This extract from the full article reviews the use of radio during World War I, based on the observations of a French vessel operating in the Mediterranean Sea.
The New York Times Current History, The European War, Volume VII, Period XX, 1916, pages 311-312:
On a French Cruiser in War Time
By René Milan
Translated for CURRENT HISTORY from the admirably written papers published under the title "Les Vagabonds de la Guerre" in La Revue de Paris. Especially interesting is M. Milan's account of the part played by wireless telegraphy in the war.
We have on board an ear that never sleeps; it is the wireless telegraph. The apparatus is buried in the depths of the hold; a padded cabin isolates the operators from the noise of the machinery and the cross-currents of discord. From watch to watch the telegraphers pass over the receiver to each other, and the finest murmurs never escape their vigilance.
The air vibrates in an uninterrupted concert. Coming from stations near or far, from ships wandering on the Atlantic or close at hand, calls, conversations seek out their way; the ether transmits them instantaneously. The powerful antennae of the Eiffel Tower, of Ireland, of Germany, of Italy, or of Constantinople dominate with their noisy throats the feeble whispers. With their full force, to any distance, they launch the official news of the great ordeal. If someone talks too loudly, 500 or 1,000 kilometers away, (300 to 600 miles,) they raise their tones, throw more strength into their voices, until the interrupters become silent.
A tacit agreement alternates their messages. The German does not obstruct the Frenchman, the Turk waits until Malta has finished. Madrid, talking to Berlin, rests while London speaks. For these great stations, controlled by their Governments, send out only announcements of the first importance, such as the whole world should know, and they wish neither to confuse nor to be confused. Reports from the front, happenings at sea, diplomatic or financial transactions, plans or insults, circulate in all languages, and you can be certain that the newspapers will not publish them. If by chance the reader of newspapers finds them in his daily sheet, it will be a week or a fortnight later, in a garbled, unrecognizable form.
Sailors hear every bell and every sound; while the rest of the world must be content with the meagre, delayed communications authorized by the censorship, the sailor already knows. His griefs and joys precede the griefs and joys of the anxiously waiting millions. Ireland announces a simple movement of Russian strategy, but Norddeich--the German post--clamors to all the echoes of a German victory, an advance, the capture of thousands of prisoners. Norddeich laconically explains some event at sea, but Eiffel sets his biggest sparks crackling, announcing to Moscow, to Newfoundland, to the Sudan and the Red Sea the disaster at sea that has befallen some Teutonic force. In how many days, with how many changes, will the public read these bits of news? At every hour of the day and night we receive them brutal and imperious.
No illusions are permitted to us. Our enemies do not lie too grossly in these proclamations destined for their Ambassadors, their Consuls, the innumerable agents who uphold the prestige of Germany throughout the world; it is vital for Germany that these men should receive authentic information, which they will make the most of in their bargainings. There is nothing in common between the rhapsodies of her newspapers or of the Wolff Agency and her wireless announcements. At the most, in the case of defeats, she sends out statements made carefully vague. But this very vagueness makes us prick up our ears, and within a few hours London or Paris confirms the English or French victory.
Outside the Chancelleries and Governments, there are no day-to-day records of the war except on warships. We discuss squarely over flags placed exactly where they ought to be; our forecasts, our hopes are rarely deceived. And if the obligation of secrecy did not impose silence upon us we could tell our friends many a bit of news.
But underneath the great tenors of wireless telegraphy whisper the myriads of baritones, basses, members of the chorus. Thus in the tropical forest the roaring of lions by no means hinders the dialogues of insects and rodents; this network of lower voices gives the jungle its deep life. The slender tones of talking ships fill the atmosphere of the sea with a mysterious animation. A big liner, come from tropical seas, announces her passage of such and such a frequented cape. A torpedo-boat patrolling toward Gibraltar tells Port Said about the ships which it has sighted. This torpedo-boat has not got strong enough lungs to shout to the other end of the Mediterranean; it calls Bizerta or Toulon, who answers, takes its message, and relays it forward, like a rebounding ball, to the antennae of Malta, to the masts of a French cruiser in the Ionian Sea, to the wires of a Russian ship in the Aegean, and finally it reaches Port Said. A mailboat announces its position, a squadron asks for orders, a naval attaché or an ambassador sends out information gained by spies; the Resident General of Morocco is sending wheat to Montenegro; the main guards give warning that a submarine is in sight; colliers ask to be told exactly where they are to meet certain cruisers; the whole Mediterranean taps the antennae of the Commander in Chief as a swarm of subalterns tap at the door of military headquarters.
No disorder, no discord in these gusts of whisperings. Like the musicians in a well-drilled orchestra, all these talkers speak at the minute, at the second previously fixed for their turn; chronometer in hand, the telegraph operators watch for the instant allotted to them, and immediately send forth trills of short, brief notes; whether they have finished or not at the end of their period, they stop and wait, for immediately a distant voice begins its part, and would protest violently if any one prevented its speaking. The whole extent of the Mediterranean is divided into sectors, the time is cut up into fragments, and no one is allowed to break the silence if the pre-established table bids him keep still.
Besides, the guilty parties are quickly found out. Just as the fingers of a blind man acquire surprising sensitiveness, so the operators' ears distinguish the timbre, the tone, the musical value of the chatterers whom they have never seen. For the initiated the electric radiations have a personality like human speech. Two posts, two ships have distinct voices, pronunciations. This one talks with a sputter, the other speaks with solemn slowness; the voice of one suggests a match scratched on sandpaper, another buzzes like a fly, another sings small, like the flight of mosquitos. It is a concert almost magical. In his padded cabin the operator hears and distinguishes the whirr of the cricket, the squeak of the violin, the rasped wing-cover of the beetle, the hiss of frying, which the fantastic electricity is sending forth, hundreds of leagues away. It flickers, ceases, begins again; you would say a goblin symphony in some wide wilderness, and yet the least of these vibrations is a message of war, of life and of death.
And indeed they are careful not to talk without saying anything. They all use only secret languages. This perpetual chatter contains no word, no phrase which any one can understand unless he possesses the key on which rests the safety of ships. Cipher, cipher, cipher, nothing else circulates in space.