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January 4, 2012 9:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious about military communication methods from before radio - how armies coordinated maneuvers and formations without it. I'm also curious which preradio communications methods would most be of use to modern protesters in urban settings should they be unable to use modern wireless devices.

Recently, we've seen large wireless providers work with cities to hobble protest actions by cutting off service to protesters, thus hobbling their communication and coordination. I'm trying to imagine how preradio military communication practices might be of use to protesters / dissidents in various scenarios of contested protest, riot, civil unrest and civil war, but I don't know as much as I would like about how preradio armies communicated. Picture, say, a city in chaos and no working phones at all - how do you keep a large group of people together and acting with coordination? Suppose the conflict continues and various dissident groups would like to communicate between great distances with no modern technology - say a group in Seattle wanted to get a message to a group in Portland. How was this done before the telegraph and all its descendants? How might it be done again? (assume no walkie-talkies either for these scenarios. assume there's been time to drill and work out some system with the "soldiers" and "officers")

In fantasy novels and medieval movies, there's always the suggestion of some system of banners, drums, horns and signal flags, but I've yet to see the epic film that burns screen time on actually explaining how those systems are meant to work. There's also the longer range sorts of things - flares, signal fires, riders, runners, birds and so on. I'd like to find out about how preradio / pretelegraph armies sent messages and coordinated maneuvers both great and small. I'm also curious about what sort of nonradio battlefield communications methods, if any, are still used in modern war.

I'm hoping that there's nodes of the hivemind who understands how, why and when various preradio techniques and can explain how they worked. Failing that, I'm hoping to be pointed toward good things to read about this.
posted by EatTheWeak to Technology (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Semaphore is a code whereby you communicate with flags over distance (within sight distance, obviously). They used it to communicate between ships and call in artillery, I believe. There is also a comedy skit by Monty Python which illustrates this form of communication during a section of Wuthering Heights which is very amusing but correct from what I can tell.
posted by _cave at 9:22 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a start, at least in the US, everyone learned these bugle calls
posted by Blasdelb at 9:26 PM on January 4, 2012

In the Napoleonic era, infantry used drums and cavalry used bugles. Different bugle calls, or different drum patterns, meant different orders.

Messages between commanders on a battlefield (say, above the division level) were carried by couriers on horseback. And it could take a long time, enough so that the message was obsolete by the time it arrived.

Messages between different armies in different locations were carried by squads of cavalry. But one of the difficulties is that they didn't always know where the army was they were trying to find. They'd go to where they thought it should be, and then start searching.

Signal flags were used by navies, but they weren't practical on a battlefield. And using them between physically-separated armies was totally impossible.

I see that some people are talking about semaphores. It's a neat idea but it didn't really work very well. One reason was that once the muskets and cannons started firing, the whole battlefield was shrouded in smoke. Another reason is that if some damned fool stands up on a high place and starts waving flags around, he's gonna draw fire.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:27 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also they used an aldis lamp, Morse code, and smoke signals at the end of the Monty Python clip, which are some other options for long range communication. Morse code is kind of great because you send it by a lot of different methods--by telegraph, tapping on walls, etc.
posted by _cave at 9:27 PM on January 4, 2012

Non-radio military communications methods:

Runners - people actually hand-carrying messages.
Wire - locations physically connected by wire. Telephone, telegraph, cans-on-a-string (sound powered phone!)
Semaphore or light signalling, with morse codes.
Maritime signal flags

Many pre-Modern militaries had standard codebooks and phrasebooks to simplify communication. Thus, you may have a table of standard messages and then just signal 3.D.1 , meaning page 3, section D, follower 1. Say, 'station established, no hostiles'

Much of military combat is making sure your commanders are informed enough that they can use their own judgement when the plan goes to shit, and they have a clear understanding of objectives to be able to work out their own solutions when the plan goes to shit.

questions in order:
1:I'd use runners.
2:runners again.
3:Semaphore line
4:Again, semaphore line. I'd prefer IR (infrared) or laser, that would cut down on interception potential.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:27 PM on January 4, 2012

Telephones were used on the battlefield in the days before wireless; before that, Morse code. However, it wasn't until later in World War II where centralized decision-makers could actually effectively utilize telephone and wireless communications. For example, during the Battle of France, French commanders generally accepted that units would act with some autonomy, according to written orders; there wasn't minute-by-minute information gathering and coordination.

Anyway, on a Napoleanic battlefield, communication on the battlefield was done by horse and rider, or by drum and fife. There wasn't much to communicate anyway. The battlefields were smaller, and the engagements ended more quickly.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:28 PM on January 4, 2012

In many cases the communication was writing a note, giving it to a courier (such as a despatch rider) and telling them where to deliver it. This was the inspiration for the modern pentathlon in the Olympics, a sport designed to show of the skills required of a military courier. If it took 4 days to ride there then the message took four days to deliver.

Realistically I can't think of any other pre-radio military communication that would be at all useful to urban protesters after the cellular networks go down. Semaphore requires a whole lot of infrastructure that would be just as easy to dismantle as the phones. Same problem with signal fires for long-distance communication. Locally you could try bugles or similar but armies drilled soldiers for months on end in recognizing and reacting to those calls; I can't see a spontaneous uprising carrying that off.

I'd guess the best option for protesters would be to fall back on radios - it doesn't rely on infrastructure like landlines or cellular towers, is relatively difficult to prevent delivery of the message and there is a user base already out there (unlike bugles, etc.)
posted by N-stoff at 9:43 PM on January 4, 2012

On a tangent, I'm assuming you're thinking that the cell nets are down, and local walkie freqs are being jammed or otherwise suppressed. With some jiggering, you could make a base station operate on freqs near the ones the police/fire/ambulance are using (and if speaking quickly and in code remain secure), or use some of the spectrum that was allocated to analog TV broadcasts.

I don't know if freq-hopping technology is widely available to the public.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:46 PM on January 4, 2012

In the infamous "Millennium Challenge" wargames conducted by the US military a decade ago, an enterprising general playing the "unknown Middle East adversary" code-named "Red" absolutely demolished the US forces (known as "Blue) using older, non-conventional techniques:
Red, commanded by retired Marine Corps Lt. General Paul K. Van Riper, used old methods to evade Blue's sophisticated electronic surveillance network. Van Riper used motorcycle messengers to transmit orders to front-line troops and World War II light signals to launch airplanes without radio communications.
Amazingly, after sinking much of Blue's navy, the games were halted, the ships were "re-floated," and the games begun again — and this time, Van Riper was forced to follow a pre-determined attack plan to ensure a Blue victory! Anyhow, I suggest you read the Wikipedia article (and follow its external links) if you are curious to learn more.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:57 PM on January 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

Ah, I'd forgotten this interesting detail. From the Army Times writeup:
When the Blue commander issued an ultimatum to Red to surrender or face destruction, Van Riper took the initiative, issuing attack orders via the morning call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of his country’s mosques. His force’s small boats and aircraft sped into action
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:03 PM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is also the International Code of Symbols for vessels. This uses mainly flags -- different flags for different letters. 1-3 flags make codes. Also, "signals can be sent by flaghoist, signal lamp ("blinker"), flag semaphore, radiotelegraphy, and radiotelephony."

Light signals can also be sent with mirrors. And hand signals can be used.
posted by maurreen at 10:04 PM on January 4, 2012

Suppose the conflict continues and various dissident groups would like to communicate between great distances with no modern technology - say a group in Seattle wanted to get a message to a group in Portland. How was this done before the telegraph and all its descendants?

In terms of long-distance communication, there also existed pre-built semaphore towers. You may recognise the 'clax', if you've read the right Terry Pratchett novels.

Note that Aldis lamps (mentioned above) have been used at sea even after the invention of wireless. An Aldis lamp signal has the advantage of being very difficult to intercept, if sent between two nearish ships.
posted by pompomtom at 11:29 PM on January 4, 2012

There's the other side of communications too -- back in the day, a simple way units "communicated" with leaders was by wearing bright, easy to recognize uniforms so that their maneuvers were obvious. The British weren't stupid for wearing bright red uniforms instead of camouflage or dull colors.

Amazingly, after sinking much of Blue's navy, the games were halted, the ships were "re-floated," and the games begun again — and this time, Van Riper was forced to follow a pre-determined attack plan to ensure a Blue victory!

It's not amazing. If you've just spent a squillion dollars bringing a bunch of troops and their equipment somewhere to practice storming a beach, they are fucking well going to storm that beach even though they were killed on day 1. To do otherwise would be a positively criminal waste of resources, even for the military. Since we did actually invade Iraq and they didn't do all that clever stuff Van Riper did, it would seem he was wrong, at least insofar as his job was to simulate the Iraqi forces.

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:34 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

One if by land, two if by sea.
posted by RobotHero at 11:38 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

in WWI they used blacklight on the field for non-visible communication...
posted by sexyrobot at 12:54 AM on January 5, 2012

While doing some research on the Crimean War, I came across a book that mentioned that one of the battles was the first time that an attack in multiple locations was coordinated by clock/watch so that it could be launched at the same time. I'm home on vacation and don't have the book with me so I can't look up the details.
posted by andoatnp at 1:34 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ancient Greek armies used flutes to co-ordinate movement on the battlefield itself. But these were only useful for pre-learned maneuvers. When more complex information was needed to be sent, you had to send a person to tell it - for example, at the Battle of Gaugamela Alexander the Great had to have in-person messengers to tell him that his left flank needed assistance.

Fire beacons were used in early modern Britain to warn of raiders/invaders, most famously with the Spanish Armada. They are only communicating one, pre-arranged message though "armed people on their way", so you can't communicate complex information.

It really boils down to is that before semaphore "dude on a fast horse" (or in places where rough land meant people could go faster than horses, "dude who can run really fast") was the main means of passing complex messages. In highly organised empires, there would be chains of stables where said dudes could swap to fresh horses.
posted by Coobeastie at 1:41 AM on January 5, 2012

Not an answer to all your questions, but maybe some of them:carrier pigeon.
posted by cocoagirl at 3:43 AM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a precise answer to your question, but the *alarm companies* in colonial times worked like a telephone tree to alert the population that there was an urgent problem. Following the *one if by land and two if by sea* alert (thank you RobotHero), Paul Revere and Dr. Dawes headed northwest and started knocking on doors, thereby launching additional messengers and acoustic signals (guns fired), alerting citizen soldiers (e.g., Minutemen) that they needed to get moving to face the approaching Redcoats. Members of the alarm company were typically older or otherwise less suited to fighting than the first string Minutemen. By the way, in old New England cemeteries there are headstone inscriptions indicating that Ebenezer/Nathan/Josiah belonged to such and such alarm company. (The forgoing is off the top of the head but presumably a little more accurate than history as represented by some recent political candidates!)
posted by Kevin S at 4:39 AM on January 5, 2012

Dogs at also fast runners and have been used (for shorter distances than pigeons.) Training dogs and pigeons is not a quick project. You can't get there with a few folks pulling all-nighters as you might be able to with flag or bugle codes.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:48 AM on January 5, 2012

Example of infantry hand signals.
posted by Jahaza at 7:23 AM on January 5, 2012

After the Tahrir square protests, there was some interesting discussion here about ham radio and its potential use for coordinating social protest.

For signaling methods that require line-of-sight (modern equivalent of semaphore or signal fires eg), it's interesting to think about how that would play out in a city with high-rises -- protesters could signal from high-up windows to be seen from a wider area, so a message is easy to transmit to a large crowd that can all see the same building, but the buildings block line-of-sight so if you need to transmit a message any distance you'll need fairly dense network of people in buildings along the way who can re-transmit it.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:57 AM on January 5, 2012

I thought of hand signals too, having learned them to some extent in the army, but I'm not sure how useful they would be for coordinating a demo. Hand signals are basically for coordinating a patrol, when the need is for silence. Once things get noisy everyone just yells.
posted by Logophiliac at 8:06 AM on January 5, 2012

Most important to military operations is the planning.

Your planning should include at least these two factors from military planning:

Decision points: when x number of people have been arrested, we will y. If the police start using x, we will do y.

Phase lines: if we reach point x, we perform action y. If we successfully complete phase 1, we start phase 2. If not, we move into phase x.

This planning, when done with enough rehearsal, can almost remove the need for other communication. These are tools the military uses to make the commanders life easier.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:34 AM on January 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Something else that is pretty important, but hasn't been mentioned is Commander's Intent.

If a unit becomes isolated from communications, they can still operate on Commander's Intent. In fact, this is encouraged a lot of the time, at least at a doctrinal level (there still tends to be micro-managing), but you see it in doctrine like the Marine Corps' Maneuver Warfare manual.

I'd also recommend reading John Boyd's The Strategic Game of ? and ?. He left a number of brilliant powerpoint presentations, that particular one covers communications and decision making.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 12:07 AM on January 8, 2012

Wait, I mixed up my presentations.

The particular Boyd presentation you definitely want is Organic Design for Command and Control.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 12:13 AM on January 8, 2012

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