Official History of the New Zealand Engineers During the Great War 1914-1919.
Signal Troop — Chapter XV. — Signal Troop, N.Z.E. — Served with N.Z. Mounted Rifle Brigade, 1914-19
Signal Troop.page 236 page 237
Signal Troop, N.Z.E.
Served with N.Z. Mounted Rifle Brigade, 1914-19
This Troop, although a member of the New Zealand Engineers Signal Service, was a complete unit, and worked independently of its sister unit, the Divisional Signal Company. Formed at the outbreak of war for service with the Mounted Brigade, it remained with that force throughout. It came into being imbued with the ideals and traditions of the Engineer Service and, being so closely allied with our magnificent Mounted Rifle regiments, assimilated their ideals and traditions as well. With these as a foundation, we find the Signal Troop throughout the war to have been an enthusiastic, hard-working and persevering body of men, who never ceased in their efforts to render the Brigade efficient communication, and who at times performed many meritorious feats of endurance and gallantry in the course of their duties.
The territorial Signal Troops all had their headquarters in country districts, and on account of the infrequency of their parades had little opportunity of receiving regular elementary instruction. During the annual camps, the various troops carried out only troop training, and were never exercised in their proper function as a Brigade signal unit. Brigade commanders therefore had no rapid means of keeping in touch with the various regiments, and the signal service was not so well prepared to take the field as some of the other arms.
The Signal Troop, being a specialist unit, was not enrolled in any particular district, its members being drawn mainly from the Signal Units of the four Territorial Mounted Brigades, the balance being motor cyclist despatch riders, tradesmen, and telegraphists from the Post and Telegraph Department. The strength was one officer, one staff sergeant-major, and thirty-six N.C.O.'s and men main body and first line reinforcements. Each district's quota first assembled in the district mobilisation camp, and after receiving an issue of uniform and other necessaries proceeded to Awapuni training camp. The whole troop was assembled by 18th August, when final equipment was issued and intensive training commenced. The troop's first O.C., Lieut. (now Lieut.-Colonel) E. J. Hulbert, lost no time in impressing on all ranks the page 238necessity for hard work and study, his efforts being ably assisted by Staff Sergeant-Major A. G. Baker, R.E. and the N.C.O. 's, with the result that in a very short time all ranks improved wonderfully in efficiency. There were constant rumours about embarkation, etc., which kept everyone on tenterhooks, and on several occasions the Troop was standing by ready to move. The daily exercises and horse-training were varied by the working out of tactical schemes including treks and night work. A section was also sent to Wellington to a warship in port for instruction in naval signalling and the international code, and this also added to the interest of the work.
On 24th September a move was made, the Troop proceeding to Wellington and embarking on H.M. N.Z.T. No. 10 (s.s. "Arawa"). Six men were detailed to the flagship (s.s. "Maunganui") for communication during the voyage. At last everyone thought the great adventure had really begun. But next day the whole force disembarked without any reason being vouchsafed to the rank and file. Half the troop remained in Wellington for further training in naval signalling, the remainder with the horses going to Hutt Park, Petone, for training. Almost three weeks were spent in this way with everyone's hope of an early departure gradually waning. However, on 15th October all ranks again embarked, and this time it looked like business. Last farewells were again said, and early next morning New Zealand's army set off into the unknown.
The men were soon aware that all was not as it should be, for in Cook Strait a nasty swell with a fair amount of wind was met, and for the next two and a half days the landlubbers were very busy finding their sea-legs. Right from the commencement of the voyage the Troop was kept hard at work—there were ten men on the "Maunganui" and twelve on the "Arawa" continuously engaged in intercommunication among the ships of the convoy, and the remainder had to look after the horses. Any spare moments were spent in flag-wagging or buzzer reading. Thanks to the efforts of the O.C the Troop's quarters were more comfortable than those of the infantry soldiers, due to the necessity for watch-keeping on the bridge and poop, and the need for sleep during the day for the men on night watches. It was a source of much gratification to be able to put up a notice on one's cabin door "Signal Troop—not to be disturbed," and to hear the irate remarks of the ship's adjutant regarding the Gentlemen of the Signal Troop.
The voyage need not be described in detail. The outstanding event was the capture by H.M.A.S. "Sydney" of page 239the German raider "Emden" on 9th November. This was of special interest to the Troop for the reason that Private Falconer, who first picked up the S.O.S. call from Cocos Island, was at the time attached to the unit, whereby it happened that the troop signallers were the first to give warning to the flagship of the presence of the enemy cruiser. The following report of the day's happenings issued by the O.C. Troops "Arawa" has an unusually historic value:—
- 9th November, 1914—
- 6.31 a.m.—10/777 Private W. P. Falconer on duty H.M.T. "Arawa" picked up from Cocos Island "S.O.S." and "strange warship at entrance" sent repeatedly. He woke Wireless Operator Raw. In a few minutes Emden tried to block out message by continuous interruption. Raw tuned his receiver differently and managed to keep reading Cocos message through "Emden's" block. Immediately reported to the Naval Transport Officer and tried to get the "Melbourne" also the "Maunganui," but other stations working blocked the message.
- 6.45 a.m.—"Waimana" said "signals quite good" but could not get the "Maunganui."
- 6.50 a.m.—Signalled successfully to the "Maunganui" by-semaphore.
- 7.4 a.m.—"Maunganui" got message through to the "Melbourne."
- 7.10 a.m.—H.M.S. "Sydney" left for Cocos Island.
- 9.32 a.m.—"Sydney" sending code messages, "Emden" trying to block by working at the same time.
- 9.47 a.m.—Everybody ordered to stop signalling.
- 11.7 a.m.—H.M.S. "Sydney" to H.M.S. "Melbourne": "Enemy beached herself to save from sinking."
- 11.27 a.m.—"Pursuing merchant collier."
- 11.28 a.m.—H.M.S. "Minotaur" first spoke asking for movements of enemy.
- 11.41 a.m.—H.M.S. "Sydney" to all stations: "Enemy beached and done for."
- Noon— "Casualties: Two killed and 13 wounded."
- November 10th, 1914—
- 6.15 a.m.—H.M.S. "Sydney" reported:—
No further apprehension re "Emden," ashore on page 240North Cocos Island; foremast and three funnels down and she has surrendered, while "Sydney" is intact and proceeding to Direction Island. Do not know when she will rejoin convoy. She is remaining to take off all guns and will probably land wounded prisoners on Direction Island. She is also to report on condition of cable.
(Signed) G. N. Johnston,
Officer Commanding Transport "Arawa."
The day's work consisted of care of the horses, signalling training, and a little musketry. All ranks worked with a will, and thanks to their care landed all the mounts at Alexandria in good order. Although the loss of horses throughout the New Zealand force was small, it can safely be said that the Signal Troop record in this respect was an enviable one. The eight weeks' voyage was of immense value from a training point of view, and by the end of the voyage all ranks, especially those employed on the ship's bridge, were fast and accurate both at despatching and receiving messages. Alexandria was reached on 3rd December, and the Troop arrived at Zeitoun the following night. All preconceived notions concerning the heat of Egypt were shattered on this night—owing to a slight misunderstanding the guide lost himself, and the Troop was stranded all night, everybody becoming firmly convinced that the place was some degrees colder than the Southern Alps.
From then on till the end of March, 1915, was a period of solid training, first unit, then brigade and divisional operations. Everyone soon had a very intimate knowledge of the country for miles around (not forgetting Cairo). Visibility was not so good as the text-books would have it, a low-lying haze over the desert being a great hindrance to helio work. During February the Brigade made a trek of four days to Bilbeis, a native village some forty miles east of Cairo. On the fourth day an attack was made on the rest of the N.Z. and A. Division, who had taken up a defensive line about five miles from camp. In the early morning a Troop motorcyclist succeeded by bluff and strategy in getting through the enemy lines and secured information regarding the location of their main force. He immediately returned to the Brigade, and his information enabled the Brigadier to so make his dispositions as to avoid the main force and break through at a thinly held part of the line.
Lieut. Col. E. J. Hutbert, D.S.O. First Commanding Officer of Signal Troop.
The Troop's equipment was attended to on arrival in Zeitoun. Some signalling and telegraph gear was not available in New Zealand and had to be obtained in Cairo. There were many demands on the Ordnance store from all units, but the O.C. by great persistence and a little flattery managed to secure everything needed. The riding saddles supplied in New Zealand were quite useless, being merely light stock saddles of poor quality—the D's pulled out the first time they were used. Universal pattern military saddles were secured for all the horses. The Troop's quartermaster did valiant work in securing clothing for the men, although he was a good deal imposed upon by them. Should he ever secure a supply of breeches or boots and leave it in his store a few minutes, the whole lot would mysteriously vanish and be replaced by old clothing. He was in continual trouble on account of not being able to balance his stock books. Nor were these his only troubles. One Saturday night two sappers who had over-stayed their Cairo leave were arrested by the Military Police and locked up in Bab el Hadib barracks. The next day the Quartermaster was despatched to take the delinquents over and escort them to camp for punishment. With his usual good nature he allowed them to adjourn to a nearby restaurant for refreshment, and immediately lost them. After searching for some time he had to return to camp and report his dereliction of duty to the O.C, only to find that his prisoners had arrived home long before him and been already sentenced.
There were many regrets and downcast faces when the infantry moved off to their first great undertaking, leaving the Mounteds behind to swelter among the sand and flies. Then came news of the great landing and of many casualties. Everyone was very impatient to get away to help, and great was the joy when moving orders were received. Of course regret was expressed at leaving the horses, to which the men had become greatly attached, but the knowledge that at last the Brigade was to have its chance compensated for the parting.
The Brigade embarked at Alexandria on 6th May, and five days later landed on Anzac Beach. Difficulties were immediately encountered—all the technical equipment had been put on another transport and had to be hunted for there page 242among a thousand and one other items of cargo. However, it was all discovered and landed safely.
Immediately on landing the Brigade was rushed into the line on Walker's Ridge, then the left flank of the Anzac position. The N.Z. Infantry were at the time at Helles and did not return for some days. Owing to the almost continuous fighting which had been going on since the landing, there was indescribable confusion among the various telephone lines on the Ridge. Artillery and area lines were inextricably mixed up, and there were numerous dead lines. A serious effort was immediately made to establish an organised telephone system—the only way to discover working lines was to cut the whole bunch and relay. The artillery lines in use were soon discovered on the arrival of sundry irate Artillery linesmen, with whom peace had to be made. The trenches at the time were narrow and were constantly being enlarged and altered, so that the lines had to be continually shifted to suit the defensive scheme. The Signal office was at first merely a 6 x 3 hole cut into the side of the hill, with a canvas roof, and during a bombardment was not exactly a health resort.
On the night of 15th May the left flank was extended to No. 2 post, and the next morning the position was connected by telephone. This being the first dangerous job the Troop had to do the O.C. decided to take an active part in it himself, and with the assistance of a small party the line was laid along the beach in view of the enemy. The squad received a lot of attention, fortunately suffering no casualties.
The Turkish attack on 18th May gave the Troop a good baptism, and the men upheld the name of New Zealand with credit. The heavy shelling cut the lines in all directions, and all hands were at work throughout the action, with the result that the Brigade had perfect communication at an anxious time when constant touch with all parts of the line was more than necessary. As soon as the attack was over, the lessons learned during the action were applied, and all lines were laid in grooves cut in the sides of the trenches, being secured by pegs and other devices. The system of duplicating lines was extended, and alternative signal posts were established to be used if the station in use became untenable.
On 29th May the Brigade sent a squadron to take and occupy a post in advance of No. 2 outpost, the squadron being accompanied by a telephone section under Corporal Waymouth, and communication established. The post was heavily attacked and surrounded, and the telephone line cut. During the next thirty hours during which the post was defended, communication was maintained with Brigade Head-page 243quarters by visual—both stations were under continual fire and a number of casualties were sustained. The post was relieved by a Canterbury squadron on the morning of 31st May.
The next few weeks were uninteresting although there, was always plenty of hard work. All lines had to be examined daily, any bare wire repaired and loose lines refastened. The continual traffic of ration parties, casualties, working parties and reliefs disturbed the lines considerably, and only constant attention ensured any chance of successful communication. Sickness levied its toll on the personnel, and this meant additional work for those remaining on duty. All the men were keen and stuck to their duties till forced away by the Medical Officers.
The high standard of efficiency of the Troop was demonstrated in a marked manner early in this campaign. Very strict instructions had been issued that all messages containing orders and reports must be sent by morse telegraph and not telephoned. Some of the Brigades, however, had not sufficient men with a knowledge of "buzzer" reading to staff their offices. All ranks of the New Zealand Troop had received thorough training in this work, and the Troop was requested at various times to lend sappers to other less efficient units.
Towards the end of July, reinforcements began to arrive and there was indubitable evidence of "something doing." The man in the line was left very much in the dark as to the nature of the operations intended, although the signallers heard a little on account of the nature of their duties. All instruments and other equipment were thoroughly overhauled and preparations made for something big. The very nature of the Brigade's part in the great operations which commenced on 6th August, and took such a terrible toll of our manhood, depended in a measure for their success on the perfection of the communication arrangements. The Signal Troop men had a full realisation of their responsibility, and the manner in which they carried out their tasks earned the hearty commendation of the Brigadier and Staff.
A telephone section moved with the Headquarters of each regiment laying the line as they went—Wellington to Table Top, Auckland to No. 3 post (the scene of the action in May), Canterbury and Otago to Bauchops Hill. The arrangements were carried out perfectly and without a hitch—in fact a party under Corporal Hinton, by taking a short cut, reached their objective before some of the storming troops, rushed and cleared an enemy trench, and were able to report to Brigade Headquarters that "the Signal Troop had occupied—page 244position." This party rendered a further valuable service. Just near where they reached the enemy trench an exploder was connected up to an elaborate system of land mines. The Turks on account of the sudden onslaught of our men could not fire the mines, and thus in all probability many lives were saved.
It would be difficult to name any individuals of outstanding merit during this night, but the sections under Corpl. T. G. Hinton and Second-Corporal W. Findlay were both responsible for particularly fine efforts. These N.C.O.'s showed initiative and courage of a high order, and the tasks could not have been otherwise than successfully accomplished under such leaders. The Troop Sergeant also rendered valuable service by establishing communication with two regiments whose telephone sections had become separated in the dark and the general confusion of the attack. Not having received any progress reports from the regiments or any signals from the linesmen for some time, he organised a scratch telephone section and set off straight across the country in the direction of the attack. A few minutes after leaving Brigade Headquarters a wounded squadron commander was met, the telephone was connected up, and the officer made a personal report to the Brigadier regarding the position.
The next morning two linesmen, whilst employed in relaying the lines by more direct routes, captured a small party of Turks at the point of a pair of pliers, their only available weapon. This incident drew attention to the disabilities under which the signallers laboured in regard to self-defence, and the Troop shortly afterwards was armed with revolvers.
The following days during the terrific fighting on Chunuk Bair were anxious ones, and many valuable lives were lost. The lines were continually shelled and needed unceasing attention. On 8th August Sapper P. W. Bramwell was killed whilst patrolling the lines on Bauchop's Hill, and Sapper H. Wells whilst on duty at No. 3 Post. Sapper H. B. Voyce, a Main Body member of the Troop, who had been awarded a commission. in the Imperial Army shortly before the April landing, was also killed at the Suvla Bay landing on the 7th.
On 21st August the Brigade, much depleted in numbers, moved further to the left flank to take part with the 4th Australian Brigade in an attack on Hill 60. This action, although not a complete success, was a brilliant effort, and the signallers again did their part creditably. The linesmen, on account of their continual patrolling of the lines, gained a valuable knowledge of the positions of the various troops, and the condition of things in front. They rendered good page 245service in directing reinforcements, ammunition parties, etc. Sapper A. L. Caselberg never ceased all night in this useful work, and in addition brought back several wounded when not otherwise employed. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his efforts.
On the 28th August what was left of the Brigade was thrown in to complete the capture of Hill 60, and after a desperate hand-to-hand encounter lasting all night accomplished the task. The Signal Troop again carried out its duties in a creditable manner, but not without loss—two of the best and most popular of the troop being among the fallen. Time and again the telephone parties went across the open amidst a hail of bullets in their endeavour to establish communication. Sapper A. G. Wainscott discovered Turks advancing along an unguarded sap and threatening our rear. Realising that the rifle and bayonet at the moment were of more immediate necessity' than his telephone, he held up this advance alone till assistance came. His gallant action would have doubtless been rewarded by high honour had it been seen. Another sapper who had managed to establish his telephone post in the front line had himself and instrument thrown some yards along the trench by a shell which burst in the ground beside him, but nothing daunted he continued sending the message on hand. Sappers Caselberg, Marsh, Bourke, and Ranstead also performed great deeds during this nerve-wracking night.
Second-Corporal W. Findlay and Sapper W. Gibb both gave their lives in their efforts to serve the Brigade. The communication trenches were terribly congested, so in order to save time the sappers made a dash across the open with the telephone. Both men possessed all the qualities necessary in the making of good soldiers, and their deaths were mourned by comrades of all ranks.
A round-up of signallers available on the morning of the 29th revealed that the total strength (Signal Troop and four regiments) was twelve men, the normal strength being one hundred. The remnants of the Brigade were relieved on the 31st by an Imperial Infantry Brigade. The New Zealand Brigadier, however, had to remain for a few days till the relieving Brigade Commander and his staff were thoroughly conversant with the situation. The Brigadier, however, insisted that his Signal Troop should remain with him and supervise the communication till he was finally relieved. The work was particularly strenuous at this period, for with a personnel of twelve as just mentioned six telephone posts had to be maintained, in addition to the patrolling of lines and other duties. All ranks were on duty sixteen hours or more per page 246day and, although everyone was more or less sick and worn out after the strenuous actions of the month previous, all struggled on gamely, having a full realisation of the need of the service.
The Brigade was finally relieved and went to Lemnos early in September for a rest and reinforcements. There was, however, very little rest for the members of the Troop— large numbers of reinforcements arrived and the new signallers, Troop and Regimental, were given a course of training averaging eight to ten hours per day. However, special rations were the order of the day for the veterans. A daily issue of eggs and stout was made, and grapes could also be obtained at (for a time) a very reasonable price. The hot mineral springs at Thermos were within easy walking distance, and these were specially welcome. After existing for about five months on a cup of water per day which had to serve all ablutionary requirements, the luxury of being able to indulge in hot baths with an unlimited water supply can readily be imagined.
A sapper who had established a reputation at Anzac for his coolness under fire was one of the pioneers in the establishment of the numerous crown and anchor schools which abounded in the vicinity of the camp, and is reputed to have laid the foundation of a fortune by the profits derived from his enterprise.
At the beginning of November the Brigade, much refreshed, and once more effective, returned to Anzac. The climate which, on departure, was still of a summer heat, had during the stay at Lemnos grown cold and was now very wintry. After a few days in Taylor's Hollow, the Brigade was ordered to take over the line extending from Hill 60 to the foot of Chunuk Bair, held by an English Territorial Division. Just as the move was being carried out a fearful blizzard commenced 'and raged for some days. The outgoing Division stayed in its bivouacks till the storm ceased, and the New Zealanders, although holding the line, had to make the best of things in the open.
The work in this sector as far as communications were concerned was very heavy. The line being thinly held, the demand for numerous telephone posts was ever pressing. Although only a Brigade was holding the area, communications had to be maintained on a Divisional basis. The normal equipment of the Troop (six telephones) was naturally of little use, and after some negotiations arrangements were made to take over the whole of the equipment of the outgoing Division. This relieved the situation, and the Troop was able to take over the signal office all standing. Next day page 247Brigade Headquarters decided to move. Right through the campaign this was a great habit with Brigade Headquarters: they would decide on their position, the signallers would lay lines everywhere required, and as soon as the office was fairly established someone in authority would order a move. It seemed to be their standing joke on signallers. On this occasion, however, Headquarters were much blessed, for not half an hour after the N.Z. office had shifted, a heavy shell exploded right on top of the vacated office, killing or wounding the whole of the signallers of the ingoing Brigade on duty, and completely demolishing the office and equipment.
Things were fairly quiet on the Brigade front, but the lines of communication were long and entailed continual attention. The linesmen were on duty day and night repairing breaks and overhauling damaged lines. The weather was bitterly cold and wet, and working conditions were most unpleasant. One great cause for annoyance was the habit of men in the trenches of cutting a piece out of the telephone line when they wanted a pair of boot laces. The wire, being unusually strong and flexible, was also in great demand for tying up bivvies. The feelings of an overworked linesman who, after struggling for perhaps an hour or more searching for a break, found a gap in the line which suggested the use of the missing piece for either of the above-mentioned purposes, can better be imagined than described.
On 1st December rumours of evacuation began to be noised about and were received with feelings of dismay. It was realised that the position, on account of the wintry conditions and shortage of troops, had developed into a stalemate, but retirement had never been thought of by anyone in the ranks. However, orders in great detail came along, and it began to be realised that remarkable organisation was going on to effect the evacuation with as little loss as possible. The most optimistic person could not see the movement being completed without great loss of life, and the pessimists predicted a terrible disaster. All sorts of schemes were adopted to deceive the enemy—the linesmen became more active, laying new lines daily and reeling them up at night. The daily percentage of departures reduced the Troop on the last day to the O.C. and three men, Sergeant A. G. Wainscott, Sappers H. V. Fairlie and J. Bourke. All but necessary gear was discarded in preparation for a quick getaway. Earlier parties took with them as much technical equipment as could be carried, the O.C. with his usual foresight considering that instruments would be more difficult to replace than blankets and clothing, and acting accordingly. The wisdom of this page 248was demonstrated later. The last day, as it wore slowly on, seemed a lifetime, and as the zero hour drew near everyone was keyed up to a pitch of nervous excitement. Gradually as the time for evacuation approached the last reports began to come in over the wires: "Hammond's Hope post withdrawn," "C.M.R. now withdrawing," "Bluff post evacuated," "W.M.R. retiring." It was noticeable that each office as it closed exchanged the signallers good-bye call (Gb). As soon as the last regiment passed Brigade Headquarters the Brigadier-sent off his last Gallipoli message, "All regiments withdrawn N.Z.M.R., Brigade Headquarters now moving." The Signal Office was then closed, wires cut in every direction, and the last of the Troop, and incidentally the last of the Brigade, set out for the beach and safety at the regulation pace. To this day these men still wonder at the success of the evacuation and bless the good angel that must have been hovering over them.
On arrival at Lemnos next morning the party was entertained by the Navy on board the vessels in port. They were given hot baths and a substantial breakfast, which were much appreciated. The lads in blue could not do enough for our boys, and were keenly interested to know all the news.
The Brigade embarked for Egypt on 23rd December, the troop being among those on the "Hororata." Christmas Day was spent on board, and Alexandria was reached on the 27th. The Brigade returned to Zeitoun camp, arriving on the 28th. All hands were overjoyed to see their horses once more, and the faithful animals were the first beings with which everyone renewed acquaintance. The next few days were spent in re-equipment both of personal kit and signalling equipment. It was in this that the wisdom of the 0.0. in salving telephones was made manifest. The Ordnance stores were very short stocked, but in spite of this in three days the O.C. was able to report to the Brigade Commander that the Signal Troop was fully equipped and ready for further action.
On 23rd January the whole Brigade set out by route march for the Canal, and on the 29th arrived at Serapeum on the west bank of the canal some eight miles south of Ismailia. The journey was interesting but the weather atrocious, heavy rain falling nightly. There were no shelters of any kind, and the men had to make the best of things by lighting large fires and sitting round them. The firewood consisted of railway sleepers of which there was an abundance; the owners were not present at the time, but it is believed that the N.Z.E.F. subsequently had to foot the bill for the "firewood."
The Serapeum camp was about a mile from the Suez Canal, alongside the irrigation canal. Training operations were immediately commenced and particular attention was paid to instruction in laying telephone cable rapidly. One of the N.C.O.'s had designed a spindle with winding gear and ' the sappers soon were able to lay the cable from horseback at full gallop. The O.C. Divisional Signals could not believe that cable could be laid at the rate of half a mile a minute, and had to see the operation before he was convinced. The sand in the vicinity had a hard crust, and the despatch riders were able to-take part in the operations. Various Brigade operations were carried out, and an attack on troops of the New Zealand Division was also made.
There were.numerous gazelle in the desert in the vicinity of the camp, and these graceful animals were much sought after on account of their beautiful heads, which made handsome ornaments when mounted. The motor cyclists were able to secure a number, the chase being quite exciting. For ten to fifteen miles the animals could extend the machines, and it was not until the gazelle had tired that the despatch riders could get near them.
On 6th March the Brigade took over a section of the Canal Defences east of Ferry Post from the New Zealand Division, which was withdrawn preparatory to its departure for the Western front. The Brigade Headquarters were established at Railhead, Ferry Post, The A.M.R. and C.M.R. held the line on a front of about six miles. The majority of the telephone lines had already been laid and consisted of air line to Regimental Headquarters and buried ground line from Regimental Headquarters to squadron posts. These posts were also connected laterally along the whole front, and regiments were connected direct to the regiments on their immediate page 250flanks. A line was laid from Headquarters A.M.R. to an advanced night post some six miles out. The desert here was all soft sand and conditions under which patrolling and maintenance work was carried out were the reverse of pleasant. The troop had been supplied with six fast camels for despatch riding. These unlovely animals were not much appreciated, and an early opportunity was taken to give them away. The N.C.O. who had charge of them simply took the beasts to G.H.Q. and left them in front of the Signal office, getting well away before any questions could be asked. The motorcycles sent with the troop from New Zealand had always given trouble, and the opportunity was seized of securing a complete issue of new "Triumphs" which had just arrived from England. The machines sent from New Zealand were gifts to the Expeditionary Force, and all second-hand. Of the ten machines no two were the same model, and the old adage about "never looking a gift horse in the mouth" could very well be applied to these. But for the fact that the riders were all expert mechanics, the despatch work would have been in an unfortunate position.
During this period Captain Hulbert's sterling qualities were accorded recognition by his appointment as Staff Captain of the Brigade. This position was usually held by an officer of the Staff Corps with special training, but Captain Hulbert had given indubitable proof of his capabilities by successfully performing the onerous duties of Brigade Major during the evacuation of Gallipoli. Sergeant-Major R. T. Patrick, who had been in temporary command during the last two months on Gallipoli, was granted a commission and became CO. of the Troop in succession to Captain Hulbert.
After about three weeks at Ferry Post the Brigade returned to Serapeum Camp, where the newly formed Anzac Mounted Division was being concentrated. The Signal Troops of. the Australian Light Horse Brigades were old friends of Gallipoli days and needed no introduction. The same good feeling which had grown up between the Australian and New Zealand infantry also existed among the Signal Sappers, who had made many friendships over the 'phone on the long night watches.
On 6th April the Brigade marched out en route to Salhieh, an Egyptian village on the western edge of the Nile delta. These continual moves were of value to all in learning to pack camels, and the men soon became expert in their endeavours to get all their equipment and personal gear aboard without having to abandon anything. This practice proved a great help when on 23rd April orders were received to move at short page 251notice to Kantara. At dawn on the 24th the Canal was crossed and the Brigade commenced the great campaign which ended in the final rout of the Turks across the Jordan in the plains of Moab.
The threatened attacking forces, however, had withdrawn, and the Brigade bivouacked at Hill 70, about seven miles east of Kantara, remaining till 12th May. Various patrols were carried out daily and communication was maintained by heliograph. On the 12th the Brigade moved to Bir Et Maler and from then on till July carried out reconnaissances of varying proportions. Here hard work for all ranks engaged in communication work began in earnest. All regiments were connected by telephone to Brigade Headquarters, the offices being open day and night. The permanent defence posts occupied at night were also connected. From daylight till dark a visual signal station was maintained on Katib Gannit, a prominent sand hill some three miles from camp. This station kept in touch with whatever parties were out on reconnaissance, and transmitted reports to N.Z.P. by telephone. This work was trying in the extreme—it was summer and there was no protection for the signallers from the burning heat of the sun. The constantly shifting sand and the glare of the sun upon it were detrimental to the eyes. Very often, on account of the demand for signallers, the men after a long day had to do a watch at night and then go out on another patrol next morning.
Although there was no shortage of sunlight, heliograph signalling presented considerable difficulties. A low lying haze made the locating of patrols uncertain, and very often they could be found only by working out their position on the map and aligning the helio on the bearing ascertained. As they moved frequently the signallers had often very little time to pick up the various stations with which they were expected to keep in touch. The old telegraph line from Kantara to El Arish was still standing although in bad order. This line was overhauled as far as Bir el Abd and proved of great value during reconnaissance for keeping touch with Brigade and Divisional Headquarters. A section of the troop had an unenviable experience whilst engaged on overhauling this line during a reconnaissance by one of the regiments. Through some misunderstanding the regiment withdrew without warning the party. An enemy patrol, which had followed the regiment in, came on the party with one man up a pole and the other two busily engaged with the intricacies of the cable-laying apparatus. The men's rifles were of necessity on their saddles—it is said that the evacua-page 252tion of the position, if not orderly, was quite smartly carried out.
The camel transport, which was universally employed at this time, caused a lot of extra labour in maintenance duties. The camels had an uncanny faculty of becoming tangled up in the telephone lines and frequently caused havoc among the wires, and often the telephonist, who had the receiver strapped to his head, found himself being dragged out of his office. Even if the wire did not break, the insulation was invariably stripped for a distance necessitating either the replacement of the piece, or much work reinsulating the damaged cable.
D.III. cable, a much stouter cable than the D.I. and D.II. previously issued, was here made available, and the slight extra weight and labour in handling were amply compensated for by the better signals and greater immunity from damage. D. mark III. telephones had also entirely superseded the old D.II. and were much appreciated by all who had to use them. The staff and regimental officers especially cursed the older instruments, which prevented the person using them from taking notes, as they required the use of both hands whilst speaking.
On 24th June the Brigade was relieved by the Second Australian Light Horse Brigade, and returned to Hill 70 for a rest. Telephones and all equipment were overhauled and faulty ones replaced.
On 19th July the first information was received of the Turkish advance on the Canal. The Brigade was strengthened by a regiment of Yeomanry and the 5th A.L.H. Regiment, and maintained patrols along and to the south of the old El Arish road between Dueidar and Quatia. These patrols were equipped with telephones, and reported to Headquarters by tapping the old telegraph line.
On the morning of 4th August the attack on the Romani position was made, and the Brigade immediately moved out to operate on the enemy left flank. From this date to the Bir el Abd battle on 9th August all hands were at work continuously, and acquitted themselves with distinction. Visual communication was maintained with the Brigades on the flanks and visual and telephone within the Brigade and with Anzac Headquarters. The work throughout was excellent both as regards speed and accuracy, and on three days in particular was carried out under heavy shell fire. The.Brigade, being in the centre of the line of advance, received a good number of reports from the flank Brigades intended for Anzac Headquarters, and the Divisional Commander frequently page 253made N.Z. Headquarters an advanced Divisional Headquarters. The Troop therefore had a good deal of extra work in handling Divisional messages.
On one occasion good information was obtained by teeing in to the old telegraph line, which was found to be in use by enemy headquarters. The Brigade interpreter used the 'phone and took notes of various conversations and messages, thus giving our troops an indication of the Turkish intentions. On 6th August whilst the Brigade was in action against the enemy at Ogratina, some cool work by Sapper J. E. Hollywood in repairing the telegraph line was noticed by the Divisional Commander, Major-General Sir H. G. Chauvel. The General immediately inquired the man's name and personally recommended him for the Military Medal.
The Brigade remained as an advanced guard to railway survey and construction till December, moving forward ahead of the work. A wide front and long flanks were maintained and much cable was in use. Visual stations were always maintained by night as well as by day in case of breaking of the lines. This often happened as ration convoys and troops, placing great faith in the telegraph system, always used the wire as a guide to the various outposts. Pigeons were often taken on long distance reconnaissances and proved very reliable.
On 10th November telephone equipment, continuous appeals for which had been made since the outbreak of war, was issued to the Regiments. Hitherto all cable laying and establishment of telephone posts had been done by the Brigade Signal Troop, but the small allowance of cable and instruments made it impossible to satisfy all demands for communication, and at times outposts had to send reports by mounted trooper. This entailed waste of horse flesh, reduction of men in the firing line, and also great loss of time when earlier information would have been valuable.
The year ended with the capture of El Arish and Magdhaba. The latter action was especially trying to the men. In addition to the ordinary difficulties encountered in maintaining communication in action, the men were dead tired. They, in common with the rest of the Brigade, had had no sleep for three nights, and the strain was severely felt in a job where clear eyesight was essential. The Brigade bivouac was reached on Christmas Eve, but everyone was too exhausted to take part in any celebration. In addition the force was far in advance of any canteens or supply depots, and all ranks had to make their Christmas dinner off bully and dry rations.page 254
The next operation was the attack and capture of the Rafa position on 8th and '9th January. This was a great success, the honours being with the New Zealand Brigade. The Brigade operated for the first time on turf, and it was a magnificent spectacle to see the whole Brigade, in artilleryformation with Headquarters in the lead, moving across a level grass plain at the gallop to take up its first position. The Turkish State telegraph line was immediately cut by the Troop linesmen. Brigade Headquarters were practically in the firing line throughout the day and received quite a lot of attention, the signal stations having to be frequently moved on account of their drawing fire. Visual signalling and runners were employed, all telephone equipment having, Under general orders, been left behind. Regiments could only be communicated with by runners as there was no cover for flag or helio. However, as Brigade Headquarters were not more than four hundred yards from the regiments, not much time was lost. At 4.35 p.m., when the final assault was made, the whole of Brigade Headquarters joined in mounted, the amusing spectacle being noticed of a sapper endeavouring to impale a Turk on a flagpole.
The Troop's work during the action was of a high order, and so impressed the Brigade Commander that he congratulated the O.C. and one of the section leaders during the day on the particularly smart despatching of an important situation report. On the Brigade's return to El Arish he made special reference on a Brigade parade to the good service rendered by the Signal Troop in the Rafa battle.
As the Brigade was now out of the desert, the motorcycles were brought into requisition and rendered useful service. The despatch riders were all, experienced men, and the rapidity with which they could deliver messages reduced the visual work considerably, and also saved a great deal of horseflesh.
On 26th March the first battle of Gaza took place. It was a trying day for the troop, chiefly on account of the difficulty of keeping in touch with Divisional Headquarters. The weather was dull and helio working intermittent, and A.V.A. was almost out of flag signalling range. At dusk lamp, signalling was attempted, but the Divisional lamp was a poor one and could not be read even with a telescope. Resource was then had to the wireless, only to find that the Divisional station had been dismantled. A special word of praise must be given to the motor-cyclists, who found their way in the dark in rough country to and from Divisional Headquarters. The communication forward to the regiments page 255was good, a party moving with each regiment and laying the line as the advance was made.
The next three weeks were spent in outpost work. On 17th April the Brigade crossed the Wadi Ghuzzeh at Shellal to carry out a reconnaissance preparatory to the second battle of Gaza, which took place on the 19th. This was another anxious day for the Signals. No one seemed to know where Divisional Headquarters were, and all reports had to be sent through Desert Column Headquarters. Communication within the Brigade was excellent, and the sappers carried out their duties in a gallant manner. The battlefield was practically flat, without a vestige of cover. A section under Corporal Wilson laid a line to the C.M.R., galloping right up to the firing line. A visual station under Corporal Anderson was maintained under heavy shell and rifle fire on a small knoll in advance of Brigade Headquarters, which was itself continuously shelled and bombed. One shell scored a direct hit, smashing the instruments and severely wounding a member of the section.
The telephone lines were frequently broken and the linesmen were continually under shell fire whilst repairing them. Sapper Giffney was awarded a well-earned decoration for his gallantry. Although wounded he gamely continued repairing the line and only collapsed on his return to Brigade Headquarters after completing his task. The despatch riders also had an exciting day, having to encounter a barrage on their way to and from the various units.
From this date right up to 24th October the time was spent in holding an outpost on the Wadi Ghuzzeh from Shellal to Fara and patrolling in the direction of Beersheba. The whole Brigade bivouacked in the vicinity of Tel el Fara, the regiments doing the daily patrols alternately. Besides the usual telephone arrangements a permanent signal station was maintained on the Tel, keeping in touch with the various troops out on reconnaissance. Each night a line of listening posts was established some two to three miles in advance of the trench system. These posts were each connected by telephone to Brigade Headquarters, so that early information of any enemy movement might be given. Between these tours of duty (lasting three weeks) the Brigade rested on the beach at Marakeb.
The arrangements for training reinforcements for. the Troop and Regimental Signal sections had hitherto been somewhat haphazard. A permanent training cadre of three N.C.O.'s from the Troop was now established at the New Zealand Depot. These instructors were relieved every six months page 256by others from the front, so that the training was carried out according to the requirements of existing conditions. Selected men attended the various courses at the Imperial School of Instructions, Zeitoun, and the majority of the men also had a few weeks at the Army Telegraph School, Alexandria. Two men were also sent to the last mentioned school to undergo a course of training as telegraph mechanicians. These mechanics were of great service during operations extending over lengthy periods, as they were able to keep the Troop and regimental instruments in repair and so prevent any shortage of 'phones.
Means of communicating with aeroplanes were at this time being devised, and practices in signalling with klaxon horn, lamps and ground strips were carried out on several occasions. Each unit of the Brigade was supplied with a distinctive ground signal in order that it might be identified by our 'planes on reconnaissance.
During a period of continuous patrolling and reconnoitring such as this the demand for signallers was enormous. Every patrol both day and night was ordered to take out signallers, with the result that the few trained men on the establishment of units were much overworked. A system of borrowing signallers from other units was adopted, but was most unsatisfactory to all concerned.
On 19th July whilst on reconnaissance the Troop was heavily bombed, Sapper H. M. Wiles being killed and Sapper D. Olver so severely wounded that he died a few days later. Five of the Troop's horses were killed and five wounded during the bombing.
On 24th October the Brigade commenced its long march to get into position for the big push, which commenced with the capture of Beersheba on 31st October and ended with the surrender of Jerusalem on 9th December. At 9.10 a.m. on the 31st the Brigade commenced its attack on Tel el Saba. The attack went well and the fort fell into our hands at 3.30 p.m. The communications were by helio and flag except with A.M.R. who were connected by telephone on account of the heavy fire preventing visual signalling. The conditions were good for signalling and everything went off without a hitch throughout the day.
During this period the horses were without water for a period of seventy-two hours, and even then had to travel some sixteen miles to get a drink. Although the men themselves were suffering from thirst, they walked the whole distance and led their mounts in order to save them all possible suffering. Such, however, was the care and attention lavished on the steeds that four days later they were able to make a continuous march of over fifty miles.
On the 11th the Brigade set out to rejoin the Division at Hamemeh, some fifty-two miles north.
On the 14th the battle of Ayun Kara took place. This action will ever be remembered by all who took part. The gallant advance of the Auckland and Wellington men, and the great defence by the Auckland regiment against the Turkish counter-attack in the afternoon were an inspiration to all. The Signallers at Brigade Headquarters did everything possible to give all the assistance they could to the much tried regiments. Visual signalling was utilised until the counter-attack came, when a telephone line was run to the A.M.R. This line was connected to the battery R.H.A. so that the Auckland CO. could indicate where he wanted artillery support. The line was often severed by the enemy shells, but the sappers, realising its value, strove hard to maintain the connection, although they were working in a shell and bullet swept area.
On 16th November W.M.R. entered the town of Jaffa and two days later the whole Brigade moved there. The regiments bivouacked in and around the German village of Sarona and Brigade Headquarters were established in the abandoned German Consulate. The Jaffa post-office had been completely denuded of all telegraph and telephone instruments, but the various lines were in good order, and were used for connecting up the Brigade units. The troop was billeted in a large empty house, some of the men even enjoying the luxury of beds. They were able to make various additions to the army rations and, the famous Jaffa oranges being also available in unlimited quantities, all ranks soon recovered from the strain of the three weeks' fighting and marching.page 258
On the 24th the Brigade made a demonstration across the river Auja, capturing enemy posts at Sheikh Muannis and Khurbet Hadrah. These posts were held that night by the Brigade in conjunction with the 161st Brigade (54th Division). The posts were all connected up by 'phone to outpost and Brigade Headquarters, and signal lamps were also aligned in case of attack. A heavy enemy attack developed at 3 a.m. on the 25th and most of our lines were soon destroyed. The whole action was in plain view from advanced headquarters just south of the Auja, so it was considered unnecessary to repair the lines.
An outpost line was then established along the south bank of the Auja and held till 4th December, when the Brigade took over the line Yehudiyeh to a point some three miles north of Ludd. The next six days constituted a period of misery, discomfort and unceasing hard work under the worst possible conditions. The rain was incessant, and the whole area from front line posts to the horse lines near the Jaffa-Ramleh road was a veritable quagmire. All the lines were in an indescribable tangle. There had been frequent changes of units and readjustments of the defence area, and each succeeding command had made alterations to the communication system. The lines were bared in many places and the insulation was perished; it was impossible to read signals from Divisional Headquarters. The regimental posts were at once attended to, communication being established from front to rear and from flank to flank. The Brigades in the adjacent sectors were then connected to our Brigade Headquarters, and flank posts connected to the nearest posts in the next sector. For the first two days Anzac Headquarters could only be communicated with through the neighbouring Brigades. There was a shortage of regimental signallers and the Troop had to assist in maintaining the signal stations at some of the forward posts. The shelling was heavy during the whole period and the lines suffered considerably. All ranks were thankful when relief came and the Brigade was able to go back, to Richon Le Zion.
This ended the Brigade's share of the fighting in this sector. Although Lieut. Patrick, who was awarded the Military Cross, was the only recipient of any decoration for gallantry, there were other members of the Troop who would certainly have received recognition for their deeds, had it been possible to award decorations for consistent gallantry throughout a campaign, as well as for isolated acts often no more gallant but more theatrical. Names readily called to page 259mind in this connection are those of Sergeant H. V. Farlie, Corporals S. o. Dillon and H. H. Wilson. Sergeant Fairlie was conspicuous throughout the campaign for fine work of a high standard. His efforts were especially gallant at Khuweilfeh, when he went out and repaired an important line, a job which the linesmen of another Brigade had jibbed at as being too dangerous. Corporal Dillon and his section were responsible during the attack on Beersheba for a smart piece of work which had important results. At one stage of the advance on Tel el Saba visual communication with the Auckland regiment became impossible owing to the flat nature of the ground and the proximity of Regimental and Brigade Headquarters to the enemy. There were two alternative routes for a telephone line, along a dry watercourse or across the absolutely flat intervening ground, a distance of some four to five hundred yards. The watercourse was crowded with led horses and a line through it would have been at once destroyed, so "over the top" was the order. Corporal Dillon and a comrade set off at a gallop, and laid the line by the method practised at Serapeum, incidentally drawing a heavy burst of enemy fire, but escaping without casualties.
Christmas, 1917, was spent at Esdud, at that time the railhead of the military railway. The weather was atrocious, but, as the bivouac of the Troop was in the sandhills, the disagreeable mud was avoided. The men fared well for Christmas luxuries. A New Zealand parcel mail had arrived with numerous seasonable gifts; a representative was sent down the line to purchase a few extras not included in the rations, and the Brigade canteen also distributed largesse to all hands. The troop cook must also be complimented on his efforts to put on a spread worthy of the occasion.
On 12th January, 1918, the Brigade returned to Richon, the next three weeks being spent in general training, with inspections by the Desert Corps and Divisional Commanders.
On 9th February Brigade Headquarters, Signal Troop and W.M.R. left for Jerusalem, arriving there the following morning. The Troop was billeted in a monastery in Bethlehem. W.M.R. arrived on the 11th and bivouacked at Mar Elias. The next week was spent in visiting the Holy City and its many historic spots. Everyone took a keen interest in the Holy places, which were pointed out by the guide.
The Division commenced its advance on Jericho through the hills east of Bethlehem on the 19th. The road soon deteriorated into nothing but a goat-track. Enemy posts page 260were located in strength east of El Muntar, and at 3 a.m. the following morning they were attacked by all regiments. Communication with the regiments was established by visual and telephone, the lines being extended as the advance continued. Visual communication was also maintained with Anzac Headquarters on El Muntar and the 60th Division at the Greek hostel on the Mount of Olives. The position was captured just after midday and the Brigade moved on to come into contact with further enemy posts at Neby Nusa. These posts were rushed at dawn and the Brigade then reached the Jericho plain without further opposition. There was a thick mist, with rain falling, and, as Divisional Headquarters had detained the Brigade wireless set at El Muntar, the report of the capture of Jericho had to be sent back by a Troop despatch rider.
The Troop despatch riders had followed the Brigade over hills almost too steep for goats. At times the whole party would have to carry the machines one at a time over places where it was impossible to even wheel them. The handling severely damaged the machines, none of which had a foot-rest or silencer intact at the end of the journey. Corporal Hornig arrived on the plain just in time to be sent back with the news that Jericho had fallen. His route back was by the main road, which had not yet been traversed by our men, and he had to take the chance of striking mines or enemy troops. He had to carry his machine over some large blow-outs, and round some spots which appeared to be mined. His machine collapsed near Talaat el Dumm, but the advancing infantry being met shortly afterwards, the message was despatched by telephone. The N.C.O. reported the suspicious places in the road to an Engineer officer, and a number of mines were subsequently discovered.
The Brigade immediately sent patrols to the Dead Sea and the banks of the Jordan. On account of the mist and rain communication was maintained by Lucas lamps, which had just been issued, and proved their value at once.
On the 22nd the Brigade, less A.M.R., which was left to patrol the Jordan Valley, departed from Jericho and marched back by easy stages to Richon le Zion. During the next few weeks the Brigade and Regimental signallers received further instruction in communication with aircraft. The officers and N.C.O.'s were attached for a week to the 14th Squadron Royal Air Force stationed at Junction Station. They received instruction both on the ground and in the air, experiencing the joys of flying for the first time. R.A.F. officers also page 261visited the Brigade and addressed the officers on points of interest to both services.
On 13th March the Brigade again left Richon for the Jordan Valley, and on the 23rd crossed the river for the first time. After combining with the 60th Division attacking the enemy posts in the foothills, the Brigade set off up a mountain track to carry out a raid on the Hedjaz railway at Amman. The weather was bad, and the only communication available was the Australian wireless station on loan to the Troop. At 12.50 p.m. on the 25th the Moab plateau was reached, but owing to the bad weather and difficult roads Divisional Headquarters and the Light Horse Brigades did not arrive until the following day.
On 27th the attack on the town of Amman, which was strongly held, commenced. The Brigade soon struck trouble and was held up for some hours. The ground was so soft that it was impossible to move except on the formed tracks. After crossing the railway line at Kissir Station the Brigade took up a position for the night. During the day communication was maintained by visual with all units and Anzac Headquarters. As soon as the position was fixed lines were laid to all posts and Regimental Headquarters.
The next day A.M.R. made an advance in the direction of Hill 3039, but could not get far. Good observation posts were found, however, and the telephone line was extended from A.M.R. Headquarters to direct the artillery fire.
On the 29th a general advance was ordered, but the enemy force had been strengthened and held commanding positions. The Brigade advanced to the foot of 3039, suffering considerable loss. Telephone parties moved with the regiments and kept in constant touch with Brigade Headquarters. The enemy shells searching the hollows in rear of the advance for led horses damaged the lines frequently, and visual had occasionally to be resorted to. The enemy observation, however, was good, and fire was immediately opened on any signal station seen. Telephonic communication was established with Anzac Headquarters at 12.45 p.m. During the two previous days all messages had been sent and received by flag or lamp—a slow method during an action such as this. The wireless station made many efforts to assist but its signals were drowned by the big German station at Amman.
At one-thirty the following morning the Brigade, with the Fourth Battalion Camel Corps attached, began a further advance on Hill 3039, and gained their objective after a brisk page 262fight. The telephone lines were carried forward with the attack, and rendered valuable service both by forwarding progress reports and enabling the respective commanders to co-operate with each other in the advance. The various machine gun sections were also connected with each other and with the squadron commander, and were of great assistance in securing effective co-operation throughout the squadron. Two lines had been run from Brigade Headquarters, one to A.M.R. and one to C.M.R., and a line to the Camel Battalion branched off at the jumping off spot of the attack. The three units were then further connected by a cable running across the front close up to the front line.
At daybreak the enemy commenced a series of counterattacks, and from then on till after dark, when orders to withdraw were received, our men had a terrible time. Attack after attack was launched on the thin line, and gallantly repulsed. The Troop had a big day's work and carried it through with distinction to all concerned. The shelling and rifle fire chewed up the lines time and again, and every available man was engaged patrolling the wires all day. The main lines were bridged in several places to assist continuous touch, and even then all lines were discontinued at times. It was difficult to single out any individual sapper for his work during the day, but Sappers J. R. Robertson and W. Lockie were responsible for a fine effort during a particularly heavy attack in the afternoon, for which the former was later awarded the Military Medal.
It should be remembered that during the whole of the stunt the men were working and fighting under indescribably bad conditions. An arctic blizzard raged, the cold if anything being more severe than the great blizzard at Anzac in November, 1915; the ground everywhere was a quagmire, and the men, having just come from the heat of the Jordan Valley, were but lightly clothed.
The telephone played a useful part in the withdrawal, the C.O.'s of the various units working back along their cable and covering each other's withdrawal alternately. The numerous casualties were evacuated with difficulty, and it was not till four o'clock next morning that the Brigade reached the Divisional concentration area. During the next twenty-four hours the Brigade acted as a rearguard to cover the withdrawal of the troops.
It is worth mention that during these operations 26½ miles of cable were used, all of it being abandoned owing to it being required till the last moment to assist in the withdrawal.page 263
During the action the Brigade lost Lieuts. H. Benson and A. Hall, signalling officer of the C.M.R. and W.M.R. respectively. They were both gallant and efficient officers whose places it was more than difficult to fill. Captain Hinson, C.M.R., who was also killed, was the regimental signalling officer previous to Lieut. Benson, but had been appointed adjutant shortly before these operations.
The Brigade now commenced its summer stay in the scorching and dusty Jordan Valley. On the 18th April it cooperated with the 60th Division in a demonstration against Shunet Nimrin, and on the 30th took a minor part in an attack on Es Salt and the enemy position at Shunet Nimrin. The plain between the east bank of the Jordan and the Moab foothills was very flat and there was some difficulty in employing visual successfully. A telephone line was run to the advanced regiment, and the motor-cyclists kept touch with the other units and also between the regiments and their forward patrols.
On 10th May the Brigade went into Desert Corps reserve, being bivouacked at Talaat ed Dumm in the vicinity of the Inn of the Good Samaritan. Although there was little in the way of work the conditions were unpleasant owing to the dust, heat and insanitary nature of the area. Great relief was felt when on the night of the 29th the Brigade was sent to Bethlehem for a fortnight's rest. Brigade Headquarters was established in a hostel some few miles north of Hebron and the Troop had a most picturesque camp in the garden attached. Everyone had a good rest and spent the time in visits to Jerusalem, and in various sports.
The Brigade left for the valley again on 13th June, and on the 16th took over the No. 4 section of the Jordan defences from the Third Light Horse Brigade. All lines were taken over from the outgoing Brigade, so the relief was quickly effected. The defences consisted of a series of redoubts along the front with advanced observation posts, both redoubts and posts being manned day and night. The whole area was connected up to Brigade and Garrison Regiment Headquarters by metallic circuit. All lines were duplicated by an earth circuit. Fullerphones were used to avoid any induction. Alterations in the system were soon found necessary. The metallic circuit was found to have been laid in advance of the redoubts in several places, so the lines had to be taken up and relaid on a safer route. Then the Garrison Regiment decided to move its headquarters, and of course page 264all the wiring had to be adjusted to fit in with its new position. Some objection was next made to the unsuitable position of Brigade Headquarters in case of attack, so a battle headquarters was established and a full-dress rehearsal took place. The idea of a battle headquarters immediately appealed to the Garrison Regiment, so a further alternative system of communication had to be installed. On the 27th the bivouacks of the Troop and support regiments were shelled heavily by a big gun nick-named by the men "Jericho Jane."
The men felt the strain of the continual work in the hot weather severely, and there was a number of evacuations to hospital on account of malaria. Owing to the nature of the work it was impossible to take advantage of the cool nights for labour, and therefore the sappers toiled daily under a scorching sun. The temperature averaged 115 in the shade, so the heat in the sun can be better left to the imagination. Fortunately there was plenty of cold fresh water handy to the bivouac, and any spare moments were usually spent under an improvised shower bath.
The Brigade was relieved on 19th June by the 5th Mounted Brigade (Yeomanry) and proceeded to Talaat et Dumm as Corps reserve. From there a move was made to Bethlehem on the 27th. The 19th August found the Troop again in the Jordan Valley, the Brigade taking over its old line and that of the adjacent Brigade. The Brigade front extended from the hills on the west of the valley to the junction of the rivers Auja and Jordan. The Brigadier had under his command in addition to the N.Z. regiments two battalions of the British West Indies regiment, two battalions of Jewish Fusiliers, one heavy battery, one field artillery and an Indian mountain battery. The Troop had a really busy time satisfying the demands of this cosmopolitan force, and some of the conversations over the wires, heard in the signal office, were amusing. The two systems of communication previously existing had to be adapted to fit in with the new arrangements of the defence sectors, and the Troop had a strenuous time. As a big operation was in view there was an enormous increase in the traffic over the wires.
Whilst in this position the Troop was using and maintaining 110 miles of cable—a big job for 32 men, as a number of these were employed as telegraphists, despatch riders, drivers, etc. Practically every means of army communication was in use. The Brigade office consisted of a sounder, vibrator, three D3 and two ringing telephones, and a 30 line exchange. A visual station kept touch with patrols, and the wireless station was also working. Aeroplane pilots, old page 265friends of the 14th squadron, often dropped reports or sent a few words on the klaxon horn. Carrier pigeons were kept in two advanced posts.
On 21st September the Brigade initiated its part in the great operations which were destined to terminate in the complete overthrow of the Turkish armies in Palestine, Syria and Arabia. By a rapid night march the Brigade enveloped the Turkish force at Damieh bridge. The Troop laid a ground line from its old headquarters to Khurbet Fuseil, and there joined on to the Turkish air line, and was in touch with Anzac Headquarters almost immediately on arrival at Damieh. The W.M.R. captured a Divisional Headquarters with all its equipment, intact and placed us in possession of some useful telegraph equipment. Touch was maintained with Ava by telegraph, wireless and visual.
On the 23rd the Brigade made a rapid march up the hills and occupied Es Salt, communication being maintained en route by helio, and on arrival by helio and wireless. An enemy air line was also repaired and put through to Anzac Headquarters.
The following morning Anzac Headquarters arrived at Es Salt and the Brigade moved on to Suweileh, preparatory to an attack on Amman of unhappy memory. The attack commenced the following morning and was brilliantly successful. Communication during the action was by visual forward and to the flanks, and by visual and cable to Divisional Headquarters. The despatch riders were hampered by shortage of petrol, but did some smart work in rough country.
C.M.R., by the rapidity of their advance, captured the big German wireless station in perfect condition, and it was in use by the wireless operators attached to the Brigade shortly after its capture. Slabs of guncotton had been fastened to the engine and instruments, but the enemy had not had time to fire the charges. This station proved of great value to G.H.Q. and Desert Corps. These two stations were too far apart to communicate direct, and the Amman station was brought into use as a transmitting plant. Some amusement was caused when our men sent out their first signal on the enemy plant. G.H.Q. were astonished to hear its code call from an unmistakably Telefunken instrument, and could not be persuaded to acknowledge the signal until it was advised by telegraph of the situation.
On the 30th the Brigade moved to Kastal, some fifteen miles south of Amman, and took over as prisoners the remnants of the Turkish army in the Hedjaz. The task was a most unpleasant one, as dead and sick Turks were lying page 266about in all directions. The air line was intact, and there was no hitch regarding communications till during the night some hostile Bedouins cut the line in several places. A pack wireless set was secured at Kastal and found to be in good order.
This was the end of operations so far as the Brigade was concerned, and on the 3rd the long ride back to the coastal plain commenced. The deadly malaria now made its presence felt, and over half the Troop was sent to hospital. Those remaining had a busy time, each man having to look after three or four horses in addition to carrying out his ordinary duties as telegraphist, linesman, etc.
On 14th October Richon le Zion was reached and a great welcome was given our men by the colonists. They had always looked upon the New Zealand Brigade as their deliverers from the thraldom of the Turk.
The Troop was fortunate throughout these final operations in having such fine senior N.C.O.'s as Sergeants C. T. (Yank) Marsh and J. G. Russell. Yank left New Zealand with the second reinforcements, and had been in every action and stunt both on Gallipoli and in Palestine. He was a glutton for work and everything he undertook was faithfully done. Russell was an experienced telegraphist and rendered valuable service in the organisation of the signal office during the extremely busy period preceding the operations.
The next weeks were spent in fitting out all ranks with winter clothing and new equipment. A Brigade rifle match was held at which the Troop arranged telephone communication at the butts and firing points in the usual style, and also succeeded in coming second in the teams event. This was a remarkably good effort, as the Troop had only thirty-two men to select from compared with a regiment's five hundred odd, and in addition the sappers had very little opportunity of enjoying any rifle shooting.
From November till May, 1919, there is little of interest to record. Pending demobilisation, lectures under the N.Z.E.F. Educational scheme were given daily. The Troop took part with the Brigade in quelling the Egyptian riots in March and April, 1919. Brigade Headquarters were at Tanta and communication was maintained through the State Telegraphs and by the Troop despatch riders.
The Troop returned to New Zealand by the "Ulimaroa" and "Ellenga" leaving Suez on 30th June and 23rd July respectively.page 267
It would not be fair to close this history without reference to the great service rendered the Troop and Brigade by the W4 Australian wireless section, which was attached to the Troop right through the Sinai and Palestine campaign. When the New Zealand Signal Troop was mobilised in 1914 no wireless equipment was available, and instead of a wireless section some motor-cycles additional to establishment were sent. The deficiency was never made up by the New Zealand Government, although it was many times stressed that the New Zealanders were not doing their share of the technical work of the Anzac Mounted Division. The O.C., Anzac Signal Squadron, however, had a soft spot in his heart for the New Zealand Troop, and kept it supplied with a wireless section, often suffering inconvenience himself in order that the New Zealand Brigade might not be without its services. In several big stunts the wireless was at times the only means of communication with Headquarters. Among others may be mentioned the advances in August and December, 1916, the Beer-sheba attack on 31st October, 1917, and the Amman operations in March, 1918. The staff always had an objection to using the wireless on account of the necessity for cyphering and decyphering messages, and the Signalling Officer usually had this job thrust upon him.
The quality of the communications of the New Zealand Brigade was a constant cause of envy among the other Mounted Brigades, both Australian and Imperial, and not infrequently did the Divisional Staff find N.Z. Headquarters a useful report centre. Commanding and Staff Officers who, at the beginning of the war, were disposed to regard any man not using a rifle as an encumbrance, gradually came to realise the immense value of their signallers, and towards the finish of the' campaign, took a great interest in them and were continually clamouring for a larger establishment in their signalling sections. Of course the tremendous development of the campaign, never comprehended in pre-war establishments and text books, was partly responsible for the demand, but the saving in man power and horseflesh effected by the use of efficient communications was finally realised and taken advantage of to the full. Unfortunately efficient means of communication and expert signallers could not be produced in a day, and for a time the demand was present but not the signallers. This meant much extra work for the trained men available, but such was their enthusiasm that they worked almost continously for long periods at times, and gave efficient service in addition to doing the ordinary every-day jobs of a camp, and page 268caring for their horses. These horses needed more than ordinary care too. Talk about an infantryman being something to hang things on—a signaller and his horse in full marching order resembled a whole ordnance store.
At the beginning of the war the means of communication and the allowance of equipment were both much below requirements. The Signal Troop commenced operations with a number of flags, six telephones of an unreliable and antiquated type, four Begbie signalling lamps, cumbersome, noisy, and with a range of only six miles, and four heliographs. The telephone wire allowed was 6 1-3 miles supplied on small reels of about 300 yards, but without any practicable method of laying or picking up. In the Brigade's last position before the big push in September 1918 there were in use over one hundred miles of wire—the telephones (50 odd) were up-to-date and efficient models, and the signalling lamps had a range of 15 to 18 miles. Telephones especially were in great demand, and C.O.'s and Staff were very keen to have a 'phone in every imaginable place, sometimes overlooking the difficulty and impracticability of establishing and maintaining this means of communication on some posts. The telephone being a somewhat delicate instrument, the rough handling it often received entailed constant labour for the Troop mechanics, who were continually employed in maintaining the various instruments in a serviceable condition.
The Signal Troop, being composed of men from all districts and not having any association with a particular province, was for a time left in the cold when gifts from Patriotic Associations in New Zealand were being distributed. For instance the—Patriotic Association, when forwarding a consignment to the soldiers of their district, would address the parcels "to the men of the—regiment." Although it was doubtless intended that all soldiers belonging to the province should share in the distribution, the method of addressing the parcels prevented men of such units as the Signal and Field Troops, Field Ambulance and A.S.C. from receiving gifts. It is only fair to state that, as soon as the position was explained to the Regimental commanders, they asked for the numbers of men from their districts serving with the technical units, and saw that they were included in the distribution.
The history of the Signal Troop cannot be considered complete without some reference to the work of the Regimental signallers. Successful communication could never be maintained without the closest co-operation between the Troop and regimental sections, and this co-operation was developed page 269and continued right from the time when the Brigade was first camped together at Zeitoun till the last shot was fired in 1918.
In conclusion the writer wishes to make his apologies to any old members of the Troop who may feel aggrieved at not being mentioned in this history. There were so many gallant incidents worthy of record that it is impossible, after the expiry of from four to eight years, to recollect more than a. small percentage of them. It is also impossible to remember the names of all sappers in sections of which only the N.C.O. 's have been mentioned, although it is realised that every member nobly performed his share in the action described. This history has been written with the object of placing on record the part played in the Great War by the smallest unit of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. No apologies are offered for what might appear to be undue flattery of the Troop's doings. The respect in which the New Zealand Troop was held in the field can best be ascertained by inquiring from an Australian Light Horse sapper or an English Yeomanry signaller, who were most closely in touch with the Troop and are best able to judge.