REBER: Telegraph, Telephone and Cable in War

[Trade Journal]

Publication: American Institute Of Electrical Engineers

New York, NY, United States
p. 448-459, col. 1


By MAJ. SAMUEL REBER, U. S. A., Delegate of the United States War Department.

"War," says Von Moltke, "is the only science that lays under tribute all the other sciences." The great discoveries and advances in science made during the past century have been utilized in the art of war, and none, with the possible exception of steam, has produced a greater change in the application of its principles than the use of electrical means of communication. The saving of time, and consequently money, by the use of the telegraph, the telephone and the cable in the affairs of daily life has been beyond calculation. The use of electrical means of communication is now absolutely necessary to success in war, not only in the grand strategical combinations of a campaign, but also in the varying tactical situations on the field of battle.

The element of time is one of the dominating factors in modern warfare involving enormous expense incident to the equipment, maintenance, supply and movement of large fleets and armies. The longer the duration of a war, the greater the strain on the physical and financial resources of the nations involved. The ultimate result of a war may depend on the financial capacity of a nation to pay, feed and supply a victorious army. War disturbs not only the normal internal conditions of belligerent nations, unsettles and frequently paralyzes their trade, industrial and agricultural prosperity, but also produces a far-reaching result on the commerce of the world.

Nations are now so intimately connected by business and fiscal ties that the effects of a war are quickly felt in the markets of the world. Although business may be stimulated for a while by a war, the ultimate effect must be one of depression. The exhaustion of the resources of one of the family of nations, caused by a protracted war, is felt to a greater or less degree by all the others. Anything which tends to shorten the duration and limit the sphere of a war is a decided gain, not only to the belligerents involved, but to the world at large. Electricity with its space and time-annihilating properties has proved an ideal agent in shortening the duration of wars.

Napoleon in one of his maxims of war has said: "Le secret de la guerre est dans le secret des communications." It is absolutely necessary for the commander of an army to have rapid and positive means of communication for the transmission of orders, instructions and information from his extreme outposts in contact with the enemy hack to his base in the rear of his army, and with all independent commands engaged in the theater of operations.

The development of the use of the telegraph, telephone and cable in war has been along lines similar to those of commercial practice. The engineering principles are the same, but the operative conditions are. of necessity, more exacting and difficult. Efficiency and certainty of operation under all conditions are the fundamental principles governing design. Cost of installation and economy of operation are of less importance than absolute continuity of service. It is not to be understood, however, that due regard should not be paid to cost of installation and maintenance, but commercial methods rail under the stress of war conditions. A large number of ingenious methods and apparatus have failed on account of delicacy of operation or complication of design. Any apparatus that cannot stand lack of attention and skilled supervision, exposure to weather, rough handling in transportation, and the effect of the blast of heavy guns, cannot be relied on at the critical moment of its use in actual battle. Portability, simplicity and mechanical strength are essential requisites of all the apparatus used in the service of field communication. The demands of a fortress system of communication are not as exacting, while the installation and operation of military cables follows the commercial practice of the nations using them.

It is impossible in the scope of a single paper to give the characteristic features of the systems and apparatus employed by the various nations for military purposes, or the organizations of their special technical troops. With the exception of the United States, all the great military powers of the world control the service of electrical communication in time of peace as part of their civil establishments. Experience has proved that in time of war and especially in the field of active operations, this service must be part of the military establishment. All the great nations have special technically trained troops to operate their military systems. The operation of a system by joint civil and military control has proved a failure in the past, and the experiment will probably never be repeated.

The service of communication is, in general, separated into field and fortress work. The fortress system consists of the permanent lines, usually underground, connecting the various works in the line of circumvallation around fortified positions, and in seacoast works, the system of fire control and direction for the laying and training of, the heavy batteries, rapid-fire guns protecting the mine fields, and the searchlights. The details of such systems are zealously preserved as governmental secrets for obvious military reasons. For armies operating in the field a complete chain of communication should exist from the outposts in touch with the enemy back to the capital of the nation, or the main base of operations, which is connected to the seat of government by permanent lines. In case of over-sea operations the base is connected by cable.

Depending on the construction used, the chain of communication is usually divided into three parts — permanent, semi-permanent and temporary, or flying lines. Permanent lines are usually those existing in the country or are built after the army has advanced. They are ordinarily outside of the zone of active operations, their construction following the usual engineering methods. When taken possession of and operated by the army the methods used are those of established commercial practice. Semi-permanent lines are used to connect the principal bases or depots of supplies on the edge of the zone of operations with the field bases within it, and the general headquarters. Field or flying lines are used in the zone of active operations and connect the general headquarters with all the principal subdivisions, even to the extreme outposts. In this service expedients of rapid construction of every nature are employed, and the telephone is fully utilized. It is possible to construct a line, using lances of ash or bamboo to support the wire, at the rate of from one to three miles an hour, depending on the character of the ground. By the use of light field cable and byre wire a detached cavalry column, or even a reconnoitering party, can be connected during its movement with the main body. At night each brigade and division headquarters can be connected by a field telephone system with the corps headquarters and the supply points, while the extreme outposts can instantly report any movements on the front. On the field of battle the commanding general can be connected telephonically with his corps commanders, and they in turn with their division and brigade commanders.

Major Von Etzel, of the Prussian army, first suggested in 1839 to the War Department the possibility of employing the electrical telegraph, but it was not until 1844 that a board of officers was convened to consider this subject, and not for several years sub sequent to that date was the necessary material obtained and a line built. There is no record of the result of this experiment.

In 1853, during the maneuvers of the Austrian army at Olmutz, a movable telegraph line was constructed by stationing men at intervals to hold light lances to support the wire. Naturally the result was not considered successful.

The first practical application of the telegraph was during the siege of Sevastopol by the allied armies in 1855. where the searchlight was also first tried, the current for the arc being supplied by primary batteries. The dynamo was not used in searchlight work until the siege of Paris in 1871, where it was employed by the Germans, the French using primary batteries for the arc. During the siege of Sevastopol the lines were of permanent character and were not used for tactical purposes.

From 1854 to 1856 the Prussians again took up the telegraph for war purposes, but limited its scope to permanent lines. They did not contemplate its use in following the movement of troops, or on the field of battle, where it was first used by the Federal forces at the battle of Fredericksburg in 1863.

During the great Indian mutiny, field telegraph lines were constructed connecting the column in the field with the seat of government in Calcutta. Uninsulated iron wire circuits. suspended from trees, bamboo lances, or even laid on the ground, were worked for a distance of 100 miles, although in the rainy season communication was frequently entirely interrupted.

In 1857, during the French operations in Algiers, the telegraph line was operated by civilians, the wire being suspended from trees. During the same year a school of instruction for military telegraphers was established by the English at Chatham.

Spain in 1859 organized and maintained in the Morocco war the first properly equipped and efficiently manned field telegraph train, gang insulated wire coiled on reels and arranged for pack transportation, the instruments employed being Morse printing registers.

During the Franco-Austrian war in 1859 in Italy, the civilian employees of the State telegraph service operated the military system, which was maintained by peasant labor requisitioned from Abe inhabitants living in the zone of operations. This method of operation proved decidedly unsatisfactory, and the necessity for a military personnel and improved material was first recognized. During this campaign we find the first example of communication with the home government from the field of operations by telegraph, and the transmission of orders from the commanding general to both the front and flanks of the French army.

The Italian army in 1861 gave the first example of the value of continuous communication between parallel moving columns separated by a mountain range. The two army corps starting from -different points marched to concentrate at Ancona, and although separated by the Appennine mountains, were in constant communication with each other by lines that were built by and kept pace with the troops. Copper wire suspended by insulators on light poles were used. In front of Ancona the fleet, the front and flanks of the army, and the general headquarters were connected together by a system of field telegraph and semaphores.

In the Civil War in the United States in 1861-65, the telegraph was considered indispensable, and was employed on a greater scale than ever before attempted or since reached. The results obtained awakened anew the interest of the great military powers in the development. and equipment of their field organizations. For a while in the beginning of the war, magneto instruments were employed but they were soon replaced by Morse sounders. Over 15.000 miles of line —land, submarine and field—were constructed. For the first time in the history of war the telegraph was used on the field of battle in the several encounters in the peninsular campaign and at Fredericksburg. General Grant, from his headquarters on the Rappahannock and at City Point, controlled and directed the movements of over 600,000 men in 18 separate armies maneuvering in a theater of operations that contained 800.000 square miles of territory.

It has been said that strategy is a fixed science and that wars during all ages have been conducted on the same strategical principles. The factors in the problems of strategy have been greatly influenced by improved methods of communication, and while the abstract principles have remained the same, the means of employing them have been greatly improved. Strategical combinations which were impossible at the beginning of the nineteenth century are now of frequent occurrence. Sherman's march to the sea compared with Napoleon's campaign of 1812 exemplifies this change. Napoleon early in 1812 made up his mind to invade Russia, but owing to the poor means of communication was unable to concentrate a force of 500,000 men and enter Russia from Poland until the last part of June. After 84 days and a very costly battle he entered Moscow_ The country having been laid waste, the Russians retreated to St. Petersburg after having burnt Moscow, and a severe winter coming on, he retreated, losing 450,000 men. His downfall dates from this disastrous campaign. In 1864 Sherman began his advance into Georgia with 100,000 men in the early part of May. After continuous fighting for three months he entered Atlanta. His enemy had not been destroyed but fell back and began very active operations against his communications. He immediately communicated with the commanding general, some 1500 miles away, by wire, and arranged with him to march to the sea where supplies should be provided. Having reached the sea, he proceeded northward against the line of retreat of the main army of the enemy in Virginia. After having made a march of about 1000 miles through the enemy's country, he materially aided in the final destruction of the Southern armies. These are the two longest marches in the campaigns of recent time, the one disastrous, the other highly successful. The failure in the one case was due to the lack of communications, the success of the other to their existence and utilization. "What was false strategy — because impossible — in 1812 was good strategy in 1864." In the five years' war between Brazil and Paraguay in 1864-69, the telegraph was of great value not only in connecting the permanent works, but also detachments from the main armies and outposts. It was successfully used at the siege of Humaita.

During the six weeks' war in Bohemia the telegraph was only utilized to a limited extent owing to the contracted front of the theater of operations and the undeveloped stage of apparatus and' material. No lines constructed were of greater length than 10 miles, as the permanent telegraph systems of the country could always be reached within that distance. Light field cables of the Siemens type were first used in this campaign, during which the headquarters of the three Prussian armies were connected by wire with the general headquarters of the King and the capital at Berlin. The working of the organization was not very satisfactory for strategical purposes. The personnel and material were unsuited for tactical use.

France did not, until 1868, establish any definite military system, although a number of experiments had been made for a series of years, when a military telegraph organization was adopted. This organization does not appear to have worked in a satisfactory manner during the Franco-Prussian war and fell into the hands of the Germans at the capitulation of Metz. The Germans employed the telegraph extensively during the war, its use contributing in a marked degree to their success. Their three armies were connected to their bases and the home government. At Strassburg the telegraph line was carried to the third parallel, and was of great assistance in directing the artillery fire. The siege of Paris would probably not have been successful without the use of the telegraph, for the lines of investment were 46 miles in length with about 4000 men per mile, the besiegers being less numerous than the besieged. During the three days' fight on the Lisaine where Von Worder, who was covering the siege of BeHort, was attacked by Bourbaki, it was due to the thorough telegraphic communication which had been established by the Germans that the timely arrival of the reserves from the extreme right was effected, as was their subsequent return there at a critical moment. At the close of the war the Prussians had in operation 6730 miles of field wire with 407 stations.

The military system of Spain which had been developed during the Morocco war had been improved. At the battle of Alcoba, the Spanish commander was in constant communication with Madrid, and the field telegraph was an indispensable aid to General Prim in putting down the Republican and Carlist insurrections. During the Civil War in 1873 the field telegraph was in constant use, and in the defense of Bilboa the weak garrison was enabled to hold the extensive works by concentration ordered by telegraph at the threatened points.

During the Turko-Russian war the Turks had no special field telegraph corps, although some permanent lines were built for military purposes. The Russians, however, used field and outpost telegraphs extensively, constructing 1344 versts of line in the Balkan Peninsula and 1034 versts during the Asiatic campaign. The following incident in the Asiatic campaign is an example of its value to the Russians: In the operations in the Kurukdere mountains against Mukhtar Pasha, General Lazereff was ordered to march around the Turkish right, passing along its rear and cutting Mukhtar's force off from Kars and placing him between the two Russian forces. After severe fighting Lazereff obtained possession of Mount Oghur, a strongly fortified point which connected the Pasha with Kars. From this point Lazereff telegraphed the Grand Duke over the field line, which had kept pace with his movements, that he was confronted by a superior force and a simultaneous attack by the Grand Duke's and his own troops was needed to extricate him from his critical position. The despatch reached the Grand Duke in such time that the simultaneous attack the following morning led to the total destruction of the Turkish army.

The development of the military telegraph system of the English army appears to have progressed quite slowly at first, as its importance does not seem to have been recognized by the authorities. When the Ashantee war of 1873 broke out no field telegraph material existed in the army, and none reached the troops in the field until they were well into the interior. When the supplies were received they were both insufficient and unsuitable, but assisted in hastening the termination of the war. Again in the Zulu war in 1879, no provision seems to have been made at the beginning of the campaign. Better use of the telegraph was made in the Afghan campaign of that same year in the face of great difficulties of operation caused by the constant cutting of the lines by the enemy.

Characters: Researcher:Researcher notes:(additional explanations, clarifications, etc.)Supplemental information:(reference to other articles, patents, etc)Source:Original:Date found:Date Added:August 29, 2005 by: Spreadsheet; Date Completed: Date edited:  In 1881, Major Cardew introduced the telephone as a receiver for telegraph purposes, using a buzzing note produced by an interrupted current for transmitting Morse characters. This system has been modified and extensively used with great success in our own service. The buzzer, as it is called, is simply a coil of low resistance and high self-induction in circuit with a telegraph key, an interrupter and a few cells of dry battery. On opening the circuit the discharge from the coil goes to the line, and owing to the high self-induction and consequent comparatively high e.m.f., enough current reaches the other end of the line to give audible signals. By the use of the buzzer, leaky and broken lines which would be absolutely grounded for ordinary Morse working can be operated. Major Cardew's system was first used in the Egyptian campaign of 1882. The telegram announcing the result of Tel-el?Kebir was sent from the battlefield by this system. Profiting by their previous experiences, about which an English writer of high authority in 1894 naively said: " Some ill-luck seems to have attended our telegraph arrangements on service," the British had a completely equipped and supplied telegraph organization in the field during the recent Boer war in South Africa. Some 220 separate field cable-lines of 3749 miles in length, and 2191 miles of aerial line were constructed by them, the traffic on some of their main trunks being so heavy that they used Wheatstone automatic instruments. The telephone was also extensively used. The defense of Ladysmith was conducted entirely by telephone, and it was said that the telephone system saved the place when the Boers attacked Wagon Hill and Caesar's Camp on January 6, 1900. To protect their long line of communication against the raids of the Boers, blockhouses were built at intervals of about 1000 yards and every second or third one supplied with a telephone connected with centers for the dissemination of information and for the obtaining of succor. Certain of the blockhouses were supplied with telegraph instruments in addition to the telephone. "The blockhouses together with the systematic drives organized by the Commander-in-Chief finished the war, as the Boers themselves confess."

In the Spanish-American war, though of short duration, the telegraph, telephone and cable played a most important part. both strategically and tactically. In the operations in front of Santiago the telephone was used to connect the trenches along the 13 miles of front. The bombardment of Santiago was directed by telephoning from the front to the shore, where range and direction were flagged to the fleet. The operations are summed up in the following extract from the official report of the chief signal officer for 1898:

"The major-general commanding the Fifth Army Corps reached by telephone points on the right, center, and left of his line within 400 yards of the enemy, and communication with his subordinate commanders was not only possible at all times. but was continuously maintained, as these lines worked twenty-four hours in the day. On the other hand, the major-general commanding the Fifth Corps was able to communicate directly with the admiral commanding the fleet through the telephonic station near Aguadores. In addition, the War Department, with all its bureaus and the supply depots of a great nation, were within 20 minutes of the general commanding, so that any deficiencies of equipment could be asked for or re-enforcements requested; and further, he was able to keep in touch with the President, the Secretary of War, and the Commanding-General of the Army, so as to receive at critical moments such advice, encouragement, or assistance as might advance the interests of the campaign."

In the Porto Rican campaign every part of the widely distributed invading army was connected by telegraph and telephone from the first day of landing at Guanica to the termination of the war. The telegraphic and telephonic service was such that within 33 minutes after the receipt of the cablegram announcing the armistice which suspended hostilities the commanders of three separate divisions of the army operating in different parts of the island miles apart were ordered to suspend operations. In the case of two of the commands the message arrived just in time to prevent actual contact as the troops were in position for action, and at Guayama held the lanyards stretched on the guns to open the artillery duel. In the Philippine campaign and the subsequent insurrection, the telegraph and telephone were of great value, so much so, that the Commanding-General remarked in 1901: "It is not too much to say that in the absence of this efficient service it would be impossible to hold this archipelago with less than 150,000 men, which is now well and efficiently held by 60,000." During the insurrection some 4851 miles of aerial line were constructed and 500 miles of submarine cable laid.

In the present war between Russia and Japan it can be inferred from the meager published reports of the operations that both sides are using electrical means of communication to their full extent. It is known that the Japanese armies are connected together by a system of field lines, their outposts by telephone and their bases with Chemulpo and Japan by cable. On the day before the battle of the Yalu, the fire of the Japanese howitzer batteries was controlled and directed by telephone, and on the day of the battle during the movement of the XII Division its commander was continuously connected by telephone with the Commanding-General of the Japanese forces. The value of wireless telegraphy to the Japanese navy in its operations in the China seas, and to the Russians by allowing the commander of a beleaguered place to communicate with his home government, is too obvious for comment. If seems at the present state of the, art that wireless telegraphy will not play as important a part in land communications as the telegraph or telephone until the present methods of its operation have been greatly improved upon. The part played by the cable in the history of recent years has completely proved that its role is scarcely inferior to the military and naval forces themselves. All the colonial powers of the world have so arranged their means of cable communication that the cables are under their immediate control and touch only the shores of their own possessions or those of countries that are allied to them by treaty and community of interest. The control of the seas, one of the material elements contributing to the power and prosperity of a nation, is influenced largely by cable communications, and in a war in the future between two naval powers the result will depend largely on coal and cables.




Lieut.-Comdr. J. L. JAYNE, U. S. N.: I notice that Col. Reber does not lay much stress upon the use of wireless telegraphy for war purposes. I would like to ask what difficulties he has encountered, because we in the Navy have thought of using such apparatus of portable character for landing purposes.

Col. REBER: I think that Commander Jayne has possibly misunderstood my paper if he draws that conclusion. I said in the paper that the operation of wireless over long distances on land has not as yet proved successful for military purposes. For short distances we have apparatus that has been successfully used up to about thirty-five miles overland. We are working on that problem now and as soon as definite results are obtained I shall be glad to communicate them to the Navy. The difficulty with the present Hartman-Braun system is that instead of using a telephonic receiver a coherer with a relay and printer is employed, which is difficult to operate successfully in field work.

Mr. JOHN HESKETH: In the British military service, there is a great prejudice in favor of maintaining a complete record, and that prejudice is transmitted to the Colonies in cases. Therefore, we are sometimes required to use tape recording instruments there. For my own part, I think that the use of tapes leads to more errors than it prevents. I should like to ask what your experience is in the States. Whether you have any tapes at all or whether you rely altogether on the record taken from the sound? With regard to the cable lines, it will be interesting to know the construction of your field cables. Are they made of stranded steel or copper, or are they combinations of both? Also what lengths do you usually carry on one field telegraph wagon? Another point of much interest is: — What have you found has been the practical limit of signaling by the vibrator from point to point over bare wires laid on the ground?

Col. REBER: We rely, in our service, on sound receiving, having abandoned the tape recorder years ago. We use several types of field cable_ The first one which is called the outpost cable, consists of an insulated seven-strand conductor of six copper wires laid spirally over a steel center. We have successfully used bare copper wire for emergency work and field communication, this bare wire being laid on the ground. We are trying, in the maneuvers of this year, a new type of cable which consists of two copper and one steel conductor No. 24, covered with a jute or cotton wrapping and weighing about seven pounds per mile. This wire is recovered if possible, if not, it is simply thrown away. It is comparatively inexpensive. By giving a field party twenty-five or thirty-miles of it, we can keep in communication with moving columns. The longest strip of bare wire laid on the ground was used in the advance to the North from Manila by General Lawton, where in spite of the wet tropical undergrowth, a distance of forty miles was successfully worked through.

CHAIRMAN JONES: I have pleasure in presenting to you Mr. Patrick B. Delany, who will present his paper on "Rapid Telegraphy," which I know will be a valuable one.

Mr. Delany presented his paper, as follows:


Keywords:Telegraph : Telephone : Foreign : War
Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Elton Gish
Date completed:December 5, 2009 by: Elton Gish;