British Army During World War I - Doctrine - Communications


The Royal Engineers Signal Service, formed in 1912, was given responsibility for communications that included signal dispatch, telegraph, telephone and later wireless communications, from army headquarters to brigade and down to battery level for the artillery. For most of the war, the Army's primary methods of communication were signal dispatch (employing runners, messengers on horseback, dogs, and carrier pigeons), visual signalling, telegraph, and telephone. At the start of the war, the Army had a small number of wireless sets, which in addition to being heavy and unreliable, operated on longwave. In 1915, trench wireless sets were introduced, but the transmissions were easily intercepted by the listening Germans.

Civilian telephones were used at the outset of the war, but they were found to be unreliable in the damp, muddy conditions that prevailed. Consequently, the field telephone was designed; a device that operated with its own switchboard. Apart from voice communication, it featured a buzzer unit with a Morse code key, so that it could be used to send and receive coded messages. This facility proved useful when, in the midst of bombardment, exploding shells drowned out voice communication. The telephones were connected by lines that sustained continual damage as a result of shell fire and the movement of troops. The lines were generally buried, with redundant lines set in place to compensate for breakages.

The primary types of visual signalling were Semaphore flags, lamps and flags, lamps and lights, and the heliograph. In open warfare, visual signalling (employing signal flags and the heliograph) was the norm. A competent signaller could transmit 12 words a minute with signal flags (during daylight) and signal lights (at night). Signal lights, which were secured in a wooden case, employed a battery-operated Morse code key. These signalling techniques had certain disadvantages, however. In trench warfare, operators using these methods were forced to expose themselves to enemy fire; while messages sent to the rear by signal lights could not be seen by enemy forces, replies to such messages were readily spotted, and operators were, once again, exposed to enemy fire.

During the war, the Army also trained animals for use in the trenches. Dogs carried messages; horses, mules and dogs were used to lay telephone and telegraph cables. Carrier pigeons, who transported messages back from the front line, were also carried in tanks so that they could deliver messages during an attack. Over 20,000 pigeons and 370 handlers were used during the war, and at times, they were the sole means of communication.

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