RECALL | "All-Red Line" : The Genesis of Secure Subsea Communications

RECALL | "All-Red Line" : The Genesis of Secure Subsea Communications

By Dr. Elizabeth Bruton

During early 1900s, British long-distance telecommunication relied on the “All-Red Line”, the network of British-controlled and operated electric telegraph cables stretching around the globe and so called due to the colour red (or sometimes pink) being used to designate British territories and colonies in the atlases of the period.

Image Attribute: 1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson’s The All Red Line – The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project (1903). / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Image Attribute: 1902 British All Red Line map, from Johnson’s The All Red Line – The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project (1903). / Source: Wikimedia Commons
  
The Origins and Early History of the “All-Red Line”:

The “All-Red Line” was operated through a mixture of public and private enterprise with the Eastern Telegraph Company (ETC) operating many of the telegraph cables in Asia, Africa, and beyond.  By the late nineteenth century, telegraphy cables from Britain stretched to all corners of the globe forming a massive international communications network of around 100,000 miles of undersea cables.

News which had previously taken up to six months to reach distant parts of the world could now be relayed in a matter of hours. In 1902 the “All Red Line” route was completed with the final stages of construction of the trans-Pacific route and connected all parts of the British empire.

This telegraph network consisted of a series of cable links across the Pacific Ocean, connecting New Zealand and Australia with Vancouver and through the Trans-Canada and Atlantic lines to Europe. Submarine telegraph cables remained the only fast means of international communication for 75 years until the development of wireless telegraphy at the end of the nineteenth century.

Security and Telegraph Cables:

Security and reliability were an important part of this vast international telecommunications network: there were multiple redundancies so that even if one cable was cut, a message could be sent through many other routes, operating a bit like the modern day Internet (which actually has far more redundancies built in). Further security was added in the location of telegraph line landfall: the “All-Red Line” was designed to only made landfall in British colonies or British-controlled territories although this may have compromised on occasionally.

In 1902 and around the time that the All-Red Line was completed, the Committee of Imperial Defence was established by the then British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and was made responsible for research and some coordination of British military strategy.  In 1911 and with the possibility of a war in Europe looming, the committee analyzed the All-Red Line and concluded that it would be essentially impossible for Britain to be isolated from her telegraph network due to the redundancy built into the network: 49 cables would need to be cut for Britain to be cut off, 15 for Canada, and 5 for South Africa. Further to this, Britain and British telegraph companies owned and controlled most of the apparatus needed to cut or repair telegraph cables and also had a superior navy to control the seas.

British Telegraph Cables at the Outbreak of War:

British officials believed that depending on telegraph lines that passed through non-British territory posed a security risk, as lines could be cut and messages could be interrupted during wartime. They sought the creation of a worldwide network within the empire, which became known as the All Red Line, and conversely prepared strategies to quickly interrupt enemy communications. Britain's very first action after declaring war on Germany in World War I was to have the cable ship Alert (not the CS Telconia as frequently reported) cut the five cables linking Germany with France, Spain and the Azores, and through them, North America. Thereafter the only way Germany could communicate was by wireless, and that meant that Room 40 could listen in.

As a result, when war broke out in August 1914 and some isolated telegraph stations such as the one at Cocos Islands asked for further security and military protection due to the risk of German attack, they got none and were left to their own devices in terms of protection.  Some of the staff on the Cocos Island station constructed a fake telegraph cable and this was one that was cut by the Germans in their attack on the island in November 1914 and so telegraph communication via this telegraph station was able to continue.

A few facts put this dominance of the industry in perspective. In 1896, there were thirty cable laying ships in the world and twenty-four of them were owned by British companies. In 1892, British companies owned and operated two-thirds of the world's cables and by 1923, their share was still 42.7 per cent. During World War I, Britain's telegraph communications were almost completely uninterrupted, while it was able to quickly cut Germany's cables worldwide.

Indeed, as a result of the redundancies built into the system and British naval superiority, the “All-Red Line” – a network which was strategically important to businesses, government, and military and a keystone in British imperial activities – remained robust, secure, and essentially uninterrupted for the duration of the war.

About the Author:

Dr.Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.

References:

1. A Short History of Submarine Cables
2. History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network
3. Johnson, George. The All Red Line; the annals and aims of the Pacific Cable project. Ottowa: James Hope & Sons, 1903.  Available via Internet Archive.

4. Kenndy, P.M. Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914, The English Historical Review, Vol. 86, No. 341 (Oct, 1971), pp. 728-752.  Available via JSTOR.
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment