Australian signallers in World War I

During warfare, a commander needs to know:

  • where his troops are and what they're doing
  • whether he has sufficient supplies

Signallers are responsible for these military communications.

A painting depicting a soldier holding phone to his ear
Signaller', an oil painting by George Bell, 1924, of a man laying a field telephone across the battlefield at Pozieres, France AWM ART06360

Requirements to become a signaller

Before 1925, signals were part of the responsibility of the Royal Australian Engineers. In 1914, a syllabus for the grading of signallers was announced.

Sappers (signallers) had to be proficient in:

  • Morse code signalling on flag, lamp and heliograph
  • map reading

Successful candidates were classified as first-class signallers and wore crossed flags with a star on their right forearm. Those with slower speeds qualified as second-class signallers and wore the flags without the star.

Signallers were also dispatch riders. They usually supplied their own bicycles or motorbikes.

Studio portrait of 2 soldiers on a motorcyle and sidecar
Studio portrait of Sergeant James Paddock (left, on motorcycle), Australian Corps of Signals, and Corporal Herbert Bain (right, in sidecar), 1st Divisional Signal Company, in about 1918. Both men returned home to Australia in April 1919. The men made the sidecar from parts of a damaged aeroplane. AWM P10967.001

During the war

With the outbreak of World War I, the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) had to recruit signallers for:

  • each new division that was raised
  • individual battalions

The assembly area for the 1st Division Signal Company was Broadmeadows, Victoria. The sappers (signallers) who arrived came from every state.

Most recruits were chosen after passing a Morse code reading test, which gave their unit some basic proficiency.

Signallers at Anzac

As soon as the Australians landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, the AIF established a divisional signal office. The men laid wires between the divisional headquarters and the advanced brigades. By midnight, the Headquarters' signallers sat with telephones and message-forms, constantly in touch with the brigades.

3 soldiers sitting behind table with radio equipment and cables
Three signallers sit in their dugout. Soldiers on either side are wearing headphones and their signalling equipment is set up on the bench in front of them, connected to boxes underneath. Boxes of biscuits are stacked behind them. AWM P06181.002

The sappers were exposed to danger from enemy snipers when they:

  • delivered messages manually
  • repaired telephone lines

Manual signalling was vital when the army moved too quickly to establish a telephone network.

As dispatch messengers, they had to ride or run with messages throughout the trenches:

It was across this exposed spot that many times I had to run despatches. The ridge on the right, where shrapnel can be seen bursting, was thick with snipers, who had this patch so well set that they rarely missed their mark. The poor chaps seen in the drawing all got caught when trying to get across. I wondered if I was to join them.

[Ellis Silas, 'Dead Man's Patch', Anzac, May, 1915, drawing, Crusading at Anzac, A.D. 1915, London. 1916]

Sapper Ellis Silas recorded his life as a signaller on Gallipoli in 1915. See his diary extracts and sketches.


Last updated: 18 December 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Australian signallers in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 1 December 2022, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/army-life/signallers
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