Field Artillery Training: Signalling 1

semaphore swallows and amazons.JPG

Although there were designated signallers in each battery, the Field Artillery Training syllabus of 1914 calls for twenty hours of semaphore training for recruits. (1)   In another place, the manual specifies that semaphore is part of the individual training of captains, subalterns and non-commissioned officers, and twenty percent of gunners and drivers. (2)

Semaphore (from the Greek, meaning sign-bearer) was only one of the methods of communication used by signallers, but its prominence in the syllabus indicates its long-held importance. Letters of the alphabet and numerals are indicated by relative positions of the two arms:


Astute observers will notice that there is an extra arm in this chart (3), marked a: this is an indicator of the correct orientation of the message, which can be a problem if the signaller is using a “fixed signal” rather than flags, or when at sea a signal may be read from both sides now.

The same astute observer will wonder what happened to the second arm of the first seven letters. It isn’t shown in this chart, because it is pointing directly at the ground in line with the signaller’s trunk. Compare the chart provided by the Encyclopedia Britannica:


The manual assures the reader that “Semaphore signalling with small flags can be read in a clear atmosphere without glasses up to 1200 yards, and with the telescope up to 2000 yards; signalling with the arms can be read up to 600 yards in favourable conditions.” (4)

Semaphore signallers worked in pairs: one to send, one to acknowledge and respond. The process could be speeded up by using two pairs of signallers, “each pair having different coloured flags.Those with the same coloured flags should communicate with each other only.” (4)

The speed of messages was also affected by the length of the poles and the weight of the material of the flags themselves. A good signaller using silk flags could transmit twelve words per minute. (5)

Semaphore reminds me of nothing so much as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, who got so adept at this “scarecrow signalling” that they seemed to the uninitiated to be “windmilling.” In an emergency, clever Nancy used stick figures to convey messages in written messages — in Missee Lee, if I recall correctly. See the heading of this entry.

(1) Field Artillery Training. HMSO. 1914.409.
(2) Field Artillery Training. 2
(3) Field Service Pocket Book. HMSO. 1914. 69
(4) Field Artillery Training. 320-321
(5) “World War I and World War II Communication,” Royal Signals Museum.

Copyright 2016. See “More about this project.”



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