Signalling systems in use during the war with France 1793-1815 by Ray Cusick
“To establish secure quick reports telegraphs were established from Lisbon to Elvas, to Abrantes and to Almeida.” Napier (1)
What are these ‘telegraphs’? Is there an explanation to Napier’s statement? They can be categorised as follows:
Balls and Flags 1795 -1812
The Shutter Telegraph 1796 – 1816
The Semaphore 1812 – 1848
“Those who are fore-warned are fore-armed”
In the past, crude attempts at conveying signals over distances were usually intended as warnings and often relied on beacon fires, as at the time of the Spanish Armada, which in that case was also a victory signal. Beacon fires passed the news from hilltop to hilltop, from the south coast to London in twenty minutes. The same system was reactivated in the late eighteenth century for the anticipated French invasion of Southern England and was standing by until 1805.
The Scottish Parliament passed an Act in 1455 that said: “One bale, or faggot, shall be warning of the approach of the English. Two bales that they were actually coming and four bales, blazing side by side, shall note that the enemy is in great force.”
“What lies over the Hill?”
Wellington’s staff employed a well-planned system of intelligence-gathering during the Peninsula campaign, which Wellington considered was imperative if he was to attempt to anticipate Marshall Massena’s intentions and steal a march on the French. To plan his strategy, the disposition of his forces and liaise with the commissariat over the vital matter of supplies, Wellington needed to know what lay over the hill. In the quest for vital information the Anglo- Portuguese army had one major advantage over the French inasmuch that they operated in what was, with a few exceptions, a friendly environment, whereas the French forces were surrounded by a landscape that was unforgiving and a population that was almost totally hostile.
Most of the information gathered was on paper in a printed, handwritten or drawn form, from French newspapers, letters from spies (who were known by Wellington as “correspondents”), reports and maps from reconnaissance patrols, and captured French dispatches (2). To get this information to Wellington’s H. Q. was a time-consuming process by a method hardly changed since the Roman Empire. This involved couriers, fast riders, cavalry scouts, “the galloping officers” (3) and the guerrillas – the human element, all of varying degrees of resourcefulness, criss-crossing the countryside post-haste, always with the chance of being intercepted. It was slow, involved much risk and had too many variable elements that could jeopardize successful delivery. There was always a time delay, sometimes of days during which the useful information could become cold.
There was also the matter of the day-to-day running of an army on campaign with the issuing of orders, reports, messages, and requests for supplies. The transmission of simple messages rapidly by some form of signalling system, however rudimentary, was the answer.
Such systems and their benefits were understood, but never pursued, by the British army, who did not have a corps that employed any signalling device. It was probably considered impractical due to the type of duties and operations that the army undertook. The British army was constantly on the move around the United Kingdom and Ireland, with the marching regiments of foot as itinerant keepers of the king’s peace, or being hurriedly fielded as a campaign army operating in foreign parts, often on a short-term basis (4). When they did require signalling aids they sought help from the navy or the Portuguese army. The apparatus then in use was not portable, being by the nature of its function cumbersome and bulky: it had to be of a size that could be seen and read over a distance. Such systems, by necessity, had to be static and tended to be used in garrisons, and the few of these in Great Britain were in Scotland. Elsewhere, they were used by several European armies, who, for defence along their frontiers, relied on a network of fixed fortifications, permanently garrisoned, and ideal locations for signalling stations. The French already had a type of semaphore system in use during the 18th century, invented by Claude Chappe. But the Royal Navy, who were the country’s first line of defence – “the wooden walls of England” – did have a real need for a signalling system and they used their own unique method which was in use for a number of years.
Balls and Flags (see Fig 1)
The term ‘Telegraph’ is often used, then as now, as a collective term to describe all the various signalling systems. This can be confusing and is not strictly correct, as the only system to be properly named ‘Telegraph’ is the Shutter Telegraph, graphic symbols over a distance, as the name implies. This, although used in England, was never used in the Peninsula by the British army. The name ‘Telegraph’ was, later in the 19th century, adopted to describe the electric ’telegraph’ which transformed communications in commerce and also, with the railway, opened up the American West. It was used again during the Great War 1914 as WT, or wireless telegraphy, and in both cases courtesy of Samuel Morse.
The Royal Navy had long-developed their tried and trusted method of conveying orders and information from ship to ship by a system of flags in combinations – Vice Admiral Nelson’s famous signal before Trafalgar is an example, and all midshipmen had to study Captain Popham’s code book and learn the signals (5). With the book being readily available, another system was devised and used by the navy, called ‘Balls and Flags’. This system was designed, at some date before the Napoleonic War, especially for sending signals from ship to shore, and vice versa, and in code. In 1800 Captain Home Riggs Popham had introduced his vocabulary of the most useful words to the numerical signals. The coded signals, based on sets of numerals, could be pre-arranged and changed daily. This thwarted the inquisitive (journalists), spies, and others who might be lurking about the shore or harbour with their telescopes. It was used to signal to the coastal lookouts, especially those on the Martello Towers – the towers between Lympe in Kent and Seaford in East Sussex were provided with flagstaffs, equipped with flags and canvas balls and used as signal stations. By 1812 this method was giving way to the semaphore.
The ‘Balls and Flags’ method consisted of a mast and yard, from which hoists of up to five balls made of pitched canvas, one flag, and one pennant indicated the numbers 1 to 999, according to their position. Combinations of four balls suspended below the yard signalled the numbers 1 to 99, and 100 to 900 needed combinations of the flag, pennant and a fifth ball hoisted on the mast. The range of numbers could be extended to 10,000 by the use of an additional flag and pennant hoisted onto the yard.
It was decided during the construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras in 1810, on the recommendation of the Duke of Wellington, that the various fortifications, being permanent and on high ground, were ideally located for signal stations. For this purpose it was decided to use the ‘Balls and Flags’ system, probably because it was a known system with trained operators available. The army in Southern England was using this system in 1803-4, at the height of the French invasion scare, and the military operatives seem to have been dispersed. The matter of communication within the Lines was referred to in Wellington’s 21-page general memorandum to Lt Colonel Richard Fletcher RE, dated 20th October 1809. He refers to ‘signal posts’ within the Lines, and instructs Fletcher to decide on the most suitable locations.
On the outer line of fortifications five signal stations were erected. There were a similar number on the second defence line, and one station at Fort Sao Juliao.
Admiral the Hon. G. Berkeley, the naval commander on the Tagus, probably suggested this system and agreed to staff the signal stations with naval signallers. It is known that he was not over-pleased when he discovered how many were required, as it stripped the coastal stations in England of these trained men, usually veterans. There was further displeasure when Berkeley discovered that he now had to pay the men, as the army said they were still on the strength of the navy.
In two dispatches from Celerico (Wellington’s HQ), dated 13 and 24 June 1810, Wellington asked Admiral Berkeley to send him copies of Popham’s vocabularies, with the naval code of signals and cyphers removed, “so that no evil should result from their falling into bad hands.” He asked Berkeley for his help in setting up a naval signal staff for the signal stations, as he could not spare the officers and men, nor had the time to instruct and train them “to go down and learn how to use a telegraph” (6).
The second dispatch thanked Berkeley for his assistance, and included a sketch showing Wellington’s modified flag staff with only one yard arm “if we unlearned are to have anything to do with it”. Wellington then suggested the complement of signallers necessary, and added that Fletcher would indicate the number of stations and their locations. They were: on the hill above Alhandra (at the Tagus end of the northernmost line); Sobral de Monte Agraco; on the summit of the Nossa Senhora de Socorro; on the Sao Vicente Chapel in the Great Redoubt of Torres Vedras; and Redoubt No 30 in the rear of Ponte de Rol. Colonel Fletcher was also to arrange accommodation near the stations for the signalling crews. The early trials were not a success as the construction of the masts were not strong enough to support the weight of the yard arm plus the balls and flags, with also the ropes and lines. They also discovered that the distances between the stations were too great for the signals to be read, especially in poor light. The station at Redoubt No 30 had a particular problem with a small wood confusing the background, until they cut down the pine trees. Stronger masts were made and erected, and superior glasses (telescopes) were purchased from Lisbon. The system of Balls and Flags eventually functioned well, with five to seven minutes the average time to relay station to station.
But on 11 September 1810, Colonel Fletcher wrote to Lt Colonel JT Jones from Gouveia: “In consequence of the Admiral having decided to withdraw the navy from our signal posts, Lord Wellington thinks we had better use the simple Portuguese telegraph, and request you will have the goodness to get one made up for each post and carried to the spot. I should think it will not be difficult for you to procure a number of old seamen at Lisbon to work them.” (see Fig 2). Berkeley had withdrawn his sailors when it transpired that he had to continue paying them, which was necessary as Wellington had no authority to pay them and was reluctant to do so anyway. Jones had stated that the telegraphs were worked by a party of seamen under Lt Leith of the RN. Fletcher’s letter implied that the ‘simple Portuguese telegraph’ was their version of a basic one-armed semaphore, however the final outcome was when the British troops moved into the Lines, Portuguese veterans, from the Corpo Telegraphico, and supervised by British officers and NCOs, operated the Balls and Flags system.
There was also a Balls and Flags station on Santa Clara Island during the siege of San Sebastian in 1813, and another station near the border with France before the advance to Toulouse.
Another reference to the system comes in ‘A Naval Telegraph used at Lisbon’. It was a mast with a gaff, able to hoist combinations of flags and balls to make a variety of signals. Each station was supplied with a large and small red flag (one of the flags must have been hoisted to show the next station that they were about to ‘send’), a white flag, a Union flag, red, white and blue pennants, 12 balls made of pitched canvas, and a frame for a beacon to use for night signals.
The Portuguese were also using a different ‘mechanical telegraph’, formed of three mobile and one fixed board in a frame, to control shipping movements between Cabo Roca and Lisbon. This sounds like a simple form of ‘Shutter Telegraph’.
Gamble’s Shutter Telegraph (7)
The Royal Navy had a need for a signalling system that could ideally put the Admiralty in London in speedy contact with the main ports of Portsmouth and Plymouth. Consequently, they showed great interest in a system presented to them called the Shutter Telegraph. It was in 1795 that Reverend John Gamble, Chaplain to HRH the Duke of York, proposed a method of communication by signalling, using shutters that were large enough to be read over long distances. Each telegraph station would be situated at high points in a direct line from the Admiralty to Portsmouth so that messages could be relayed back and forth.
Because of the need to be seen over some distance, Gamble’s Shutter Telegraph had to be large. Ropes, opening and closing the shutters in the fashion of Venetian blinds, operated these. There were four panels, all 7′ x 16′, the top and bottom panels being vertical and the middle two horizontal. Each panel comprised of louvres 1′ wide x 16′ long. In the top and bottom panels there were 16 louvres, the two middle panels each had seven louvres.
To accommodate the four panels, and make them wind and weather proof, a heavily constructed frame was necessary that would be near to 50′ high by over 16′ wide. The Reverend Gamble wrote: “Unserviceable timber of considerable length is easily procured in the Dockyard, – the old top-masts of 80- and 50-gun ships were fixed as uprights.”
The Admiralty agreed that the Gamble Telegraph should have a trial, and suggested that it should be positioned between Portsmouth and either Ashey Down on the Isle of Wight, or Portsdown Hill. On the 16 August 1795, the Reverend Gamble wrote that “from the ramparts of Portsmouth, a distance of about 5 miles, the telegraph was easily read, even in a slight degree of haze; and with a very indifferent glass it was perfectly distinct from Spithead, and even from the Isle of Wight, a distance of 14 to 15 miles”.
Gamble’s Telegraph worked, but the Admiralty considered the difficulties involved too great when construction took place on inaccessible hilltops. The method of operation was not ideal and the four panels did limit the signal combinations.
Murray’s Shutter Telegraph (8) (See Fig 3)
The Admiralty’s doubts were confirmed when another gentleman of the cloth, Lord George Murray, Archdeacon of Man, Rector of Herston in Kent &c, later Bishop of St David’s, offered his system of “making improvements to the telegraph”. Murray’s method was capable of more combinations, as it used six shutters of less complexity. A shutter telegraph frame was constructed and trials took place on Wimbledon Common. His system was immediately approved and adopted by the Admiralty, and a line of 10 telegraph stations was built between London and Portsmouth, and 15 stations from London to Deal and Sheerness. The Southern line was extended to Plymouth in 1806, and in 1808 a line to Great Yarmouth was established. They all functioned until 1816. A message from London to Portsmouth was usually transmitted in about fifteen minutes.
The Murray Telegraph consisted of a frame containing six rectangular panels in two vertical rows of three. Each panel was about 5′ x 4′ with the corners cut off, forming what was essentially an octagon. The main frame stood approximately 20′ high atop a wooden hut, with the operators manipulating the ropes to control the panels from inside the hut. There were viewing windows either side of the hut facing the other stations. When all the shutters were in the ‘shut’ position two black vertical rows would be seen. If all the shutters were ‘open’, that is lying parallel to the ground with only their edges facing the other stations, the frame would then appear clear. There must have been some sort of sign, a flag, to show the next station that they were ready to send.
The Shutter Telegraph was a visual system with the signals read by telescope. It was very efficient and speedy with a trial signal transmitted to Plymouth and back in three minutes, which by the telegraph route was about 500 miles. Its main limitation was visibility, as it relied on good weather which could be expected for only about two thirds of the year.
Oddly, the Shutter Telegraph was considered as only a temporary measure, to last for the duration of the war with France. At the Peace of Amiens in 1802 they were closed down very quickly. Obviously the Admiralty was concerned about the running costs when, no doubt, the Treasury was reducing the Navy’s budget at the first sign of peace. But they were reopened in 1803 with the resumption of hostilities, only to be closed down again after the Peace of Paris was signed on 30 May 1814. In the early part of 1815 the Admiralty issued a statement, before the Hundred Days: “There can be no question that, in time of peace, the Telegraphs will be of little or no use; but it does not from thence follow that they ought not to be kept up for the same reason that batteries and other works of defence are maintained during peace … . There is no period of War at which the communication by telegraph is more useful than at its commencement.” As a result of this statement all the stations were re- opened in 1815, and it was decided to appoint a lieutenant to each one.
The Semaphores (9)
Most signalling methods are, in the end, variants of the same idea. In 1790 a French engineer, Claude Chappe, developed a message-relay system that was a form of semaphore. Although sceptical at first, the Legislative Assembly backed the scheme and, in 1790, 16 tower stations were built from Paris to Lille on the northern frontier with Belgium, a distance of 140 miles. The speed of relaying the messages over what then seemed an extraordinary distance so impressed the Assembly that a nationwide system was established.
The signalling apparatus consisted of a post, with a movable cross piece, called the regulator, and movable wooden arms, called indicators, at either end of the regulator. They were moved by a system of ropes and pulleys to create the positions according to the code.
What is not always appreciated is that Napoleon was very interested in the semaphore, as he could count on its rapid speed to send messages to secure troop movements across France (10).
On 12 March 1812, the Admiralty sent a communication to the lieutenants superintending the coastal Signal Stations: “It having been deemed expedient that the signals made at your station shall, for the future, be communicated by Semaphore instead of Balls and Flags.” The Admiralty laid down the personnel for each station as one lieutenant, one midshipman and only one man.
This initial form of semaphore consisted of a mast with three movable arms which, when moved to various patterns by means of ropes, represented different phrases, letters or numerals. The Semaphore was first used along the coastal stations in Suffolk and Essex. (see Fig 4)
Thomas Goddard, the Purser of the Royal Yacht the ‘Royal George’, was dispatched to all the coastal stations that had the new Semaphores, to instruct the lieutenants in their use. In 1815, the Admiralty tried out a two-armed Semaphore invented by Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham. It was Popham, in 1800 then a Captain, who had introduced a new vocabulary for use with the Balls and Flags system. The hand-held flag system used by the navy until recent times works on the same principal. (Waving those blue and white flags was something every Boy Scout used to be familiar with.)
In 1816 a trial line was initiated and eight stations were erected between the Admiralty in London, and Chatham, under the supervision of Popham. Lieutenant B. Robertson, who had been in charge of the shutter station at New Cross between 1815 and 1816 was transferred to the trial Semaphore Line. He stated, when taking over the new station at Nunhead:
“And I beg leave to state that I think the mast with two arms a decided superiority, particularly in point of sight, as no day during the whole winter has either of the Stations which we look to (West Square and Red Hill) been out of sight excepting when a close fog; no haze what-ever prevented us seeing and working. When the Mast is seen there is no difficulty, when any attention is paid, in taking and repeating the positions of the arms correctly. This was not the case with the shutters; there was hardly a day during the winter I was at New Cross but we had our fog signal up, for altho’ I could frequently see both stations I looked to (I mean the frames) I could not read off the shutters they had up, or down, from the haze that hung about the frame.” (l have no idea of what the fog signal was – was it a blazing beacon?)
As a result of these trials it was decided to proceed with a line to Portsmouth. The Admiralty was unhappy with the original route of the Shutter Telegraph stations surveyed by Mr. George Roebuck, stating that in some cases the distances between stations had been too great. They sent Thomas Goddard to survey a new route in 1818 so that the Telegraph could be replaced by the Semaphore.
The Portuguese Corpo Telegraphico (11)
Unlike the British army, the Portuguese army did have a signals unit that functioned from 1810. Perhaps they felt their army had a stronger need for some form of signalling system in their country, especially between Lisbon and the fortifications in the volatile frontier region. They introduced a semaphore system, simple but effective. It comprised one arm, pivoted on a mast and bearing at one end a 3′ square board, probably painted black. Was the other end counter-balanced?
The system ran in lines forming an inverted Y, from Lisbon to the frontier fortifications of Elvas and Almeida. A dispatch by Wellington from Celerico, dated 20 August 1810, indicates that the British Army were familiar with it and, in fact, on one occasion in that part of Beira Alta, refers to “adverting, however, to the facility with which we manage the Portuguese telegraph”. Confirmation is given in Lieutenant Rice-Jones diary for 12 August 1810 -“Ross of the Artillery (Horse?) rode to Linhares, from whence he distinguished the signal made by the Portuguese telegraph with one arm, fixed upon the castle here (Celerico).” (12)
The Portuguese Army Engineer Corps in 1805 formed a plan for signal posts. The re-formed army took the opportunity when the Peninsular war erupted to carry out the plan. Engineer Brigadier-General Pedro Folque was given the task of setting it up. Four lines were set up in the spring of 1810 with Lisbon as their centre. They were:
1: Oitavos to Lisbon (four signal stations, which rapidly transmitted what ship appeared at the mouth of the Tagus).
2: Almeida, sixteen stations to Lisbon.
3: Barquinha to Abrantes, two stations.
4: Santarem (which connected to the Almeida-Lisbon line) to Elvas: six stations, opened in 1812 and extended near to Badajoz.
The Semaphore lines consisted of small stations built on prominent hills with good sight lines. They were designed to be of a simple construction and built as quickly as possible. Each station was about 15 miles – 5 English leagues – distant from the next. The signallers’ orders were to destroy the post if the French approached and make a quick retreat. Because of their simplicity it could be rebuilt quickly later. The actual device was as described earlier. The 3′ panel was moved in a pattern of set positions which indicated numerals that corresponded to words, or parts of phrases: it was based on a numerical code system similar to Popham’ s Vocabulary. Its six numbers corresponded to hundreds of words and parts of phrases from Folques codebook.
To operate the telegraph, as with the Royal Navy’s Balls and Flags system, volunteer veterans and invalids (ex-wounded) who were literate were recruited. Seven engineer officers supervised them. The Director General was General Folque, with six officers as first adjutants and three as second adjutants. There were 17 first corporals, 28 second corporals and 64 private soldiers, so the CorpoTelegraphico had 119 officers and men. The signal stations on the long Lisbon-Almeida line were operated by three to five men each; the Barquinha- Abrantes line had two to four operators. The Santarem-Elvas line had only one man per station.
Wellington was reliant on receiving intelligence, and any news, promptly, and appreciated the value of the Portuguese Telegraph system. It was used whenever conditions were stable enough to set up the signal stations, which were in the main area of Northern Spain and Southern France during the latter stages of the Peninsula campaign. Edmund Wheatley of the K.G.L. noted in January 1814 that a “telegraph communication is adopted when the army is in winter quarters”. A station was set up near the mayor’s house of Guethaey where Wellington had his HQ. The signallers were from the Corpo Telegraphico, with British officers and NCOs.
The Corpo’s uniform was a blue coatee with a black collar, blue cuffs, shoulder straps and turnbacks. There was scarlet piping to the edges of the collar, cuffs, shoulder straps and turnbacks, and down the front of the coatee. The buttons were brass, and the pantaloons white or blue with short black gaiters. The shako was cylindrical – whether Belgic or not is uncertain – with a brass band and oval brass plate, and a white over black plume. Accoutrements were in buff leather with brass oval breastplate. They carried a brass-hilted hanger, though there seems to be some doubt as to whether the signaller was armed with any firearm.
N.B. There exists a perfectly restored and fully working Semaphore tower dating from 1822, built on the London to Portsmouth line at Chatley Heath, near Ockham, Surrey. It is occasionally open to the public.
B Kent : “Signal: A History of Signalling in the RN.”
TW Holmes: “The Story of the Admiralty to Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph and the Semaphore Lines”
Colonel IT Jones “Memoranda Relating to the Lines Thrown Up to Cover Lisbon in 1810”
J.S. A. H. R. Volume 78 Notes and Docs. 1567 Portuguese Telegraph Corps
Geoffrey Wilson, Royal Signals Museum, Blandford: “Notes on Rev John Gamble”
John Grehan: “The Lines of Torres Vedras: the Cornerstone of Wellington’s Strategy in the Peninsula – 1809-12″
Julia Page: “Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula”
David Chandler: “On the Napoleonic Wars – Wellington in the Peninsula”.
Navy Records Society: “Signals and Instructions 1776-94” 1908
Gamble’s Essay of the Different Modes of Communication by Signals
F.B. Wrixon: “Codes, Cyphers and Secret Languages”
- Napier Vol III p 266
- David Chandler “On the Napoleonic Wars”, chap. Wellington in the Peninsula.
- Julia Page “Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula”.
- J.A. Houlding “Fit for Service – Training of the British Army 1715-1795”.
- William Surtees “25 Years in the Rifle Brigade” p61
- Wellington’s Dispatches Vol VI 1838 Ed.
- Gamble’s Essay of the Different Modes of Communication by Signals.
- T.W.Holmes “The Story of the Admiralty to Portsmouth Shutter Telegraph.”
- From Greek: seema (a sign) + phero( to carry).
- F. B. Wrixon “Codes, Cyphers and Secret Languages”
- J.S.A.H.R. Vol. 78 Notes and Docs. 1567
- G. Wilson, Royal Signals Museum: “Notes on Rev. John Gamble”