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Changing the face of war

Ilustration of French soldiers with telegraph, 1870s

War in the telegraph age : changing the nature of conflict

The use of the telegraph for military command and control was first seen in the Crimean War (1854-56). But the American Civil War (1861-65) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) demonstrated the military potential of the new communications technology channel more dramatically.

The greater reach offered by cabled commands and reports helped spread the theatre of operations and enabled campaigns to be co-ordinated between fronts hundreds of miles apart.

The instant news reporting in the papers also fuelled public opinion as never before, and became an important factor in policy decisions.

Suddenly politicians and high command, back in the capital, could intervene directly in operations. More than ever, generals, who had enjoyed a free hand in the past, had to fight their campaigns with one eye looking nervously over their shoulders. One British general was heard to mutter 'the confounded telegraph has ruined everything!'

Boer war soldier with telephone attached to his bicycle

The Boer War (1899-1902) : instant attack in South Africa

The use of telecommunications during the Boer War revolutionised how conflicts were managed and reported.

For the first time commanders could communicate directly with their officers in the field to coordinate battle strategy, using the phone. The army also experimented with wireless but the results were disappointing. Instead the navy used the discarded equipment to great effect to synchronise effective blockade manoeuvres.

The telegram also catapulted news back to the UK straightaway, and the reverses of war were felt at home almost as soon as they were suffered in the field.

Three shattering defeats suffered by the British army in quick succession rocked the Government and caused national outrage. However when the army lifted the sieges of Ladysmith and Mafeking, within months, the instant news provoked wildly, drunken celebrations in London and prompted a relieved government to immediately call the so-called 'Khaki Election'.

WWI German field telegraph unit

The outbreak of World War l (August 1, 1914) : 'some damn foolish thing in the Balkans'

In earlier centuries, wars took months or years to develop, with the exchange of demands and warnings protracted by the slow speed of communications. But the diplomatic crisis leading to the First World War spun out of control within a few days. It was the exchange of telegrams and telephone calls that enabled that terrifying acceleration.

The assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo vindicated Bismarck's prophesy decades before that Europe would be plunged into war because of 'some damn foolish thing in the Balkans' - but even he would have been surprised by the speed with which it happened. Austria's ultimatum to Serbia was delivered on July 23, 1914. Within seven days Germany had declared war on Russia and it took only three more days for Britain and France to become embroiled as well.

Borkum underwater cable (1914) : acts of war. Connected Earth artefact, now at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Borkum underwater cable (1914) : acts of war

Today electronic warfare plays a crucial role in any war. This focuses on disrupting the enemy's radio messages and communication systems. This can include radio jamming, delivering misinformation and disrupting the guidance signals of missiles. But the roots of today's sophisticated techniques began with the telegraph.

This section of cable was spliced off when the British deliberately cut a German cable that linked Borkum with Tenerife, on August 4, 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. This meant that the Germans lost an essential communications link to their outpost on the Atlantic island.

In fact, as soon as war was declared, the British cut all German cables running down the English Channel and even managed to divert some of them for use by the Allies.

Portable field telegraph (1917) : ready for battle - Connected Earth artefact, now at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum

Portable field telegraph (1917) : ready for battle

The telegraph opened up new opportunities to control and direct the flow of battle. Commanders in the field could keep in touch with their soldiers in the front lines and, with the static nature of trench warfare, an effective telegraph network was a realistic options.

This portable, self-contained telegraph station in miniature was designed for military use in 1917 by Siemens Brothers of London. It had an automatic receiver that printed out messages by feeding paper from a drawer through an inking device. A clockwork device drove the paper through the mechanism.

Sending messages was much more simply done, using a Morse key housed inside the sturdy wooden case.

Telephone station in the British lines on the Oise - a postcard in the collection held by BT Archives

Royal Corps of Signals (1920s) : swift and sure communications

The Royal Corps of Signals evolved from the 'Royal Engineers' Signals Service' in 1920 out of the necessity to control the increasing reliance on communications on the battlefield.

Signalmen had existed in one shape or form since the runners of Marathon, but electrical (and later electronic) techniques enabled messages to be sent quickly, directly and without risking so many lives. The Corps were responsible for creating telephone lines in the trenches, setting up communications for field HQs and establishing long-range radio centres.

Due to the nature of the work there has traditionally been a high level of information sharing between them and the GPO. During times of conscription and National Service the Corps was regularly populated by staff from the Post Office and even today the Signals reserves and Territorial Army branches include many BT employees.

Soldiers in World War I

Controlling tactics : a lifeline on the battlefield

Every successful army relies heavily on the support it is given. Without support there is no food, no supplies and no communications. The main battle faced by signalmen during war is to keep up with the other soldiers and to provide effective communications wherever they are.

This doesn't always go to plan, as some British soldiers discovered in Kosovo when they had to rely on their mobile phones to keep in touch with HQ. Fortunately most of the time things work out better.

Before reliable voice encryption was available, signalmen couldn't use radio communications during battle because they could be intercepted and used by the enemy. This meant delivering wires to the front line for officers to talk to command. They also had to bring the wires back if the armies retreated. This wasn't so bad during short gains in trench warfare, but much more difficult during 20-mile forced marches.

Medals of J H Price (PO Rifles) - Connected Earth artefacts, now in the Royal Mail Heritage collection

Medals of Lt. Corp J H Price, PO Rifles (1918) : the last post

The Post Office Rifles was the nickname given to the 8th City of London regiment formed by the General Post Office in 1868, which went on to great distinction in the First World War.

Originally called the 49th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps, the regiment was a London-based territorial unit made up of workers from the Post Office. The soldiers would have been full time workers at the Post Office, who spent some of their spare time learning how to fight. However, when the Great War started their role suddenly changed.

Those part-time soldiers who weren't needed to maintain the Post Office's services went to the battlefields with the regiment, where they served in a range of campaigns.

Joseph Henry Price, from Hounslow, was promoted to Lance Corporal during the war and was awarded these three medals including the Military medal. He died from wounds received on the Western Front in 1918.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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