Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Army Communications Circa 1920

The advent of trench warfare plus the development of machine guns, tanks, and airplanes during World War I created problems in communications even within one country's forces. Because the trenches of opposing forces were often relatively close, visual signals were easily intercepted and exposed the sender to machine gun fire. The allies turned to telephone and telegraph communication which required stringing thousands of miles of wire, a slow and dangerous task. 

The photograph shows a U. S. Army Signal Corps service buzzer, manufactured by the Stromberg-Carlson Telephone Manufacturing Company of Rochester, New York.

This battery-operated device could be used to send either telephone or telegraph messages.  Telegraph signals were considered more secure and easier to understand if sent under heavy (noisy) bombardment. These devices required constant monitoring and were less useful in battle when the army advanced beyond the lines or when the lines were cut or destroyed by bombing. Without good communication rapidly advancing troops had no way to let heavy artillery units know their location, sometimes resulting in shelling by their own forces.

Wireless radio sets of the era were too bulky to be easily carried and were difficult to tune when there were many frequencies operating in the same area. Radio technology improved near the end of the war but much of the development of wireless communication took place in the following decade.

Sometimes the solution was a return to an earlier technology—the sending of messengers by homing pigeons. The U. S. Army had over 600 pigeons in France. The pigeons successfully delivered about 95 percent of the messages given them.  In one instance, a group of soldiers who were surrounded by the enemy and out of supplies and encountering friendly fire sent a message out with their last homing pigeon.  The pigeon made it to headquarters in spite of being shot in the breast, blinded in one eye, and with a leg that was almost completely severed.  The bird, Cher Ami, lived and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Click on the following URL for a picture of Cher Ami at the Smithsonian.

By Martha Fraundorf, Volunteer for Benton County Historical Society, Philomath, Oregon  

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