15

When was the first time a commander used, for example, the telegraph to communicate with and coordinate different parts of the same battlefield?

I know that the telegraph was used extensively for strategic communication in the American Civil War, but I have not found a source supporting its tactical use within a single battlefield. I also know that the British used employed dedicated teams of engineers to lay telegraph wire for communicating with headquarters during the Crimean war, but again, no intra-battlefield communication. I know that by the first world war, radios were used on the front lines, but I doubt that is the first use of tactical electrical communication.

  • 5
    What research have you done? I've moved your comment into the question; comments by the original poster reduce the chance of answers and the quality of answers. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 3 at 18:15
  • Do you exclude an electric light being used as a signalling device ? – Criggie Feb 5 at 10:47
  • Possibly, but reliable electric lights post-date the Crimean war, so they cannot have been first, or am i wrong? – Alex S Feb 5 at 14:17
27

Chapter 16 - TELEGRAPH AT WAR 1854 - 1868 of Distant Writing by Steven Roberts outlines several battlefield usages of the telegraph prior to the American Civil War.

The British, French and Spanish all employed telegraphs systems on the battlefield prior to the start of the American Civil War.

British

The Crimean War is the first time that the telegraph was used to communicate across a single battlefield:

S J G Calthorpe, a staff officer, was to write in his diary for March 29, 1855,

"I have never mentioned to you that a field telegraph, which was sent out here near two months ago, is now in use. Lines have been laid down from Headquarters to Balaklava, to each of our Attacks, as well as to a station between the 3rd and 4th Division camps, and another between those of the 2nd and light Divisions. Lord Raglan (the commander-in-chief) can therefore now communicate in a few minutes with any of his generals at any time, day or night. It is also a great advantage to have it in the trenches, as in the event of any sortie by the enemy, reinforcements can be sent for and instructions asked by the commanding officers in either Attack."

The final paragraph notes in particular how the telegraph was used in the event of a Russian sortie to:

  • alert headquarters;
  • call for reinforcements; and
  • receive orders and direction from headquarters.

More on the use of technology, including both telegraphy and photography, during the Crimean War in "The Crimean War as a technological enterprise" and "Crimean War spurred pioneering telecoms technology".

French

Following the example of the British in the Crimean War, the French during their brief Italian campaign of spring 1859 against the Austrians, employed a flying telegraph to coordinate the attack at Solferino:

In addition there was a clandestine "flying telegraph", a field telegraph worked by the military rather than civilians, by which the Emperor Napoleon III's mobile headquarters was put in circuit with field stations at each corps and division of the army across the twelve mile front ... It was claimed that at the decisive battle of Solferino on June 24, 1859

"the movement of the whole army was known and regulated like clockwork" by telegraph.

Spanish

Likewise the Spanish in their Moroccan campaign of 1859-1860:

To accompany the troops of the Spanish expedition W T Henley also provided a complete field telegraph; including transport waggons, his magneto- telegraph instruments and a specially-designed field cable made with a copper core, gutta percha insulation and lightweight iron wire armouring. The telegraph train followed General O'Donnell's staff out from Ceuta.

| improve this answer | |
  • The Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War occured Oct 25, 1854, 3 months before your source says they received their first telegraphs. Napoleon III advanced into battle at at Soferino to meet the advancing Austrians resulting in the battle being fought at an unpredicted location. No fortifications. No Telegraphs on the battlefield. You mention no battle for the Spanish Moroccan campaign. – user27618 Feb 4 at 13:47
  • @JMS: You seem to be neglecting the Battle of Malakoff, Battle of the Chernaya, Assault on the Great Redan, all of which occurred subsequent to March, 1855, and forced the surrender of Sevastopol. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 4 at 14:02
  • 1
    Actually Pieter I'm commenting on your answer which you spent less than a minute researching. Perhaps you should work your subsequent research into your above answer, It would improve your initial attempt. – user27618 Feb 4 at 14:14
  • 1
    @JMS: No offense taken - I was the (first) upvote on your comment, so I did indeed accept the comment in the proper spirit. Yes, I am smiling; and yes I can be putz at times. – Pieter Geerkens Feb 4 at 14:41
  • The Crimean example isn't very convincing. The headquarters weren't located on any battlefields (they were nearer Balaklava) and messages were going to and from there, not within the field. The Battles of Malakoff and Chernaya didn't involve the British, while the Battle of Redan was at the British siege line, not near headquarters. – gormadoc Feb 4 at 18:16
5

Question:
When was the first electrical intra-battlefield communication?

Short Answer
Broadly, the United States Civil War.. Definitely Sept 17, 1862, arguable July 21, 1861.

July 21, 1861 Battle of First Manassas Confederate Generals Beauregard and Johnston coordinated the convergence of their two armies to meet a Union offensive at the first Battle of Manassas. Johnson would further innovate by being the first commander to use Railroads to transport his army into battle. Now that could be argued as occurring before the battle of First Manassas, but I would say it was after Beauregard had met the union forces and was reacting to them. So I would say it counts.

Alternatively, The Union's General McClellan would use the telegraph at the battle of Anietam Sept 17, 1862 to coordinate resupply of artillery shells and ammunition during that action. Directly communicating between units during the action at Anietam.


Detailed Answer
General Beauregard in Command of the Confederate's Army of the Potomac, used the telegraph to inform General Johnston in command of The Army of the Shenandoah, on his troops falling back on the stream of Bull Run. General Johnston would move his army to support Beauregard at the Battle of First Manassas one of the first major battles of the Civil War. The battle of Manassas was fought over an important railroad junction. And since telegraphs lines in those days were placed next to railroad tracks. The Battle of Manassas had a telegraph line present on the battlefield, for General Beauregard to use. General Johnston was stationed with his army at Harpers Ferry at the other end of the Winchester and Potomac Railroad.

First Battle of Manassas
Indeed, on July 17, in the face of the Union advance, Beauregard informed Confederate president Jefferson Davis that "the enemy have assailed my outposts in heavy force" and that he had "fallen back on the line of Bull Run." Word went out by telegraph to Johnston that the anticipated Union advance had begun. Johnston, confident that Patterson would stay put, immediately agreed to shift his forces to Manassas.

The Union's General McClellan used the Telegraph during the Battle of Anietam September 1862 in Maryland to coordinate resupply of his troops with ammunition and artillery shells during that action. Anietam was special for the purposes of this question. Telegraphs of coarse are laborious things to install on a battlefield, and can only be of use if you know where the battle is going to be and you have a commander obsessed with leaving nothing to chance, wanting to control every minute detail of the battle. At Anietam you have both. General McClellan had Lee's attack plans before the battle. He knew where, when, and how Lee was going to attack. General McClellan was also famous for obsessively planning every aspect of his battles. Some would say he over thought them.

The Telegraph -Essential Civil War Curriculum
“Hardly a day intervened when General Grant did not know the exact state of facts with me, more than fifteen hundred miles off, as the wires ran.” McClellan adroitly used the telegraph to resupply his troops with bullets and shells in the midst of the Battle of Antietam, Maryland, in September 1862.
During the battle of Spotsylvania in the Wilderness Campaign of May 1864, Major General George Gordon Meade used the telegraph to reinforce Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps after it had come under heavy Confederate counterattack. Stanton relied on the military telegraph to monitor the actions of generals in the field, and Lincoln spent countless hours in the War Department telegraph office adjoining Stanton’s office. For the first time in the history of warfare, the telegraph helped field commanders to direct real-time battlefield operations and permitted senior military officials to coordinate strategy across large distances. These capabilities were key factors in the North's victory.

| improve this answer | |
2

The first time an electric mean of communication was used on the battlefield is the American Civil War. The first time it was used for military communication purpose, but not intra battlefield, is the Crimea War.

About Civil War, you can notice that the US Telegraph Corps was specially created whe the war began. This was already quite a reliable technology.

During the Crimea War, the telegraph was used to exchange information between governements. It was also operated by a English Pionneers Corps.

The first time an electronic mean of communication was used on the battlefield is the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, on battleships by Japanese admirals.

Definition of electronic might actually depend, but voice radio is clearly more "electronic". During the battle of the Yellow Sea, Togo's radio went off the air but some relays helped him to continue to manage the battle. Not sure however if this battle is the first combat use of radio, probably it is one of the first major battles with radio.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Sounds about right with respect to the time frame, but sources would greatly improve the answer. – Denis de Bernardy Feb 3 at 18:55
  • @DenisdeBernardy It is quite difficult to source about something being the "first" (ie something not being before a given time) But I improved the answer with sources for the actual use of those devices – totalMongot Feb 3 at 20:05
  • I presume you meant that to be about the "electronic" means of communication. It wasn't electronic at the time, but I take it you meant it to mean wireless telegraphy, which was developed in the mid 1890s. It apparently had a few uses during the 2nd Boers War and the Boxer Rebellion. Also, the telephone was used during the Spanish-American War. (And possibly earlier.) – Denis de Bernardy Feb 3 at 20:51
  • (The first field telephones were used during the 2nd Boers War.) – Denis de Bernardy Feb 3 at 20:58
  • Your answer states the US Telegraph Corps was started before the Civil War began, but your given source refutes that. Fort Sumter occurred April 12, 1861... The Union Army's first 4 telegraph operators, from the Pennsylvania Rail road did not arrive in Washington until April 27, 1861 and were used to communicate between the war dept and navy yard. Not telegraphs from the field. – user27618 Feb 3 at 21:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.