Pre 1920

Royal Engineer Signals Service

From the beginnings of human conflict, communication between and within fighting forces has been paramount. Signalling – smoke, mirrors drumbeats and the like has been around for centuries. Signallers didn’t officially make an appearance until the 1700s but Primitive tribes could communicate over hundreds of miles via secret codes and sophisticated strategies.

The option to form a Corps of Signals was rejected

In 1908 a plan was made for the formation of the Royal Engineer Signal Service. Following a review by a War Office Committee in 1909 (chaired by the then Brigadier General Sir Archibald Murray) which explored four options for army communications – including the formation of a Corps of Signals – it was agreed the best option was the Signal Service formed from Royal Engineer soldiers and officers. However it was not until 1912, as a result of a further committee that met in 1911 that the Signal Service was officially recognised and its activities regularised by means of Army Order 309.

Signals replace Telegraph

With the formal recognition of the Signal Service, the old Telegraph units were abolished and the term ‘telegraph’ replaced by ‘signal’ which was now the recognised term when reference was made to communications in the army.

The Signals Service provided communications during World War 1. At this time the Dispatch Rider (DR) came into prominence and wireless ‘sets’ were introduced into service. Wireless communications were provided in France and Flanders and also in the campaigns in Salonika, Palestine and Mesopotamia

The Royal Engineer Signal Service was made responsible for all forms of signalling; visual, telegraph, telephone, signal despatch and later wireless communications from HQ down to Brigades, and for artillery communications down to Batteries. Throughout most of The Great War the primary means of communications were visual, telegraph and despatch – with most despatch was either by runner, horseback or motorcycle.

In 1910 a signal service was established in India from Bengal Sappers and Miners; this was followed a year later with the founding of C Telegraph Troop, Royal Engineers commanded by Captain Montague Lambert RE.


Growth of the Signals Service

From 6,000 to 70,000+

Despite the growth in size and importance of the signal units, in the field they remained subordinate to Royal Engineer commanders who had more responsibilities.

At the outbreak of WW1 (1914) there were fewer than 6,000 in the Royal Engineer Signals Service. The Royal Engineers Signal Service comprised 12 companies, with the regular Signal Companies supported by a single motorcyclist section of the Special Reserve and by 29 signal companies of the Territorial Force. By 1918 (the end of WW1) the service was made up of 589 companies the majority of which were with the BEF in France and Flanders, Some 65 units were based in Palestine and Egypt with 42 in Macedonia and Greece, 17 in Italy and 24 in Mesopotamia.

By the end of WW1 there were some 70,000 signallers. In 1918, at the Battle of Amiens, trench warfare was largely replaced by the birth of modern warfare.


Artillery increases need for Signals

The extensive use of artillery produced a further demand for dedicated signal sections, including liaison with spotter aircraft, while extensive line of communication required numerous units to facilitate the movement of men and supplies to the Western Front. Concurrent with this expansion was the introduction and success of electronic warfare thanks to the work of Signals Intelligence and the Wireless Observation Groups.



Members of The Royal Corps of Signals are often referred to as Scaleybacks. No-one is sure of the origin of this nickname but various theories abound.

A popular idea is that during WW1 lead acid battery packs were carried by signallers, these would often leak and scar the backs of the operatives. A more palatable theory is that when The Corps was formed all those who transferred in were paid on Scale-E. Other theories: a Signals unit was billeted in a fish canning factory during WW2. They would sleep on the factory floor alongside discarded fish-scales. The final theory comes from ‘Scaleyback’ a colloquial term for a disease in horses caused by ill-fitting harnesses and saddles. The Corps last used horse-drawn cable layers in 1937 and no-one is sure if the horses used did indeed suffer scaley-back.

Whatever the reason we think the term scaleyback will remain a nickname for many years hence.

Pictured above is Leonard Wilsden born 1901. As a soldier he saw service with both the Signals Service (RE) and the Royal Corps of Signals. He left the Corps in 1926 when he moved to Liverpool from Kent to work on the Railways. At the start of WW2 he tried to re-enlist but aged 38 and in a protected employment he was refused.

Decades later his grandson, Steve (Scouse) Hall (pictured below) joined the Corps, serving in both regular and reserves. One of many ‘Corps families’. Indeed the bond with the Corps often continues post-service. Steve (Scouse) is one such example as he now heads-up the RSA Riders Branch (formed in 2018 and now the largest RSA branch) and is a frequent fundraiser for the Royal Signals Charity (RSC).

Royal Signals Museum Corps History
Royal Signals Museum Corps History
Royal Signals Museum Corps History