Appendix A: F. J. M. Stratton

Chief Signal Officer Extraordinary 1914-1918

Stratton was a Cambridge Professor of Astrophysics who had raised his own territorial unit before the war and brought it out to France. He became responsible for all the communications of Nineteenth Corps in the Ypres salient with the rank of Lt Colonel when preparations were being made for the great Passchendaele battle.

Military communications have never been so complex, before or since. In the back areas there was hardly a field without a route of 40 to 100 telephone lines running through it on hop poles. Lines ran in vast networks between this centre and that, little huts or dugouts where parties of linemen worked day and night at great terminal boards. They checked, tested and changed wires as one after another route was cut by shell fire. The complexity continued in the forward areas. Overhead wires were replaced by bundles of multicore cables buried deep in the ground. Cables ran from signal dugout to signal dugout each of which was in turn connected to scores of gun batteries, infantry brigades, dressing stations, ammunition dumps and sound ranging stations.

Complicated and ever-changing records were kept at Corps Headquarters, but Stratton seemed to have in his head the routing of every line in this vast system. Each day some arterial route would be cut, and always a short jet of soft, barely audible orders quickly came from this astonishing professor, providing an alternative communications route. Even on the eve of the big battle, when the bombardment had cut most of the main lines and when many of the linemen had been killed by mustard gas, Stratton remained calm. His plans for an elaborate makeshift were developed in a minute, without looking at any records…

For five days army headquarters lost all touch with its Corps Commanders. The Corps Commanders also lost touch with their Divisions. Our own headquarters was moving back once or twice a day. Stratton managed not only to maintain contact with our Divisions but collected all the other lost Divisions in the Fifth Army.

The final tribute from Ralph Bagnold is an unusual one.

On the morning of the fifth day of the battle I was occupying the middle compartment of a three-door canvas loo when the Corps Commander, General Watts himself, entered the neighbouring loo while his Chief of Staff settled one the other side. Not knowing I was there, they continued their conversation. The Chief of Staff said, “I can’t understand that little man. I am told Stratton has had no sleep for four nights, yet he’s as chirpy as ever and has a better detailed knowledge of what is happening than I have. He knows just where everybody is and has everything at his fingertips.” “Yes”, said Watts, “if he had chosen to be a soldier instead of an astronomer, he’d have made a better commander than any of us. But I wish he wouldn’t talk quite so fast. At least he does repeat everything twice.”


After the war it was Stratton who stressed the value of a University education for officers of Engineers and Signals and Ralph Bagnold himself was one of the earliest of the group to benefit, going to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Stratton’s own College.

Source: Sand, Wind, and War - R.A.Bagnold

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