The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918
Slaves of the Bell
(With apologies to the Signal Service.)
Of all the weird, wonderful and exasperating instruments in all of the Armies of to-day, perhaps that most calculated to raise the wrath of even the most genial of its regular customers, is the little square box, commonly called a telephone.
In my official capacity during a quiet spell, I sit down to study the ins and outs of a lengthy screed from a Staff Captain, who, in spite of the many pamphlets referring to economy in the field, has covered four sheets of foolscap in a series of indecipherable hieroglyphics, the purport of which, I ultimately discover, is to explain, why four tins of bully beef, which burst before being opened, should be struck off and charged to the public expense. (I always think that Mr. Public Expense must be a very rich man, if he can pay all that they charge him with.)
After ten minutes, I succeed in deciphering at least five lines of the first page, when the devils in the little square box on the tent pole wake up, and a musical tinkle disturbs my studies. On no notice being taken, the little devils become rather agitated, and a furious whirring of the bell results.
Resignedly the slave drops his pencil, and proceeds to humour the "Genii of the Bell." On picking up the receiver and placing it to my ear, a loud crackling buzz goes in one ear and out the other; while my unsuspecting fingers, having grasped some hidden Jive screw, an electric shock is the result. I promptly drop the receiver, which adds, no doubt, to its efficiency. Anyway, it does not like being suddenly dropped, as the performance is not repeated, and the business commences.
"To be well shaken before taken" evidently refers to military telephones as well as medicines, and I note it for future guidance.
The opening speeches consist of a repetition of "Hullo! Hullo!! Hullo!!!" on my part, which entreaties the devils in the box completely ignore. At last, after this fiasco has been in vogue for at least two minutes, an aggrieved voice, as of one who is sorely tried, chimes in, "Hullo! Is that 'X' Branch? Staff Captain Nth. Bde. wishes to speak to you, sir,"
"All right, put him on," I wearily respond, and possess my soul in patience. A medley of subdued sounds, similar to those emitted by a large bluebottle caught in a trap, is the next item on the programme, which finally ends in a heated argument between two signallers, who had evidently not been brought up in a convent. To this wordy discussion I act as eavesdropper, till my instruction in the English language suddenly ceases, and once more all is silence.
In order to start the box going again, I meekly murmur, "Hullo! Hullo! Are you there?", and am rewarded by a voice "Is that 'X' Branch?"—"Yes"—"Just a minute (I have already been at least five); the Staff Captain wants you, sir."
A further medley of buzzing occurs, more distant than formerly, and during which period I possess my soul in more patience, dimly wondering whether the Staff Captain is still wanting me.
At last a voice shouts, clearly and distinctly, "Hullo!"—to which I eagerly reply, "Yes", and am rewarded by, "I want the Brigade Major Mth. Brigade, please."-—!!! —!!! ——!!! (Sold again!)
However, I must keep my end up, and recognising the voice as belonging to my friend across the way in "Y" Branch, I reply; "Hullo, Old Sport! Saieda!! I am very sorry, but I am not the Signal Office. Terrible war isn't it? To your query, the answer's 'a lemon'. Just hang off the line, will you? till I speak to the Nth. Brigade."
The voice gives expression to a most impolite articulation and disappears. At last another voice chips in, "Hullo! Is that 'X' Branch?"—"Yes"—"StaffCaptain Nth. Brigade speaking. I just——to tell——the horses——to-morrow."—"Beg pardon, but I was always sorry I had not learnt the Morse Code. Remember 'To be well shaken before taken', and try again".
I hear him shake his receiver furiously, and off we go again. "Hullo! Is that better?" —"Much", I answer".— "I was just ringing up to tell you that the horses"—!!! whirr—!!—!!!—!!!! (The devils in the box have gone mad again.)
Almost exhausted, I weakly gasp, "Hullo! Hullo!! Hullo!!!". But all is once more a blank. Absolutely fatigued, I stagger to my stool, and again endeavour to devise a method of deciphering the four page memo.
(I afterwards learnt that my friend in "Y" branch, and the Staff Captain of "N" Brigade, had a furious wordy argument for several minutes. Evidently the lemon was a sour one!!)
"Tinkle-Tinkle-Tinkle'', goes the bell again, and its slave once more arises to do its bidding. The curtain rises on Act I. Scene II of "Signal Comedy", which is similar to Scene I in every respect. Next day I apply for leave, to recuperate.