Tag Archives: cable telegraphy

British cable telegraphy in World War One: The All-Red Line and secure communications

By Elizabeth Bruton

1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson's The All Red Line - The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project

1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson’s The All Red Line – The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project (1903). Image available in the public domain.

In a previous article, we’ve discussed German cable telegraphy in World War One, and now it is time to examine British cable telegraphy in the conflict.  Much, if not all, British long-distance telecommunication relied on the “All-Red Line”, the network of British-controlled and operated electric telegraph cables stretching around the globe and so called due to the colour red (or sometimes pink) being used to designate British territories and colonies in the atlases of the period.

The origins and early history of the “All-Red Line”

The “All-Red Line” was operated through a mixture of public and private enterprise with the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) operating many of the telegraph cables in Asia, Africa, and beyond.  By the late nineteenth century, telegraphy cables from Britain stretched to all corners of the globe forming a massive international communications network of around 100,000 miles of undersea cables.

News which had previously taken up to six months to reach distant parts of the world could now be relayed in a matter of hours. In 1902 the “All Red Line” route was completed with the final stages of constuction of the trans-Pacific route and connected all parts of the British empire.

This telegraph network consisted of a series of cable links across the Pacific Ocean, connecting New Zealand and Australia with Vancouver and through the Trans-Canada and Atlantic lines to Europe. Submarine telegraph cables remained the only fast means of international communication for 75 years until the development of wireless telegraphy at the end of the nineteenth century.

Security and telegraph cables

Security and reliability were an important part of this vast international telecommunications network: there were multiple redundancies so that even if one cable was cut, a message could be sent through many other routes, operating a bit like the modern day Internet (which actually has far more redundancies built in). Further security was added in the location of telegraph line landfall: the “All-Red Line” was designed to only made landfall in British colonies or British-controlled territories although this may have compromised on occasionally.

In 1902 and around the time that the All-Red Line was completed, the Committee of Imperial Defence was established by the then British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and was made responsible for research and some coordination of British military strategy.  In 1911 and with the possibility of a war in Europe looming, the committee analysed the All-Red Line and concluded that it would be essentially impossible for Britain to be isolated from her telegraph network due to the redundancy built into the network: 49 cables would need to be cut for Britain to be cut off, 15 for Canada, and 5 for South Africa. Further to this, Britain and British telegraph companies owned and controlled most of the apparatus needed to cut or repair telegraph cables and also had a superior navy to control the seas.

British telegraph cables at the outbreak of war

As a resullt, when war broke out in August 1914 and some isolated telegraph stations such as the one at Cocos Islands asked for further security and military protection due to the risk of German attack, they got none and were left to their own devices in terms of protection.  Some of the staff on the Cocos Island station constructed a fake telegraph cable and this was one that was cut by the Germans in their attack on the island in November 1914 and so telegraph communication via this telegraph station was able to continue.

Indeed, as a result of the redundancies built into the system and British naval superiority, the “All-Red Line” – a network which was strategically important to businesses, government, and military and a keystone in British imperial activities – remained robust, secure, and essentially uninterrupted for the duration of the war.

Sources and further information

A Short History of Submarine Cables

History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

Johnson, George. The All Red Line; the annals and aims of the Pacific Cable project. Ottowa: James Hope & Sons, 1903.  Available via Internet Archive.

Kenndy, P.M. Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914, The English Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 341 (Oct, 1971), pp. 728-752.  Available via JSTOR.

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

German cable telegraphy in World War One: Yap Island

By Elizabeth Bruton

CS Stephan off the New Guinea coast, laying the Dutch East Indies - Yap - Guam cable, c.1906

CS Stephan off the New Guinea coast, laying the Dutch East Indies – Yap – Guam cable, c.1906. Image available in the public domain via Atlantic-cable.com.

Located in the western Pacific Ocean and forming part of the Caroline Islands, Yap Island was a major German naval communications centre in the early twentieth century up to World War One and was an important international hub for cable telegraphy.

From the seventeenth century up to 1899, Yap Island was a Spanish colony within the Captaincy General of the Philippines. After the defeat against the US in 1898 and subsequent loss of the Philippines, Spain sold these islands and its other minor Pacific possessions to Germany.

In the early twentieth century, the Deutsch-Niederlandische Telegraphen-gesellschaft (German-Netherlands Telegraph Company, sometimes translated as German-Dutch Telegraph Company) was established with the remit to link the German Pacific Colonies into the main submarine telegraph networks.  As part of this, in 1906 the company laid telegraph cables from Menado, Dutch East Indies to Yap Island and to Guam.  At Yap Island, a spur was run into Shanghai.  Yap Island formed part of the Menado-Yap-Guam-Shanghai undersea cable route and this route meant that Germany was no longer reliant on British-controlled (“All Red”) telegraph cables in the Pacific.

German-Netherlands Telegraph Company District Office and Cable Station, Yap.

German-Netherlands Telegraph Company District Office and Cable Station, Yap. CS Stephan is at centre right. Dated 2 July 1908, the card was sent to a member of the staff of the German Atlantic Telegraph Company Cable Station at Vigo, Spain. Image available in the public domain via Atlantic-Cable.com.

Between 1906 and 1914, Yap became a major German naval communications centre and was an important international hub for cable telegraphy as it offered one of the two key alternative routes to the US-controlled Commercial Pacific cable. Yap Island formed a key node in the German telegraph cable line which also included Guam, Shanghai, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.  Some telegraph messages sent to the German South Sea domain were delivered on from Yap by ship and, after the construction of a wireless station around 1910, by wireless.

Around 1910, the German South Sea Radio Company (a subsidiary company of the German-Netherlands Telegraph Company) established a wireless station on Yap Island to provide wireless communication where a telegraph cable would have been costly and difficult to lay: to Rabaul in New Guinea and to Nauru.  The station, issued the callsign KJA, had a range of 300-500 miles and was commercially operated.

Upon the outbreak of war in early August 1914, Yap Island as well as its telegraph station came under the mandate of Japan.  The wireless station was destroyed by British naval cruisers shortly after war broke out on 12 August 1914 and the Japanese shut down the telegraph station for the duration of the conflict.  The Japanese mandate continued for a short period after the end of the war and this was confirmed by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

However, this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific was of immense strategic importance in the overall global telegraph cable network and was one of only two alternative routes to the US-controlled Commercial Pacific cable from Manila to San Francisco; the other alternative route passed through Japan.

The US was deeply concerned about control of the Pacific Ocean and competition with Japan, both in terms of shipping lanes as well as the telegraph cable network.  As a result, the US objected to Japanese control over the island.  This was eventually rectified by an agreement signed in December 1921 and which came into effect in 1922 which recognised the Japanese mandate over the island of Yap but gave the US equal access to the island and shared control, management, and operation with the Japanese of the telegraph station and the cable from Yap to Guam. The Japanese fortified the island and continued to control the island until it was occupied by the US towards the end of World War Two.

Jetty & buildings on Yap Islands, probably dating from German colonial period

Jetty & buildings on Yap Islands, probably dating from German colonial period. With narrow-gauge tramway tracks running down the jetty. Image available in the public domain via Spontoon Island: Pacific Island Architecture.


Wrinkler, Jonathan Reed. Nexus: Strategic Communications and American Security in World War I (2008).

Memorandum on Cable Communications in the Pacific.Memorandum (Institute of Pacific Relations, American Council), Vol. 1, No. 16 (Sep. 1, 1932), pp. 1-3.

Knoll, Arthur J. and Hermann J. Hiery (eds). The German Colonial Experience: Select Documents on German Rule in Africa, China, and the Pacific 1884-1914 (2010).

The World at War: CAROLINE ISLANDS 1898 – 1919

History of Yap by William Hampton Adams

History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications: German Cable Companies by Bill Glover

Department of the Navy and the Bureau of Steam Engineering. Wireless Telegraph Stations of the World including shore stations, merchant vessels, revenue cutters, and vessels of the US Navy, updated to 1 January 1912 (1912).

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

Guest post by Andreas Marklund: Female Censors at the Danish State Telegraph during World War One

Two young telegraphers at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen c.1915

Two young telegraphers at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen, Miss Galschiøtt and Mr. Henriksen, aiding a secret military intelligence unit called Kystcentralen, circa 1915. Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

On June 1, 1918, ten “ladies” with “excellent language skills” had their first day of work as telegram censors at the Danish state telegraph. They had all been tested in foreign languages – German, French and English – by a professor at the University of Copenhagen, and all of them were quite literally daughters of the elite. The first two names on the list of employees are illuminating: “Miss INGER GRAM, daughter of the Supreme Court President, Dr. Jur. R.S. Gram”, followed by “Miss ASTRID HERTZ, daughter of the Medical Officer, Dr. Med. Poul Hertz.”

Inger Gram and Astrid Hertz, and their eight, equally unmarried colleagues, were employed by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs but their office was located at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen. Here, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a unit for cable censorship, which had been in operation since November 1916. In fact, the system of censorship and secret monitoring had been up and running since August 1, 1914, when the Telegraph Directory decreed that no telegrams transmitted from Denmark should contain “sensational and false messages about Danish conditions and popular moods“. However, the system was loosely organized in the beginning of the war, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was anything but satisfied with the practical handling of censorship issues, which initially sorted under the Telegraph Directory and the so-called Ministry for Public Works. Accordingly, after a harsh debate in the Danish parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took charge of the surveillance system and established its own Censorship Office at the Main Telegraph Station, which was staffed by four external censors who had no previous connections to the Danish State Telegraph.

Yet the system remained inefficient and defective. The Ministry of Foreign Affair’s censorship director, Marinus Yde, complained in a memo to his superiors that merely 500-600 telegrams, out of the approximately 7 000 telegrams that the Danish State Telegraph transmitted on a daily basis, were handed over to his censors. Thus, there was clear lack of cooperation between the censors and the ordinary telegraph staff. In another memo, dated to 29 April 1918, Mr. Yde bemoaned this glitch in the system in a rather candid tone:

The whole mountain of telegram correspondence is thus being processed without any other control than that which is carried out by the (often very young) telegraph operators, while they are transmitting and charging the telegrams. This kind of control is of no value at all.

This is where Miss Inger Gram and her nine female colleagues entered the picture. They were definitely not the first women within the Danish telecommunications sector. The first female telegraph operator in the country, the famous author and feminist Mathilde Fibiger, had entered service as early as in 1863, and there had been women working for the Censorship Office before the summer of 1918, for instance as stenographers and record keepers. Yet the idea of employing women as cable censors was a novelty of World War One – and its origin was seemingly Swedish. In the above-mentioned 1918 memo, Mr Yde wrote about an excursion to the Main Telegraph Station in Stockholm, where female censor clerks functioned as a kind of basic control filter, by “sifting” the “whole mountain” of incoming and outgoing telegrams. And whenever they discovered a suspicious message, it was forwarded to senior (male) censors in a neighboring office.

Mr. Yde was greatly impressed by this model and recommended it with enthusiasm to his superiors. The gender aspect was explicitly highlighted: “The main work could definitely be carried out by female employees, who would be provided by the State Telegraph, thereby keeping the expenses at a minimum.” As the quotation makes clear, there was a financial dimension to the employment of female censors: qualified women with the necessary language skills were far less expensive to keep on the pay-roll than equally qualified men.

Electric transporter, anno 1917, carrying telegrams between the departments at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen

Electric transporter, anno 1917, carrying telegrams between the departments at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen. In the background, busy female operators are typing on their Morse apparatuses. Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

So, the Censorship Office was re-organized yet again and it assumed a bicameral structure. The original censorship unit at the Main Telegraph Station was supplemented with an extra department called the Control Office, where the staff was made up by the ten language-skilled “ladies” (damer) and one man: a young PhD in philosophy named Kort Kristian Kortsen, who was affiliated with the University of Copenhagen. As in the case of the Swedish surveillance system, the mission of this office was to “carry out the preliminary, crude assessment of the massive load of telegrams, and put all those telegrams aside, that calls for a closer inspection by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ current censors.” This kind of surveillance work was labelled “control” (kontrol), whereas the senior office dealt with something called “prohibitive censorship” (prohibitiv censur).

Both offices were managed by an Official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named Lauritz Larsen, who was considered to be equipped with “exactly that interest for general patterns and small details, which is necessary for the perfect overall result.” To speed up the process and reduce the number of customer complaints, the offices were connected through a logistical device called an “electric transporter”: a cart that ran on rails in the ceiling with telegrams, censorship minutes and other kinds of messages. Yet the friction between the censors and the cable station staff remained an unresolved issue, and the system continued to be haunted by delays, misunderstandings and direct conflicts, but that is another story for another day.

Andreas Marklund is Researcher and Research Coordinator at Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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.