Director of Army Signals
KCMG DSO DSO
Cheltenham College, Trinity College, Dublin psc
John Sharman Fowler was the second son of Robert Fowler JP DL, an Irish country gentleman from Rahinston, Co Meath. His intended career was that of a civil engineer, but after attending the Royal Indian Engineering College at Coopers Hill the lure of the army proved too strong. He received a direct commission into the Royal Engineers on 6 January 1886. Fowler felt comfortable and fulfilled by military life. He was a noted shot and a keen horseman. From the outset of his army career, however, he showed himself to be an ambitious and serious-minded officer, obtaining certificates from the Veterinary School and the School of Musketry as well as his engineering qualifications. In 1889 he joined the Royal Engineers Telegraph Battalion at Aldershot. This dull sounding unit was, in fact, a hive of talent. Of the fifty subalterns who served with the battalion between 1870 and 1899, one became a field-marshal, two became generals, two lieutenant-generals, ten major-generals, three brigadier-generals and twelve full colonels. This is indicative, perhaps, of the emerging importance of electronic communications on the battlefield.
Fowler was no boffin, however. He saw much active service following his posting to India in 1892. He took part in the Black Mountain Expedition (1892) and was captured and wounded at Chitral (1895), where he won the DSO. Fowler loved the hill country of the North-West Frontier and took part in the campaign against the Mohmands (1897-8). In January 1898 he returned home to enter the Staff College, successfully completing the course the following year. By this time the South African War had broken out and Fowler was despatched to join the Telegraph Service in the field. He was Director of Telegraphs, Orange River Colony, from June 1900 until the end of the war.
Fowler was posted to his native Ireland in 1903. This gave him the opportunity to hunt and to find a wife. He married Mary Brooke in 1904 at the age of 40. He remained in Ireland until 1910 when the Commandant of the Staff College, Major-General Sir William Robertson, chose him to be an Instructor. In April 1913 he was appointed Commandant of the Army Signals School, Aldershot, a command he still held on the outbreak of war. On mobilization, he became Director of Army Signals of the British Expeditionary Force. John Fowler was the only man to occupy this increasingly important post and one of only seven generals to retain the same post for the whole of the war on the Western Front.
Although Fowler’s name is unknown to fame, he was one of the key figures in the BEF. His job was not an easy one. The British army was essentially a colonial police force used to fighting limited counter-insurgency operations, in which communications were often rudimentary and extemporised. Few commanders were familiar with signals organisation and technology and signals were no one’s priority when the Great War began. Fowler accordingly faced immense problems of personnel, equipment and organisation. The scale and intensity of the war on the Western Front, the rapid expansion of the army and the onset of trench warfare soon multiplied these difficulties.
Fowler had a mere 72 officers and 2,200 men at his disposal in August 1914 and this number suffered significant attrition in the early battles. But the growth of the Signals Service was exponential. He overcame the difficulties of training by utilising to the maximum extent the already trained civilian personnel of the General Post Office. Fowler never took a trade union attitude to civilian expertise, which was given its head in the organisation he created. By the end of the war Fowler was commanding 70,000 men. Under his leadership they developed a strong unit identity and a great esprit de corps.
Communications technology, notably wireless, was in many ways in its infancy in 1914. The BEF’s communications depended to a large extent on visual means and on despatch riders. There was an acute shortage of cable that British industry was slow to repair. Fowler’s attitude to technological change was entirely pragmatic. All and every technology was utilised so long as it worked: flags; lamps; motor-cycle despatch riders; pigeons; dogs; telegraph and telephone carried by air and subterranean cable; the power buzzer; wireless. An organisation evolved that was capable of carrying the vast amount of signals traffic necessary for the BEF’s day to day functioning. Martin Van Creveld has calculated that a single British army on the Western Front generated daily 10,000 telegrams, 20,000 phone calls and 5,000 messages delivered by despatch riders. Eighty-five per cent of these communications were carried by wire. The system had not only to cope with volume but had also to be reliable, quick and capable of adapting to constantly changing conditions. From the front line to the rear, formations and units were enabled to talk to one another and to their line of command. Infantry could communicate with artillery, artillery with the RFC. Great ingenuity and effort was put into maintaining the security and flexibility of communications during periods of combat. Signals intelligence and deception made their appearance on the battlefield, where they played a crucial part in the success of 8 August 1918, at Amiens. The failure to develop a man-portable wireless, however, meant that communications forward of the front line remained perilous and inadequate, with major consequences for the successful conduct of military operations. Signals practice was codified in two important manuals, SS 148 Forward Inter-Communication in Battle (March 1917) and SS 191 Forward Inter-Communication in the Field (November 1917), which demonstrated beyond doubt official recognition of the Signal Service and established Communications as an indispensable element of Command and Control. Fowler presided over this transformation with tact and charm. He was accessible and receptive to new ideas. He was self-confident enough to defer to expert advice on technical matters and was adept at recognising and promoting talent. Above all, he was forward thinking and undaunted by the scale and complexity of his task. He proved himself a big man for a big job.
Fowler was knighted in 1918. He remained in the army after the war, serving as GOC British Forces in China (1922-5). He retired in 1928. His appointment as first Colonel Commandant of the newly established Royal Corps of Signals in 1923 was entirely appropriate. Fowler’s formidable sister, Louisa, was the wife of General Sir Alexander Godley.
John Bourne, Centre for First World War Studies