Signallers on frontline faced unimaginable risks

Signallers of the Sixth Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment

Flags were being used for signalling in the days before the practice quickly died out as the technology of war changed rapidly

Using lamps on the Somme to send Morse Code

The proficiency badge that trained signallers wore on their left sleeve

First published in Remember When?
Last updated
Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Photograph of the Author by , T&A Reporter

IN the photograph of the dozen uniformed men of the 6th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Bradford Territorials) – the Signallers – the dead stare out of the past.

Four of these men were listed as killed in action between 1915 and 1918. They were Private Fred Rolfe, second from left in the back row; Private Ernest Riley, second from right in the back row; Corporal Harold Foster, first left, middle row; and Private Joseph B Edmondson, on the left in the bottom row.

Private Rolfe was killed on October 11, 1918. Private Riley, died on November 23, 1916. Corporal Foster was killed on November 19, 1915. Private Edmondson was killed on the first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916 – a sunny Saturday.

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. The stories of brave men under fire repairing damaged telephone wires have appeared in these columns more than once since the start of this series in January.

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’.

  • In our Bradford at War supplement (August 4) we published a story about Willie Barraclough and his two brothers from the Barkerend area of Bradford.

Unfortunately, and perhaps incredibly, the photograph was of another Bradford war combatant called Willie Barraclough.

The Barraclough we wrote about served with the 18th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment and was killed on Easter Monday 1916.

The Willie Barraclough in the photograph that appeared in the supplement was one of four brothers who came from Tong Park, Baildon. This Willie Barraclough served with the West Yorkshire Regiment but died of influenza in hospital in Hartlepool in December 1918 – the month after the Armistice.

The grief of his parents George and Eliza cannot be conceived because the couple lost all four sons to the war and also their grandson Ernest Hird.

Willie Barraclough from Tong Park is buried in Windhill Cemetery. Willie Barraclough from Barkerend is buried in Undercliffe Cemetery.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Woodland Trust

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