Communication was no easy matter during World War One. There’s an old joke about a message that originated as ‘Send reinforcements; we’re going to advance’ but which eventually arrived as ‘Send three and fourpence; we’re going to a dance!’ Although admittedly amusing, the joke has a dark side when one thinks of the consequences of inaccurate communication when applied to crucial military messages, and the difficulties of passing on messages verbally were by no means the only ones encountered.
|Signallers using flash lamp near Bouzincourt, 10th July 1916.|
In addition to the use of rare and cumbersome radios and runners who may or may not survive a journey fraught with mines, artillery fire and snipers, vast numbers of pigeons were housed in mobile pigeon lofts so that they could be moved around the field of conflict. A smaller number could then be carried in a wicker basket on a man’s back to a position in the line and released to return ‘home’ with messages in tiny cylinders attached to the bird’s leg.
|The Royal Engineers Signals Service on the Western Front, 1914-1918|
A former London double-decker bus camouflage painted, used as a travelling loft for carrier-pigeons. Pernes, 26 June 1918.
Sergeant of the Royal Engineers Signals Section putting a message into the cylinder attached to the collar of a messenger dog at Etaples, 28 August 1918. McLellan, David (Second Lieutenant) (Photographer)
|Disembarking from a kite balloon|
Despite these resourceful methods, communication difficulties must have hamstrung officers making decisions on the ground. Once an attack had started there was no quick, reliable way to contact troops to redirect them or to call for reinforcements. There may be other reasons underpinning the epithet ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ but the lack of timely, dependable communication must have been a contributory factor in many decisions that turned out to be bad ones and resulted in an incalculable number of casualties.