Signaller Postcard

This week’s postcard is a nice studio shot of a soldier from, I believe, the Great War:2From his cap badge he appears to be a member of the Royal Engineers:2-copy-3And he is wearing a greatcoat over his service dress:2-copy-5He has the three stripes of a sergeant on this great coat:2-copy-4These are repeated on the opposite side with a crown and bomb in brass above them:2-copy-2The brass bomb was a distinctive feature of Royal Engineers in the Great War, whilst the crown above three stripes was used to indicate company, battery, squadron and troop sergeant majors. Below this rank insignia, and virtually obscuring the last stripe, is a two coloured arm band. It is hard to tell its original colours, but my best guess is that it would have been blue and white indicating a signaller:2-copySignallers were amongst some of the most vulnerable troops in the Great War, as described in this extract from an article in the Bradford Telegraph and Examiner:

In the First World War, being a signaller usually meant you were close to the frontline troops, providing signals communications back to your Battalion HQ…Second Lieutenant Thomas Maufe from Ilkley was awarded the highest honour of all, the Victoria Cross, for the action he took on June 4, 1917, at Feuchy in France. Maufe wasn’t even a signaller.

He was serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery. During an intense German bombardment of high explosive and shrapnel, Maufe single-handedly repaired a damaged telephone wire connecting the front line and the rear, which enabled the British to return enemy fire.

Three years before at the start of the war telephone wires were few and far between. Flags were still being used for signalling but this practice quickly died out as the war years advanced and the technology of war changed rapidly. Where possible wired telephones were used but this involved laying landlines which was a hazardous job due to enemy shelling, mines and the risk of being picked off by a camouflaged sniper.

Tricia Platts, Secretary of Bradford’s World War 1 Group, said: “Where it was not possible to lay landlines then many forms of visual signalling were used which made use of light either from sunlight flashed by mirrors in day time or by Lucas lamps at night. “Messages were sent in Morse code, one man operating the signalling device and one man using a telescope (where distances were great) to read the message sent back. “The standard field telephone used with landlines consisted of a wooden box containing two dry cells, a magneto generator, polarised bell, induction coil testing plug, and a Hand Telephone C Mk.1. Towards the end of 1916 these were being replaced by the Fullerphone.

“Signallers were also used in forward positions with the Forward Observation Officer (FOO) to relay information on enemy targets and assist the artillery in ranging the guns. “In these, often isolated, positions the signaller became vulnerable to enemy sniping and machine gun fire, and many signallers lost their lives.”

An old joke from the period reflects the gallows humour of the front line, necessary for survival. A front line officer dictates a message to be sent back, perhaps by Morse, to staff officers at the rear.

The message was ‘Send reinforcements, we are going to advance’. The message received was rather different: ‘Send three and fourpence, we are going to a dance’.

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