** World War I -- communications technology








World War I: Military Communications--Communications Technology


Figure 1.--Here a British despatch rider, we believe eraly in the War, is making some adjustments to his Triumph 1914 Model H Roadster at Nesle, France. Some French girls wearing smocks look on. If they had been boys they wiukd ahve been more impressed. Notice the blackened headlight. Nesle in nortwestern France close to the Somme where the British fought a huge, costly battle in 1916. The village is just south of the trench line. Notice the background. The village was cleerly in range of German shelling, but as only one or two homes have been destroyed apparently beyond effective range.

Communications is vital to any military organization and camaign. Communications is how command and control is exercized over time and distance. Military communications were largely unchanged since ancient times until the mid-19th century. Banners, pennants, fire signals, music, and messengers (horns and trumphets) were the primary methods used. Ceasar used them and so did Napoleon. The telegram revolutionized military communications and was fairly secure. Despite all the modern technical innovations, battlefield command an control during World War I was not greatly different than that of that of the 19th century and earlier periods. There were various methods used by commanders in rear areas to keep in contact with their various units. Runners and couriers were used with the motor cycle replacing the horse. Signal flags, mirrors, flashing lights, and other metods were used. Dogs were also used, but the tendency of front line units to adopt them as pets meant they often were not returned to headqurters. Telephone lines could be string to the trenches. The problem occurred when offensives were launched. Once an offensive was set in motion, the commanders in the rear in the chaos of battle essentially lost contact with their advancing forward elements. Innovations were attempted such as dropping messages by air, but this was not the same as two-way messaging. The telegraph and telephone had been invented (mid-19th century) and these these instruments were very effective in establishing contact between army commanders and unit commanders, but not front line units especially those on the move. Lines had to be strung. And radios were to heavy by advancing combat troops. World War I armies had a half century to adjust to the telegram. While national cable systems were relartively secure. International cables were a different matter and outside Europe largely controlled by the Allies, especilly the British. The wireless was a different matter. It had enormous military potential far beyound the telegtam. But it was very new and still being developed. It was also very insecure. World War I armies and navies operated largely independently in World War I. This is one reason that navies formed infantry forces (marines). The codes used by combatant armies and navies were different. A naval ship could have a small easily secured wireless abnd coding message center. Army field units, especially mobile units, faced a more difficult challenge. And there was a need to develop new codes with the deployment of the new wireless. Telegraph codes were relarively secure. While little progress was made in battle-field commsnd and control, the appearance of radio sets just before the War did revolutionize military communications, both art sea and on land. The fact that signals naval and and army commanders were transmitted for the first time meant that interception was possible on a large scale for the first time. Wireless communications were insecure because they could be easily picked up by the enemy. It took some time for the military forces to adjust to this new reality through several years of fighting. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was unprepared for this when it arrived in France.

Importance

Communications is vital to any military organization and camaign. Communications is how command and control is exercized over time and distance. Command and control since the development of armies of any size. There are cpuntless batlles in which commnd and control has affected the outcome. The Persian loss of comtrol at Gaugamela (331) resulted in the defeat of their huge army. Alexabder victoirues were cinnonly ba matter of maibtaining command and control. This is true of many bimprtant commanders. This has continued to the moder day. The great Germsn vicyory in the West (May-June 1949 was n large mneasure destoying French coimmand and control.

Historical Methods

Military communications were largely unchanged since ancient times until the mid-19th century. Banners, pennants, fire signals, music, and messengers (horns and trumphets) were the primary methods used. Ceasar used them and so did Napoleon. But all these various nethods involved a narrow range of messages. Despite all the modern technical innovations, battlefield command and control during World War I was not greatly different than that of that of the 19th century and earlier periods. There were various methods used by commanders in rear areas to keep in contact with their various units. Runners and couriers were vital with armies on the move. Singal flags, smole, mirrors, flashing lights, and other metods were used. Dogs were also used, but the tendency of front line units to adopt them as pets meant they often were not returned to headqurters. Noting really substituted fir verbal or written messages.

19th Century Innovations


The telegram

The telegram was developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse and others experimenting with electrical signals. They revolutionized long-distance communication. And army officers soon recognized the military importance and revolutionizxed militar communications. The telefram olazyed huge rolde role in the American Civil War (1861-65). The telegram prived to be valuable at the tactical, operational, and strategic level. The huge northerm telegrsph system played a role in the Federal victory. The more limited souther system mant that the Confederav=cu could make less use of it. The United States Military Telegraph Service (USMT) sent sdome 6.5 million messages during the War and added 5,000 miles of line. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant describd his relsnce on the telegraph, noting thst he 'held frequent conversations over the wires' about strategy with Secretary of War Stanton during 1863. He described conversation lasting 2 hours. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman described the 'perfect concert of action' between his forces in Georgia and Grant in Virginia during 1864. President Lincoln was glud to the telephine lines during mnajor battles. And the telegaph was fairy secure. That is because telegram wires involved lines strung behind front lines and were thus not easily acceable by the eneny.

Internationl cables

Internationl cables were long distance telegrams. As a result they were not combat messages, but could nontain messages of considrable importance. International cables were a different matter and outside Europe largely controlled by the Allies, especilly the British. The Zimmermann Telegram was perhaps the most importnt cable sent during World war I.

Telephone

Telephone lines could be strung to the trenches. The telephone was a step above the telegram because more nuanced conversations could be conducted and there wa no delay in sending and decciphering Morse code. And it was secure because all the lines were in or behind the trenches.

Early 20th Century Innovations: Radio Communications

World War I armies had a half century to adjust to the telegram. While national cable systems were relartively secure. The wireless (radio) was an entirely different matter. It had enormous military potential far beyound the telegtam. But it was very new and still being developed. Wireless first came to the public conciouness with the RMS Titanic Disaster (1912). Only modernships and naval vessels had wireless at the time. Wireless was also very insecure. Unlike telegrams. Beligerant nations could receive radio eneny messages at some distance from the battlefield. World War I armies and navies operated largely independently in World War I. This is one reason that navies formed infantry forces (marines). The codes used by combatant armies and navies were different. A naval ship could have a small easily secured wireless and coding message center. Army field units, especially mobile units, faced a more difficult challenge. And there was a need to develop new codes with the deployment of the new wireless. Telegraph codes were relarively secure. While little progress was made in battle-field commsnd and control, the appearance of radio sets just before the War did revolutionize military communications, both art sea and on land. The fact that signals naval and and army commanders were transmitted for the first time meant that interception was possible on a large scale for the first time. Wireless communications were insecure because they could be easily picked up by the enemy. It took some time for the military forces to adjust to this new reality through several years of fighting. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was unprepared for this when it arrived in France. Experimentation brought major advances. In America, AT&T developed two-way voice communication with airplanes, although this would only become practical after the War. The U.S. Army installed the first operational two-way radios in planes, prior to U.S. involvement. This development began in 1915 at San Diego, and by 1916 technicians could send a radio telegraph over a distance of 140 miles. Radio telegraph messages were also exchanged between planes in flight. And finally in 1917, a human voice was transmitted by radio from a plane in flight to an operator on the ground for the first time. These developments weee, however, not incorprate in World war I combat. It dis mean that the technology would be available for World War II.

Combat and Movement Problem

The problem occurred when offensives were launched. Once an offensive was set in motion, the commanders in the rear in the chaos of battle essentially lost contact with their advancing forward elements. Also imprtant were the associated units on thectwo flanks. It was vital to remain in contact when mocing. In the trenches thgere was no oroblem, but when moving cointact was absolutely vital. Innovations were attempted such as dropping messages by air, but this was not the same as two-way messaging. The telegraph and telephone had been invented (mid-19th century) and these these instruments were very effective in establishing contact between army commanders and unit commanders, but not front line units especially those on the move. Lines had to be strung. And radios were to heavy by advancing combat troops.

Messengers/Runners

Way before when Pheidippides delivered the message of the Greek victiry at Maralon to Athens (490 BC), the messenger has been was vital in military communications. Messengers commonly delivered vital military messages on horseback. All of this had not changed at the time of World War I. Wireless communication was still primitive, radio sets were bulky and front line units had no access to them. They were for headquarters commanders communicating with other headquarters units and overall commanders. For frontline units, the runner was still used for communications--just like Pheidippides. The horse back messenger was gone, replaced by motorcyvcle riders, but not at the front. Any one above ground and not below ground n the trenches was a target. And this meant runners. Delivering messages at the front was one of the most dangerous assignments of the War. Runners were more dependable than inreliable phoine connection. Runners ould memorize complicated messages or carry detailed messagfes. And they could locate and deliver to hard-to-find places. And they were vital in keeping contact with flanking units. The men were mostly low-ranking non-commissioned officers, often corporals. Qualification involved physical fitness and stamina. yhey had to be able tgo read maps. They needed to be resourceful enough to reliably reach their assigned destination even in terrible wearger conditions. And it is not just eneny fire they had to be worried about. When they moved beyond their own unit, the orobklemn of friendly fire surfaced. We don't read much about runners. We mostly read about battlefiekd heoics. Innfact, the only runner really known to history besides Pheidippides was Cpl. Adolf Hitler who was awarded an Iron Cross by his Jewush commander.

World War II

All the major combatant armies in World War I used similar communications systems with messengers and runners. espcially on the Wesrern Friont. We suspect that the Russians and Ottomans had fewere motorcycles. The situation was different in World War II. During the unter-War years, radio had developoed significantly bith technologiucally and commercially. Despite the Depression, Ameruca's free marjet capitalist economy meant most American families had radios in their homes. In Germany, MAZI Propaganda and Enlightenment Minister Josef Goebbels thought that it was vital that every Gernan citizen be regaled by the thoughts and musings of the inafalable Führer Adolf Hitler in their homes. So a major project was kaunched to create a low-cost radio that even the poorest worker could afford--one of many programs that turned many skeptical Germans into NAZI supporters. The result was the Volksempfänger Radio Set. This not only put a radio in every German home, but made possible a huhe expamsion of the German electronics industry. And thge engenious minds in the Wehrmacht hit upon the idea of installing radios throughout the military chain of command which they could do at low cost. (The American electronics industry was still much larger, but until 1940 the American Army was tiny, still only capable of quelling indian uprisings in the West. We are not entirely sure about the British Army, but the French Army was still using World War I communicatiins systems. They dis not even have radios in their tanks. Much has been written about Herman aircraft and tanks , but in 1940 the numbers do not reveal a major German advantage in the West, it wsas tghe tactics of Bkitzkrieg made possible by a much more modern communicatiins system that made the victory in the Frenbch campaign possible.







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Created: 12:32 AM 3/9/2015
Last updated: 10:06 PM 8/2/2021