Let this sink in for a minute: World War I was the “only war ever fought without voice control.” (1)
All we have seen so far about communication (visual signalling and the use of runners) has been ways to communicate beyond the range of a human voice. Orders had to be delivered across the distances of a long entrenched front, between soldiers at the front lines and those behind the lines, and between units throwing themselves into different sectors of No Man’s Land where no voice could reliably be heard over the din.
Dramatic though that assertion is, it is not quite true, for the telephone certainly enabled voice communication, though perhaps not the kind of immediate transmission of orders in the heat of action that an officer’s shout (in the past) or a radio voice in the ear (more recently) provides.
When the war began, battery signallers were trained in semaphore, the telephone and the buzzer. (3) By 1916, officers in training were being told that the telephone was main form of communication. “It was perhaps not sufficiently recognized in the Artillery in peace how much training is required to keep telephone communication uninterrupted.” (3)
Telephone depended on wire, which came in two forms: field air-line was bare wire strung from pole to pole. The Field Service Pocket Book was confident that 12 non-commissioned officers and men could erect “at least five miles of line and do an average day’s march”. Field cable was an insulated wire laid along the ground: a detachment of eight NCOs and men could lay cable at anything between one and six miles per hour, depending on the terrain and on how long the cable was to remain in place. (4) Once the armies were dug in on the western front, such cables draped the sides of communication trenches. If wires were to cross open ground, artillery officers were advised that the wire should be buried, if possible. A plough, one of “many about in the fields,” was recommended to cut a furrow for the wire.(3)
Burying the cable made it less susceptible to breakage, whether by shellfire or deliberate cutting by the enemy.
(1) Sir Alan Bourne, quoted in John Terraine, White Heat: the New Warfare 1914-1918. London, 1992. 148
(2) Field Artillery Training. 1914. 392
(3) Notes on Field Artillery Training compiled by the officers of the 34th Battery, CFA, CEF. 1916.111
(4) Field Service Pocket Book. 1914. 64
Copyright 2016. See “More about this project.”