Before the formation of the Royal Corps of Signals in 1920, the specialised army communications role was fulfilled by the Royal Engineers (RE) Signal Service.
During the Great War the role of the Signal Service boomed, as the need for real time communication on the battlefield was evermore present. Because of their vital role, it was important that signallers were easily distinguishable. Introduced pre-war, the famous signallers’ white and blue armbands were worn on both sleeves. It now seems to be a common misconception that these were worn by all signallers, regardless of regiment. They were however actually the reserved privilege of the Signal Service, and were not authorised for use with any other unit.
The RE Signal Service also wore special “Signal Service” shoulder titles, both embroidered and in brass, with the territorials wearing similar with the usual ‘T’ for territorial device denoting them as such. These titles seem to disappear as the war progresses, replaced by the standard RE shoulder titles.
In addition to the RE Signal Service, each infantry battalion, cavalry regiment and artillery battery also had their own trained signallers. All trained signallers were entitled to wear the crossed flags trade badge on the left forearm to identify them as such. Non-commissioned officers who were signals instructors, wore the same crossed flags badge, but above their badge of rank instead.
With the rapid expansion of the British Army during the Great War, it wasn’t long until the signallers armband was being worn by all manner of troops in various signals roles, whether trained or untrained! Plenty of period photographs show both infantry and artillery signallers wearing the signallers armbands, which was strictly forbidden. Orders were therefore issued to reinforce that only the RE Signal Service were entitled to wear the white and blue armband. Period evidence would suggest that this order was still often ignored, and that the signallers armbands were often worn on both or one arm by those who technically shouldn’t have been wearing them.
In some cases, the signallers armband would have the device of the formation he belonged to attached to it, most often the Divisional Sign.
Other variations in the standard signallers armband are encountered from time to time, most commonly cut down armbands sewn directly to the tunic. For those serving in hot climates, the white and blue colours are often seen worn on the sun helmets too.
In 1917, it was finally decided that all field artillery and battalion signallers on the Western Front should be provided with some form of distinguishing mark, to make them easily identifiable. Special emphasise was placed on the benefit of identifying these signallers “when employed on the repairs to telegraph lines at the front”. The newly introduced patches were announced in the army General Routine Orders, and were two patches of blue cloth, one to be attached to each shoulder strap. An amendment was quickly published extending these patches to also be worn by heavy and siege artillery signallers.
It appears that various adaptations of this order were in use. It is common to see a slip on piece of blue cloth used for the same purpose, as this would be much easier to attach to the shoulder strap.
The importance of each individual man in battle was emphasised during the Great War, with the role of specialist troops sometimes being the difference between victory and defeat. The introduction of distinguishing marks to identify specialist troops saw widespread use from 1916 on wards. A series of coloured armbands were introduced within the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, for the use of assaulting troops. These were officially sanctioned, featuring in the offensive instructions for divisions, and patterns were deposited with the Army Clothing Department in March 1917. Of these coloured armbands, blue was selected as the colour to be worn by battalion signallers on the left forearm. The material was later changed to cotton webbing in September 1917. Many units chose not to use these bands, and it was largely left to be enforced at a divisional level. It is not uncommon to see these armbands being used in conjunction with the blue patches on the shoulder straps.
As with all insignia during the Great War period, anomalies often appear with distinguishing marks worn by Signallers. A common example of this is a blue arm band worn in positions other than the left forearm.
Many other variations were adopted at a Divisional level. For example, men attached to the 12th Divisional Signal Company were not entitled to wear the white and blue armband of the Signal Service, so instead wore a black armband with the divisional sign in the centre on the right arm. Countless other variations have also been encountered.
I hope this had proved a useful guide, and filled in what appears to have been forgotten over the last 100 years. As always, I would greatly appreciate hearing from anyone who has an unusual example they wish to share. Likewise, I am very happy to help identify any photos or answers questions, please contact me via the ‘contact’ page.