The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918 - Authors Preface

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«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Author's Preface
Chapter 1


It has been the endeavour of the compiler of the following account of the activities of the British Signal Service during the European War of 1914 to 1918, to present as clearly as possible an understandable picture of the evolution of signal policy, organization, and practice during these five fateful years. The fact that previous historical accounts of army signal communication have been carried only so far as the South African War of 1899-1901 has, however, caused a slight enlargement of the scope of the present History.

The formation of the Signal Service in 1912 as a separate and integral branch of the Royal Engineers, was undoubtedly the greatest step forward in the evolution of signal policy previous to the European War. As such it has been used here as the foundation upon which the account of the subsequent history of the Service has been built up.

In the present volume the development of the Signal Service in France is dealt with. A companion volume is at present under consideration, which will outline the salient features of signal evolution in other theatres of war, emphasizing especially any particulars in which the conditions of campaigning were such as to cause special local applications of signal practice radically different from those of the main battle front.[1]

Thus, the amphibious nature and the cramped condition of the warfare in Gallipoli; the barren, rocky, and precipitous nature of the terrain on the Salonica front; the extreme mobility and the desert conditions of the campaigns in Palestine and Egypt; the tropical country and the vulnerable lines of communication in East Africa; the arctic conditions in North Russia; etc., all gave a special, and in some cases a unique, direction to the evolution of signal policy and the modification of signal practice, while all also caused certain very definite alterations in signal organization. The general principles on which forward and rear intercommunication systems were built up and the means employed, remained to a certain extent the same, but variations in the method of application were numerous and interesting.

A detailed account of the work of individual signal units, or, indeed, of the intercommunication services as a whole in the different theatres of war is impossible, and, in the opinion of the author, undesirable. Such a description is given in some degree in dealing with the French campaigns, and here a general connected account of the evolution of a signal system under the continually varying conditions of modern warfare can be read. Space does not, however, permit, and records are not sufficiently full to allow of such a description being given for all the subsidiary campaigns. The confines of a single volume can only contain the salient characteristics in which signal policy, organization, and practice differed essentially from those described as being in operation upon the French front.

The History has been compiled from various documents collected during March and April, 1919, in France; from accounts and documents sent home from the various Expeditionary Forces at about the same date or later; from personal accounts — unfortunately far too few in number — of officers who have played a distinguished part in making the history which is now being recorded; and from the war diaries of signal units.

The records are, however, very far from complete, for many essential documents had been destroyed before the decision to preserve the remainder was taken and the request for their submission to War Office or G.H.Q. had been formulated. To this fact must be attributed any omissions which may be noted in the narrative. If critics will forward to the author or to the President of the Signals Association Publications Committee their account of any incidents or variations of policy or practice which they consider should have been inserted, such omissions may be remedied in a later edition of the book.

The most disappointing feature of the available records has undoubtedly been the comparative uselessness of the war diaries of the majority of units.

The difficulties in the way of writing a full war diary were many and great, but its value to the historian and to the successors of the intercommunication service of the time is such that considerable sacrifices should be made in the endeavour to do justice to the happenings of each day. The ideal war diary should contain a record of all vital changes in policy, practice, and organization, together with an account of the matter discussed, the opinions expressed, and the decisions arrived at at conferences of signal officers. All departures from previous or normal practice should be recorded; the reasons for the adoption of the new methods should be explained; the results of experiments and the degree of persistence of innovations should be noted. Such a record would be invaluable from many points of view, and is in itself an indelible witness to the efficiency of the officer who has caused it to be kept.

In view of the practical difficulties certain to be encountered, however, there is much to be said for the practice of keeping as full an account as possible of events from day to day, attaching duplicate copies of all signal instructions, operation orders, circulars, memoranda, maps and diagrams to the war diary each month, and summarizing the chief developments of policy and organization at the close of the month. One thing, in particular, seems quite clear. The diary at Army and Corps headquarters should be kept in the office of the chief signal officer of the formation. An additional record of construction kept by the O.C. Army or Corps Signal Company is useful, but the latter is in no position to record changes either in signal policy or in forward practice, while he is often entirely ignorant of the more interesting details of the process by which such changes have been arrived at.


The present narrative deals principally with the story of the British Signal Service in France. Throughout the chapters devoted to this narrative, three main motifs can be detected. All three are woven together in a connected thread whose continuity is due to a chronological arrangement of facts which has been adhered to as far as possible. The three main themes are, respectively: — the evolution of signal policy, of signal organization, and of signal practice.

Several definite phases of the war as it affected the Signal Service can be recognized, and of these the most important are: — (1) The early mobile phase; (2) The long-continued stationary warfare which characterized the years 1915 to 1917; (3) the retreats of the spring and early summer of 1918; and (4) The final advance in the autumn of 1918,. which brought about the decision of the long struggle.

Each phase reacted on signal policy, organization, and practice ahke, but the first was affected to a less extent than the other two. Running through the whole of the 52 months which intervened between the landing of the Expeditionary Force in France and the signing of the Armistice, certain main principles of signal policy which were tenaciously pursued by the Signals Directorate can be recognized.

The two chief of these were: — (1) The determination to consider mobility the essential feature of decisive warfare which must override all other considerations, no matter how urgent these latter might appear at any one time. (2) The decision to direct all efforts at reorganization towards the one supreme object of making the Chief Signal Officer of each formation an advisory member of the formation Staff rather than an executive officer.

The tenacity with which these two policies were pursued; the difficulties which had to be overcome; the success which finally attended them; are all well displayed in the history of the Service to which they gave the final form. To these two principles, more than to any other factor, the Signal Service may attribute the very substantial measure of success which attended its efforts to adapt itself to every set of conditions met with during the war, and yet to play a worthy part in the final decisive phase.

Signal organization, on the other hand, owed its chief modification to the stationary warfare phase of the war. With the formation of a comparatively rigid line across France and Flanders, an entirely new type of warfare set in, where movement was slow and technical development correspondingly rapid. For many months, the Signal Service struggled manfully with hopelessly inadequate numbers to supply the ever increasing demands for intercommunication. The formation of the stationary warfare signal service with its special personnel to deal with area responsibility, is a chapter in Signal Service history by itself, and has necessarily been dealt with in stages which are to a certain extent inimical to the purely chronological sequence aimed at in the book. Certain definite reorganizations, all directed towards similar ends, can be traced. The final result was the formation of a much modified series of signal units which were capable both of dealing with the greatly increased responsibilities of intercommunication in position warfare, and, at the same time, could revert at need to the comparatively simple system most suitable to the needs of the army in mobile warfare.

Intimately wrapped up with questions of reorganization was the development of a great organization for the construction, maintenance, and working of the rear signal system and for the supply and control of stores and reinforcements.

The chief points of the evolution of the intercommunication service of rear areas may be summarized as the organization of construction units on a large scale and the adoption of a policy of concentration of signal responsibilities along certain main routes arranged on a " chessboard " pattern. The latter policy persisted until late in the war when it was necessarily modified to counteract the disastrous effects of the enemy bombing raids and long range shelling.

The policy of control of signal stores by the Signal Service was early worked out and the necessary organization created; the supply and control of reinforcements was catered for by the formation of a Signal Depot.


Perhaps the most fascinating and most vital of all the aspects of signal development is to be seen in the study of the evolution of forward signal practice and forward signal policy. It was of course near to the immediate scene of infantry and artillery action that signal policy and practice were most decisively affected by the presence of an ingenious and highly-skilled enemy.

The evolution of forward signal policy was affected above all by the increase in the intensity of the warfare, particularly as regards artillery action. As the storm of shot and shell poured by the enemy upon the British lines increased, the maintenance of an efficient line system became a matter of the greatest difficulty. As the batteries, groups and brigades of our own artillery multiplied in numbers, a greater measure of control of our own forward communications by the Signal Service became more and more essential. The final effect of the latter factor was to vest the control of forward signals entirely in the Signal Service's forward representatives.

The former factor, meanwhile, caused the extension of the "danger area" further to the rear, with the result that the Chief Signal Officers of the rear formations gained a progressively greater degree of responsibility for, and power over, forward signals generally.

At the same time, as one method after another proved uncertain, the policy of co-ordination of different means of signalling into combined schemes became more and more a feature of their employment. In 1915, we see the period of evolution of alternative means of signalling; 1916 was the experimental period of the combination of all these means into schemes. In 1917 (which saw the culmination of position warfare) the necessity for economy of energy, personnel, and stores, resulted in the adoption of the single forward route perpendicular to the front of each formation. With the publication of S.S. 148 and its successor S.S. 191, the General Staff set its seal upon the forward signal policy, and, at the same time, admitted the Signal Service to the status of a collaborator rather than an executive servant. The final reversion to mobile warfare in 1918 came only to prove that the lines along which evolution had taken place had been sound; to crown the efforts of the Service with decisive success; and to cement firmly the good relations which had been set up between the Staff and the organization to which the former must look for the conveyance of information and the distribution of their instructions.


Finally, a summary of the evolution of the Signal Service would be incomplete without a survey of the effect of war conditions upon the means of signalling used. It is to these means that the greater portion of the detail of the narrative is devoted. In August, 1914, the Expeditionary Force went to France equipped for a short sharp trial of strength and relying entirely on the telegraph, visual, despatch riders, and orderlies, and upon liaison officers, for all intercommunication. The telegraph form and the message book reigned supreme and, in the hands of the experienced officers of the Regular Army, were potent means of collecting and distributing information.

With the decimation of the original Expeditionary Force and the increasing intensity of stationary warfare, conditions underwent a decisive change. This was first shown by the almost complete suppression of visual and by the extraordinary rise in importance of the telephone which were the chief characteristics of the warfare of 1915. As time passed and artillery fighting continued to increase in intensity and in range of action, the telephone proved inefficient to cope with all circumstances in spite of the adoption of the shallow bury.

The latter portion of 1915 and the early months of 1916 saw the inception of experiments in many directions with the object of reinforcing what was becoming a very unsafe method of intercommunication. The beginning of forward wireless, the formation of the pigeon service, and the rehabilitation of visual, were the outstanding features of a period peculiarly prolific in the evolution of means of signalling.

The battle of the Somme, in later 1916, afforded an opportunity for testing the new means and showed up the good points and shortcomings of them all, while it was also the means of demonstrating the undoubted success of the deep bury and thus illustrating the possibility of the adequate protection of forward lines.

The forward telephone system had, however, received its deathblow in 19 15 by the discovery of the extent of enemy overhearing. The consequent slow strangulation of the service in the grip of the precautions and restrictions imposed upon it in the endeavour to minimise this new danger was a feature of the two succeeding years.

In 1917, we see position warfare reach its maximum intensity with, as a corollary, a still further evolution of means of signalling under intensive warfare conditions. The evolution of the message-carrying rocket; the first tentative experiments with continuous wave wireless for forward work; and the practical success of the Power Buzzer and Amplifier — perhaps the most exotic of all means of signalling — are the characteristics of the year, though its early months were also marked by the general adoption of the daylight signalling lamp which had made its debut, and had at once proved itself a decided success, in the previous autumn. In this year, also, occurred a great extension of the use of the fullerphone as the standard method of forward telegraphy.

The close of this year was signalized by the battle of Cambrai which possessed many particularly interesting aspects from a Signal Service point of view and has therefore appeared to merit special treatment in a^ chapter by itself. This miniature essay in semi-mobile warfare both, in attack and defence, was followed in 1918 by the great reversion to mobile warfare conditions which characterised the final, decisive phase of the war.

In the retreats of the spring and early summer, and the advances of the late summer and autumn of 1918, a marked reversion to type took place. Once more, we see the Armies retreating or advancing at speed with a restricted skeleton signal system closely allied to that of the autumn of 1914.

The greater efficiency and variety of the means in use, however, and the possession of a well considered signal policy, attest the value of the dearly bought experience of the past four years, while the rise of wireless from a somewhat discredited monopoly of the Independent Cavalry to a valued primary means of intercommunication throughout the whole force is perhaps the most striking visible result of the revolution in signal policy which has taken place.

November 11th, 1918, when the signing of the Armistice brought to a close the militant phase of the greatest international struggle the world has ever known, showed a British Expeditionary Force of some 40 Divisions, closely knit together by an intercommunication service which could guarantee the delivery of an urgent message from any one unit to another, from front to rear or from flank to flank of the force, by at least one of several available alternative channels, within a time which need be measured in minutes only. The closely compact and highly specialized Service — already a Corps in all but name — was none too large to cope with its responsibilities, but was as efficient in its day and generation as the personnel of the highly trained signal units of the original Expeditionary Force had been in theirs.


One aim of any History of the Signal Service should be to set forth the basis of tradition. It has been the author's desire to emphasize, without exaggerating, the admirable spirit of determination, co-operation and adaptability to constantly changing circumstances which, above everything else, characterized the Signal Service in the critical years 1914-1918. The standards of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty set by the young Signal Service in these years will doubtless be emulated and improved upon by the Royal Corps of Signals of the future. The record of these five strenuous years should do much towards the maintenance of an esprit dc corps which is already beginning to shine as a guiding light to officers and rank and file alike.

R. E. Priestley.

Christ's College, Cambridge.


  1. Whether this second volume will ever appear must necessarily depend largely upon the reception of its predecessor.

«-- The Signal Service in the European War of 1914 to 1918
Author's Preface
Chapter 1