messages go astray; personnel is exposed to unnecessary risk; and often at critical moments of an action the best-laid plans may fail through failure to utilize reserves to the best advantage or to give needed assistance to troops in action. Such was the first great lesson of the War to the Signal Service. To keep touch, assistance must come from the lower formation as well as from the higher. It is not always possible to carry out orders as to future movements to the letter, but when instructions are not rigidly obeyed, it is essential that early information should reach the signal commander of the next higher formation whose duty it is to link up his own staff with subordinate headquarters.

Forward of Brigades at the Le Cateau battle, visual was used to a greater extent than at Mons.

Light cable[1] was laid out to battalion headquarters and buzzer communication was universal between brigade and battalion when the battle opened. Now, however, for the first time, the power and weight of modern artillery was felt with disastrous effect on the forward lines. The Germans had collected a considerable concentration of field guns and heavy howitzers, and, soon after the opening of the battle, lines from brigades to battalions were cut right and left. Although linemen exposed themselves fearlessly in the endeavour to keep the cables through, it was evident that more reliance would have to be placed on other means of sending messages.

The chief objection to visual signalling had always been the necessity for at least partial exposure on the part of the signaller in an advanced position, but men had been trained to make the most of the natural shelter available in the country. The Le Cateau district, consisting as it does of fine rolling downs, was ideal for visual purposes and extremely good work was done by the signallers during the critical and closing stages of the battle.

By the use of a blue flag, with the signaller in a ditch against a dark background, a station in a very exposed position in one battalion was kept in action throughout the fighting without being discovered by the enemy, although the latter came within 1,200 yards of the position. Signals were easily read by the aid of a telescope at the Brigade Headquarters 800 yards off. This case was typical of the initiative shown and by the use of such precautions visual proved adequate in many cases to deal with all messages of tactical importance. Where visual was impossible or circumstances were more favourable to the employment of orderlies,[2] these were used with success. The drawback, however, to this, the most reliable of forward methods of intercommunication, was, as it always has been, that it is unduly expensive both in personnel used and in casualties.

At the battle of Le Cateau the German advance was slowed down considerably and heavy losses were inflicted. After fighting had continued throughout the 25th and 26th, however, further reinforcements came to the assistance of the enemy forces and the British retreat was resumed. The fresh withdrawal continued without interruption until the whole of the French and British armies delivered the blow from behind the Marne which was destined to turn the triumphant advance of the Germans into a stubborn but decided retreat.

During this second very rapid phase of the retreat, communication did not radically alter in character; the same problems arose and were met in much the same way, though familiarity with service conditions was already beginning to exercise a beneficial effect on signal organization. On the one hand, the improved liaison with the French telegraph authorities enabled the higher formations to make more use of circuits on the permanent routes, as more diagrams were available. These circuits were examined beforehand by the personnel of the airline and cable sections and suitable lines on the routes which the retreating army was ordered to follow were "proved" and connected up by short lengths of cable to the chateaux, farms, and houses which were selected for occupation by the staff. When halts were made in towns, further refinements were possible. In such cases, the use of civil exchanges and local telephones much decreased the labours of the signal unit which was fortunate enough to have its staff located in a favourable situation for making the most extensive use of the already existing facilities.[3] In this respect the army was in a situation which was destined not to repeat itself during the whole of the war — a retreat over undamaged country occupied by a friendly population. In 1918 similar, though not quite so extensive, retreats took place, but the increased range of guns and the development of the bombing plane had considerably damaged the communication system as far behind our original lines as the retiring troops were forced.

In the rearguard, the divisions and brigades were subjected to pressure from the enemy which, though not nearly so great as in the earlier short retreat to Le Cateau, prevented very great use of telegraphy in any form. Many units made attempts to anticipate the movements of their headquarters and to drop offices at spots to which the staff had announced their intention of going. Movements were so uncertain, however, that this procedure was attended by very real risk of loss of personnel and instruments that could ill be spared. The chances of hitting off the future movements of the Headquarters Staffs proved to be so small that it was soon decided that the risk far outweighed any advantages that were gained. Resigning themselves to less rapid forms of intercommunication, the latter were well, and, under the circumstances, expeditiously served by efficient motor cycle despatch riders.

During the day, the cable wagons of the divisional signal companies were sent ahead of the division in order to leave a clear road free for the retreating fighting troops. At night, on some occasions, permanent line circuits with short cable spurs were used as in the Corps and at G.H.Q., but units reached their destinations so late, and had in many cases to leave so early, that it was not worth while to make the practice general. As a general rule, reliance was placed entirely on despatch riders for keeping touch between division and brigade. These men were, of course, reserved for messages affecting operations, and the equally urgent questions of the supply of ammunition and rations. Less important despatches had to be held over until the situation stabilized.

Even when the permanent line circuits were in use, implicit reliance was not placed upon them. Cases of malicious cutting of the wires occurred on several occasions and important messages were usually duplicated by despatch rider in order to make certain of their delivery.

The triumph of the despatch rider in the retreat and in the advance that followed was the triumph of the human element in Signals. The majority of the motor cyclists had been specially recruited from the University Officers' Training Corps at the outbreak of war. The men had attended the army manoeuvres from 1911 onwards and had there formed a large proportion of the motor cyclists available. Here they had learnt to serve the needs of the staff efficiently and mutual confidence had been established between officers and men. A University education and practical work in the field had taught men of naturally high intellectual standard how to use their brains to the best advantage in the particular work on hand.

It would have been difficult to obtain better personnel for the changing conditions forced upon them by the necessity for locating formation and unit headquarters of a rapidly retreating or advancing force, pursued or faced by a highly-trained enemy, and with a fluctuating area of conflict in which contact with the enemy's scouts or patrols was frequent. Such men, also, were more likely than most to possess the linguistic attainments which would permit them to obtain the maximum advantage from free intercourse with the people of the country in which the campaign was being waged, and with the staffs and commanders of the forces of our Allies. A talent for thinking for themselves also enabled them to be of much value in conveying information apart from the despatches they were carrying. No one is in a better position to pick up odd scraps of information about the position of our own and the enemy's forces than the despatch rider who keeps his wits about him. In this way, alone, the use of highly-trained and intellectual men for this purpose was justified, while the insight obtained by them into the conditions of war service and the composition and organization of an army, rendered them eminently fit to join the commissioned ranks of the "New Armies" at a later date.

Riding at all hours and in all weathers; sleeping when and where they could, at most but a few short hours between swiftly recurring tours of duty; struggling with imperfectly equipped and unsuitable machines over roads composed of jolting and slippery pave, or already worn in deep ruts by the passage of the armies; the motor cyclists of all units surpassed themselves. With imperfect maps and indifferent information as to the positions of billets and staff offices, many journeys would have proved fruitless but for the possession by the particular rider concerned of more than an ordinary share of common sense. They were exposed to all the ordinary perils of the road accentuated by an unorganized traffic compounded of the transport and marching columns of the army and the medley of vehicles of every conceivable description which is an invariable accompaniment of the exodus of a fleeing population. Their work demanded as unfailing a nerve and as staunch a courage as was ever required by any branch of the service in any war. Well did the men as a body rise to the occasion. Personal encounters with the pursuing or retiring enemy were not rare. Every day cases were recorded where motor cyclists failed to return to their units. In some cases the disappearance was more than temporary. The next news of the missing man might then be the information from German sources that he had been taken prisoner, or, possibly, the sight of a cross glimpsed by the victorious troops as they surged back across the Marne driving the retreating Germans before them.

On other occasions, the men, more fortunate, returned after an absence of a few hours only, sometimes with a tale of having overshot the headquarters of the rear or advanced guard unit they had been sent to find and of a brush with Uhlans which had ended in a fortunate escape thanks to a cycle on which an almost affectionate care had been bestowed.

A combination between man and machine such as the despatch rider and his motor cycle, is a delicate mechanism needing peculiar qualities for success when tried to the limit of its powers as on these occasions. The men who came through unscathed and with the plaudits of their officers and of the staff, were those who gave as much care to their machines as to themselves. Without constant and unremitting care no motor cycle of any make whatever could be expected to stand up under the conditions in which these were tested in the autumn of 1914. These days, also, were before the time when repeated test had enabled standardization of motor cycles to be carried out. Cycles of all makes and in all stages of efficiency were included in the motley assemblage which did such yeoman service. All the more honour to the men who rode them, tended them, and coaxed them, through conditions which no reliability trial ever run has equalled.[4]

As the army settled down to its work and the retreat became more of a routine, it followed that the organization of the vital signal communications would improve and take on a more definite aspect. No despatch rider letter service had yet been evolved. This was reserved for later days when the general situation was more stable. Improvements, however, did take place, and of these the most important was the allotment of certain despatch riders to different portions of the formation. This made possible a more rapid and efficient interchange of messages than had before been achieved. Thus, towards the end of the retreat, the normal routine in some divisions was for two despatch riders to be attached to the flank guard, two to the advanced guard, or rearguard as the case might be, and two to the billeting officers. In other divisions, a routine had been evolved which closely approximated to that ultimately adopted throughout the Army, and two despatch riders were already permanently assigned to each brigade. Small changes all of them, but all tending to promote the smooth running of the signal service and therefore worthy of notice in any record of the evolution of signals under modern war conditions.

From the first, it was obvious that the establishment of motor cyclists was barely sufficient for the conditions of mobile warfare. As casualties to men and machines occurred, some divisions were reduced to as few as six or seven motor cyclists, and the work suffered accordingly. Resort had to be had in such cases to cycle, horse, and foot orderlies. Indeed, in all divisions, these means of supplementing the motor cyclist service were freely used.

The four cyclist and eight mounted despatch riders carried on the signal establishment of each Divisional Headquarters[5] were also the only men trained in visual and this was from the first found to be a great source of trouble. Besides the actual delivery of messages to units, these men were in request as "checks" in the signal office. At the best of times the proportion able to be spared for the divisional visual stations was insufficient. The inadequacy of the establishment was of course much more evident when the men were also required to assist in the delivery of messages to the brigades or to the lateral divisions.

It was perhaps fortunate for the Divisional Signal Company Commander that the headquarters of formations and units were usually selected in low-lying villages or in house-ridden country — spots clearly unsuited to visual signalling. Under such circumstances it was obvious to the staff that for technical reasons it was not possible to establish visual touch. If this had not been so, the problems of the signal officer would have been increased. He must have chosen between a good despatch rider service, and an inferior one reinforced by an equally inadequate visual system; a division ol forces which could hardly have failed to promote inefficiency.

To add to his troubles, horses began to fail from overwork, and government cycles, difficult enough to keep going on the well-made and carefully-tended roads of England, fell to pieces in large numbers under their present rough usage. There was no means of repair at hand. The choice of the officer responsible lay between the possible requisitioning of civilian cycles — most of which had already been removed by their owners — and the slower method of making use of his men as foot orderlies. As time went on, casualties to despatch riders increased and forced a return to the use of the telegraph whenever this was in any way practicable, even for a few hours.

During the day time, on the march, despatch riding alone was possible, but at night circumstances sometimes permitted the use of the permanent routes. In these cases some provision had to be made for the delivery of messages to units in the neighbourhood of each signal office. The signal company could not provide sufficient personnel to carry out this distribution, but in the brigades, where the problem was most urgent, it was solved by instructing each infantry battalion and each battery affiliated to the brigade, to send in two orderlies to Brigade Headquarters each evening. The first duty of these men after their unit had halted for the night was to find the headquarters of the brigade. One then returned to his battalion or battery and the other remained at Brigade Headquarters. When the first batch of messages was sent off to any unit, two brigade despatch riders accompanied the battalion or battery orderly to learn the route, alter which a regular system of reliefs could be instituted and every one concerned was able to obtain some rest during the night.

In such ways, organization progressed even in the hurry and turmoil of the retreat; the demands of the Staff for rapid and reliable communication were met to the greatest possible extent; and the improvement in organization went hand in hand with individual increase in efficiency as signallers of every trade settled down to war conditions.

The inevitable fatigue of long-continued and severe exertion was also minimized as routine improved and reliefs were arranged. In the early days, however, shifts of 12 to 16 and even more hours were worked by headquarter operators. Only exceptional devotion to duty enabled work to be efficiently performed during these long periods when every nerve was on the strain and the men on duty could not be changed until fresh operators arrived from some office which had been closed down or from a short spell of well-earned rest.

Nor was the work lessened by the occasional necessary establishment of fighting command posts and report centres. At G.H.Q., especially, the headquarters personnel was taxed to the utmost to keep Rear and Advanced offices in action at the same time. The G.H.Q. signal company was little larger than that of an Army Corps, while a considerably greater volume of work had to be dealt with, since all administrative work of both Corps passed through this one central office. At a later date reorganization relieved the G.H.Q. office of much of the routine work of supply, but this stage had not yet been reached. The volume of traffic in all offices steadily increased as time went on, for the General Staff came to rely more and more on the telegraphed word in preference to verbal instructions. On the 4th of September, the day of the conclusion of the retreat, Advanced G.H.Q. dealt with 230 "A" and "B" forms in one day. This was a total which looks ridiculously small compared even with the work of a Division towards the end of the war. It was, however, a great increase upon the figures of a week earlier and was much more than was expected when the establishment of the company was drawn up. The resources of the signal units generally were severely taxed to keep two offices in full working order. The fact that a considerable measure of efficiency was obtained is the best witness to the quality of both officers and men.

On September 5th the British Army rested in its final positions on a line ten miles south of the Marne. Here a day's well-earned rest was given to the troops before they turned together with their French allies to fight the battle of the Marne which stemmed the tide of invasion and hurled the invader back to the positions on the Aisne from which the utmost efforts failed to drive him for so many months.

Some of the lessons of the retreat as far as signals were concerned have already been referred to in the narrative just completed. Paramount over all had proved to be the necessity for early information of movements and positions. In addition certain features of the training of signal personnel were noted for improvement or for radical change. In particular it was clear that in all mobile warfare a knowledge of map reading and compass work was essential for all ranks of the Signal Service who might be called upon to do duty as despatch carriers. The need for permanent linemen in airline sections had been demonstrated; the advance was to show that men of like trade were necessary as an essential part of cable sections, also. In later days, when a state of more stationary warfare had set in and revision of establishments became possible, this was reflected both in the addition of permanent linemen to the establishment of the airline sections and in the more general training of signal personnel in permanent line work.

The fuller use of the French telephone system was another lesson learnt by hard experience and from the loss of valuable and at the time irreplaceable cable. As a corollary to the use of the civilian system, the need for better liaison with the French telegraph authorities was brought home. Much trouble would also have been avoided if good telegraph maps of the country had been available.[6]

In the future it should be the duty of some signal officer in time of peace to keep constantly up to date a collection of route maps and diagrams of the intercommunication system of all countries over which campaigning may possibly take place. Many of the local linemen and minor officials were found to have a lamentable ignorance of the lines not immediately under their control. The higher officers were not always immediately available and much valuable time was sometimes lost from the lack of an independent source of information. Finally, as had been expected, it proved impossible with present establishments and equipment, even with the help of a friendly permanent line system, to keep good intercommunication by telegraph within a division during accelerated retreat. The best results were undoubtedly obtained by the fullest use and most efficient organization of despatch riders of every description. Visual was impossible owing to lack of personnel. Even had sufficient men been available, the staff would have had to change their tactics and select more suitable sites for their headquarters if this method of signalling was to be used to any great extent.

Such were the lessons of the great retreat. Once learnt, they were well-learnt, and errors were seldom repeated. It was, however, the irony of war that situations also were seldom reproduced. Always some changing factor entered into the question and required minute adjustments in policy, organization, or equipment; the whole resulting in an evolution which has brought the intercommunication service to what — in this, the year 1920 — it has become.


At the close of the retreat to the Marne, a momentary pause in operations permitted of the replenishment of the stores and cable of Corps and Divisional signal companies. Although it was not possible entirely to replace the wastages caused by destruction or abandonment to the enemy, a considerable proportion of the deficiency was made up and the advance started under fairly favourable conditions. The Germans, as they retreated, destroyed behind them the permanent system which had been of so much value during the British retirement, but, in their turn, their retreat was so hastened by our cavalry and our advanced guards that the work of destruction was far from thorough.

A policy of exploiting these hues to the greatest possible extent had been worked out in the last few days and was now put into practice. A cable detachment accompanied each of the leading Divisions, putting through the wires whenever possible. Where damage was too thorough for this to be done in reasonable time, ground cable was laid or cables were slung on the poles or neighbouring trees. Here, again, the principle of trial and error was in evidence and the valuable lesson was learnt, that, to put through a circuit on a partially destroyed route in the quickest possible time, the top pair should be chosen and its two lines bunched and used as a single conductor. Thus the possibility of other damaged wires falling across the line and causing earthing was avoided and the use of the pair instead of the single wire prevented the wrong identification of portions of the circuit owing to the frequent crossing of the wires which is a feature of civil telephone construction.

An additional improvement in the organization for utilizing the permanent wires was the use of a motor cyclist officer or N.C.O. who preceded the headquarters with which the detachment was working spying out the routes and indicating the best way in which labour could be saved and a reliable circuit obtained in the shortest possible time. Here, the motor cyclist despatch rider with a small technical knowledge proved exceedingly useful and on this and other occasions during both retreat and advance the value of motor cyclist linemen with Divisional Headquarters and with cable sections was clearly seen. Where such men were not available, this work had frequently to be done by officers who could ill be spared from their sections, and at other times by despatch riders who were urgently required for their own more legitimate work.

Little difficulty was thus experienced by the division in keeping touch with its brigades. Similarly, divisions, corps and G.H.Q, were in uninterrupted communication by telegraph throughout the advance. One pair, previously used by each corps to one of its divisions which was advancing along the main route selected for the general advance, was strengthened by the corps airline section and in turn transferred to G.H.Q. signal maintenance as the corps moved forward. Subsequently, as the G.H.Q. airline sections got to work upon the route, the original single circuit was rebuilt and others added, the permanent line being repaired to a considerable extent and taps taken off to serve R.F.C. headquarters and for other special uses.

Communication with the independent cavalry had been a problem by itself during this extremely mobile warfare, and had been treated and solved along the fines laid down in the pre-war manuals. One motor wireless set and three wagon wireless sets had accompanied the Expeditionary Force to France, and these were intended, and were used, to keep communication between the independent cavalry and G.H.Q.

The history of army wireless telegraphy throughout the war is one of the greatest and most fascinating romances of the Signal Service. A highly technical subject, "wireless" was looked upon by the General Staff — and, it must be confessed, by many of the officers of the Signal Service itself — with the gravest suspicion. From the tactical point of view its use was indeed open to serious objections. The ubiquitous nature of the signals sent out enabled an enemy equipped with suitable instruments to pick up every letter sent, and enforced the precaution of sending everything of importance in code or cipher. This, again, produced extra work and required a considerable amount of care and intelligence. Carelessly used codes and ciphers give away more than "in clear" messages. An officer of the most ordinary intelligence who has again and again been assured of the danger of the enemy overhearing wireless messages will be careful of what he says in clear English. On the other hand, he has been taught that cipher and code are safe and he uses them accordingly. If, then, any less careful person has given away the cipher or code by misuse, such as the sending of hybrid messages partly in English and partly in cipher, the damage is likely to be far-reaching.

In the early days of the use of wireless telegraphy in the field (in 1914 and 1915) the opponents of this method of signalling were much strengthened both in their dislikes and in their arguments by the almost incalculable harm that resulted from isolated cases of the misuse of wireless — in particular of the sending of important "operation" messages in clear. It was difficult to distinguish between the drawbacks inherent in the system itself and those much more serious failings due to incorrect and careless work. Wireless in consequence fell into disrepute for some months, its use being practically confined to the interception of enemy traffic.

Another serious obstacle to the use of this means of signalling in the early days of the war was the comparative unreliability of the sets in use. Portable army wireless was still in the experimental stage when the war broke out, and, though a fairly satisfactory type of set had been evolved, there were still certain practical difficulties which caused occasional breakdowns under service conditions. A force relying on wireless was likely to be operating — as were the cavalry — at some distance from the main body, and the failure of the sets meant the complete cutting off of communication. One result of this was that, although wireless served the cavalry well during the retreat, and, indeed, until they ceased to take an active part in the normal routine of position warfare, yet occasional failures kept alive the feeling of uncertainty with which it was regarded.

The organization as it existed and was used in the autumn of 1914 is shown in Plate II. At G.H.Q., was the motor wireless set which had been the latest pre-war development of army wireless and also three portable wagon sets. The latter had a normal range of 80 miles, and were drawn by six-horsed teams similar to those in use with cable wagons, but of slightly heavier draught.

With the Cavalry Division headquarters were three more wagon sets belonging to the signal squadron, while Cavalry Brigade headquarters were served by a Marconi pack set arranged in a limbered wagon with a range of 30 miles.[7] By means of these sets satisfactory intercommunication was kept with the major cavalry formations and with R.F.C. H.Q., while individual pack sets even did good work with reconnoitring detachments and patrols. The wireless organizations remained unchanged until the advance from the Marne when the horsed wireless sets with G.H.Q. were replaced by Marconi lorry sets recently arrived from England.


During the battle of the Marne which was fought in wooded country, forward intercommunication between division and brigade was by despatch rider by day with, whenever possible, telegraph circuits during the night. For the latter, divisions made use sometimes of permanent line and at other times of cable from their replenished stocks. Brigades, however, having expended the greater portion of their cable, were practically restricted to the use of despatch riders and orderlies,[8] reinforced, when the situation permitted, by visual.

The country was heavily wooded and somewhat broken up by steepish ridges and valleys and was not normally suited for visual work, but prominent buildings were sometimes used with good effect. In one division, on the first day of the fight, heliograph was worked continuously for four hours from a brigade signal station in St. Cyr to Divisional Headquarters, and it was largely owing to the prompt seizure of all such opportunities by signal officers that an efficient system of intercommunication was kept up.

A method of supplementing the Signal Service in mobile warfare which was much used in the autumn of 1914 was that of liaison by mounted officers. This does not actually come within the scope of the Signal Service itself. It is rather a reversion to type due to the desire of the staff for information to supplement the reports sent back by the forward commanders. One of the difficulties which has always reduced the value of the forward signal service has been a shortage of information to deliver. It is not primarily the work of the signal officer to obtain news, and frequently signal offices have been established and well-advertised and yet have not been used.

In the attack or the retreat each commander of a unit in the firing line has rather more work than he can do. He is aware — as he is trained to be — that his superiors and his neighbours require knowledge as to the exact situation on his own front. He knows that if he can find time to send it, there are means available for its delivery. Yet, unless the immediate result of such a message is likely to be succour to himself or to his more immediate neighbours, he finds it difficult to make the opportunity to summarize the situation as he sees it. It is to make up for such lack of information and to provide for the free interchange of authoritative views that the mounted liaison officer is useful. It is true that he much relieves the Signal Service and supplements its activities, but of much more importance is the information he can collect. His own personal story of what is going on increases his value threefold if he is an intelligent man. This, his most useful attribute, falls rather outside the scope of Signal Service history.

During the actual fighting against an enemy, stubbornly retreating and contesting every step in fierce rearguard actions, communication by despatch rider was comparatively easy owing to the short distances between division and brigade headquarters. Betweenwhiles, when the enemy's retreat was more hurried, the distances to be traversed were much greater, but, on the other hand, the danger from artillery fire or of overshooting headquarters and running into range of direct machine-gun or rifle fire was much reduced. In either situation, however, the service given by the despatch riders was superb, and though casualties to men and machines were fairly frequent, and the strength of many units was down to a minimum, touch was kept and messages cleared with exemplary promptitude.

The lessons learnt by the Signal Service during the advance which followed the battle of the Marne were much as those of the retreat. Warfare was still mobile and no radical changes in the type of inter-communication took place. The reversal of the direction of movement had only one material effect. The enemy in his retreat had destroyed the telegraph routes more or less thoroughly and this entailed a considerably greater amount of construction on the part of our airline and cable sections. This damage was, however, offset to a great extent by the fact that, in an advance, cable could be expended with more impunity. It might not be possible to pause to recover it, but at any rate it would not have to be abandoned to the enemy. Special parties could be sent out to salve it at leisure when the situation permitted and in the meantime fresh supplies were accumulating. When the line of the Aisne was reached and the situation stiffened, it proved possible to send up supplies and once more complete all signal units to establishment.

The moral effect of the change from retreat to advance cannot of course be overestimated. All ranks had behaved extremely well during the difficult days of late August and early September. On more than one occasion the personnel of signal sections had taken their place beside the infantry in the firing line. Now, however, enthusiasm was unbounded. Long hours had no terrors and the unparalleled exertions of the sections were an immediate and natural result of the uplifted spirits of the men. Many weary months were to pass before the advance would culminate in the march to German territory, but the end of the war seemed quite close in these days of the recoil of the German armies from their great blow at the French capital. It was perhaps as well that victory should immediately precede the fiery trial which the Signal Service in common with the rest of the Expeditionary Force was shortly to undergo at Ypres — Armentieres.

By September 12th, 1914, the enemy had succeeded in effecting his retreat to carefully prepared positions on the far bank of the Aisne, positions exceedingly strong and supported by — for those days — a considerable weight of artillery. On the following day, the attempt to force the passage of the Aisne commenced and the rearguard actions stiffened into a considerable battle which was to last, with varying fortune but without decisive result, for many months.

The chief interest in this battle from the signal point of view consists in the first appearance of the more complicated system of signal organization brought about under the conditions of stationary warfare. The original system built up during the early hours of the battle was much as that of previous actions. The presence of the river Aisne was a formidable obstacle to the cable sections, but it was faced by them with resolution and overcome successfully, individual officers, N.C.O.'s and men swimming the river with cables slung round their bodies. The resultant fine system on a Brigade front is well illustrated in Plate III.

For some few days after a footing had been obtained to the north of the Aisne, the whole of the energies of the divisional signal personnel concerned were devoted to the maintenance of these forward lines under the very heavy and well-aimed artillery fire which was directed upon the new positions. It is an interesting fact and has a distinct bearing upon signal problems, that on the third day of the struggle for the passage of the Aisne the eight-inch siege guns made their first appearance on the British front. These were later to be the most formidable difficulty opposed to the maintenance of uninterrupted communication by means of the six-foot and eight-foot "buries."

By the eighteenth of September, it was evident to the General Staff that the eviction of the Germans from their positions would be a prolonged business and was not likely to be achieved by frontal attacks. Then commenced the marching and countermarching on the northern flank of the fine which was to end in the battles round Ypres, Armentieres and La Bassee. The immediate outcome of the prolonged nature of the present conflict was, however, seen in the organization of a regular system of relief for the infantry in the trenches. From this again arose constant changes in the signal personnel engaged in the maintenance of particular areas of the signal system.

The first marked result of the hold-up as far as signals was concerned was seen in the duplication of routes from Division forward in the endeavour to render intercommunication more continuous in spite of the heavy artillery fire which was the outstanding feature of the battle. The enemy, who had just retired over the country the British were occupying, had accurately ranged all important points likely to be of use to our men as billets or headquarters and had also paid particular attention to the roads and tracks up which reinforcements and supplies might be expected to come. The weakness of overground cable had already been exposed in the battles of Le Cateau and the Marne — still more was it now evident that a ground cable system would need to be strongly reinforced with alternative lines in all exposed sectors of the front if it was to survive the present iron storm. In every division and brigade, linemen were out day and night on maintenance work and yet the lines could not be kept through.

Various expedients were resorted to. Lines were laid preferably across country and away from roads and buildings; covered ways were made use of wherever these existed; ditches and trenches were used as a matter of course even when their use involved considerable deviation from the direct line between two headquarters. In some brigades, where lines to one battalion were run over exposed ground and in consequence were frequently broken, a cable was laid connecting this battalion headquarters to the headquarters of the battalion on its right or left. Thus an alternative route was created and there was possibility of communicating by one route while the linemen were out repairing the other. Incidentally, further light was thrown on the value of lateral intercommunication. Once such a line was available, the battalion staffs used it for regular inter-communication and much valuable information was passed at first hand instead of being circulated through the medium of the Brigade Staff. The value of lateral intercommunication had already been emphasized during the battle of the Marne, particularly in the case of one division which, having established touch with a division on its flank by means of visual, was able to correct the fire of the latter' s artillery at a time when the gunners were shooting short and creating much havoc among our own men.

While the dislocation of intercommunication caused by the increase of artillery fire was countered by the construction of alternative and more or less protected circuits, maintenance was facilitated by better organization and — in some divisions — by the use of motor cyclist linemen. Thus, in one brigade at least, a central testpoint was erected in a sheltered position. To this were taken all forward lines passing through exposed country and their condition was here tested at frequent intervals by linemen permanently posted at the station. Similarly, the judicious use of motor cyclists as linemen proved of great avail in reducing the time taken to repair a break. Once the disconnection was found, repair seldom took more than one or two minutes, and the time taken in the search was much diminished when the speed of a lineman was that of a motor cyclist rather than that of a horseman or pedestrian. In this way, the motor cyclist was made use of outside his own sphere in pursuance of a policy of universality which had during the retreat permitted of the loan of mounted linemen at critical moments to act either as despatch riders, or even, on one or two occasions, as mounted patrols.

The growth of the signal system during these few weeks of stationary warfare is shown in Plate IV, which presents a graphic picture of the signal communications of the Expeditionary Force on September 28th. The great extent to which permanent line was made use of as far forward as divisions and brigades in rest was a feature of the system, as also was the general absence of visual or other supplementary means in the higher formations. Despatch riders are not shown, although they were in general use, the only exceptions being where, as in the case of the R.F.C., a regular despatch rider letter service was run in the absence of other communication.

The common use of buzzer telephones at battalion and brigade headquarters and the alternative lines over much-shelled country are well indicated, while it is interesting to note that only in one corps and in no division at all, have magneto telephones yet made their appearance. As regards the use of the buzzer telephone, even, it should be said that, although speaking apparatus was available, it was seldom used even by signal personnel. Messages were nearly always buzzed. This was a fact of no small importance when the carrying power of buzzed signals through the earth from fault}^ lines is considered with regard to the possibility of their being overheard by the enemy. It was perhaps the pressure of work due to the unexpected increase in the demand for line communication that caused attention to be diverted for the time from the serious dangers both of overhearing and of interference between parallel wires using earth returns.

Yet another consequence of the stationary warfare which had now set in was the deterioration of the lines. Frequent breaks and joints, the latter often ill-made under difficult conditions or hastily completed under fire; still more the depreciation of insulation due to wet weather and mud, combined to make line signalling difficult. Circuits were still so few that very little trouble with overhearing was experienced within our own lines, but, as the insulation of the "DI" cable became progressively more imperfect, it became increasingly difficult to hear even buzzer or vibrator over the forward lines. It was soon clear that if they lay in the wet much longer the trouble would be past remedy except by the laying out of an entirely new system.

In order to put an end to this deterioration, it was necessary to raise the lines from the ground. Towards the end of September, therefore, all units were instructed to pole their forward cables,, while the corps continued their work on the permanent lines and: gradually recovered all cable behind divisional headquarters. The supply of black and white poles which was part of the equipment of airline and cable sections would obviously soon be exhausted if used for the general purpose of poling all forward lines, but to avoid this rough local poles were cut in large quantities. In the next fortnight poled cable made its appearance over the whole of the front where the tactical situation permitted. Where such cables-raised to a considerable height off the ground would have been too conspicuous and likely to draw enemy artillery fire, the cable was run either along the sides of trenches or on short stakes at a height of a foot or eighteen inches from the ground. This consolidation of the cable system involved a great deal of heavy labour and the resources of the signal companies and sections were heavily taxed while the work was being carried out. On its completion, however, the advantages of the renovated system over the old ground cable were found to be enormous. Not only was good buzzing and speaking once more possible, but it was soon evident that the constant cutting of lines by traffic which had been so prominent a factor in the maintenance problem would practically cease, while the blast of a shell on loosely slung cable had much less devastating effect than might have been expected from past experience with open wires. For the first time, since the increased enemy fire, divisional linemen were able to cope with the maintenance of their circuits. The despatch rider could at last obtain some remission from his hitherto continuous work, a rest which was particularly necessary in view of the early departure of the Expeditionary Force to the north,, where mobile conditions might once more be expected.

It was upon the Aisne that visual signalling first began to fall into disrepute. Certainly, in close proximity to a vigilant enemy, both the flag and the Begbie lamp were unsuitable. The one was too prominent, the other too noisy, to be used with safety. After many casualties had been caused amongst battalion signallers and amongst the infantry generally by the attraction of an undesirable amount of enemy attention through the use of these instruments, they fell into temporary disfavour. During the moving warfare which immediately followed a measure of popularity was regained, but the distaste for visual was destined to return in much greater measure in the following winter with the result that for a time this means of signalling fell into disuse almost entirely. Some battalions went so far as to send their flags back to England.

Always, however, the more far-sighted signal officers appreciated the possible value of visual as an alternative method. From the first, their efforts were directed — not towards its extermination — but towards its reformation and rejuvenation by means of less conspicuous and more efficient implements. The outcome of this policy was later seen in the evolution of the signalling disc and shutter; the periscope for reading under cover, and the electric signalling lamps which operated silently and had a much greater range and smaller dispersion than the pre-war Begbie lamp.

In the meantime, visual by flag and Begbie lamp had to be used when other methods failed and intercommunication was vitally necessary. This was especially the case with liaison between infantry and supporting artillery. By means of carefully worked-out schemes, artillery support was arranged for with the minimum of signalling and undesirable enemy attention was thus avoided. In one Infantry Brigade, communication from the front line to the artillery was carried out by flag by day and by lamp by night, two letters only being used, "O" meaning "Open fire" and "P" "Cease fire," each being repeated until the signal had produced the desired effect. The system worked with such smoothness that artillery support in the form of rapid fire on certain pre-arranged areas, could be relied upon by day or by night within a period of 20 seconds of the time when the call was first made.

Little has been said so far about artillery signals, but this is for the very good reason that artillery intercommunication up to this time was not the concern of the Signal Service. This was one of the great mistakes of the pre-war organization. It at once became apparent that something was wrong. Artillery, General Staff and Signal Service, all three chafed already under the anomalous condition of affairs that was arising. The Staff, forgetting the delimitation of responsibilities for which their predecessors had themselves been responsible, frequently called signal officers to account for failure to get into touch with artillery units. The artillery, hampered by an inadequate establishment of signallers and telephonists, were already finding themselves unable to deal with the increasing demand for closer liaison between the infantry and their supporting guns. The number of artillery units was growing and a separate system of command was inevitable in the near future. Radical changes of organization cannot be made in a moment, however, and the time was not yet ripe for the Signal Service to take over artillery lines. Old conventions die hard, and the artillery were unwilling to give up the semblance of freedom in favour of the concrete gain of increased efficiency. Something had to be done at once and the difficulty was in many cases met by unofficial co-operation between individual artillery and signal officers. In this, the example was set from the top and was soon followed by the majority of the officers concerned. When new artillery units arrived, their initial line system was as often as not constructed or laid by the Signal Service who were naturally ever afterwards entitled to take a proprietary interest in the maintenance and renewal of these circuits. Thus was the way paved for the logical step which followed when, in 1916, Signals were made responsible for the artillery system as far forward as brigade headquarters.

Mention has already been made of the system of relief in trenches which was inaugurated about the middle of September, 1914, and a passing reference should here be made to the result of this, the first suggestion of associating signal systems with a particular area rather than with particular units. During the latter days of September and the beginning of October, the front held by each division was definitely divided into areas or "Sections" as they were then called. At once the advisability of the Signal Service concerning themselves rather with positions than with units or formations sprang into prominence. Before any change of policy could be formulated, however, the relief of the Expeditionary Force by the French took place and any consideration of "Area" signals was relegated to the background by a resumption of mobile or semi-mobile warfare on a new front.

Other points which deserve slight mention before proceeding to study signal practice during the battles of Ypres and Armentieres, are two slight but significant innovations which took place for the first time in the Aisne position. Although the armies were not long enough stationary to cause the General Staff greatly to increase their demands on the Signal Service, yet, either by request, or more probably by the exercise of initiative by the signal officers concerned, magneto telephones now first made their debut forward of G.H.O. One division went so far as to connect up divisional headquarters with reserve brigade, by this means.

Undoubtedly, evolution of signal methods was inevitable, and it was well for the Signal Service itself to initiate the changes. The fact remains, however, that this step possessed a significance far beyond any immediately apparent or conceived in the minds of the reformers themselves. The advance in comfort and convenience represented by the introduction of these instruments was immense. The discovery of the magneto telephone by the General Staff was the beginning of endless expansion of signal activity and has probably been responsible for a revolution in Staff methods as great as any that has ever occurred in the history of war. From the date of the general installation of magneto telephones (which was, however, not yet) the resources of the Staff, both for the collation and conveyance of information and for the discussion of policy, were quadrupled, while the time factor in personal conferences was reduced to a minimum.

The days when staff officers took their stand at the signal office table and carried on lengthy, laborious, and highly self-conscious conversations through the medium of interested and often critical operators, were soon destined to pass. A further result of the habit of telephone speech, together with the general adoption of the D, Mark III. pattern of buzzer telephone, was to sweep away the old buzzing convention and permit the above-mentioned instrument to take its rightful place as an effective medium of speech.


The final innovation which brings to a close the history of signals during the Aisne period was the introduction of wireless receiving sets for observation purposes in the Heavy Artillery. Until the present War, aeroplane "spotting" for heavy artillery was unknown. Only recently had the development of aeroplane engineering brought such a thing within the realm of practical politics. Now that these machines could remain in the air for a time only limited by their petrol supply or by the attention of enemy planes, some means had to be designed for communication between the observers on the planes and the guns.

For some time experiments were carried out with visual appliances but with indifferent success, owing to certain technical difficulties connected with the constant and rapid movement of the plane.[9] From the first, however, wireless was hailed as the obvious means of overcoming the difficulty and, on October 1st, 1914, a wireless mast with receiving apparatus was erected at a battery position. An aeroplane with a small Sterling transmitter at once carried out "spotting" tests for the guns with conspicuous success. The new invention quickly showed that it had come to stay, and from this date a great organization was built up for this purpose alone, with ramifications which embraced the Signal Service, the R.F.C., and the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff. Divided authority in this as in all similar cases caused much trouble, but eventually administrative control was vested in the Royal Flying Corps to whom the sets and the men who manned them belonged, while the working of the "Ground sets," as the sets at the guns were called, was technically supervised by the wireless officer of the formation to which the battery belonged.

Much useful work was done by these sets throughout the days of the early development of wireless, small wireless stations in 1914 and early 1915 being confined to the Flying Corps alone. Later, when the attention of the wireless world was fixed more upon the development of small portable wireless sets for command purposes in trench warfare, the R.F.C. sets continued to do good unobtrusive work. They were, however, only a side issue, though an interesting one, in army signals, and the present notice must suffice for them, the more especially as their history will presumably be found in detail in any account of R.F.C. wireless or signal work.


  1. "DI " cable.
  2. In one case, a covered way of approach existed between a brigade and a battalion headquarters and gave such good shelter to runners that this means of conveying messages was used almost to the exclusion of all others.
  3. In 1914 the Staff did not always realise the advantage of selecting their H.Q. billets to suit signal requirements. As will be seen later, this lesson was thoroughly learnt during the next two years.
  4. It should not be imagined from the foregoing paragraph that the motor cycles of the British despatch riders were of poor quality. This was not the case. Thanks to the excellent standards maintained by the British motor trade, the machines available were far in advance both of those of our Allies and of the enemy. This was not the case in many other classes of signalling equipment. The absence of standardization and the fact that many of the machines were far from new, did, however, cause much trouble in these early days of the war, as also did the lack of spare parts for such a motley collection of machines.
  5. 1915 column. Appendix I.
  6. Good telegraph maps of Belgium were available, but no one had foreseen the possibility of operations in the neighbourhood of Paris.
  7. Only three sets were available at the outbreak of war for four cavalry brigades and one of these was lost during the retreat. The sets were therefore allotted as circumstances dictated.
  8. The working of the despatch riders and brigade and battalion orderlies in thickly wooded country was not easy, but free use was made both of the compass and of common sense and no messages went astray.
  9. Lamp signalling was tried from aeroplanes near Aire-sitr-la-Lys on February, 20th, 1915.

«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Chapter II
Chapter I Chapter III