The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 – Chapter 4

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

Chapter IV.


Growth of Signal Responsibility in Artillery Communications. — General Introduction of the Magneto Telephone and Consequent Changes in the Signal System. — Construction Work much Increased. — Evolution of Comic Airline. — Consequent Changes in Establishment. — The First Inklings of Enemy Overhearing. — Summary of the Principal Incidents of the Rise in Importance of the Forward Telephone System.

The factor which perhaps more than any other brought about great changes in type in the signal communication system of position warfare was the growth of artillery. Both on our own side and on that of the enemy, the tendency was for the armies to dig themselves into the ground in the attempt to find shelter from an artillery fire of ever-growing intensity.

At first this increase in artillery fire was confined to the German side, the conditions of manufacture and supply in England preventing any possibility of retaliation on a large scale for some months. Both guns and shells were limited in number, and the fighting troops and, incidentally, signal communications, suffered from the enemy's overwhelming superiority in this respect. As the months wore on, however, the situation commenced to improve. Month after month saw a steady increase in the number and weight of our own guns and in the supply of ammunition for their use. The first batteries of 60-pounders and 47 guns reached France in early October, 1914, and, through 1915, the British guns in action grew steadily in number. At the same time, reserve batteries of field guns and 4.5 howitzers were being accumulated and it soon became clear that the organization of artillery would have to be radically changed and a central command system built up for this arm.

The situation was faced with decision, and Heavy Artillery and Field Artillery were both, in early 1915, organized in groups each acting under the orders of a Lieutenant-Colonel. These groups in turn were organized at a later stage into yet higher formations under General Officers commanding Royal Artillery.

The first feature of particular interest to signals was the constructive effect on signal organization of the increase in importance of our own artillery formations. In 1914 each individual battery carried out its own somewhat primitive system of intercommunication. Battery telephonists, not too highly trained, connected their guns to the necessary observation posts and to the affiliated infantry. With a few batteries only engaged and with a small degree of liaison only expected, this system worked comparatively successfully for the two or three months of mobile warfare. Where the system broke down, a generous measure of help was forthcoming from the local signal officers. For some time all went — if not well — at least sufficiently smoothly to allow the artillery to build up a well-deserved reputation for efficiency in action.

With the coming of position warfare and the simultaneous increase in artillery, however, the situation underwent a decided change. The early trench system, without a good network of communication trenches, was difficult to organize. The principle of defence in depth was not yet adopted; all the available forces were concentrated in the front line trenches; and close artillery support was essential to the holding of these positions. Failure of the artillery at the critical moment might lead to irretrievable disaster. A more intricate system of liaison between artillery and infantry was vital to the scheme of defence and must be provided. In this connection, also, must be considered the fact that lines forward of Division were becoming more and more difficult to maintain.

Thus, towards the end of 1914, it became increasingly evident that reform in the relations between artillery communication personnel and the Signal Service was urgent, and action was taken in the next few months to relieve the situation. In December, 1914, increases in establishment were allowed to the Divisional Signal Company to enable it to carry out divisional artillery communications as far forward as artillery brigades. This addition took the form of the addition of another cable detachment and a few N.C.O.'s and men to man a signal office at the R.A. headquarters of the Division. From the time of the arrival of these men — about April, 1915 — No. 1 Section of the Divisional Signal Company was organized in two halves, each consisting of two cable detachments. One detachment was then placed definitely at the disposal of a subaltern of the company who was detailed to take over charge of artillery signal communication. It was some considerable time before an officer was officially allowed for this purpose, but the practice became general in the course of the year.

To summarize the state of affairs as regards artillery signals in the summer of 1915, by which time position warfare had persisted sufficiently long for evolution of methods to have taken place to a considerable extent, the main facts were as follows. The old divided control of artillery signal communications had gone. No longer was the battery intercommunication officer responsible for lines from O.P.'s to the guns, and the brigade officer for lines from batteries to brigades. Orders had been issued giving to the artillery brigade signal officer control over the whole system of his formation. He, in his turn, was expected to keep close liaison — in the case of the heavy artillery — with the the Divisional Signal Company commander, in the case of Field Artillery — with the infantry brigade signal officer. To the latter, the O.C. Divisional Signal Company had meanwhile delegated his supreme responsibility for all lines in the Brigade area. An officer had also been definitely appointed to supervise the divisional artillery communications. The corps organization had not, however, at this time progressed so far; indeed, in different armies opinion was not yet standardized as to whether control over heavy artillery should be exercised by Army or by Corps.

As to the amount of signal communication expected, this is intimately bound up with the next subject to be considered, the general growth of the telephone system. It was, however, laid down as a principle that, for effective liaison between infantry and artillery, there must be good artillery and infantry telephone systems, independent but cross-connected at both ends. That is, direct lines were required, both between the infantry in the trenches and supporting batteries, and between the C.R.A. and the Divisional Commander. In most, if not all formations, this was also reinforced by a line between artillery and infantry brigades. In principle, the system as thus amended remained in force, unmodified as to its main features, throughout the whole period of position warfare.

The revolution in ideas as to the tactical use of artillery was no mean factor in modifying and complicating the Signal Service and in particular the telephone system of the Force. Pre-war signal establishments practically ignored the use of the telephone except for artillery observation. Trained telephonists were unheard of except in artillery units and in the higher formations such as Army Corps and G.H.Q. The trade "Telephonist, switchboard operator," had yet to be created. At the time of the landing of the Expeditionary Force in France, very few telephone exchanges or telephones were in the possession of its signal units. Forward of G.H.Q. (with the exception of the hand sets of the vibrators, which were exclusively reserved for signal use, and the few "D1" and "D2" telephones already alluded to) , some Stevens phones issued for trial, a few others possessed privately by battalions, and the meagre equipment of artillery units, were the only instruments available.

The use of the civil telephone system during concentration and during the battles of the autumn of 1914 might have awakened the Staff to the convenience of the adoption of the magneto telephone on a large scale, but for two very relevant points. The first was that on the afternoon of the battle of Mons it was discovered that it was possible to speak to many towns far within the German lines. In addition, our own buzzer signals, and therefore a general resume of the intentions and actions of the British General Staff, could be heard by anyone on any of the telephone wires in the neighbourhood of the battle area.

The significance of this was obvious, and though precautionary measures were at once taken and routes were thoroughly destroyed forward of battalion headquarters, a feeling of uncertainty resulted which must have confirmed the Staff in a distrust for telephone communication on any scale but a minimum.

The second consideration that militated against the immediate adoption of the magneto telephone throughout all formations was the highly trained character of the General Staff and other officers of the original Expeditionary Force. Trained from their youth up in dealing with similar but theoretical situations by means of message book and personal interview, these officers did not feel the need for frequent telephone conversations.

All had been taught to frame explicit orders and to act upon such orders when received. The use of Staff cars; mounted liaison officers; and despatch riders, provided a nucleus of communication which seemed for the present to satisfy all requirements. The dislike to the introduction of an innovation during the full tide of battle, so often a conservative element retarding evolution in war, was supported by many weighty considerations. Indeed, who shall say that an extensive use of the telephone in this mobile warfare waged under the direction of a very efficient Corps of officers would have been justifiable even if it had been possible?

With the removal to the north and the setting in of position warfare an entirely different problem presented itself. As casualties occurred, the carefully trained officers of the Regular Army were replaced by temporary officers with little or no experience. In time, inroads were made into the General Staff itself. Messages and orders increased apace and were less carefully worded. On the Aisne, the magneto telephone had already made its appearance in isolated cases at Corps, Division, and even at Brigade headquarters. Where it was adopted it was a marked success. In the Ypres-Armentieres and Bethune districts, alike, the British army was operating in a country where a complicated and very complete civilian telephone system had been developed to meet the needs of industry. Every evacuated town and village had its quota of abandoned telephones. What was more natural than that signal officers, desirous of meeting the wishes of their staff, should take into use increasing numbers of these telephones and so, for the sake of immediate relief, project their harassed companies and sections into innumerable new difficulties. This was what actually happened. Kleptomania as regards telephones, telephone exchanges, and telephone and telegraph accessories of every description, became a confirmed habit. Journey after journey was made into devastated towns in search of instruments. Where the owners or lessees could be traced, receipts were given and in some cases local payments were made. In any case, the net result was the issue of yet more telephones to branches of the Staff and to units. By the late spring of 1915, an informal military telephone system was in full swing.[1]

There was a very real need for some method of intercommunication to replace the telegraph. Very few trained signallers now remained in the lower formations and the telegraph had become both a slower and a more uncertain method of passing orders and messages. The deterioration in the qualifications of the Staff and of officers generally and the consequent multiplicity of messages has already been referred to. Traffic had increased to such an extent that, during operations in March, 1915, one Army Headquarters dealt with over 3000 messages in one day, while in May one Division refers to dealing with 758 messages by wire alone. These totals should be compared with the figure 230 given by G.H.Q. as an exceptional number in September, 1914. In addition to the above considerations, trench warfare had made rapid intercommunication between artillery and infantry, and between troops in the line and reserves comparatively far back, an urgent tactical necessity. To cope with the situation the telephone was the only apparent remedy and yet its use was not to be without considerable drawbacks.

The few direct telephone communications established in the first battle of Ypres and at La Bassee between the staffs of higher formations presented little difficulty. With a few lines only in existence, induction troubles had not yet arisen to any great extent and the direct telephone without the intervention of an exchange was at once hailed as an unmitigated boon. With the more general adoption of the magneto telephone further forward, however, the number of officers with equal or nearly equal claims to consideration were so many that complications at once arose. The demand far exceeded the supply both of telephones and exchanges, and the illegitimate means resorted to by resourceful signal officers only partially enabled the more urgent cases to be met.

One great difficulty was the unsuitability of civil telephone instruments to active service conditions. Everywhere on the Flanders front, dirt, wet, and mud were in the ascendant. It was impossible to keep signal offices or instruments dry. As the forward Staffs were forced further into the ground to gain protection from the enemy artillery, the conditions of their offices became more unsuited to the use of delicate telephones intended for well-constructed, damp-proof houses.

The situation did not improve, and it was soon evident that suitable apparatus must be devised to meet the emergency. This work was at once put in hand, but in the meantime the best had to be made of what was available. A very indifferent telephone system resulted, though even this was better suited to the new conditions than the old telegraphy.

The increase in the number of local telephone circuits which followed immediately upon the introduction of the magneto telephone at once made it out of the question for signal officers to run direct lines between the various subscribers of their system. This difficulty was met by the introduction of the telephone exchange, but here the Signal Service was again faced with two difficulties — one material and one moral.

The material obstacle was, of course, the question of supply. Civil exchanges, far more even than civil patterns of telephones, were delicate pieces of apparatus quite unsuited to the rough work of army life. They were suitable for use at Corps and Army headquarter offices, but they soon proved unfitted for use in Brigade offices and for the forward artillery formations and units. Various types of home-made switching arrangements were therefore designed and these were adopted by the signal units most concerned. They proved to be extremely useful and in most cases served the purpose for which they were intended very well, but they were not, of course, standardized and their general use gave rise to a special set of difficulties which will be mentioned later.

The introduction of telephone exchanges was not viewed favourably by the General Staff. In the early days of the telephone the cry for "direct" lines was universal. The great advantage of the instrument was the personal nature of the intercommunication it provided. Immediately this was realized, all users of the telephone became more and more impatient of the least delay in establishing communication. In the case of the "Operations" branch of the Staff concessions were made and a certain number of direct lines was provided, but it was soon evident that this tendency was adding another burden to the already overwhelming load sustained with difficulty by the signal personnel of all formations. Direct lines had to be suppressed as far as possible. This could only be done by placing all subscribers upon Corps, Divisional and Brigade exchanges which could be manipulated from the central signal office of the formation. This reform was carried out and at once complaints arose concerning the shortcomings of the exchange operators which increased steadily both in volume and virulence until subscribers had been thoroughly educated in the use and the limitations of the new instruments. It might have been anticipated that the telephone exchange operators provided would have been inefficient, for no men of this trade were carried on army signal establishments. This was not usually the case, however, for many men in all signal units were employees of the General Post Office.

Amongst these there was normally a proportion of men trained in switchboard operating in a civil capacity at home. Thus, except in the lowest formations, there was at once available a sufficiency of trained men to meet the initial demand. At a later date, shortages were to occur, but these were met by a special system of training and by the enlistment of further qualified men from the G.P.O. to fill the needs as they arose, while the creation of the army trade "Switchboard operator," finally regularized the situation.

At the time of the introduction of the telephone switchboard, however, complaints were rife and from such complaints grew the necessity of a campaign of education among telephone subscribers. Typical of such complaints and of the way they were dealt with are the two following cases which illustrate both the necessity for educational propaganda and also the difficulties which beset signal officers in these days of the installation of the magneto and buzzer telephone system.

In a certain Territorial Division, the appearance of a small home-made buzzer switchboard at the R.A. headquarters was viewed with suspicion. The C.R.A. at once sent for the Divisional Signal Officer for his explanation. Why was there need for an exchange and what exactly were its functions? The O.C. Signal Company explained at length but without convincing the R.A. staff. The chief difficulty seemed to be that the operator could not attend to more than one person at a time. Suppose the C.R.A. and his Brigade Major wanted to call up officers of two brigades simultaneously. It was suggested that a second line to the exchange would solve the difficulty, but this was without avail. Finally, the signal officer wisely decided to point out the advantages of the new system by emphasizing the troubles inherent in the old. New local telephones for the rest of the R.A. Staff were insisted upon, but they must be fixed up without an exchange. "Signals" said they would do their best. Four or five "D3" telephones were brought in and arranged in a row on a convenient grand piano. The arrangement was approved of, but it lasted two days only. Two or three officers tried to speak at once and the result can be better imagined than described. The Divisional Signal Officer was again called in; the home-made exchange was installed; and peace and efficiency reigned supreme once more.

The second case, which is typical of another type of complaint, is concerned with the relations between the subscribers of the military telephone system and the exchange operators. In the higher formations, these men were highly skilled and did devoted and arduous work throughout the last three years of the war without intermission. Working long hours at a monotonous but nerve-testing operation, their skill, tact, and patience cannot be too highly praised. Remarks which would have been sufficient to cancel any civil telephone contract were often levelled at their heads and received by them with the utmost sang-froid. Indeed, on more than one occasion, impatient officers have invaded the signal office itself and have even gone so far as to place the telephone operator under arrest. In such a case the signal officer concerned had of course no option but to request the officer to permit him to manage the internal economy of his own unit and to make his complaint through the proper channels. Complaints through these channels, also, would frequently not bear investigation and thereby hangs the second illustration.

In one Division, during operations, an infuriated senior officer burst into the office of the O.C. Signal Company to complain of unparalleled insolence from an exchange operator. The case was stated with vehemence and appeared to be unpardonable. Scarcely had the complainant departed, satisfied with a promise of immediate inquiry and redress, when the telephone bell rang loud and long. The speaker proved to be the G.S.O.1. of a neighbouring division with a precisely similar complaint, the incident having occurred at exactly the same time. Putting two and two together, a visit to the signal office was the result, when it transpired that the two officers had originated urgent calls from either end of a telephone circuit at one and the same time. Each being eager to speak kept his telephone receiver to his ear. The operator at either end, plugging through, made the connection and each staff officer, disdaining formalities, commenced with his own particular urgent business. Each, thinking he was speaking to the exchange operator at the distant office, chose his words and tone accordingly, and the double complaint was the ultimate result. A statement of the case despatched to each complainant was a useful lever to secure a minimum of trouble from these particular officers in future, but often similar cases, less susceptible of explanation, made the signal officer's billet anything but a bed of roses.

The latter incident shows well how difficult the education of non-technical officers and men was and illustrates some of the troubles of the Signal Service. Much could be done and was done by organizing visits of staff officers to signal offices where they were given first-hand evidence of the difficulties under which the much-maligned exchange operator worked. Cards or papers of instruction were issued to all subscribers; exchange operators themselves had the primary importance of courtesy and tact continually impressed upon them and any proved cases of impertinence were punished by drastic disciplinary action. Gradually, initial difficulties of this kind were overcome. Typical of the better spirit that arose was the visit of a Divisional Commander to his signal office after a great and most important battle. He walked round the office, shook hands with the principal members of the staff, and — admitting pleasantly that he himself sometimes lost his temper, and often forgot to "ring off" — thanked them in a few well-chosen words for their devotion to duty and their services in the recent action. Such incidents cheered the office staff and immensely improved the morale on which their efficiency so much depended. So the magneto telephone and the magneto and buzzer exchanges gradually won their way in public estimation. The earlier telephones, obtained in this way and in that, varied in number within formations according to the initiative and good fortune of the signal units concerned. Gradually, it became clear that the telephone had come to stay, in spite of all its drawbacks. It was impossible to prevent its use becoming general, and, indeed, it would have been undesirable to do so, for the very sufficient reason that nothing else existed to replace it. It was much better to acquiesce and to legalize its adoption by granting an establishment of telephone equipment to each formation.[2]

Even after the recognition of the magneto telephone had taken place, the question of supply had still to be solved. The Post Office authorities had long ago been approached with the request to make up suitable magneto telephones in their workshops from the standard parts already available in their stores. Similarly the Army workshops themselves, while concentrating on the production of "D3" telephones for forward work, experimented with various types of magneto phone for position warfare purposes. The early types produced were unsatisfactory, but after many experiments a good trench telephone — the Telephone "100" — was designed and was approved as a standard type.

Long before the question of supply had been overcome, the rapid growth of the telephone system had raised other very serious difficulties. Telephones were useless without lines, and lines were becoming more and more difficult to maintain. In early 1915, there was no single co-ordinating authority responsible for the supervision of the forward signal system. These two facts produced a state of affairs which bade fair to wreck the whole intercommunication service. One thing to be particularly noticed about the first half of 1915 was the fact that there was an inclination to rely upon the telephone system to the exclusion of every other means of signalling. The understaffed signal companies had their whole personnel engaged in laying, maintaining, or improving lines; in installing telephones; in building signal dugouts, etc. Their whole resources were concentrated upon this new hobby of the Staff. No one could work without a telephone; no one appeared to foresee conditions when forward telephone communication would be impossible over lines laid haphazard without adequate supervision by some central controlling authority.

During this period there was great danger of all supplementary methods of intercommunication being ignored, and reliance placed entirely on what was becoming an inefficient telephone service. Fortunately, one of the lessons driven home by the autumn offensive in 1915 was that telephone communication must be augmented by other means. In the meantime, however, visual was in abeyance, wireless was not yet sufficiently developed to be of any practical use, and pigeons were used only by the Intelligence Corps. In fact, if warfare became much more intensive, it appeared quite likely that the Signal Service might be unable to shoulder its responsibilities.

The matter of the multiplicity of lines was itself the greatest danger. At the time which is at present under consideration, March to December, 1915, the number of lines in the forward area was increasing daily. Not only did the growth of the system keep pace with the increase in the number of subscribers, but lines multiplied without any true relation to the number of circuits in use. Difficulties of maintenance were many and increasing; trained signallers were steadily decreasing in number and — in the forward units — in standard of efficiency. The battalion signaller knew just enough to lay a line along an existing track where it was most likely to be cut or trodden under foot. When the original line was damaged, the general custom in forward units was to lay another line in replacement and leave the damaged one to rot where it was. The tangle of lines which littered the forward areas thus became more and more complicated.

The sides and bottoms of all trenches — communication, support, and lire trenches alike — were covered with festoons of wire. Frequently wires leapt across a trench from side to side either at top or bottom. In either case the result was disastrous and likely to bring the Signal Service into disrepute. Free movement in the trenches, especially by night, was impossible; movement of any sort was difficult; and all the time, lines — especially artillery lines — increased in number. At one small artillery headquarters, apparently deserted, a signal officer found no less than 76 lines. Examination disclosed the fact that only six of these were in use. Yet, as the officer left the building, another party of artillery signallers led in yet another line.

Indeed, the artillery were by far the worst offenders. A good story, of which the accuracy is not guaranteed but of which the moral is very apt, is current throughout the Signal Service. "A brigade signal officer was watching his linemen carefully stapling a line to the side of a communication trench. Satisfied with the way his men were doing their work, he turned away and strolled back along the trench examining his line as he went. To his annoyance, a bare quarter of a mile away, he came across a party of battery signallers, themselves laying a line and carefully securing it to the battens arranged at intervals along the trench with staples extracted from the line his own party were engaged in laying. His own line meanwhile was allowed to fall upon the duckboards of the trench, where its ultimate fate could not be in doubt. He soon put matters right and set the party to work reconstructing his own circuit at the expense of their own, but the equanimity of his temper was not reduced to normal until, continuing his way along the trench, he came across yet another artillery party engaged in reeling up the line their comrades were as busily laying in front. They had tapped in on the circuit with a buzzer, had received no answer to their calls and had immediately proceeded to 'make' a little badly-needed cable." When things were approaching this stage and — whether the particular story is true or false, it is a good example of the actual state of affairs — drastic remedy of some sort was sorely needed to prevent a debacle which would for ever discredit the telephone.

The evils of the situation were fully realized by the Signal Service, but with inadequate personnel and improvised equipment and, particularly, with only a shadow of control over forward signals, little could be done. Long before affairs had reached this pass, however, the number of lines running along all forward routes, and lying indiscriminately all over the forward area, had given rise to yet another trouble which affected telephone subscribers themselves more immediately. It was impossible to speak without being overheard by all and sundry; conversely it was exceedingly difficult to pick out from the medley of sound, the conversation of the officer to whom one was speaking. At first this caused friction between the Staff and signals, since all intercommunication troubles were at once ascribed to the latter. By continual reiteration, however, it proved possible to convince the Staff that the Signal Service could not take responsibility for this or any other shortcoming of the telephone system unless complete power of supervision over all forward lines — artillery and infantry — was given to them.

Once this principle was accepted as a necessary postulate, orders were issued throughout the Armies that in future the O.C. Divisional Signal Company should exercise complete control over all lines throughout the area controlled by his Division. This was a great step in the direction of reform and, despite difficulties, the order was gradually enforced. The task, which seemed almost impossible on the top of the duties already carried out by the signal sections,, was eased to a certain extent by the collection of lines into "routes," which was brought about partly as a matter of policy and partly as-a natural result of the introduction of buried cable. In Divisions, the responsibility for lines in Brigade areas was delegated to the Brigade section officer and the instructions issued were framed so that, in theory, no line could be laid without the consent of these officers. In practice, a certain amount of latitude was always allowed to artillery intercommunication officers, while commanding officers of battalions also acted arbitrarily sometimes so far as their own battalion lines were concerned. A considerable measure of control was, however, soon achieved with good results which became more evident as time went on.

In this manner, the greatest difficulty in the way of an efficient telephone service was removed, and at the same time improvements in apparatus and methods of construction made possible still further advances in the same direction. In addition, confusion was rendered much less widespread by the adoption of a standard system of labelling lines, and by insistence upon its use. This, in its turn, led to individual lines being more easily traced — and so repaired — instead of being disconnected and new lines laid to replace them. Orders were also given that all lines not in use were to be reeled in and, though the overworked state of the companies at first made these instructions somewhat of a dead letter, yet the threat itself was salutary and a warning of impending action was usually enough to make the unit in question make an attempt to set its house in order. In the autumn and winter of 1915, great strides were made towards the improvement of the system, and in this advance the standardization of methods of construction helped very much.


In the days of reliance on the telegraph, new construction was naturally a small part of the work of the Signal Service. Lines were few in number and, towards the rear, the requirements of the Army could be accommodated without difficulty upon the permanent lines of the civilian telegraph and telephone system. Little trouble was experienced by the cable sections in keeping level with the demands for new telegraph lines in the forward areas. The winter of 1914 found the army well content with a moderate network of lines: permanent lines in rear of Division; ground cable, poled cable, cable slung on trees, permanent poles, or short stakes, forward of Brigades. Between Brigades and Divisions — the limit of the zone of frequent hostile shelling — a hybrid line, part permanent line and part cable, was the usual type in existence.

Two factors were to change the system radically. The growth of the telephone service made necessary the provision of some dozens more circuits on the rear main routes. As in the forward zone, once the telephone habit was acquired, it spread like an epidemic through all departments. This demand for telephones could not be accommodated without considerable construction and the original L. of C. signal service was not designed for the building of permanent routes on a large scale.

Airline sections could in an emergency restore or erect permanent and semi-permanent routes, but they had neither the stores nor the trained personnel to do this on the large scale now required. A unit of an entirely different type was required and, early in 1915, the Director of Signals put forward proposals for the formation of Telegraph Construction Detachments on the Lines of Communication to deal with the new problem. At the same time. Railway Telegraph Detachments were formed to deal with the construction of a special system along the railways which were being built forward in the rear of each army.

These proposals were approved, and with the co-operation of the Post Office large dumps of permanent stores were formed and construction was soon in full swing. This reform involved the addition of 20 officers and 370 men to the Signal Service of the Expeditionary Force. Most of the personnel required was drawn from the Engineering and Maintenance Staffs of the G.P.O. and the British Railway Companies. As the years passed, and the British armies increased in size, the Lines of Communication signal service continued to grow until it finally reached a total of 100 officers and 3358 men. All these officers and men were fully employed in meeting the needs of the L. of C. services and in assisting the Army signal companies in the construction of the large routes which were then necessary, even in Army areas, to deal with a telephone service swollen to very great dimensions.

In the forward areas, where, until December, 1914, poled, ground and trench cable reigned supreme, two factors were soon to exercise a decisive effect. The first — the shortage of cable — already foreshadowed in the autumn of 1914, and now a very important fact, brought about the erection of the bare wire routes to which the name "Comic Airline" was given. The second — the growing intensity of the enemy's artillery fire — gave rise to the buried cable system which was to be the main feature of forward line communication in 1916 and 1917.

When making use of the telephones and exchanges of the civilian system in the evacuated villages of the Ypres-Armentieres district, many signal officers had their attention drawn to other accessories of the system. Once improvisation commences and who can tell where it will end! The shortage of cable was being felt more in all Divisions and Corps as day succeeded day and ever demands for more circuits were received. No more permanent line stores were available than were required for the construction of the rear routes. In any case, the personnel of the forward sections could not have built permanent routes and, even if built, they would not have been suitable for close proximity to the shelled zone. Small inconspicuous routes of a few wires each were required.

Poles were to be had for the cutting, and it occurred to zealous officers that an ample supply of iron and wire bobbin insulators could be salved from the towns and villages of the evacuated zones. This was no sooner thought of than carried out. Before the end of December, construction was in full swing in several Corps and in the early months of 1915 this improvised airline had assumed a definite importance in the area between Corps and Brigade headquarters. A certain unprofessional appearance was characteristic of the routes when compared with the neat black and white poles and service insulators of their more official predecessors. The word "comic" was irresistible in its application to the queer erections that appeared as each individual officer worked into his routes his own peculiar idiosyncrasies. "Comic" airline entered the signal vocabulary at any rate for the duration of the war, and probably until airline is replaced entirely in the far future, possibly by wireless, possibly by some means of communication as yet undreamt of.

Coincident with the development of comic airline occurred the invention of various more pretentious semi-permanent routes. Of these, perhaps the most interesting was the "trestle" route, afterwards generally adopted and standardized by our French allies, Plate VIII. gives a good idea of typical poles on such trestle routes, the great advantage being the large number of wires which could be ran along each route compared with other types of semi-permanent routes. Maintenance also was very easy, the wires on each pole being readily accessible without the aid of climbers.[3]

Forward of Brigades, since the beginning of the war, poled cable and airline had both been at a discount. Both were too conspicuous and therefore too liable to draw fire, while the effect of the blast of a shell many yards away was sufficient to put the latter out of action. Cable suspended on short stakes stuck in the ground at intervals of a few yards was, however, more immune from observation and therefore from deliberately aimed fire. These "staked" routes, as they were called, although more conspicuous and more liable to damage from shell fire, were preferred to ground cable for many reasons. The insulation of the lines was less liable to be destroyed by the almost universal layer of mud and they were also more easily seen by our own men and so less likely to be damaged by traffic. Finally, they were easier to maintain, being easily traced and not mixed up with the tangle of lines which was the drawback to every forward area. For all these reasons, staked routes were fairly popular both with signal officers and linemen and are therefore worthy of notice.

Where these staked routes were not possible and ground cable for many reasons was not liked, trench cable was the last resort of the forward signal officer. Practically all lines forward of battalion headquarters were laid in trenches wherever trenches were available. The evil of indiscriminate laying of lines in what were the only safe channels of communication was soon forced on the attention of everyone concerned. It reacted both ways. Infantry officers and men censured the Signal Service as they stumbled about the trenches by day and by night, falling over wires stretched knee-high across the bottom of a trench, or recoiling from breast-high or neck-high obstructions of a similar nature. Signal officers equally heartily blamed the infantry when lines went "dis" and examination proved either that they had been torn down, deprived of insulation by fires lighted in the bottom of the trench, or maliciously cut. Both condemned the artillery for their share in creating the spider's web that tried the patience of all alike from General down to Private or Pioneer.

As time went on, improvement set in. On the one side it took the form of a slowly-deepening sense of the value of intercommunication as evidenced by rapid artillery support, or even by the punctual arrival of rations, accurately apportioned according to the ration strength telephoned each afternoon from company headquarters. From the Signal Service side, the improvement was manifested in the evolution of better methods of laying trench lines and the coordination of forward signals. Various methods of tidying up trench cable were invented and insisted upon. Frequent inspections by angry General Staff officers gave a fillip to the task. Wooden battens with nicks in which to lay the lines were a great improvement. As these gained in popularity as firewood, inventive Signal Service talent again triumphed over the new difficulty, and they were replaced by more indestructible wire supports. In some cases, lines were pinned along the "berm" of the trench, in others they were placed beneath the duckboards, where they were very safe from traffic but were correspondingly more difficult to maintain. Each and every method was given its fair trial and always advance was made in the direction of an orderly trench line system. These reforms did not take place in a week, a month, or even in a year. The changes were the result of constant adaptation of method, carried out by an exhaustive policy of trial and error, and the evolution of a satisfactory system took a considerable time. At the same time, improvements in supervision became operative and, as artillery and infantry came into line, the old induction and obstruction troubles ceased to occupy so prominent a place in the preoccupations of the signal officer.

While these improvements were taking place in the battle zone, ease of maintenance was being facilitated further back by the collection of the circuits into routes with central testpoints. This policy was persisted in until fresh conditions forced a modification in the autumn of 1917. A well-controlled system was gradually built up and, as conditions improved, the telephone gained in popularity day by day. In early 1916, its use was universal; the official issue of magneto telephones to Divisions and Brigades was imminent, and "D3's" were being turned out in large quantities each month to complete battalions and batteries to scale. Artillery observation posts, each with its own telephone, increased in number daily. This method of signalling was nearing the climax of its popularity with the infantry and the introduction of buried cable had long ago indicated a way in which maintenance troubles could be minimized and still greater expansion carried out.

The future prospect of the telephone would have been rosy in the extreme, but already experiment had proved the existence of a danger which was to strike it to the heart as far as forward areas were concerned. The question of enemy overhearing had arisen in the summer of 1915.[4] Experiment, deduction, Intelligence reports, all combined to prove that the leakage of information to the enemy which had long been noted was intimately connected with the extension of the telephone to the front line trenches. It would indeed have been surprising, in view of later experiments, if he had not been over-hearing, for the practice had arisen in many portions of the front line of running the lines connecting the forward posts along the edge of the barbed wire zone. The impossibility of the survival of lines in and behind the fire trenches was the reason, and on the face of things, a good reason, for this; but the result must have far out-weighed in gravity any advantages we gained from the safety of these lines. The question of overhearing generally is, however, a large and all-embracing one. Intimately wrapped up with it are many incidents which happened in 1916 and 1917. Although first recognized as a menace in 1915 and guarded against that year by many primitive precautions, its main development and result are alike found in later history. Detailed consideration of it will therefore be left until after the description of the first buried cable systems and the discussion of the lessons learnt from the battles of 1915.

In the present section of the History an attempt has been made to indicate the main lines of development of the early telephone service. The concentration of attention on this burning question to the exclusion of everything else has been emphasized. The chief obstacles in the way of efficient telephone communication have been dealt with as they arose, and the methods by which they were overcome have been indicated. By constant alertness, by education both of its own personnel, of telephone subscribers, and of the main mass of the army in France, the Signal Service extricated itself just in time from an awkward situation. Frequent failures of the telephone once more directed attention to supplementary methods of communication. The evolution of trench wireless and the formation of the pigeon service were part of the results of the lessons learnt during this memorable period when the Signal Service was nearer to breakdown than it ever came before or since.

The need for radical reorganization and a great accession of personnel to deal with the special problems of stationary warfare was clearly indicated. Already it formed one of the principal subjects of debate at frequent conferences of signal officers. It was to find expression in the first great reorganization of signals in 1916.

The conferences themselves were the outward and visible sign of the co-operation which had been forced upon signal officers of all ranks and of all kinds of units by the circumstances which pressed so hardly on them and on their men. This co-operation was to have results of increasing importance as time passed. The Signal Service was in a fair way to become a "Corps" in all essentials. With the specialization of the Service and the closing up of signal ranks to find mutual support we see the cause of the birth of an esprit de corps which is now a very valued fact. The times of trial made possible many things in the more successful future. Tactful and zealous advocacy at General Headquarters and at the headquarters of the higher formations, generally, had convinced the Staff that the Signal Service had its rights as well as its responsibilities. The signal officer of a formation must be treated rather as a technical adviser to the Staff than as an executive officer. The first fruits of this was the order giving the Signal Service control over all line communications. The question was to be emphasized yet more during the Battle of the Somme; to emerge from that battle as an established principle.

Already it was accepted as such by the heads of the Signal Service itself and all future reorganization was aimed, and aimed successfully, at relieving the senior signal officer of each formation of his executive duties and establishing him as a member of the Headquarters Staff, in fact, if not in name.


  1. The first metallic circuit trunk (between St. Omer and Bailleul) was built by G.H.Q. Signal Company in November, 1914.
  2. This was the line followed by the Director of Signals and, on January 5th, 1916, an establishment of one 20-line and one 10-line exchange and 20 magneto telephones per division was approved. In December of the same year the issue of magneto telephones and exchanges to R.A. and Infantry Brigades was also authorised.
  3. The latter consideration was one, indeed, which always limited the size of routes which had to be regularly patrolled by the personnel of forward signal units. To overcome the difficulty to a certain extent, four permanent linemen were added to the establishment of each divisional signal company, while an issue of "climbers, pole" to brigade sections was intended for the same purpose. A comparatively mall proportion of field linemen were, however, capable of working on the larger routes. The issue of these stores is of interest as showing a marked difference between the volume and range of enemy shell fire in these days and two years later, but the climbers themselves were seldom used except when the brigades were in "rest."
  4. On June 12th, 1915, enemy messages were reported to be passing over railway metals near Beauvray and Serre in First Army area. Investigation failed to confirm this report, but messages from our own lines were overheard quite plainly

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