It is generally accepted that the commanders of all the belligerent armies on the Western Front were bedevilled by poor communications.
It was an only too common occurrence that when troops were sent forward into enemy territory, be it a trench-raid or as part of a big offensive, the commander would lose virtually all contact with them. In the case of the trench raid it would be until they returned to their lines, or, in the latter event, until the front was stabilised and proper communications could be established. This could be hours or days.
A famous case in point is the so-called American 'Lost battalion'. These 554 men were part of the Hindenburg Line Offensive on the 4th October 1918. After two days they were given up by their commanders for lost, only to return later, 200 strong, to their own lines.
Commanders on the Western Front were not expected to keep up physically with their troops. But, the troops were required to keep him informed of their progress and he to communicate to them new orders and instructions. The problem was, how, and if so, how reliably?
Communications on the battlefield has always been a problem, A Wellington, or a Napoleon, ran their set-piece battles seated on their horse on, or close, to the battlefield. They would directly oversee the battle and give their orders instantaneously, either verbally or by despatch of a mounted messenger. As Napoleon discovered to his cost, this was not always very efficacious. On the other hand, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson routinely used flags to signal from horizon to horizon with a high degree of efficacy. He used a vocabulary of 70,000 different signals using only 18 flags.
Once the armies of the two Great War Powers took to the trenches, such means of overt communication were rarely applicable on the war torn, smoke obscured Western Front.
So, what were the possibilities for establishing communications, and how were they carried out, on the entrenched Western Front?
The most basic form of communication, in any army, is the voice. Shouted orders have always been the first line of communication over short distances in an army. The seemingly over-the-top shouting of NCO's on a barrack square being good practice for how to convey orders to troops in the field. Especially so in the throes of combat amidst the noise of the battlefield.
Soldiers have always used signs made with the hands, head or body to indicate actions that are to be taken. A typical example would be soldiers out on patrol in No man's land, where absolute silence was essential. They devised various ways of passing information to their comrades-in-arms without the need for speech or writing. It would most usually involve hand movements, but fingers alone were particularly effective in indicating numbers.
Whistles/pipes/bugles/horns and sirens
All of us have seen motion pictures of the Great War where a British officer indicates it is time to leave the trenches and 'go over the top' by blasts on a whistle. And how the Scottish battalions went into battle with the skirl of the pipes. Variations of blasts on the whistle were used to indicate other orders, e.g. three rapid blasts might indicate 'retire to own lines'.
Bugles have been, and are, used by many armies as communicators - notably in recent years by the Japanese and Chinese to stimulate charges on the enemy. All the British infantry battalions in the Great War used the bugle to communicate predetermined orders, or instructions, such as 'Reveille = Get up' and 'Last Post = Go to bed'. Other bugle calls were also used for other administrative purposes such as 'the Regiment Sergeant Major is needed by the Commanding Officer', and so on.
Horns and sirens were widely used by British battalions in the front line to warn of gas attacks and the need to don gas masks.
The use of fit young soldiers to carry messages across the battlefield is a time-long practice that was widely used by commanders in the Great War. The motion picture Gallipoli starring Mel Gibson as an Australian soldier gives a graphic depiction of just what was expected of a runner, and the hazards and dangers that were involved in performing this duty.
On occasions, when all other means of communication had been put out of action, or failed, the battalion, or company runner, was the last hope and everything depended on him getting through. The risks were frequently horrendous and many runners were killed or injured.
Semaphores and heliographs
Semaphores are devices that are hand-held or mounted in fixed frames. They pass messages overtly overland by the movement of flags, or lights, using a pre-established code. The heliograph performs the same function by flashing Morse code messages using reflected sunlight as a source of bright light. Alexander the Great is reported as using a burnished shield for the same purpose.
Both these methods have severe disadvantages: they only work by line of sight - both ends of the system must be visible to one-another at all times; some can only work in daylight and all only in good weather conditions. They are readily neutralised by enemy action such as shellfire. The use of the heliograph on the Western Front was contraindicated by the relatively few number of days with bright sunlight.
The final problem, and this was almost insurmountable to any significant degree, was the need to use pre-determined codes as, obviously, the messages of both the semaphore and the heliograph could be read by any observer. This entailed the existence of code books, which had to be continually replaced, with all the confusion and need for organisation that might entail. In the continual to-and-froing of trench war-fare, it was almost impossible to ensure security of the codes for a practical period of time without their falling into the hands of the enemy, or doubts arising whether they had done so.
Rockets, or pyrotechnics, were widely employed on the Western Front for signalling pre-established instructions or orders. Obviously, they worked best at night but, such was their brilliance, they could be used also in the daytime. Variation in the conveyed messages was possible as the rockets were coloured, and combinations could be used, i.e. one red, two green fired simultaneously or close together one after the other.
By 1914, the telegraph, using Morse code, criss-crossed the World by copper wired undersea cables and land lines. It was a standard feature of communications in many countries, and was an extremely efficient means of sending messages over long distances. In the hands of a trained operator it could be very fast indeed. But it had the inherent disadvantage that a message had first to be written out for the telegraph operator, transmitted by him, written out again by the receiving operator, and then the message conveyed to the recipient. Even if code was used, the telegraph line risked being tapped (bugged) by the enemy, the message decoded and read. The connecting land lines, normally carried on wooden poles, were also susceptible to disruption by shelling and other disturbances. The telegraph was not really adaptable to use on the battlefield, and was difficult to expand fast enough to cover the rapid and totally unpredictable movements and changes on the battlefield itself. Accordingly, it did not play a large part in the operational areas of the Western Front but was a major component of the headquarters communications set up.
The telephone was also a well-established means of communication by 1914. On the face of it, the telephone was ideal medium by which a commander could use his own voice, and the nuances it could convey, to maintain contact with his troops, and vice-versa. An immediate rapport could be established, and maintained, on the battlefield. A portable version of the standard telephone was quite light by comparison with the telegraph. Telephone line unreeling apparatus was devised so that a line could be paid out from the backpack of a signaller to follow the user over a considerable distance, and so permit him to maintain his contacts without interruption.
But, upon a closer examination of how the telephone was used on the Western Front, many of the usual difficulties rear their head. It had to be connected to a telephone exchange - however, as a plus this could be located safely outside the area of operations - and this meant telephone wires. Even if these were deeply buried, they were highly susceptible to shellfire and other disturbances. Also these land lines were vulnerable to tapping by the enemy, so again any important messages had to be in code; rather reducing the spontaneity and facility in communication. But it was the best communication medium that was available, and was used extensively in the operational areas the Western Front, as well as at the various headquarters levels, for the whole duration of the War.
The telephone was particularly useful in the remote control of artillery fire from massed guns situated in the rear areas by strategically located forward observers on the ground, and in the air in observation balloons. Due the almost instantaneous nature of the command and response there was no question of compromise by wire-tapping
Many soldiers from the Royal Engineers - the Royal Corps of Signals was not formed until after the Great War - died maintaining the telephone system on, and around, the battlefields of the Western Front.
Wireless telegraphy (a.k.a. W/T or wireless radio) was widely established by 1914, as part of the communication systems of the belligerent nations. Initially, for several reasons, it was not widely used in the areas of operations on the Western Front. Firstly, the early sets were large and cumbersome. Secondly, the difficulty experienced in trying to fine tune the crystals of the receivers to pick up the specific radio signals out of the transmission crowded ether of the trenches and, thirdly, a problem of reliability.
There was also a general paucity of trained operatives.
The usual problem of ensuring the security of the messages sent was always present. The wireless transmissions could be easily picked up and listened to by the enemy. This meant, once again, the need for the provision of codes, code books and all that that entailed on the unstable front lines.
As always, in matters technological, the Germans were at the forefront of its use by its armed forces.
Wireless radio was soon found to be much more suitable for use in observation balloons. Here the management of codes and ciphers were much easier to manage than in the trenches and weight and size was not necessarily a problem. But it was quite late in the War before it began to replace the standard telephone to any extent.
Once the fighter and observation aircraft were sufficiently developed to carry its weight, and the weight of the set coincidentally dropped to 50kg, the wireless telegraph became a standard item of equipment in aircraft particularly for artillery spotting. Towards the end of the war voice radio - ground to air and vice versa - became possible. But, during the War, it was never entirely reliable.
For centuries pigeons were used by the British Army to carry messages - hence the name carrier pigeon - and the practice continued in the Great War, when over 10,000 of these birds were used for this purpose. In practice, they were generally used as a means of last resort. Despite the injuries they received from airborne missiles, explosives and predatory birds, it is said that an amazing 95% of their messages were delivered safely. Medals were awarded for what were thought of as particular acts of avian courage. The French Army has a memorial to their carrier pigeons in the Citadel at Lille. In October 1918, the American 'Lost Battalion', mentioned earlier, despatched a pigeon bearing a note detailing their plight, but it would seem it never arrived.
The Germans and French favoured dogs as message carriers, with similar tales emerging of canine courage. Larger dogs were also used as draught animals and for tasks such as delivering ammunition and medical supplies to troops cut off from the usual means of replenishment.
Throughout the war there were incidents of the code-breakers of both sides deciphering vital communications, and compromising military operations on the Western Front and elsewhere. Other breakthroughs arose from the sheer incompetence, or negligence, of members of the Armed Forces failing to follow security instructions. Perhaps, two classic cases being: the garrulous, over-confident French General Neville allowing the Germans to learn the details of his disastrous Chemin des Dames Offensive in 1917; and the British torpedo-boat captain who, contrary to all orders, took with him on the first, aborted, 1918 Zeebrugge Raid the operational orders, and then grounded on a sand bank, leading to the inevitable capture, by the subsequently delighted Germans, of his ship, crew and the operational plans.
Communications in war are only ever as secure as their users permit them to be.
Finally, a case can be made that if the British Army on the Western Front had had access to a portable, battery operated radio, with a secure scrambling system to protect security, then whole conduct of the war would have been different. Of course, since, sooner or later, all of the belligerent nations would have had access to the same portable radio technology; the value of the monopoly would be short lived. It is also impossible to conjecture just how would the War have been conducted differently overall, or on a day-to-day basis. But what can be said is, with the usual caveats of probable cause, that since portable radios have become a standard item on the battlefield, there have been dozens of wars, big and small. But there has never been since 1914-18 trench warfare on the scale and duration of that which reigned on the Western Front.