Contact Information


Friday, 13 April 2012

The Canadian Signal Corps

The First World War marked the birth of modern warfare.  While advances in weaponry were perhaps the most obvious - and deadly - development, armies consisting of millions of soldiers dramatically increased the need for effective communication.  As the war progressed, traditional methods proved increasingly ineffective, leading to dramatic changes in communications organization and technology.

The need for a focused approach to communication was apparent years before the war's outbreak, and governments were quick to respond.  By the end of the Boer War, commanders recognized that "signalling" was a critical component of military effectiveness.  As a result, in 1903 the Canadian government authorized the creation of the "Canadian Signalling Corps", the first independent signal corps in the British Empire.  Captain Bruce Carruthers, Assistant Adjutant-General for Signalling, was the first to advocate a separate signalling branch within the Canadian army and was assigned the task of creating the unit.  Eventually re-named the Royal Canadian Signal Corps, it shared communication responsibilities with the Royal Canadian Corps of Engineers until the two units were amalgamated in 1919.

Portrait photograph of World War I signallers
It is not surprising that several soldiers from Guysborough County played a role in battlefield communications.  A trans-Atlantic telegraph cable connecting Europe and continental North America made landfall at Canso on May 23, 1881.  The Commercial Cable Company's relay station at nearby Hazel Hill made the small community a hub in the communication network connecting the two sides of the Atlantic, as cables were extended by water to New York and by land across the entire continent.  By the turn of the century, the cable company employed approximately 75 men in its Hazel HIll facility.  Their communication expertise was in great demand during the war.

Commercial Cable Company office, Hazel Hill, Guysborough County
The occupations of numerous Guysborough veterans at the time of enlistment reflect the cable's presence in their native county.  Amongst the men who gave their occupation as "cable operator" were Cecil Otis Boyd, John Murray Brown, Thomas Herbert Chapman, Clarence Leslie Cousins and Sholto Douglas Morrison, all natives or residents of the Canso area.  Others - Arthur Elroy Cousins, Lawrence Hartley Earle, his brother Vernon, and Reginald John Feltmate of Canso, along with James Joseph Crittenden and Charles Redmond Keating of Mulgrave - listed their occupation as "telegraphist".  While not all put these civilian skills to use in combat, several became members of the various signal corps attached to Canadian battalions in the field.
In 1913, the Canadian Signal Corps was given full responsibility for communication within military brigades.   Its primary goal was to ensure that military headquarters at each level could communicate with commanders above  and below them in the chain of command.  At the beginning of the war, the military relied on a combination of traditional and emerging technologies.  While artillery units received messages from "spotters" on the front lines through telephone lines, infantry brigades still relied on traditional signal flags and lamps.

Members of the Canadian Signal Corps training in Toronto
The Signal Corps explored several alternative messages of communication during the war's early years.  A Pigeon Service was established as a special branch of the Signal Corps in 1915.  Canadian units used approximately one hundred messenger pigeons daily, eventually introducing mobile, vehicle-mounted pigeon lofts to accommodate the shifting front lines.  The birds also proved to be immune to the poison gases occasionally used at the front.  However, messenger pigeons could be used only in daylight, as they became disoriented after dark.  The Corps experimented with the use of "messenger dogs" to compensate for this limitation.  Unfortunately, animals were subject to the same dangers as humans in the midst of combat.  Neither innovation provided a permanent solution to the challenge of establishing rapid, dependable communication between front line positions and military headquarters.
Signallers in action on the front lines
Infantry signal corps adopted the Lucas lamp - a lighter, more portable unit - in 1916.  Its narrower, more focused beam improved the effectiveness of this means of communication.  Units also continued to use signal flags, although both of these methods were difficult to conceal from the enemy.  As the war progressed, these "traditional" methods were gradually enhanced or replaced by emerging technologies.

Typical signalling lamp and battery
By 1916, the telephone had become the main means of communication at the front.  The main challenge for the Signal Corps was establishing and maintaining the required lines.  Wires strung on the ground were vulnerable to artillery fire, and lines suspended in the air were not much safer.  The most reliable approach was to bury lines at a depth of six feet, a labor-intensive job that required units specifically assigned to the task.  Signallers eventually developed a technique called "laddering" to extend the life of their lines.  Parallel telephone cables were laid 60 yards apart and connected by lateral lines, a system that minimized - but did not eliminate - the impact of enemy shelling.  By war's end, Canadian Corps signallers had laid 7000 miles of buried cable in a line grid system and an additional 43,000 miles of overhead wire.

Sending a message from the front by telephone
In the later years of the war, Allied signal corps adopted "wireless" communication technology that was still in its infancy.  In 1916, the Canadian Corps Wireless Section was created to implement the technology at the front.  Improved radios replaced the earlier "spark gap" wireless sets.  Even the newest products, however, came with limitations.  One common brand, ironically named "Trench", required a fifty-foot antenna stretched along the ground in addition to a three-foot vertical aerial and had a broadcast range of less than 3000 yards.  A newer brand - Wilson - could communicate over a distance of 4000 yards but required a 60-foot ground antenna and 12-foot vertical aerial, making widespread use on the front lines impractical.

Radio transmitters were first installed in aircraft in 1917.  Pilots acted as artillery observers, sending "blind" (i.e., one-way) messages to ground stations.  Cloth panels laid out on the ground confirmed receipt of their messages!  After the capture of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Canadian signallers used the elevated location known as Hill 70 as a "forward observation" post for artillery fire.  Wireless radio operators sent messages to a central communication station, which in turn relayed the information by telephone to each artillery position.  This system allowed for rapid adjustment of gun fire during an assault.

Signalling post at the front
While wireless units held great promise, their use during World War I was limited by range and availability.  Manufactured in small quantities, demand for radios greatly exceeded supply.  As a result, the military continued to rely on a variety of communication methods - old and new - throughout the war.  Messenger dogs, message rockets and motorcycle dispatch riders were used at various times, in addition to visual signalling (flags and lights), pigeons, human "runners", telephone and wireless.  Front line units still relied on visual signals and runners for communication during attacks.  Wireless emerged as a primary means of communication during the closing days of the war as the front lines and military headquarters became increasingly more "mobile".  However, both units on the battlefront and commanders in the rear remained heavily dependent on fixed telephone lines for basic communication at war's end.
Click here to view a National Film Board of Canada video (5 minutes, b/w, no sound) of Canadian signalers and engineers in action at the front lines during World War I.


A Signaller in World War I.  The Worcestershire Regiment.  Available online.

The Cable Story in Canso.  History of the  Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications.  Available online.

The History of Canadian Military Communications and Electronics: Chapter 3 - World War One 1914-1918.  National Defence Canada.  Available online.
On the home front: Toronto in WWI.  The Toronto Star.  Available online.

Rawling, Bill (Historian, Department of National Defence). Battlefield Communications.  National Film Board of Canada: Images of A Forgotten War.  Available online.
Sutton, Col. P. H.. A Hundred Years of Canadian Military Communications and Electronics.  Available online.

No comments:

Post a Comment