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Western Front – where a 'smartphone' was a pigeon

AWM H09572
AWM H09572

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Posted on 18 July 2017

Communications entered a whole new era during the First World War, where new technology began complementing carrier pigeons, messenger dogs and other established devices.

The war on the Western Front saw remarkable improvements in communications, with the incorporation of relatively young technologies like the telegraph, wireless radio and the telephone.Although ground-breaking, the telegraph and telephone weren’t without weaknesses. Their lines and cables made them vulnerable to artillery and other enemy action.

Fortuitously, military commanders had a broad array of communication devices to assist battlefield command and control, while the new technologies were proving themselves.These included signal flags – operators could communicate up to 12 words per minute, and trench lamps that could flicker Morse code. Even whistles could be used to send Morse code.

Animals were also used, especially pigeons and dogs. Carrier pigeons would have messages inserted into tubes attached to their legs. It is said that up to 100,000 were used during the war with a 95 per cent success rate of messages getting through.

Messenger dogs were also used to run from the frontline to headquarters and back. Dogs were faster, more nimble over any type of terrain and presented less of a target then soldiers.

Despite the use of animals, many of the messengers were ordinary soldiers acting as “runners”, and it was their job to keep the battlefield lines of communication open by literally putting their lives on the line.Their job was to dash from the frontline to headquarters under the scopes of snipers, artillery, machine gunners – rain, hail or shine.

Find out more about these brave soldiers and life on the Western Front by visiting the Sir John Monash Centre. You can register your interest to visit here.

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