Army Signals in World War One and the role of the Royal Engineers

This bulletin is inspired by a series of articles reproduced by the Royal Signals Amateur Radio Society and Published in their journal – Mercury, numbers 172 to 174 in 2016, the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

These articles covered the formation of Military Signalling prior to 1908 during the Crimean and Boer wars as described by the Royal Signals Museum. They focus on the duties performed by Sappers of the Royal Engineers during World War One, with thanks to WAP Weale, GW0WEE who’s introduction is below. This provides links to further accounts of the sappers themselves made available via the world wide web.

Pre World War One – Organisation
14484776_10154135290989751_754980199789314715_nIn 1908 the Telegraph Battalion Royal Engineers based at Aldershot and two companies based in London for telegraph and postal duties formed the nucleus of the Royal Engineers (RE) Signal Service. This organisation provided for the army’s signalling requirements throughout the First World War, it provided motorcycle dispatch riders, and eventually the wireless as it was introduced into warfare however the majority of messages were passed via telephone, heliograph and flags.



Communications Organisation in 1914
The RE Signals Service, in most cases, was split into smaller units, none bigger than Company size, and attached to Divisions, Corps and Army HQs. As they were attached to the fighting portions of Divisions, so men of the Signals Service saw action and were involved in most battles.


Line Laying Team

In 1914 each infantry division included a signals company of approximately 162 men, organised into a Company HQ and four sections. No.1 section was responsible for Divisional HQ communications, and Nos 2-4 sections with the divisional brigades.




The normal composition of each divisional company was something in the order of an Officer Commanding (Major), four Lieutenants, one for each section, twenty-five other ranks at Divisional HQ and 132 other ranks spread across the remainder of the division and brigade HQs.

Transportation and Personal Equipment
Signals Companies used horses for transport and had an establishment of about thirty-three riding horses, forty-seven draught horses and four pack horses. Additionally, they had thirty-two pedal cycles and nine motor cycles. With the exception of the Trumpeter, all ranks were armed as infantrymen and carried the Rifle, Short Magazine, Lee Enfield (SMLE) widely known as “the smelly”.

The most common duties associated with the Signals Service were laying communications wire (over which the telegraph was employed); operating same; repairing same, carrying messages (either on foot or by horse) handling and dispatching of mail (both official and private); constant trade practice and of course the inevitable trench digging and maintenance which they shared with their infantry colleagues. There was also mundane guard duties and maintenance of their horses and equipment.

Artillery Spotting


Signallers were also used in forward positions to assist the artillery and provide information on their enemy targets. In these, often isolated, positions the signaller became vulnerable to enemy fire, and many signallers lost their lives.






Further Accounts:

  • A personal memoir and biography describing the duties of Sapper Arthur Haletrap MBE during world war one can be read here
  • B. Neyland served from September 1916 to December 1919 as a Sapper, in a Royal Engineers (Signals), Wireless Section and his account is posted here.
  • An account by Mike Gater of his father, 252696 Sapper Gater RE is given here.

RE Signals Corporal Operating Trench Wireless

With the gradual introduction of the wireless as the war developed so the Signals Companies embraced this new technique. But it never replaced the reliability at the front line of the telegraph in this conflict.  It took some time for commanders and signallers to understand what wireless offered them, and its limitations. For example, while intercept of telephone was common it took time to realise that wireless transmissions could be intercepted by the enemy. (However see here for a more in depth view).


Alternative Means of Communication
Where landlines were unavailable or broken by shellfire alternative methods of communication were used. Semaphore, using the army’s one-flag system, was also in use in the early part of the war but was subsequently banned in the trenches as its use was guaranteed to attract enemy fire! Out of sight of the enemy, visual signalling was used which made use of light, either from sunlight (the heliograph) or at night using Lucas Lamps. In all cases messages were sent in Morse Code.


An Officer using the Fullerphone

The standard field telephone used with landlines consisted of a wooden box containing two dry cells, a magnet generator, polarised bell, induction coil testing plug and a hand-held telephone C Mk 1. Towards the end of 1916 these were being replaced by the Fullerphone and by 1918 many divisions adopted them in their forward positions.


Command and Control in 1916

It wasn’t until the 1920s that command and control systems developed into what they are today. As mobile warfare using the tank developed so did the use of radio. The most quoted example of modern mobile warfare is the Blitzkrieg in which combined operations were coordinated by the prolific use of radio. But it is noted line, and dispatch riders also play significant roles as alternative means of communication.
Up until this time it is poignant to consider the traffic handling capabilities of the message handling systems in World War 1. Commanders had a daunting amount of written correspondence to sift through, to glean intelligence and plan operations.

The amount and volume of messaging often led commanders to the point of breakdown and when the army moved to attack, it often had no idea about the size and location of enemy troops until it came upon them, such was the situation at the battle of the Somme in 1916.

We will remember them.

Stuart Dixon

The author acknowledges the Imperial War Museum for its creative commons media and is grateful to Mike Collins for his images used in this article.

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8 Responses to Army Signals in World War One and the role of the Royal Engineers

  1. Duncan Mirylees says:

    Does anybody have any details of a squad of Sappers who were attached, as the ‘Wireless Section’, to the British Commission to the Armistice at Spa, Belgium, in late 1918 – early 1919. There were ten of them and they appear to have been headed by and officer of the Leicesters. I have a photo of them and I would like to try and find out who they might have been.

  2. Mark Conway-Brown says:

    I am trying to track down information about my grandfather. Maj George Conway-Brown, OBE. He was the CO of the No. 1 Special Signals Company of the Imperial Army. I have been told that records were destroyed during the WWII bombings. Just wondering if there are any records that have survived. In particular I have no idea why he received the OBE.

    I also have some nice photos of the Signals Units with horses & motorcycles they used. i can send if you are interested.

    • Duncan Mirylees says:

      Dear Mark,

      Since your Grandad was an officer, you may well find that his records survive at the National Archives, Kew. Luckily, for those of us who had officer ancestors, these had been stored in a different building to those of O/R. It is these that were badly damaged during round two -the so-called ‘burnt records’. So I recommend that you give them a try.

      good luck, Duncan

  3. Pingback: Bertram Joseph Venn | Board of Trade War Memorial

  4. Steve Nicklin says:

    Interesting read – I make note of the paragraph “Communications Organisation in 1914
    The RE Signals Service, in most cases, was split into smaller units, none bigger than Company size, and attached to Divisions, Corps and Army HQs. As they were attached to the fighting portions of Divisions, so men of the Signals Service saw action and were involved in most battles.” – is there any record of which RE Signal Companies were atatched to which Divisions, Corps and Army HQ? My grandad served with RE 15th Signal Company in the Great War and I’m trying to track down where he served

  5. Colin Pond says:

    Hello. I wonder if yo can help me? I am researching my fathers army record in world war one. He was a sapper in the RE and was gassed at Arras in November 1917. I have managed to retrieve a few details from various sources such as the RE Museum at Chatham but these are very sketchy. I was wondering, do you know of any other sources I could try? I particularly would like to research what went on in Arras during his time there (battles, involvement of platoon etc. ) I have listed below what information I have and wold be more than grateful if you could shed some light on my search. Many thanks.
    Colin Pond.
    My fathers details:
    Name: Oliver George Pond. Sapper. Service No. 524563. 3rd Line Unit 17th Signals Company (Divisional) 17th Division Royal Engineers.

  6. William Barclay says:

    I have a “Messages & Signals” document with an round ‘ARMY SIGNALS’ cancellation on it. Within the cancel is shown -S16.VII16R-. I am fairly certain that the 16.VII16 infers 16 July 1916, but what does -S_____R- represent. I collect ARMY TELEGRAPH cancels and such letters usually represent the first and last letter of the town or ‘camp’ they originated from. Grateful you enlighten me about this one. Thank you in advance for your help.

  7. Jerry Coles says:

    Spent 4 1/2 happy years at Chattenden (73-78) as the REME Tels tech at the Signals Wing. Fixed Larkspur radio’s and everything else the Sappers used that run on electricity! Great guys and great times and the Sgt’s Mess was buzzing! Jerry Coles.

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