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Weapons of World War One:
Communication


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To differentiate an army from an armed mob there must be communication so that soldiers can receive the commands of their officers and commanders can be kept informed on what is happening on a battlefield. This task grew ever more difficult as armies grew larger, and by the turn of the 19th century, Generals were beginning to lose control over events. The plans of great generals often failed to bring victory because those of lesser abilities were left to act on their own. By World War One new technologies were developed that greatly aided communication but as a whole they proved insufficient to satisfy the needs of large armies and substantial problems would remain.

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Battles are noisy events, made ever more loud after the invention of gunpowder. Orders once barked down the line could no longer be clearly heard over the did of musket and cannon fire. While messengers continued to relay elaborate orders, instruments such as the drum were used to signal acoustic commands to the men in the ranks through a commonly understood set of recognizable drum rolls. Sometimes this task was informally preformed by drummer boys who were too young to take up weapons. Great Britain, Germany, and the United States also had varying traditions of establishing a Corps of Drums, which was an actual military unit used for signaling. In a time when men moved and fought in tight formations, a drum beat could also help keep them in lockstep and booster determination when it was most needed. By World War One the drum was no longer essential for communication and had inconsistent use, They can only occasionally be found on postcards, and this is probably based more on tradition than from actual use.

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The horn is an even older method of acoustic communication that evolved from an actual animal horn into the brass bugle. It is a very simple instrument so the acoustic signals it delivers are limited to five notes. They began being employed by the military in the mid-18th century, and by the late 19th century they had largely replaced the drum on the battlefield to deliver quick and simple messages that were universally understood. Though still used by the infantry in World War One, it was primarily a tool of the cavalry that could not be tied down to telephone wires because of the mobile nature of its duties. Depictions of buglers signaling a warning or calling for a charge had long been a motif of military art, and this trend continued on postcards from the Great War.

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Communication between ships had always posed a problem. Messages were sometimes shouted with the aid of an megaphone or small boats would be dispatched between them, but neither of these were adequate solutions when in battle. The problem was solved by employing a strictly visual system of communication that used signal code flags. Although each flag corresponded to a particular letter, abbreviations were primarily used to limit the amount of flags needed to convey a message. This led to less confusion and saved time in hoisting flags up and down a line. While largely replaced by semaphore, these flags were still used during the Great War to send simple signals.

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Semaphore is a system of coded communication in which both the sender and the receiver understand the cipher. The first highly efficient system was developed in France at the end of the 18th century by Claude Chappe. His optical telegraph system employed large rods set atop a tower that could be mechanically manipulated. The crossbar could be set in four different positions, and when used in conjunction with the arms that could be placed in seven different positions, it created a combination of 196 gestures that could be used to spell out messages or create signals. Towers with blades were eventually added to ships foe semaphore signaling but these were vulnerable in combat.

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Navies, which were already using signal code flags to convey words or whole messages readapted the optical telegraph system so that a signalman armed with just a pair of flags could more quickly convey long or elaborate messages. Speed of communication was often crucial during battle. Even though this method was only viable within a range of two miles, semaphore signaling was still widely in use during World War One as radio messages were far from being secure.

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Though flag semaphore was also used by land forces, this method of sending signals was excessively dangerous on a battlefield where the flagmen’s exaggerated gestures made them conspicuous targets. While semaphore was primarily used behind the frontline before more efficient methods of communication were set up, most examples of its use found on postcards depict flagmen at their training camps.

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Although optical systems of semaphore where once referred to as telegraphy, we now only refer to the electronics forms of this methodology as the super magnetic telegraph. Here a coded message is also passed between two parties with an agreed upon cipher (Morse Code), only now it can travel quickly over long distances by means of a sequenced electric impulse transmitted through a wire. The first commercial system was set up in England in 1838 for use by the railways, and it was quickly adopted by the military of many nations in the decades that followed.

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By the First World War nearly every town and city connected by rail service also had a telegraph office. While this network was extensive, lines did not always run to where armies were positioned during the War. Whole new networks of wire had to be strung up to ensure each part of an army could communicate with the next. By 1914 most armies had some sort of Signal Corps that was assigned to manage command and control systems. In Allied armies they would provide the linesmen for building these new networks. Germany had discarded the use of the military telegraph in 1910, but after finding that their reliance on the telephone was inadequate for long distance communication under battle conditions they were forced to return to its use.

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Signal Corps eventually developed portable telegraph stations mounted on wagons. This not only included a station for the operators to type out their message, they were accompanied by large batteries capable of transmitting the message over a long distance. These field telegraphs made it much easier to provide essential communications with armies on the move. While these devises could set up anywhere in theory, they still had to be connected to a network. Sometimes this just meant tapping in to existing lines, but very often linemen had to string out new wire.

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While there a usually many postcards that single out specific pieces of military equipment for display, such as telegraph wagons, it is sometimes possible these devices as just part of an ordinary composition. This occurs most often on real photo cards that primarily meant to capture broad panoramas or trench and camp life.

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If stringing telegraph lines were important for command control, then their destruction was an important task for the enemy. Apart from shell damage, few opportunities arose for the destruction of these lines on the Western Front once the trench line was established. The Eastern Front however was porous and open to constant raids by cavalry, and so telegraph lines were often targeted for destruction. Poles were often chopped down but sometimes they were just easier to burn if kindling was available.

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Linesmen were constantly needed to string telegraph wire from pole to pole because of troop movements. If a frontline was stable then artillery fire and raids often cut these lines and they had to be quickly replaced. Even buried lines were not immune from shell fire. Replacing lines could be highly dangerous work if within range of enemy guns, which it frequently was. This activity was often captured on postcards.

Telegraph wires and poles also fell victim to bad weather. Even when put up carefully and without haste, which was not always the case, a winter snowfall or high winds could cause considerable damage. While keeping lines of communication open was always important, this was especially true during wartime, and waiting for optimal moments to make repairs was not always affordable. Depictions of such scenes not only created high drama that might increase card sales, it was an opportunity to show the risks and ordeals faced by soldiers behind the front lines. These cards were reminders that everyone who does their part in the war effort should be honored.

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Keeping lines of communication open were so important that the activity and soldiers that were involved in this duty were sometimes romanticized on cards. The clearest examples are on regimental cards that honor units of the Signal Corp. While these men are sometimes portrayed in realistic settings, regimental cards often make generous use of allegory.

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Since each letter of a message sent by telegraph had to first be encoded it could significantly slow the transmission of a complex command, which could be highly detrimental during a battle. The limits of this technology were overcome by the invention of a more direct means of communication known as the field telephone. Since its range could not exceed twenty-five miles, it could not completely replace the telegraph but it was still put to great use. Lines were usually strung on short stakes along trench walls from division headquarters to each of its adjoining battalions. Lines were also strung back to communicate with artillery batteries and observers in balloons. For the Army Signal Corps these lines were very similar to those of the telegraph in that they both required miles of vulnerable wire to be strung back from the battlefield. Major lines of communication often had to be buried to better protect them from enemy bombardment and friendly traffic.

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Telephone lines were usually strung out to forward observation posts as the information they provided could be crucial to an attack. They were often used to redirect artillery fire for maximum effect. Repair teams were a constant presence on battlefields where it was essential to keep these lines of communication open, and they often suffered high casualties. The vulnerability of wires in forward positions sometimes led to the use of earth telegraphy in which electrical currents would be transferred along a series of iron poles driven into the ground. While more dependable at short distances, transferring messages through electrical induction was not secure as the message might be picked up by the enemy.

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During a battle communication units often followed directly behind the advancing troops stringing out wire as they went along. This was necessary to keep those in the rear about conditions on the immediate front. While there was much redundancy, command control under these conditions usually deteriorated very rapidly.

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Field telephones required switchboards to be set up to coordinate the vast amount of incoming and outgoing messages. Since they were an essential service they were usually placed in protective bunkers far to the rear. On the Western Front many women (Hello Girls) working for AT&T helped operate the telephone system for the Allies in order to free men for battle. Though these women were inducted into the army, they were denied veteran status at the War’s end.

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The Signal Corp also mounted portable telephone stations onto wagons. While this increased their mobility, it also required them to haul around very heavy batteries. This problem was eventually solved by mounting stations onto trucks that were already equipped with a battery for their engine. Wires still needed to be unwound behind them, but these vehicles could keep communication open in fluid situations.

Communication through radio signals was a new technology that became available to the military in the Great War but its general lack of refinement and fragility insured that it would not play a major role. There were many problems with this new technology; they were bulky, heavy, and fragile devices that required a large crew to operate and carry. Their antennas also made them a conspicuous target for the enemy to spot. They rarely worked well in confined spaces like trenches since they could not be finely tuned. There were also very few radios to be had at this time, and the skilled operators needed to work them and encrypt messages were also scarce. The interception of unencrypted radio messages by the enemy led to a number of disasters during the War. Their scarcity combined with their newness however made them a great curiosity among the public insuring that they would be represented on postcards. Even so cards depicting radios were not produced in great number, possibly due to the lack of information about them.

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Radios were also used for communication over long distances, and they were valuable where wires could not be laid as out at sea. Large antennas were not only built on the coast of Europe but on many small Islands dotting the oceans of the world. They kept communication lines open with warships from various empires that were operating far from home to secure overseas colonies. These radio stations sometimes became targets for naval raids during the War. If destroyed, their isolated locations often made it difficult if not impossible to effect repairs. While radios offered great promise, they were often unreliable out at sea. Ship captains usually preferred the tried and true method of semaphore for ship to ship or ship to shore communication that could be accomplished with flags or signal lamps.

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Signal lamps were another method of military communication, usually used in conjunction with Morse code. The British first employed this method on ships of the Royal Navy in the late 19th century (aldis lamps), and because of their reliability, the practice was adopted by all navies in World War One. While most efficient at night, signal lamps could still be read from a distance of about two and a half miles in daylight. Signal lamps were also used by armies, usually when more direct lines of communication were cut. The Germans made much use of these devices. They also proved to be very useful in mountain warfare, where it was difficult or impossible to lay wire over treacherous terrain.

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All methods of communication were most vulnerable to enemy interference when placed near the front lines, but this is the place that it was most needed if an attack was to succeed. Wires were often quickly cut by incoming artillery fire in battle, and the men in communication units could be cut down as fast as front line infantry. Even the introduction of tanks sometimes cut friendly wires. Often just minutes into a battle, communication began to quickly erode and individual units became isolated. Disrupting communications would become a prime mission of stormtroopers.

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To compensate for the fragility of wires, systems of redundancy were set up that mostly relied on low tech methods. The most common method of communication was through curriers mounted on horseback, bicycle, and motorbikes but this was only efficient behind the lines where they could ride in relative safety over roads. Motorbikes were used in battle where their speed gave them an advantage but dispatch riders could become casualties from random fire alone. Animals such as dogs that could quickly traverse rough terrain were also used to convey messages on the battlefield and they often proved to be the most reliable. Despite all these efforts, poor communication would hamper the functionality of all armies during the Great War.

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One of the most reliable methods of communication on the front lines was the low tech method of employing Messenger Dogs. They could run fast over all types of terrain and and maneuver through tight spots. They where trained to know the location and names of all the outposts that they might be called to respond to. While they were a more difficult target to shoot than a man, thousands of dogs were wounded and killed in this role. While many cards were produced of dogs aiding the wounded and hauling supplies, images of dogs serving as messengers are rare.

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Thousands of trained Carrier Pigeons were used to convey messages on the battlefield. They were housed in wagon or truck mounted coops so they could be relocated when the front lines moved. It took about a week for a pigeon to become familiar enough with its surroundings to act as a currier. They would temporarily be held in small baskets by a pigeon carrier at the front lines for a few days or even in observation balloons to be used as needed.

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Pigeons carried written messages by having them placed a small aluminum cylinder that was seared into the bird’s leg so it couldn’t come loose. Once released from its temporary front line position, the pigeon would fly back to its familiar coop and ring a bell to announce its arrival. When front lines advanced beyond the network of wires, these alternatives methods of communication became necessities. The Germans experimented with strapping small cameras onto pigeons that took pictures through a timer; but this form of reconnaissance was too random to be effective.

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Despite their small size pigeons were very susceptible to enemy fire due to their greater exposure while flying through the air. Even so there are some cases where the messages these birds carried saved the lives of many men as with the famous story of the lost battalion of the Argonne. Individual birds that saved men’s lives suddenly received celebrity status that was expressed on postcards. Many animals that served with special distinction were awarded medals and pensions.




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