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Beyond Wires and Pigeons – Communications in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special


Communications. An army lives and dies by
it. Where must the men be? When must they get there? How strong is the enemy? Where
is the enemy? During the First World War, one of the biggest problems of all was poor
communications, even though technological advances were made all the time. Let’s check
it out. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War
special episode about communications in World War . The main methods of communications that were
used from the war’s beginning to end, runners and telephones, were relatively reliable in
static trenches, but often failed completely once soldiers left the trenches. The defense
would be able to receive information and updates about the attack. Their telephone lines were
dug in and could withstand some artillery hits and their runners could use the communication
trenches for some protection. They could then react by calling artillery or machine guns
into action or effectively commit their reserve forces, but the army on offense, once the
soldiers left the trenches, lost all communications and often did not have any real awareness
of what was actually going on. They could often not change their axis of attack nor
effectively commit their reserves to exploit success. Any pieces of information that did
make it back to a higher HQ were often very brief and only dealt with the situation in
the very near vicinity of the person sending the report. Collating reports to determine the overall state of the entire attack was close to impossible They did, of course, try everything they could
think of to maintain communication in the attack, including runners, but they were as
vulnerable as everyone else and often failed to make it back across no-mans land; they
carried telephone wire forward, but both carrier and wire were seriously exposed to the enemy;
they used spotters in planes and balloons, which had a slew of problems. Early on there
was no radio, so pilots would write their dispatches down and drop them at HQ, but that
caused delays, and it was often tough to tell what was going on anyhow. Several times this
problem was tackled by having soldiers wear reflective signs on their backs, but if they
retreated or lay down they became brilliant targets for the enemy. Pigeons were used,
but they were a one-way communication and also took time since the coops were often
at senior headquarters, not regional. They used semaphore, but that was also one-way
since the sender with the troops would have to expose himself to send, and they used flares,
but you couldn’t do complex signalling with only a couple of different color flares, especially
when the enemy was using the same color flares, which could create tragic misunderstandings.
By 1918, the infantry carried radios and they were becoming more common in tanks, but even
at the end of the war, they were still comparatively rare. At the very beginning of the war, the telegraph
was the quickest and most efficient communications method. However, it wasn’t very suitable
during the Allied retreat to the Marne because of the time it took to lay the cables, so
they would often have to rely on other means during that mobile phase of the war. The dispatch
riders used motorcycles to carry messages, and did an excellent job, considering that
they often had poor maps, incomplete information about unit locations, were on poor roads with
no signs, or riding at night. The allies also had the French phone system, but it wasn’t
very reliable and they were in conflict with French civilians for use of the lines. It was the Germans who first effectively practiced
electronic warfare. At the Battle of Tannenberg, the Germans intercepted unencrypted Russian
radio communications. See, the Russians had two codes, an older code that they knew that
the Germans had broken before the war, and a new code, but they didn’t have enough
of the new codebooks to go around, so they just hoped the Germans weren’t listening.
They were wrong. On the Western Front, the British were using
a lot of field phones. These phones were of the ‘earth return’ variety, which meant
that a single strand of cable was laid with the circuit being completed through the ground
itself by putting a stake in the ground on both ends. That was good, as you only needed
to lay a single strand of cable, but bad because all the Germans had to do was put their own
stake in the ground and listen in, which they did, using Moritz listening sets. The British
did not figure out that the Germans could listen in until the summer of 1915. That year saw much less visual signaling and
a big increase telephone use, and this was the main communication system for most of
this year. This year also saw the increase of almost all other types of signaling including
pigeons, dogs, flares, rockets, and a more sophisticated system of runners, like Adolf
Hitler, who was a Regimental runner during WW1 and would have primarily been responsible
for messages going from Regiment HQ down to Battalion HQ and back. Radios had made little headway in the army
and really only at the higher HQ, but were used by the Royal Flying Corps for artillery
spotting. One big problem, though, was the weight of the radio, 70 lbs, meant that the
spotter had to be left behind and the pilot had to both fly and operate the radio. By this time the Germans were getting good
at intercepting British phone communications and often knew of the British plans in advance
– to the point of shouting welcomes to new British regiments at the front. So the British
needed a better system of communications, and toward the end of the year Captain Algernon
Fuller, later Major General Fuller in World War Two, invented the Fullerphone, a DC line
telegraph that was mostly immune to interception. This helped, but by 1916, as artillery increased
in intensity, the lines were frequently cut and had to be buried deeper and deeper. By
the battle of the Somme, the ‘deep bury’ was common with lines dug in to at least 3
feet- about a meter. In the Ypres Salient, lines had to be buried twice as deep just
to survive the regular, heavy artillery. As the year progressed, concerted efforts
were really being made to maintain line communications. First, they had signals detachments located
very far forward who were available to fix any broken lines as quickly as possible; second,
they began developing sophisticated line layouts so that if one line was broken you could be
connected to different lines that were not broken, and third they started to use ‘ladder
lines’. These lines were wired together in a ladder format – two parallel lines
several hundred meters apart going backward from the front, and they were interconnected
with lines between them every 50 or 75m. They could take a lot of damage and still pass
the signal. In 1917, the use of wireless radio became
much more widespread, but continued to be at Divisional HQ and higher. The sets were
bulky, heavy, and had large inefficient batteries, so they were physically hard to move around
and they also had big antenna systems until the loop antenna was invented later in the
war. A few tanks had radios installed, but they also had to have extensive antenna systems
mounted on them. Command structures and the duties of Signals units constantly evolved,
and everyone eventually saw that signals had to be controlled all the way down to the unit
level; any other systems produced chaos. Even so, still in 1918, there could be huge
problems. The German offensive resulted in the loss of a significant amount of signals
equipment, phones, lines, radios, etc. The only way Allied communications continued to
function at all was through a secondary, emergency cable system, undetected by the Germans. By
the last few months of the war, though, the Allies had developed very effective and efficient
communication systems that were able to provide reliable communications during the final,
mobile phase of the war. Signals, like many of the other branches of
the army, was completely reinvented during the war. In 4 years Signals really went from
its infancy to an organization that was very close to what it would remain for the rest
of the 20th century and even today. The technology has changed and there are many more soldiers
trained in signals but the doctrine is very similar – even the line diagrams from the
end of the war look like our current line diagrams. It’s really amazing when you think
of how far communications developed in just four years, think of the thousands of men
killed in botched operations that may have lived had it happened earlier. Now, this special has, as you may have noticed,
focused pretty much on the Western Front. The reasons for that are that that’s where
you saw the development most clearly, and also the research for this was provided by
Mike Hayes, a communications and signals officer in the Canadian army for over 20 years. Thank
you, Mike, we’re very grateful for your help. I briefly mentioned Adolf Hitler and even
though he was “only” a dispatch runner, the war had a profound impact on him. You
can find out all about him during the war right here. For some cool pictures of battleships, you
can check out our Instagram page. Don’t forget to subscribe and see you Thursdays.

100 Replies to “Beyond Wires and Pigeons – Communications in World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special”

  • Yes, thanks +MikeHayes (Probably incorrect spelling). A wonderful episode which I hadn't considered.
    I love the way the community gets involved in writing these episodes.

  • Amazing that the destructive force of war can lead to such creativity and ingenuity resulting in great leaps of technological advancement.

  • Here's a YouTube about the "Fullerphone." I suspect the poster is a descendant of Capt. AC Fuller.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7boaDbwWYM

  • Another question, sorry if it has already been addressed, but when, where, and why did they start calling it World War One? Also, since there were several other world wars by modern historical definition, like the Seven Years War, why isn't this called World War 10 or something? Thanks

  • Interesting one, Indy. It's a shame so many men had to die on offensives because they only had pigeons, phones, and Hitlers available for communication with the rear.
    Question: Was there any attempt to use telepathy or did they not want to take their helmets off?

  • Hey Indy, really enjoy the show, i have a question though. A lot of guns, especially big guns are used as footage in this video, but who made them? There most have been some people who made a lot of money of the war.

  • Reliable radio communication was also notoriously problematic during the early stages of WW2.

    The French had superior tank numbers, better tanks as well as a much more heavily mechanised force, (keep in mind the PZIV was not built in sufficient numbers until later, much of the Wehrmacht was still horse drawn with light tanks) but could not coordinate as well due to the fact that radios were rare and often unreliable in their tanks. German tank doctrine on the other hand required widespread use of radios. Their tactics would simply not work as well, or would have likely failed without reliable communication between each part of the Wehrmacht.

  • Indy,
    Thanks to you and the entire crew at The Great War for putting together an amazing series. I am currently studying history and plan on pursuing history as a career after completing my undergraduate and graduate studies and what you folks do is an inspiration for how history education can be done in a fashion that is informative and entertaining.

    As a former US Navy Seabee, engineering and construction under combat conditions is something that seems under appreciated and documented, especially prior to the Second World War. You have talked about the trenches and the general purposes of the various types of trenches, but not about the engineers that built them and break them. How did military construction and demolition engineering evolve throughout the course of the First World War?

    Keep up the awesome work!

  • Pigeons also had another disadvantage, being shot by soldiers of both sides especially as the war went on. They would provide meat to supplement rations.

  • A very good episode. I'm convinced that the main difference between WWI and WWII as far as mobility wasn't the tank or the aircraft but the improved command control that came with smaller more powerful radios and other communications devices.

    As well, one form of 'communications' improvement that wasn't mentioned but should be was decentralization of command. For example, in 1917 Author Currie recommended greater battlefield control be passed down to junior officers and NCOs. So at the assault on Vimy, EVERY solider new his platoon's objectives, where they were on a map and battlefield and how long they were expected to hold. So even if the officer and senior NCO were killed or wounder (not an unusual occurrence) the platoon could still preform its part of the plan.

    That is redundancy on a whole different scale.

  • So, two questions, did Germany have alot more people skilled in different languages than England or Russia and that's why they were able to decipher enemy communications? And I guess more importantly, was it poor communications that led to such poor choices made by higher ups on both sides, or was their constant bad decisions by those men that hurt communications between soldiers?

  • great episode!!! i was stunned to hear you use a canadian signals guy for this episode. as a canadian forces armoured reconnaissance trooper, i laid out my fair share of line myself and worked rather closely with signals:) very cool to see the history!

  • Pigeons are dumb and always shit on my car

    Fuck you Martha you broke my heart and stole my son away, I'll never trust again because of you

  • The lack of technology is why astrophysicists need to figure out how to travel backwards through time. I want to go back in time and give everybody modern technology. But I'd go back earlier. At the very least, to the American Revolution, supplying the Continental Army and its Skraeling allies with 21st-century weapons, medicine, etc. If not that, then perhaps to the early 11th century and help Leif Ericsson and his men permanently settle the New World. I'd do the same things as above, skipping the Norse and Skraelings ahead to 21st-century weapons, medicine, knowledge, technology, social mores, etc. Fuck the past for being so backward. They need the astrophysical equivalent of a Steam update.

    Along the way, I'd also do what others failed to do: Kill Hitler. Preferably, I'd go back and do it before his rise to power, especially as a child, or whack his parents before he was born.

  • I'm going into the army as an communications soldier. So this was a very intresting history lesson for me. Now i got a chance to see what had come before and how everything was when it wasn't as developed today.
    Love the show, i'm always watching a couple of episodes before i go to work.
    Thanks Indy and team.

  • For a channel so great, you guys really deserve more subscribers than you have as is. 300k for something more well put together than channels with 10+ million? It's a shame to see the lack of interest in the Great Wars.

  • Excellent discussion of one of the most important problems/issues of the entire war.  Time and again in the media and popular opinion, we hear denunciation of the generals without any consideration of the almost insurmountable communications problems they were confronted with.  Thanks, great video.

  • This was great. People don't really know how big of an issue communications is even in modern era. Civilian GSM and satellite network give a false impression of its ease during a real modern v modern nation warfare.

  • I always find the communications technology very interesting. My great grandfather was in the US Army and was awarded the Silver Star for laying down communication lines under German fire. I'm a network engineer and it's interesting because early communication innovations follow some of the same principles (signaling protocols, redundancy, etc.) we do today albeit in a much more basic way.

  • Anyone know what's going on in that piece of footage at 1:35 with the man stumbling back towards friendly trench from the field with a pair of pails in his hands?

  • great episode! fun fact, up to and during WW2, in Portugal, a neutral country, every city, town and village was obligated to have courrier pigeons available for an eventual war and breakdown of communications

  • They say that there is always a silver lining. If anything good came about WW1 , it is the fact that a generation of technological development happened in just four years.

  • Hi Indy and the team. This is a really brilliant summary of a very complicated story. The Great War was a period of incredible, fast paced, evolution in communication technology but the war also saw a revolution in the skills required by the soldiers who had to make it all work. Did you know ? At the beginning of WW1 there were 6,000 signallers by the end there were 70,000. The stories of these soldiers and equipment are told at the Royal Signals Museum in Blandford, Dorset, UK. We would love to show your film to our visitors and would of course and promote your site through the Museum and our social networks. Would that be possible? Adam Forty Business Development Manager Royal Signals Museum, England.

  • Are those… things at 2:22 film smudges? Also, somewhat fun stuff in a grim subject, two troopers pedaling to work the huge radio.

  • I was a signaller in the CF as well, my unit still has some of the equipment used during the war such as an old switch board and radio set.

  • Necessity may be the mother of invention, but war is the mother of necessity.

    No matter what you may think of war, technology developed or refined during war and technology made for future wars are integral to modern society.

  • Hey there guys I have a question for the next Out of the trenches if you are willing. I am very curious on how average soldiers would deal with the dead on an average day to day basis. Where would they put the unprecedented number of men killed not counting MIA? Also how would they deal with the buried? I have read something about a German combat engineer battalion that dug and fortified a trench running through a cemetery. thanks a bunch Indy and crew

  • So I realize I'm a year late but as I understand it these communication problems were the root of latter (and modern) infantry tactics, where infantry units could break up into smaller, semi-independent groups whose leaders would be given their objectives and allowed to use their own judgement achieving them without having to constantly communicate to a distant command group for orders.

  • British Nighttime Ambush Goes Into Action Moving Towards The German Trench Germans: Welcome To The Front! British Unit: Thanks Mate! Wait, What?

  • My grandfather fought in World War I and single-handedly destroyed the Germans’ line of communication. He ate their pigeon.

  • I know this is a bit late, but any chance you could describe a little some of the techniques all sides used in 'coding' communications? Were phrases used? Letter substitution in telegraph messages? Just wondering.

  • Have you done an episode on the postal service between soldiers and their families back home?

    We have some of my great grandfather's letters to his family. He fought on the Western front for the Germans but he was from the Danish minority in Schleswig (the part we got back in 1920 due to the war).

    He seems to be completely up to date with what's going on in the family + he sometimes thanks them for sending cakes etc. so we know that the delivery times were relatively short.

    So, his letters were in Danish. Were the letters checked by censors? How did the multi-lingual powers cope with all those languages?

    How fast and reliable were the various postal services during the war?

  • Interestingly in WWII one of the big advantages the US had was they had more advanced radios then the other countries during the war. This allowed officers to call in reinforcements & artillery in a way the Germans and Japanese couldn't.

  • Great episode! dammit that I found the channel nearly 3 years late and have to catch up with allot.
    Hopefully you still answer questions:
    What about the state of cryptology in WW1, could you see the later developments like the Enigma or other sch things?

  • my Great grand father was a runner in France and on my mothers side my Great Grand father was with a machine gun group but his brother was also a runner and both finished the war with Military Medals one for risking his life running messages the other for standing his ground during a Flamethrower attack, where the entire group fled or where killed by fire, he jumped on the machine gun (he was a loader) and killed most the germans and a few got to flee, he held the key position. His commanders where very happy he wasnt afraid of fire.

  • So, could you expand a little on the problem with using a telephone cable spool during an assault? I don't really get why you couldn't.

  • Question for out of the Trenches: How did people and soldiers in Austria Hungary and the other Empires communicate with each other with all those different languages? I heard that many soldiers in the Austrian Empire had to resort to using English as a Lingua Franca. Surely they would've all learnt German at school why could they not speak German and use it as a Lingua Franca?

  • Question for out of the Trenches: How did people and soldiers in Austria Hungary and the other Empires communicate with each other with all those different languages? I heard that many soldiers in the Austrian Empire had to resort to using English as a Lingua Franca which they learnt in preparation for emmigrating to the US one day. Surely they would've all learnt German at school why could they not speak German and use it as a Lingua Franca?

  • For the story of one soldier in communication read Frank Richards highly enjoyable "Old soldiers never die" a pre-war regular he was called back to service with the RWF, serving under famed writer Robert Graves, he won the DCM and MM working mainly to keep phone lines in good shape-running through the fields during actions to try to find breaks in the wire. if this could not be fixed he was trained in using heliograph and semaphore. Richards served for 4 years and the only time he was in hospital was for hemeroids.

  • Hey, Flo (or whoever gets this, hi!) can I get the specific source for the unencrypted Russian communications at the Battle of Tannenburg? I'm a history student focusing on military history at a military university, and the son of a US Navy cryptographer, so we'd like to use that when talking about ELINT.

  • On page 28 of his book 'The Eastern Front 1914-18: The Suicide of Empires' Alan Clark writes (about the key message intercept before Tannenberg) "in the late afternoon, an intercepted message from Rennenkampf to his corps commanders confirmed that the Russians had been halted. Barely had this message been decoded (the Russians were using a simple block code which had been broken at the outset of the campaign by a mathematics professor attached to VIII Army HQ) when a second one was brought to Prittwitz of still greater importance."

  • For further information on WW1 Motorcycles read :
    "The World encyclopedia of Military Motorcycles"
    by Pat Ware (Anness publishing Ltd 2010)
    And on dispatch riders read :
    "A Motorcycle Courier in the Great War"
    by Captain W.H.L Watson (Pen & Sword Military 2013)

  • Technology sure is incredible, especially in telecommunications. I just imagine how both sides in The Great War already spying each other by listening the telephone cable of their enemy. I mean, it can sound like This:

    Soldier A: Are you sure this line is secure? Do you know that German could listening this conversation?
    Soldier B: Well…. Let me test it. "To German Soldier who listening this conversation, please wear a silly hat when you attack tomorrow".

    It turns out that every single Germans soldier that tried to attack wear a silly hat.

  • This is really cool to me. I'm an army lineman, and it's amazing how much has changed, and how much has remained static over the last century.

  • It’s crazy to think without these two wars, we wouldn’t be as far forward with technology today! Just incredible

  • My great grandfather was a messenger in the war for the British. He rode a motorcycle to deliver messages probably through battle. At one point he got some of his fingers blown off from picking up a booby trap that he thought was and artefact. It’s to bad he died before I was born.

  • Here’s a question for “Out of The Trenches”. What was the role of The Irish and Ireland in the Great War, Also did the war have an impact on the Easter Rebellion?

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