The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 – Chapter 3

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

Chapter III.


The Object of a Signal History. — March to the North. — Battle of Ypres-Armentieres. — Despatch Riders again Useful. — Further Extension of the Magneto Telephone. — Increased Difficulty of Maintenance of Lines. — Regimental Signallers. — Visual Signalling of very Secondary Importance. — Semaphore versus Morse. — Communication within the Battalion. — Reinforcements. — Building up a Rear Organization in Signals. — The Signal Depot. — Signal Parks. — Signal Service Control over Technical Stores. — "Controlled" Stores. — Lines of Communication Signal Service. — D.R.L.S. on L. of C. — Formation of the Armies. — Army Signal Companies. — Changes in Signal Transport. — The Use of Pigeons by the Intelligence Corps. — "Intelligence" Wireless. — The First Wireless Compass Station.

Soon after the beginning of October, 1914, the British troops were gradually withdrawn from their positions on the Aisne and entrained for the north, division by division, as they were relieved by French troops. By October 19th the move was complete, and the troops deployed on the new front, G.H.Q. being at St. Omer and the Base at Havre.

Touch was first established with the enemy west of La Bassee, where the opposing lines took a north and south direction to the neighbourhood of Estaires. Here the advance was almost at once stopped by the opposition of superior German forces and there commenced the series of attempts on the part of each side to outflank the other with the idea of breaking through and cutting their opponent's communications. The frustration of these attempts is a matter of general knowledge. Their ultimate result was the relative stabilization of the situation by the formation of a nearly rigid line of opposing trenches right across the face of the northern portion of France and the west of Flanders. With the completion of this line, trench warfare set in. The chief characteristic of the First Battle of Ypres was the attempt of the German higher command, by the use of a hitherto undreamt-of concentration of artillery, and with considerably superior forces, to break through the British line at various places between Ypres and La Bassee. The enemy's greatest efforts were made north of Armentieres and in the neighbourhood of Ypres. It is on this account that the latter town, where the thin brown line repulsed his fiercest attacks, will always be associated in the British mind with this, one of the most critical battles of the whole war.

With the growing size of the British forces engaged, and a corresponding increase in the number of formations in the Expeditionary Force, it will no longer be desirable, if the evolutionary character of this history is to be maintained, to deal with each separate battle as it took place. What will be aimed at, is a general survey of the situation as regards signals as a whole; connected so far as possible by the thread of time; and giving a picture of the Signal Service struggling with ever fresh developments and responsibilities; sometimes failing, more often succeeding, and always improving and learning.

By the study of such a history it should be possible for future generations of signal officers, plunged into war without previous experience to guide them (as was the case with so many officers in 1914) to draw upon the experience of their predecessors — not perhaps for conclusions as to how to deal with any particular situation now long past — but for lessons of far greater importance.

What were the lessons of the war to the Signal Service? These should become apparent as the adaptation of the service through long years of war is studied. One thing already stands out, however, and cannot be too much emphasized. History may repeat itself as regards its broader features; but interwoven in the wool of life are a multitude of ever-varying threads, constantly changing, and together making up an infinite gradation of situations never exactly reproducing themselves. Constant adjustment of ideas and nimbleness of thought is needed on the part of those who would tackle these situations efficiently and keep the weapons in their armoury up to date. The signal officer like the rest of mankind must be ever on the alert to meet and foil; if possible, to foresee, the ever-changing menaces to his intercommunication system. What is well suited to the needs of this Saturday is hopelessly inefficient by next Friday. Brains must be kept active; personnel well trained; methods up to date; and implements of the very latest pattern. Thus, and thus only, in the next war as in the last, the Signal Service may live up to its responsibilities. By a study of its failures and successes in the past, much may be learnt to help its triumph in the future.


The three days march of the divisions from Railhead to their positions on the northern front passed without incident and was carried out in peace-time fashion, units marching by night instead of by day to avoid the observation of the enemy to the greatest possible degree. Already the influence of aircraft on war, which was to have such a decisive effect on signal practice among other things, was becoming apparent. During the march, communication was normal — despatch riders keeping touch by day and cable spurs being connected to permanent lines at night. Contact with the enemy brought about stationary warfare at once in the southern portion of the front, the only difference being that the country in which the fighting was waged was flat and covered with mining villages. Artillery support of our advancing troops was therefore difficult, and visual signalling almost impossible except over the shortest distances.

Further to the north, the advance continued for some days, cable touch being kept with brigades by one detachment of the divisional cable section which was detailed to proceed with, or even ahead of, Brigade headquarters. This detachment with its office on the wagon always in action, also provided a useful means by which the movements of the Brigade could be directed and its advance diverted in this direction or in that as the situation demanded.

Few days elapsed, however, before equilibrium was established in the northern area of operations also. The 7th Division which had been operating towards Antwerp fell back into line with the rest of the Force, while on the left flank French and Belgian armies completed the line to the sea. Then commenced the series of German attacks — first about the neighbourhood of Ypres, Wytschaete, and Messines; later at Armenlieres and the line north east of Bethune — which were only withstood with difficulty by virtue of the supreme devotion of an exhausted army.

This last spell of mobile warfare again gave the despatch riders an opportunity of distinguishing themselves, of which they took the fullest advantage. Here at last they were to receive official recognition. In his dispatch of November 20th, 1914, Field-Marshal Lord French writes: —

"I am anxious in this despatch to bring to your notice the splendid work which has been done throughout the campaign by the cyclists of the Signal Corps. Carrying messages at all hours of the day and night in every kind of weather, and often traversing bad roads blocked with transport, they have been conspicuously successful in maintaining an extraordinary degree of efficiency in the service of communications. Many casualties have occurred in their ranks, but no amount of difficulty or danger has ever checked the energy or ardour which has distinguished their Corps throughout the operations."

The building-up of the forward system of communications in these battles took a normal course. On the La Bassee line in the first day of the fight, despatch riders alone were relied upon. Later, as the situation stabilized, cable was laid from Divisional headquarters to brigades. As time went on, lines to battalions once more made their appearance and these and all the divisional lines were poled, improved and reinforced by alternative routes to minimize the risk of interruption of intercommunication through shelling.

It was here that the linking-up of flank divisions by cable was attempted for the first time as a general policy. Already, on the Aisne, individual divisions, pioneering — as occurred in the case of most innovations — had laid out flank lines to particular neighbouring formations with which their staff required reliable and rapid inter-communication. From now on, these flank lines became recognized as part of the normal signal system of Divisions, Brigades, and even of battalions. Gradually, also, the convention arose that these lines should normally be laid from right to left. In this, however, throughout the war, the Division next to the French was faced by a special problem. Not only did our Allies generally despise lateral lines, but they did not possess operators with the necessary skill to work to British telegraphists. All along, the French Signal Service had relied upon the telephone in preference to the telegraph and their personnel was not trained to last buzzer working. This difficulty was overcome for the present by the loan of instruments and operators from the British Division. Later this trouble disappeared, magneto telephones being introduced into those British formations which required touch with their French neighbours.

Forward of Brigade headquarters, trouble was experienced with maintenance of lines to a much greater extent even than on the Aisne. No intricate system of communication trenches yet existed. Maintenance by day in forward areas was sometimes impossible and at other times was only achieved at the expense of the lives of many brave men. Artillery activity continually increased, especially immediately preceding and during the constant attacks which were hurled on one portion after another of the British lines. Just at the time when good intercommunication was essential, lines would be broken right and left and the attempt to keep them through resulted only in the loss of valuable lives. The necessity for liaison between artillery and the troops they supported already pointed to the advisability of extending the telephone system forward to the front-line trenches, but for some time this proved impossible. With every desire to help, the Signal Service was unable to undertake such an extension of its responsibilities with the means at its command.

As the trench system in front became more perfect, however, conditions of maintenance improved and towards the end of November the buzzer telephone was firmly established in important front-line posts. A typical divisional system of line communication at this period is shown in Plate V. Considerable extra work was caused by this extension of signal communication, and the bulk fell upon the already overworked personnel of the Brigade Signal Sections.

The pre-war establishment of all units which required a considerable amount of internal signal communications, included a certain number of men trained as signallers in semaphore and Morse. The strength of these signalling detachments is given in Table III. Small as the numbers originally were, a large proportion even of these men were not now available for the special duty for which they had been trained.

Before the war, battalion signallers were trained in visual signalling only. As conditions of warfare changed and visual signalling became more and more unpopular, a larger and larger proportion of the battalion signallers were absorbed into the firing line, and the internal communications of many battalions decreased in efficiency accordingly Taking place as it did just at the time when stationary warfare was setting in, this much increased the perplexities of the divisional signal officer, who, although not officially responsible for battalion communications, was more and more being asked to extend his activities towards the firing line. Out of this situation two corollaries eventually arose which later changed the whole position as regards signals in the forward area.

Table III.
Unit    Establishment    Remarks
N.C.O.'s Men
  Cavalry Regiment, H.Q. 1 5
             each squadron 1 2
  Squadron of Irish Horse with Army Troops 1 5 Despatch riders.
  H.Q. R.H.A. Bde 1 8 Telephone detachment; all trained signallers.
  Battery, R.H.A. 1 6 Trained as semaphore men and signallers.
  Ammunition Column 1 2 S. and C.S. and two gunners, trained in semaphore.
  R.F.A. Bde. H.Q. 1 11 Trained signallers and telephonists.
  R.F.A. Battery 1 6 Trained signallers and telephonists.
  Ammunition Column 3 2 Three bombardiers and two gunners, trained in semaphore signalling.
  R.F.A., Howitzer Brigade As R.F.A Bde. but Ammun. Col. One bombardier and two gunners only.
  Heavy Artillery Battery 7 Trained in semaphore signalling and telephony.
  Divisional Artillery Column 6 Mounted bombardiers trained in semaphore signalling.
  Siege Artillery Bde. (Medium) 1 11 Trained observers and telephonists.
  Siege Artillery Bde. (Heavy) 1 12 Trained telephonists.
  Field Squadron, each Troop 1 2
  Field Company, each Section 1 2
  Infantry Battn, H.Q. 2 15
                    each Company 8 Trained in semaphore only.
  Cavalry Field Ambulance 2 Trained in semaphore only.
  Field Ambulance 2 Trained in semaphore only.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, men are trained in Morse signalling with heliograph, lamp, and flag (blue and white, large and small) and in semaphore.

It became quite clear that visual signalling with flag, heliograph, and lamp, must be allowed to become of very secondary importance until leisure would permit of further experiment and the improvisation of apparatus to suit the changed situation. As communication to the firing line was more essential than ever, some substitute for visual signalling must be arrived at. The result of this position was the forward extension of the "D3" telephone and this carried with it the necessity for training battalion and other unit signallers in the care and manipulation of these instruments and the laying of simple lines. As things settled down for the winter, the training of such signallers became one of the main preoccupations of the Divisional signal company commander. The logical outcome was the formation, first of classes under Brigade arrangements, and later, as the advantages of centralization became evident, of Divisional Signal Schools. The second axiom which for the same reason now became part of the future policy of the Signal Service, was the necessity for the control of forward signals by the technically trained signal officer. The care and proper use of instruments; the repair and maintenance of lines; the training of the personnel, all needed expert supervision. The attainment of this ideal was long in coming, but it was speeded up to some extent by the fact that the absorption of battalion signallers into the firing line at a time when the proportion of casualties was very high, soon caused a shortage which could not be immediately made up. Mobilization had absorbed back into their regiments the instructional staff of the schools in England whose duty in peace time was the training of the battalion signaller as well as other specialists, and the result of this policy was now being severely felt. The training of men in the field to replace those who had fallen was at best a slow business. It could not even be attempted until the German attacks had lessened in their intensity and the winter lull gave the exhausted troops time to recover from the fatigue of long-sustained fighting. Far less was it possible to attempt to initiate the few remaining signallers into the mysteries of lading and maintaining the line system now considered essential. The line system aimed at for battalion intercommunication in January, 1915, consisted of the following circuits: —

(a) From battalion headquarters to each company headquarters.
(b) From battalion headquarters to the headquarters of lateral battalions.
(c) Between neighbouring fire trenches.

When the question of laying the lines came to be considered, it was found that battalion signallers were far too few to carry out the work. This was especially the case since the absence of a battalion signalling officer deprived the section to a certain extent of that coordination and supervision which is necessary to enable the greatest amount of work to be obtained from the minimum of personnel. Frequently, therefore, the Brigade signal officer was compelled to complete the system right up to the fire trenches. In this way, the divisional signal company obtained a footing in the supervision of battalion signals which — although not recognized formally for some time — was never lost, and which much increased the efficiency of the signal communications of the army as a whole, while it also improved the relations between the Signal Service and battalion commanders and their officers.[1]


Some consideration must now be given to the development of the command system in Signals and to the building-up of an efficient and all-embracing rear organization for the supply of stores and reinforcements and for dealing with the ever-increasing demands of the administrative services. Battles are won as much by good organization on the lines of communication as by stout fighting and efficient leadership in the forward areas. The Signal Service with the original Expeditionary Force, adapted as the latter was for a short sharp trial of strength, made no provision for any great increase in the size of the Force, or in the amount of material required to supply it with satisfactory intercommunication.

Two of the problems confronting the Director of Signals and his Staff, which were never to lose their significance, were the supply of reinforcements to the various types of signal units in the field, and the provision of the technical instruments and stores required to keep these units in an efficient state. Each of these two questions was to grow until it required a department to itself, but we are at present concerned with the creation of the first rudiments of an organization out of such personnel as could be spared from G.H.Q. and "L" Signal Company, with the addition of a few stray men from the signal units with the Army Corps.

Perhaps the most pressing problem of all was the question of reinforcements. The pre-war organization made provision for the automatic supply of reinforcements up to a certain percentage of the original strength of all units in the field. Under this scheme the signal personnel of all trades was sent to the Royal Engineer reinforcement depot.

In view, however, of the technical complexity which had already served to differentiate the Signal Service from the remaining branches of the Engineers, it was not to be expected that the men of the different signal trades would necessarily be drafted from the Depot to the units where they could be utilized to the best advantage. Besides, under the continually changing conditions of the war, the proportion of trades required by a particular unit was not always a constant factor. As an outstanding example, the demand for permanent linemen in cable and airline sections might be cited, but there were many lesser occasions when a unit could find great use for a tradesman to whom they were not normally entitled.

The remedy for the situation was soon seen and the Director of Signals applied for permission to concentrate all signal reinforcements at a Signal Depot whence they could be distributed to units as required, and where their training could be continued in the interval between their arrival in the country and their posting to units. It was suggested that this Depot should be formed at the Advanced Base and the numbers required were estimated on a percentage basis which throws an interesting sidelight on the proportion of signal casualties during the autumn of 1914. The figures were: —

10 per cent, of all trades in signal squadrons, signal troops and divisional signal companies.
5 per cent, of trades of the rest of the Signal Service.
20 per cent, of motor cyclist despatch riders.

Worked out for the whole Signal Service in France, the total number of men to be administered at the new Depot would be 250 and a request was put forward for the approval of an establishment based upon this number.[2] Casualties were to be reported by units as usual through the Deputy Adjutant General, 3rd Echelon, who would ask the Signal Depot to make good with men of the proper trades.

It was some time before formal authority for the new establishment was obtained, but in the meantime much was achieved (with the tacit approval of the General Staff) by the withdrawal of a few N.C.O.'s from forward units and by means of the gradual absorption of trained men who had either been invalided home or to the Base and for whose return to the Signal Depot when fit, arrangements were made. Gradually, as the new organization took hold, a useful amount of training was done. From one source and another, much equipment was collected and, in December, 1914, the establishment was approved and a nucleus of training equipment was also allotted to the Depot. A few days afterwards, the Signal Depot moved to Abbeville, and from that time onwards grew steadily under the direction of the Deputy Director of Signals (Lines of Communications), until it had become an integral and very important part of the Signal Service in France and a type on which similar depots in other Expeditionary Forces were later modelled. Throughout the war, its original functions — the final equipment of reinforcements for active service, and their allotment to best advantage according to the quality of the individual — continued to be its main work.[3] Officers commanding signal companies would apply officially through the D.A.G. for the men they required, but, simultaneously, an unofficial letter would pass to the O.C. Signal Depot, always with satisfactory results, if the general situation as regards reinforcements permitted the exercise of any latitude at all. Men were thus allotted to the best advantage, while the efficiency of the service and good relations between officers and men were particularly well fostered by a policy which permitted N.C.O.'s and men to be returned by their own wish to the unit with which they had served before they became casualties. Always in the hands of men who had the interests of the Signal Service at heart, the Signal Depot at Abbeville and the policy of which it was the expression did perhaps more than any other single thing to promote esprit de corps within the service in France, together with a feeling of comradeship which helped much towards the alleviation of the discomforts and privations of war.

Less important, only, than the question of reinforcements, was that of the supply of stores. The policy adopted in this respect was an amplification of that already foreshadowed in the Manual of Army Signal Service — War, which was under revision in July, 1914, shortly before the war broke out. In this textbook the principle was laid down that on the outbreak of war special depots for the supply of signal equipment should be formed. Such Depots were to be administered by the Deputy Director of Army Signals, who was responsible for all intercommunication along the L. of C, and whose post was at the headquarters of the Inspector General of Communications. Immediately the landing in France was completed, steps were taken to evolve a workable system on these principles. On August 18th, a working agreement with the Ordnance authorities was made, whereby all items contained in Sections 28b and 29a of the priced Vocabulary of Stores,[4] together with certain items in other sections, should be collected in such a depot to which the name of Signal Park was given. As soon afterwards as possible the Signal Park was opened at the Advanced Base[5], and all the above items were collected there together with a number of telephones which had been obtained from the Post Office.

On the evacuation of Amiens on the 29th August, the stores were removed to the new Advanced Base at Le Mans, where they remained to the end of the year, when they were moved to Havre. Later in the war, a second Signal Park was formed on a second Line of Communication at Calais. These two Signal Parks served the whole of the Signal Service in France throughout the war, delivering direct to units in the earlier stages, and, later, when decentralization set in, to similar signal stores which were set up at the various Army headquarters.

In this way Signal Service control over technical stores was firmly established at the outset of the war. A system was now required whereby the authorities concerned with their distribution could be reasonably certain that they reached the units who most required them and that they were issued in strict proportion to the needs of the armies in the field. For the achievement of this purpose strict supervision was essential. It was only to be expected that the commander of each signal unit should be convinced of the paramount urgency of his own needs. If demands were not carefully scrutinized by officers familiar with the conditions on the spot and yet in a position to take a broader view of the situation, it was likely that the percentage of stores supplied would depend largely on the vehemence with which the particular applicant expressed his views either verbally or in writing. This would not necessarily be in strict proportion to the validity of his case, but might be expected rather to depend on his personality, or on his powers of rhetoric or composition.

In the first few months of the war, when the Expeditionary Force was small, normal demands for all stores were passed direct to the Signal Parks. Special demands or demands on an unusually large scale were referred back to the Director of Signals for countersignature before they were passed for supply. When passed, supply was made direct to units. This routine worked very well until the Force outgrew it. At first the demands of the Staff for intercommunication were limited, and the supply of stores was therefore equal or nearly equal to the demand. Later, in the middle of 1915, as the telegraph and telephone service grew in extent, a modification of the existing arrangements became advisable and a very happily conceived scheme was inaugurated.

A certain number of items, which experience showed were required in such quantities that supply was not equal to demand, were selected for this special treatment. From time to time lists of such "controlled" stores, as they were called — which comprised chiefly the different kinds of cable, airline and telephones — were issued to all concerned. All demands for the items named in these lists had to be sent through the usual channels to the Director of Signals. At each step in the chain of command these demands were scrutinized, co-ordinated, and modified if necessary. They were then passed forward. Finally, in the office of the Director of Signals, they were compared with the lists periodically submitted by the Signal Parks of the total quantity available for issue. Considerable diminution in demands was usually necessary at this stage. These were reduced, not necessarily in strict proportion to the amounts asked for, but in accordance more with the present state of the unit and the general tactical situation.

If an offensive was imminent on the front of a particular Army, or if an attack by the enemy was likely to take place on a particular Corps front and it was considered that the Defence Intercommunication System of that Corps required reinforcing, the particular signal units concerned would receive priority of supply.

Thus the meagre supplies available were apportioned to the immediate needs of the moment, while, as a by-product of the same policy, a reserve of cable was carefully built up both at Corps and Army against the possibility of a future emergency. By means of this far-sighted policy, though the supply of cable was always considerably in arrears, absolutely essential needs were met. As the months passed, the increased output of factories and improvements in the organization at home which dealt with the design, production and distribution of technical stores of all kinds, brought about a great increase in the available supplies. The forward cable system was thus enabled to expand in direct proportion to the two factors which most affected it; namely, the increase in size of the British forces, and, secondly, the greater demands for telephone communication due to the education of all officers in the convenience and ease of this method of intercourse.

In a general summary such as the present, it is impossible to deal adequately with every step in the growth of the great signal organization which gradually grew up in the rear of Army headquarters. The chief points of development to date are, however, well seen in Plate VI[6] which gives a comprehensive view of the whole Signal Service of the Expeditionary Force on December 12th, 1914.

One feature which early began to exercise the ingenuity of the L. of C. Signal Service was the necessity for the organization of some regular service to deal with the increasingly heavy routine traffic which could not be accommodated by the telegraph. Many bulky returns and administrative orders and circulars had to be given a secondary place in the consideration of the Signal Service. As time went on and the requirements of the staff increased, the tendency was for the telegraph to be reserved more exclusively for command purposes, the single exception being the telegraphing of Ordnance indents and summaries which continued until a late stage of the war. The rise of the telephone did not ease matters to a great extent, for this instrument was reserved almost entirely for conversation between officers, which, while it often accelerated action by enabling written orders to be anticipated, could not replace the latter.

At the outset of the campaign the only method of transmission of such letters and parcels was by train. This was, however, of necessity an uncertain and irregular method. The despatch riders of all units were already working to full capacity and were dealing with a considerable quantity of the more urgent traffic, but all packets carried by them were treated as "specials." It was clear that if the maximum use was to be made of the small number of motor cyclists available, a regular despatch rider letter service must be organized.

On September 25th, 1914, orders were given by the I.G.C. for the establishment of a regular D.R.L.S., and on October 29th, after some experiment, the first routine orders were issued and the new service commenced running to a recognized time table between the bases, depots, and G.H.Q. The number of despatch riders on the strength of "L" Signal Company was not sufficient to man the new service, but they were reinforced by 50 men and machines taken over from G.H.Q.

From the first, reliability was aimed at rather than speed. The service rapidly gained in popularity, increasing its scope so quickly that, when, much later in the War, the telegraph system became heavily overburdened, practically the whole of the surplus routine traffic had been transferred to the D.R.L.S. and so a dangerous situation was relieved.[7]

Simultaneously with the inception of the L. of C, D.R.L.S., a similar service was commenced by G.H.Q. and Corps headquarters. Indeed, the honour of organizing the first regular D.R.L.S. in the Expeditionary Force rested with Corps Signals. Early in October, 1914, a regular service was initiated with success between 2nd Corps headquarters at Chateau Murette, its Divisions, and G.H.Q.

A radical change in the organization of the Expeditionary Force as a whole which directly affected the Signal Service, was the formation of the Armies in December, 1914. The growth of the Force to five Corps had made central control from G.H.Q. without an intermediary step very difficult, and in this month a reorganization involving a certain amount of decentralization and short circuiting took place.

The effect on the Signal Service communications is well shown by the comparative diagrams of Plate VII. These show (a) the scheme of communication as it existed at the date of the change; and (b) the new proposed system for enabling each Army to deal direct with the Lines of Communication and the Bases as regards many questions of supply. The net result was to eliminate the two Report Centres of G.H.Q., the personnel and instruments of which were absorbed to form the nucleus of the new Army headquarters signal companies. In addition, work at G.H.Q. was reduced by the establishment of direct communication between the Armies, the I.G.C. and the L. of C. generally. A certain proportion of personnel could therefore be released from G.H.Q. Signal Company to help to complete the new signal units. A considerable number of reinforcements were, however, required and these were obtained by special demands on the Post Office and on the Territorial Army Troops signal companies who were training at home. For tactical work the Army headquarter's signal company was obliged to be ready to find personnel for an advanced headquarters, so that in the aggregate a considerable increase was involved.

Simultaneously with the greater reorganizations in the Signal Service, certain lesser changes occurred which are worthy of notice. The horsed airline and cable sections had done good work during the retreat and advance, but various defects had been shown up in both. In particular, it was soon realized that for units such as airline sections working in rear areas where the roads were good, horsed transport was vastly inferior to motor transport.

The change from horsed to motor vehicles had gradually been setting in throughout the army in the years before the war, and the Signal Service, though naturally taking a secondary place to the supply services, had shared to a certain extent in the revolution. The first motor wireless station has already been mentioned, and the 1914 war establishments allotted both to G.H.Q. and to Army Corps signal companies their due proportion of mechanical transport.

The winter of 1914-1915 was the first opportunity for reorganization. Now, for the first time, things had settled down and there was no great change, and little prospect of great change, in the situation from day to day. Staffs had time to look about them and to co-ordinate and draw conclusions from the rough notes, mental or written, made during the strenuous days of the summer and early autumn campaign. The main results, so far as the Signal Service was concerned, were instructions that, in future, airline sections should be issued with motor transport; an increase of personnel to the Divisional signal company, including extra motor cyclists and a one-ton motor lorry; and the determination to supply a proportion of future wireless sections with motor transport.[8]

Yet another small reform which foreshadowed the formation of a new branch of signal activity occurred during the winter of 1914. Less significant, even, than the "cloud of the size of a man's hand," the introduction of the use of pigeons by the Intelligence Corps was regarded by the heads of the Signal Service as a matter of general interest only. On the 11th September, 1914, 15 pigeons were handed over to the British "Intelligence" by the French. These birds were used for intelligence purposes only, but from this small beginning was destined to grow a great branch of the Signal Service which in 1918 numbered 20,000 birds with a personnel of 380 experts. No less than 90,000 men in battalions and other units had been trained to care for and fly pigeons.

The significance of the use of pigeons for intercommunication purposes in intensive warfare is better dealt with when recounting the lessons learnt from the battles of 1915. For some time after the period with which we are at present dealing — the early winter of 1914-1915 — pigeons continued to be controlled by the Intelligence Corps and were primarily used for intelligence purposes. Even so, the service grew continually, for circumstances were all in its favour The district round St. Omer, to which place British G.H.Q. moved for the operations round Ypres and Armentieres, was famed for the keenness of its pigeon fanciers. Lofts were requisitioned one after another; and control over all flying of pigeons in the area occupied by the British armies was obtained as a matter of safeguard against espionage. The nucleus of what was to become a very important branch of the army expanded rapidly, and was taken over later by the Signal Service in a state of efficiency, and applied by that Service to its special needs.

It was through the medium of the Intelligence Corps, also, that army wireless telegraphy found its most useful function in the early days of stationary warfare. During the mobile warfare in the autumn, wireless had been the main means of communication with the independent cavalry. Cable was used by the latter to a subordinate extent only. Visual was limited, sometimes by the country traversed, sometimes by the early morning mists, sometimes by a lack of trained signallers owing to casualties in the already sparse ranks of the signal troops.

With the settling down of the opposing armies to the grim and moveless struggle of position warfare, cavalry ceased entirely to play their original part. Dismounted cavalry in the trenches contented themselves with a normal line system, and wireless therefore lost much of the interest and importance it once had.

The rise of the use of small receiving sets with heavy batteries for observing purposes was such a specialized branch and had so little general interest, that it attracted little attention, the more especially as it was controlled by the Royal Flying Corps who had no particular reason to advertise its doings.

Thus wireless sank to a very third-rate position, not only in the eyes of the army generally, but even in those of many signal officers not personally connected with it. Good work was being done, however, in an unobtrusive way in the interception of enemy messages. These were dispatched to the Intelligence Corps, by whom valuable deductions were made as to the enemy's dispositions and movements. In the meantime, the officers more intimately connected with wireless both at home and abroad were working with intelligence and zeal towards the rehabilitation of this method of signalling in the public estimation. No subject in army signals has rivalled wireless telegraphy in its power of arousing enthusiasm in, and making devotees of, the men whose duty it has been to advance its interests. Much thought was expended on the problem of overcoming the drawbacks under which army wireless laboured and the reward of the men who toiled long on thankless work was to come later in the war.

Meanwhile, intelligence wireless was daily gaining ground and in October was reinforced by the arrival of the first wireless "compass" station in France.[9] This set was designed to give the accurate direction of any enemy station whose working it intercepted. The use of the device is obvious. If two or more bearings could be obtained on any enemy station within reasonable distance, the position of the latter could be accurately plotted.

A line of compass stations established well behind the front and out of reach of any hostile action ensured an accurate knowledge of the position of every enemy wireless station heard. It was already realized from previous interception that certain wireless stations were associated in the German army with certain definite formations. Carry the argument a step or two farther and it will be quite clear that the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff had by this innovation gained a weapon of incalculable value. From this time, wireless intelligence never looked back. Increasing steadily in size and scope as apparatus and organization improved, it became of progressively greater importance and contributed in no small degree to the efficiency of the British Intelligence Service.


  1. This question of signal service absorption of regimental signallers remained a matter of controversy throughout the war. The final decision arrived at was that the policy of control by unit commanders should be retained and the arguments in favour of this decision are summarised shortly on page 158, Chapter, IX of this history. A great measure of control over regimental lines by the Signal Corps is, however, necessary, and this has been achieved by the extension of the powers and responsibilities of the Divisional signal officer exercised through his lieutenant the Brigade signal officer. The efficacy of this supervision is much increased by a system which recruits many of the junior officers of the Corps of Signals from the roster of battalion signal officers.
  2. The actual figures were: — One captain, one subaltern, one C.S.M., one C.Q.M.S., four Serjeants and N.C.O.'s in proportion.
  3. In practice a considerable amount of training was actually carried out at the Signal Depot. Reinforcements were exercised in their duties from the time of their arrival in the country until they were drafted to units. These exercises were supervised by N.C.O.'s and officers with experience in the field and the efficiency of those men who spent some weeks at the Depot was greatly increased during their stay. A feature which was developed to a high degree of efficiency in 1918 was a school for Signal Service N.C.O.'s. These men were withdrawn from their units for a month, were formed into squads and taken in hand by instructors specially chosen as best fitted to impart the maximum amount of instruction and infuse the maximum amount of discipline into their classes in the short time available. The results were extra-ordinarily good, and N.C.O.'s thus stiffened up and with their technical knowledge brought up to date were well calculated to raise the general efficiency and morale of the units to which they belonged.
  4. The above sections include all technical signal equipment except certain stores not in the vocabulary but usually obtained by direct liaison with the General Post Office Stores Department
  5. Amiens.
  6. This appears to have been the last general diagram prepared. The quick growth of the signal system after the introduction of the telephone, which is described in the next chapter, made it necessary that diagrams in future, to avoid unwieldy size, should be confined to the particular signal system for which the signal officer of the formation issuing the diagram was personally responsible.
  7. Until the last year of the war the practice still was for Ordnance indents to be telegraphed. Towards the end of 1917, however, the D.O.S. was persuaded to give the D.R.L.S. a trial. Such good time was kept, and such good results given, by this service that the practice of telegraphing indents was never reverted to.
  8. The original regular army horsed airline sections retained their horses, but were transferred to one or other of the eastern theatres of war.
  9. The set was a Bellini Tosi pattern modified by the Marconi Company. Its outstanding features were the exceedingly sensitive valve receiver, a specially designed directional aerial, and revolving inductance by means of which the strength of the signals received from the distant station could be varied.

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