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Ascension Island is a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. During the First World War, its location and proximity to vital trade routes made it strategically important. The island only had a very small garrison throughout the conflict, however it served as a key link in the British global communications network.
Captain Henry Benett of the Royal Marines read out the declaration of war on 5 August 1914, and put in place the island’s defensive arrangements. The SS Dover Castle arrived at Ascension on 22 August 1914, bringing two Royal Marines Captains and forty men which effectively doubled the garrison. These troops were withdrawn in October 1916, when any threat to the island was considered to have passed.
Throughout the war, troops and locals on the island celebrated Ascension Day as a local holiday, and marked it with an annual athletic tournament. This tradition continues to this day (ADM 50/370).
A global communications hub
Ascension Island had been a landing place for telegraph cables linking Europe with South Africa and South America since the late 19th century. These crucial communications connections helped hold the British Empire together.
The cables also provided a useful source of intelligence, as they were used by foreign governments to communicate with their diplomatic missions abroad. An example of this is from 1917, when the Admiralty intercepted signals from the Chilean Foreign Ministry to their consul in Madrid.
In addition to telegraph cables, Ascension also housed a major wireless telegraphy station. This was used by the Admiralty to communicate with its warships in the south Atlantic. In 1916, the Admiralty also established a daily wireless news service for merchant shipping in the area, partly in the hope that it would encourage captains to pay more attention to Admiralty instructions (CO 323/665/47 , ADM 223/786)
Officer Commanding Ascension Island (1913-1919)