By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
As the Royal Corps of Signals celebrates its centenary in 2020, this is an appropriate time to recollect that Aldershot has played a central role in Army signalling since the early days of the Camp.
During the Crimean War telegraphy was used to link the Army headquarters to the UK, and also for the first time the British Army used the electric telegraph in the field. This was only partially successful, as the wire was prone to faults, but it pointed to the future of communications. Immediately after the war, in June 1856, the camp at Aldershot was used for trialling the new technology when three Royal Engineers field telegraph stations were set up in North and South Camps and at Farnborough.
Despite this auspicious beginning, the Army was slow to adopt the new technology. A Signal Wing was created at the School of Military Engineering in Chatham in 1869, but it was not until the following year when concerns caused by the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) prompted the formation of ‘C’ Troop of the Royal Engineer Train, a mobile telegraph detachment for operations in the field. ‘C’ Troop was formed at Chatham but moved to Aldershot in August 1871, where it joined the other specialist ‘A’ and ‘B’ Troops (for pontoons and field equipment respectively). ‘C’ Troop served in the Zulu War (1879), the First Boer War (1881) and the Egyptian War of 1882, which is notable for being the first time that the telephone was used for military purposes in the field, albeit in a very limited form.
The role of ‘C’ Troop was to provide communications for a corps headquarters, whereas for tactical purposes visual signalling methods such as flags or lamps were used. In 1875 the Signal Wing at Chatham dropped visual signalling altogether and the Instructor of Army Signalling, responsible for teaching visual signalling to arms other than the Royal Engineers, moved to Aldershot. In 1886 a School of Signalling was formed at Aldershot, housed in wooden huts until permanent brick buildings were constructed in 1895. The School was in Gallwey Road near the summit of Peaked Hill, one of the highest points in the Camp, were a semaphore and heliograph station was set up to send messages to similar stations on Caesars Camp, Hungry Hill, Crooksbury Hill and Hindhead. The Aldershot school developed a very efficient system for visual signalling which was used for all internal communications of brigades, and for general purposes in co-operation with the RE Telegraph units.
The Royal Engineers’ signal companies went through numerous changes as their role grew and developed. In 1884 ‘C’ Troop became 1st Division of the Telegraph Battalion, then 1st Divisional Telegraph Company (1907). After a major re-organisation in 1912, Aldershot was home to four Signal Companies, one Signal Squadron and a Signal Troop, with a total combined strength of around 500 men and 270 horses. Signals units from Aldershot served in the Bechuanaland Expedition (1884-85); Nile and Suakin Expeditions (1884-85); Second Ashanti War (1896) and the Second Boer War (1899-1902).
The separation of electrical and visual signalling was illogical and inefficient, so in 1913 a combined Telegraph and Signal Service was created under the Royal Engineers with its centre in Gibraltar Barracks, Aldershot, and the Signal School at Aldershot assumed responsibility for both electrical and visual signalling.
A significant technical innovation in the decade before the First World War was the increasing use of wireless communications. Aldershot had been an important site in wireless experimentation since 1899 when Marconi had made the first use of wireless in aviation by sending signals between two balloons. A wireless station was built by the Royal Engineers, on the site which is now the car park on the corner of Queen’s Avenue and Prince’s Avenue.
On the outbreak of the First World War the Aldershot signals units accompanied their respective formations to the front, ‘A’ Signal Company with Headquarters First Corps; 1 and 2 Signal Companies with 1st and 2nd Divisions respectively; and 1 Signal Troop with the 1st Cavalry Brigade. All served with distinction on the Western Front throughout the war.
In 1916, the Signals School was moved from Aldershot to Houghton Regis, and subsequently the buildings were taken over as the Army Vocational Training Centre. The building still stands in Gallwey Road, on land now given over to the Wellesley civilian housing development.
The First World War saw a huge expansion of signals operations in all theatres of war and a recognition of how essential were signal communications in modern warfare. As early as September 1918 the formation of a separate Signals Corps was proposed, as the Signal Service had already become a virtually separate entity within the Royal Engineers. After the post-war structure of the Army had been settled an independent Signal Corps could finally be established, with the Royal Warrant and Army Order published on 2 July 1920.
The new Corps needed a new barracks to bring together the various Royal Signals units which were scattered across Aldershot Garrison. The area chosen was Smallshot, an area of open ground between the Basingstoke Canal and Marlborough Lines (North Camp). The new barracks opened in 1928 and was named Mons Barracks after the great battle of 1914.
In 1939 Aldershot’s Signals units were mobilised immediately the Second World War began, and once again they deployed with their respective Divisions to France. All were evacuated from Dunkirk, but the Divisions did not return to Aldershot. Between 1940 and 1942 Mons Barracks was used by various units of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, until autumn 1942 when Mons became an Officer Cadet Training Unit.
After the Second World War Aldershot became the home of 16 Parachute Brigade and with them 216 Signal Squadron, the brigade’s signals unit, who were originally based in North Camp but moved to Montgomery Lines in the 1960s. The airborne forces and their signals units finally left Aldershot at the end of the twentieth century to join 16 Air Assault Brigade in Colchester. Other recent Royal Signals units in Aldershot have included the Signal Squadrons for 12 Mechanised Brigade and 101 Logistic Brigade, 228 Squadron and 261 Squadron, and currently in the garrison is 251 Signal Squadron.
Modern digital systems are very different from the flags, lamps and telegraph of the early days, but the aim remains the same, to deliver fast, accurate and reliable communications at all levels. For many years Aldershot was at the centre of these new technologies and we can be proud of its role in the history of the Royal Signals.
Article originally published in the The Garrison, Spring 2020
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.