Category Archives: Telephone

Putting Art on the Map at the BPMA: Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen. Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope.

By Elizabeth Bruton

On Monday 10 February 2014, I attended the Historypin and Putting Art on the Map event at the British Postal Museum and Archive at Mount Pleasant in London. The aim of the event was to “crowdsource” expertise and knowledge in order to improve catalogue information about First World War art held by the Imperial War Museum, London. The particular theme of the event was Postal communications and Telecommunications in the First World War and further information about the event is available on the HistoryPin blog as well as the British Postal Museum & Archive blog.

All of the participants were given physical and online copies of a selection of art relating to World War One telecommunication and postal communications from the IWM collection and asked to discuss and contribute further details.  While it was possible to contribute research and knowledge to multiple images (and this was something which happened more in the discussion at the tail end of the event), I choose to research a single image: Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope.

Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope.

Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope. Art.IWM ART 2900. Copyright IWM.

The existing information in the catalogue was the title (above); the name of the painter, Beatrice Lithiby (OBE); and the description: view of a military telephone exchange, with four women operators seated at their telephone sets, a seated male officer and a soldier using a handset.

I began with the location, Rouen, France, and was able to discover the following information:

Rouen was one of the major Infantry Base Depots (IBD) and was in use for the duration of the war. Rouen in particular was a supply base and also home to a number of hospitals. As a result, it is home to a number of World War One cemeteries for the soldiers who died at the nearby hospitals. An IBD was one of the British Army holding camps which were situated within easy distance of one the Channel ports. IBDs received men on arrival from England and kept them in training while they awaiting posting to a unit at the front; they were also used supply bases.
Source: The Long, Long Tail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918 – The Infantry Base Depots.

Information about Rouen base is available via the War Diaries held by the National Archives, in particular WO 95/4043 – Rouen Base: Commandant, August 1914 to December 1918. Unfortunately, none of these diaries have been digitised as of now (February 2014) in the National Archives Unit War Diaries.
Update from David Underdown at National Archives: At present [February 2014] only war diaries of divisions and subordinate formations have been digitised. GHQ, Army, Corps and Lines of Communication units have not yet been done (and nothing outside France and Flanders).

Next, I moved onto information about the artist, Beatrice Ethel Lithiby.

Beatrice Ethel Lithiby (1889-1966) Lithiby was a painter and designer born in Richmond, Surrey in 1889, the daughter of a barrister. She studied at the Royal Academy Schools and served as a war artist in World War One. On the death of her father set up her studio at Wantage.
Source: Suffolk Painters: LITHIBY, Beatrice Ethel (1889 – 1966).

Five of her paintings (none from World War One) are available at BBC Your Paintings: Beatrice Ethel Lithiby Lithiby also served in World War Two, in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and was awarded an OBE/MBE in 1944.

Next, I moved onto information about Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) was the successor (renamed) to the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and was given this title in April 1918 although it took a while for the title to be put to use. If the title is correct, then this painting is from late in the war, mid-1918 or afterwards. After a German air raid in September 1940, most of the service records of the QMAAC were destroyed. Surviving records have recently been digitised by the National Archives and are searchable online via the National Archives

From National Archives War Office: Women’s (later Queen Mary’s) Army Auxiliary Corps: Service Records, First World War (Microfilm Copies):

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed following Lieutenant General H M Lawson’s report of 16 January 1917 which recommended employing women in the army in France. Mrs Chalmers Watson became Chief Controller of the new organisation and recruiting began in March 1917, although the Army Council Instruction no 1069 of 1917 which formally established the WAAC was not issued until 7 July 1917.

Although it was a uniformed service, there were no military ranks in the WAAC; instead of officers and other ranks, it was made up of ‘officials’ and ‘members’. Officials were divided into ‘controllers’ and ‘administrators’, members were ‘subordinate officials’, ‘forewomen’ and ‘workers’. The WAAC was organised in four sections: Cookery, Mechanical, Clerical and Miscellaneous; nursing services were discharged by the separate Voluntary Aid Detachments, although eventually an auxiliary corps of the Royal Army Medical Corps was set up to provide medical services for the WAAC.

In appreciation of its good services, it was announced on 9 April 1918 that the WAAC was to be re-named ‘Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ (QMAAC), with Her Majesty as Commander-in-Chief of the Corps. At its height in November 1918, the strength of the QMAAC was more than 40,000 women, although nearly 10,000 women employed on Royal Flying Corps air stations had transferred to the Women’s Royal Air Force on its formation in April 1918. Approximately, a total of 57,000 women served with the WAAC and QMAAC during the First World War. Demobilisation commenced following the Armistice in November 1918 and on 1 May 1920 the QMAAC ceased to exist, although a small unit remained with the Graves Registrations Commission at St Pol until September 1921.

Further information on the WAAC can be found in Arthur Marwick, Women at War, 1914-1918 (London, 1977).

From The Long, Long Tail: The British Army of 1914-1918 – for family historians: Women’s organisations and the service of women in the British army of 1914-1918:

The first WAACs moved to France on 31 March 1917. By early 1918, some 6,000 WAACs were there. It was officially renamed the QMAAC in April 1918 but this title was not generally adopted and the WAACs stayed WAACs. The organisation of the WAAC mirrored the military model: their officers (called Controllers and Administrators rather than Commissioned Officers, titles jealously protected) messed separately from the other ranks. The WAAC equivalent of an NCO was a Forewoman, the private a Worker. The women were largely employed on unglamorous tasks on the lines of communication: cooking and catering, storekeeping, clerical work, telephony and administration, printing, motor vehicle maintenance. A large detachment of WAACs worked for the American Expeditionary Force and was an independent body under their own Chief Controller. WAAC/QMAAC was formally under the control of the War Office and was a part of the British Army.

'W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man', 1918 (c).

‘W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man’, 1918 (c). Image courtesy of National Army Museum.

Based on recruitment posters depicting the uniforms of the WAAC and the QMAAC, it would appear that the uniform did not change when the corps name changed – see National Army Museum: ‘W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man’, 1918 for an image of the WAAC and Art.IWM PST 13167: Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, June 1918 for an image of the QMAAC uniform (thank you, Helen Glew!). Independent of the fact that this artwork does not show the front of the women’s uniforms, this lack of difference in uniform means confirming whether this artwork depicts the WAAC or the QMAAC is challenging.

Last and most definitely not least, I moved onto the image itself and was even to trace the details of one of the women depicted, Forewoman (Evelyn) Milnes.

Members of QMAAC served with Royal Engineers Signals and Postal Units and this is what this image appears to show.

The women are wearing the white and blue signallers armbands and are working as telephone operators. In civilian life up to and including World War One, most telephone operators were female. However, military telephone operators especially those in France, were generally men and Royal Engineers. For example, see the photograph below (which is also used in our header image).

Signallers working at the headquarters of R.E.S.S. in France, during World War I

Signallers working at the headquarters of R.E.S.S. in France, during World War I. Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

The photographic image above entitled “Signallers working at the headquarters of the Royal Engineers Signal Service (RESS) in France during World War I” closely matches the setup and apparatus of this painting. This would suggest that military telephone exchange apparatus did not change significantly during the war, assuming the dates I have attributed are correct. Although undated, I would date the RESS HQ photograph image to c.1916 and assuming the artwork title is correct and this does depict the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps then this art can be dated to mid- to late-1918. The close match of apparatus and setup, even down to the lampshades and headsets used, also suggests that the war artist was realistically and faithfully depicting the telephone exchange and indeed may have based it on sketches taken in situ.

Later in the war, the gender of military telephone operators began to change and safer locations such as the telephone exchange at Rouen depot began to be operated by female operators. The US Army also used female telephone operators, in particular bilingual operators fluent in English and French, towards the later stages of the war. These were known, as they had been referred to at home, as “hello girls”.

The image shows Forewoman Milnes (WAAC/QMAAC equivalent of NCO), the lead female telephone operator (on the right of the image) and Captain Pope (the seated military officer). An additional second male soldier operating a telephone handset is unidentified.

Forewoman Evelyn Milnes

According to her military record held by the National Archives, Forewoman Milnes was Evelyn Milnes, born in Sheffield on 24 August 1881 and served in the WAAC and later QMAAC from 1917 to 1920. Evelyn Milnes had five years worth of experience in telephony when she joined the WAAC in 1917 having joined the Post Office as a telephonist in Sheffield in 1912. See Post Office: Staff nomination and appointment, 1831-1969. British Postal Museum and Archive POST 58 reference number 109, accessed via Milnes’ appointment is referred to in Minute E23103.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find information on Captain Pope (most probably Royal Engineers).

Further information about the telephone switchboards was provided by David Hay of BT Archives:

The telephone switchboards, or at least the cabinets, appear very similar to those used by the National Telephone Company seen at, which is interesting as the NTC was nationalised in 1912 which would make these fairly old, presumably sourced by Royal Signals some years before. Post Office switchboards at this time were less decorative.

All in all, it was a wonderful, collaborative day and I look forward to contributing further information to the IWM art collection catalogue.

Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.  See her profile for further details.

JRR Tolkien, World War One Signals Officer

By Elizabeth Bruton

Tolkien's Webley Mk VI service revolver, now on display at the Imperial War Museum, North. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

Tolkien’s Webley Mk VI service revolver, now on display at the Imperial War Museum, North. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

JRR Tolkien’s First World War revolver used during his time as a Signal Officer on the Western Front is now on public display at IWM North, part of Imperial War Museum, in Manchester. The revolver has been put on display ahead of the opening of IWM North’s major exhibition ‘From Street To Trench: A War That Shaped a Region’ in April 2014 to mark the First World War Centenary.

Tolkien is probably known for his authorship of the fantasy novels The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) and The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937). This novel and series of novels have been (or are in the process of) being converted into successful cinematic adaptations with the most recent example being the first in a trilogy of films based on The Hobbit which was released in UK cinemas in December 2013. Many commenters have drawn parallels between Tolkien’s experiences in World War Two and his novels, in particular the popular The Lord of the Rings published just under a decade after the war had ended.

However, Tolkien himself suggested that a more ready parallel lay with World War One:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
Foreword to the Second Edition, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien (aged 24) in army uniform, photograph taken in 1916.

J. R. R. Tolkien (aged 24) in army uniform, photograph taken in 1916.
Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So what were Tolkein’s wartime experiences and how did they shape his later fictional works?

Tolkien choose not to join up when war broke out in August 1914. but instead joined the Officer Training Corps at Oxford and thus deferred his enlistment until he completed his degree in July 1915.  Upon graduating from Oxford with a first-class degree in English Language and Literature in July 1915, Tolkien was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers as part of Kitchener’s “New Army”, the volunteer army which had succeeded Britain’s small professional army. The small professional army which had been part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914 and beyond had suffered an extremely high casualty rate early in the war and was gradually replaced by the “New Army” of which Tolkien was a member. Tolkien then trained in Staffordshire for eleven months before begin transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

In March 1916, Tolkien was granted leave and on 22 March 1916 he married his childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt. When Tolkien was sent abroad, Edith was deeply concerned about her husband’s whereabouts and safety. In order to circumvent the British Army’s postal censorship, Tolkien and his wife developed a secret code which Tolkien used in his letters home to indicate his movements on the Western Front.

In early June 1916, Tolkien’s battalion was sent abroad to France. Tolkien receiver three weeks’ training as a signals officer at the British Army camp at Étaples. Tolkien was appointed Battalion Signal Officer and was responsible for maintaining communication between officers on the frontline and more senior Army officers directing the battle from Battalion Headquarters behind the frontlines. Tolkien learned how to use field telephones, flares, signal lamps, Morse code buzzers, carrier pigeons, and runners to keep the lines of communication open. In July 1916, the 11th Battalion was sent to the Somme to join the joint British-French attack to break through the German lines, later known as the Battle of the Somme.

Fortunately for Tolkien, his battalion was assigned to the reserves at the beginning of the battle and did not take part in the initial attack. Instead Tolkien and his battalion were sent to the trenches a week later and took part in the protracted and unsuccessful attacks that continued the Battle of the Somme into the autumn of 1916. Tolkien and his battalion occupied front-line trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, Serre and the Leipzig Salient. Tolkien’s revolver now on display at the Imperial War Museum, a Webley Mk VI, was the standard issue gun for British servicemen at the outbreak of the war and dated from Tolkien’s time in the trenches.

Frontline conditions made signalling and Tolkien’s role especially challenging: chaotic conditions with damaged apparatus, broken telephone lines and mud everywhere made communication unreliable and impractical. Furthermore, the Germans were successfully intercepting British and French frontline communications during this period meaning telephone and Morse code buzzers were insecure. Thus with the practical introduction of the Fullerphone being a few months’ away, signallers were forced to rely on more traditional modes of communication including runners, visual signalling, and carrier pigeons.

In October 1916, Tolkien contracted “trench fever” which was a disease common in the basic frontline conditions and was carried by lice. In early November 1916, Tolkien was sent back to Birmingham to recover. Shortly after Tolkien’s arrival back in Britain, his battalion was almost completely wiped out. Tolkien never saw frontline service again and a physically weakened Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties. Tolkien remained in hospital recovering from trench fever until early 1917 when he was deemed medically unfit for general service and was posted to garrison duties in camps in England until the end of the war.

After the war, Tolkien worked at the Oxford English Dictionary and the University of Leeds, amongst others, while he also began writing. In 1925, he was appointed a Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford where he began to write the Hobbit as well as the first two volumes of the Fellowship of the Rings.

Further information

John Garth. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003).

JRR Tolkien and World War I – Nancy Marie Ott

First World War Centenary News: JRR Tolkien’s First World War revolver to go on display at IWM North

The Guardian: JRR Tolkien’s wartime gun goes on display in Manchester

About the author: Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.  See her profile for further details.

Great Profits during the Great War?

Ahead of next year’s centenary, Elizabeth Bruton and Graeme Gooday ask what were the different motivations of scientists, the military and industry in terms of World War One innovation and research – patriotism, profit, or both?

Should innovators profit from warfare? Is it reasonable instead to ask scientists and engineers to act from pure patriotism alone? As Scientists for Global Responsibility has recently voiced alarm about UK science’s reliance on military funding, it is revealing to look back to a time before science entered a Faustian pact with armed conflict.

Prior to World War One, Britain did not have a military-industrial complex in which scientists routinely participated with industry to facilitate ever more warfare. Even in the first year of the war, rather than safely researching in a laboratory, a brilliant scientist such as Henry Moseley could die at Gallipoli, shot by a sniper while serving as a signals engineer. Reflecting on such tales, we think we know about the Great War: the patriotism and sacrifice of those in the armed forces and the terrible and pointless loss of life – especially on the Western Front – throughout the four long years of war.

But numerous historians have recently rethought these stereotypes. How was it that the war continued for four years, with 16 million dying while millions more of pounds and dollars were spent on armaments and the routine expense of war? Who was manufacturing such weaponry and ammunition, and who developed the infrastructure of scientific research that helped to win the ‘Great War’? More importantly, what were their motives: patriotic altruism, private profit – or an uneasy mixture of both?

In light of the impending centenary of this global catastrophe, we find that patriotism was not always the sole or indeed the main rationale for industrial activity in wartime. Indeed, afterwards the financial rewards for war-winning innovation were treated somewhat differently to equivalent creative acts during peacetime.

Portrait of Guglielmo Marconi from 1908

Portrait of Guglielmo Marconi from 1908. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When Britain entered the war on 4 August 1914 the Marconi Company, with evident patriotic fervour, offered its wireless operators and training to facilitate the armed services’ use of wireless communications. It did so without any initial upfront demand for payment. The Company also allowed government ‘censors’ to monitor all communications through their long-distance wireless stations. Suspicious communications were intercepted and passed onto code-breakers in the Admiralty’s secret ‘Room 40’. During the war, the Company apparently received no compensation or out-of-pocket expenses for this work: in summer 1915 Marconi’s General Manager complained that “not one penny-piece has yet been refunded to us.”

By now, it was clear that the German model of state investment in research could win wars more decisively than uncoordinated private industry, laissez-faire invention, and British heroism. Stung into action by German innovations in poison gas warfare and devastatingly effective interception of French and British telecommunications, in 1915 the UK government established its own national Department of Scientific Industrial Research (DSIR).

Supported initially by the ‘Million Fund’ – approximately £45 million today – the DSIR both hired scientists for laboratory research and encouraged private industrial firms to establish co-operative industrial research associations. Unlike the Marconi Company, however, many companies did not willingly offer their services to the state. This is evident from the 1915 extension to the Defence of the Realm Act (1914): now key British industries were compelled to prioritise government and military orders.

The production of armaments and industrial infrastructure was thereby raised to a level that, when combined with American input from 1917, could support a military force capable of winning the war. By then increased state support for science and industry was having a noticeable effect. For example, the aeroplane invented just over a decade previously was adapted dexterously to the purposes of aerial combat and the ‘tank’ changed the nature of battle when first introduced in France in 1916.

Soon after the so-called ‘Great War’ was concluded in November 1918, a Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors rewarded hundreds such wartime innovations. It eventually handed out £1.5 million (about £75 million today) in a Britain nearly bankrupted by the cost of conflict. The distribution indicates just how much the British establishment acknowledged national inventiveness, crediting tanks and aeroplanes as crucial to the recent victory. The Commission rejected claims about other inventions it deemed to lack genuine novelty or life-saving significance.

Telecommunications had been of great importance during wartime, especially when threatened by interception. The catastrophic interception of British and French forward communication by Germans early in the war resulted in the development and widespread deployment of an interception-proof alternative. This was the so-called Fullerphone, invented and patented by a serving military officer Captain Algernon Clement Fuller in 1916. When Fuller took his device to the Commission soon after the war ended, however he was offered much less than he requested: not only did his device rely heavily on the work of others, his patent rights would reap him further international rewards. Fuller perhaps took comfort from his post-war promotion eventually reaching the rank of Major-General.

A young Henry Moseley, taken in the Balliol-Trinity Laboratory, Oxford, c.1910.

A young Henry Moseley, taken in the Balliol-Trinity Laboratory, Oxford, c.1910. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, the Marconi Company’s wartime contribution was more richly rewarded than that of Fuller. This was due in part to the eventual recognition of the Company’s important role in supporting the British government and the Admiralty. Not only had Marconi intercepted hostile communications, but its “direction finders” had tracked German navy and airships in the open sea.

Despite this, the Marconi Company entered into an extraordinary post-war dispute with the British government, demanding large rewards for its wartime contributions. Marconi’s lawyers actually accused the government of infringing the Company’s wireless patents: exploiting its intellectual property without due payment. So difficult did the discussions become on the six-figure royalty claims that the matter was devolved to a private adjudication. Although the final amount paid was never publicized, the Marconi Company was soon able to buy up telegraph companies to fulfil its long-held ambition to become a telecommunications giant – later known as Cable and Wireless.

So how then shall we commemorate Fuller and Marconi and indeed their industrial production teams for their wartime innovations? Were they like Moseley nobly donating their all to the cause, seeking only recompense to endure the hardships of war? Or to rephrase Clausewitz’s old dictum, was warfare for them just profit by other means…?

This article was first published on Monday 28 October as a guest post on the Guardian’s H-Word blog and is in advance of a free public lecture on Patriotism and Profit during World War One we are giving at the Science Museum, London on Saturday 2 November.

Elizabeth Bruton is the postdoctoral researcher and Graeme Gooday the principal investigator for Innovating in Combat: Telecommunications and intellectual property in the First World War, an AHRC-funded project at the University of Leeds and Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

Podcast from Royal Society lecture: “Sacrifice of a Genius”: Henry Moseley’s role as a Signals Officer in World War One

The podcast from our recent lecture at the Royal Society, “Sacrifice of a Genius”: Henry Moseley’s role as a Signals Officer in World War One, delivered by Elizabeth Bruton on 11 October is now available on the Royal Society website at

The podcast also incorporates the PowerPoint slides from the lecture.