COMMUNICATIONS OF A DIVISIONAL SIGNAL COMPANY
DURING THE BATTLE OF LOOS
PREPARATORY. Division Fighting Headquarters were in dug-outs about 2000 yards behind the front line, with Advanced Division Headquarters about 1 ½ miles, and Division Headquarters 6 miles to the rear.
LINES BACK. Four lines, partly poled cable, partly buried and partly pinned in trenches were laid from Advanced Division Headquarters to Division Report Centre. These lines provided two telephone (earth return) circuits back to Advanced Division, one vibrator circuit and one line “spare”. All telephone work was transmitted at Advanced Div. Headquarters, “G” messages being given “priority”, and this arrangement worked satisfactorily all through the Battle. It was found, however, that telephone calls from the Corps were unduly delayed and during the morning of after assault, the Corps ran a pair of wires with ring telephones direct to the Staff dug-out. Sounder working was not used forward of Advanced Division Headquarters.
The C.R.A. had a separate Signal Office, with two lines back to his Headquarters Exchange (which was near Advanced Division Headquarters) and communication forward to his Group Commanders with Infantry Brigades, who were connected with to group exchanges.
At no time during the Battle was there heavy shelling behind the line of the Divisional Report Centre, and the lines therefore were very little broken. Test points with line men had however, been provided at two intermediate points, but these proved superfluous and were soon called in.
Considerable trouble was experienced during the time preceding the battle through rearward trenches being used to accommodate working parties, which not only pulled down the wire but burnt off most of the insulation with their cooking fires.
It is recommended that, if at all possible, one or two poled cables along the sheltered routes be provided at least as far as Divisional Report Centre. This ensures good telephone communication up to this point, no matter what the weather may be like and, should the Divisional Headquarters advance, they provide a point from which wires can be easily extended, and facilitate taking over should the Division be relieved.
LINES FORWARD. Brigade Headquarters were in dug-outs about 700, and the Reserve Brigade Headquarters in a farm cellar about 1,000 yards behind the first line trenches. Three wires were taken by different routes to each Brigade Headquarters to provide one vibrating line, one telephone line, and one ‘spare’ – the ‘spare’ being a buried line (three feet deep) common to the two front Brigades.
The Reserve Brigade had tees off all these lines and so was in direct touch with the front Brigades, but it would have been better had it had a separate line in addition.
These lines were very little broken at any time during the bombardment or battle. On the day of the assault, however, it turned out very wet (after a long period of dry weather) and some of the older trench lines gave indifferent signals, so the buried line, which was excellent was chiefly used for the telephone. Though for the first day this buried line was not broken, it was subsequently cut to bits through fire directed on a battery which, advancing, sighted itself in close proximity to the buried route.
Brigade lines to Battalions, and Battalions lines to Companies were all pinned and knee height in trenches, with staples about every 10 feet. Alternative lines were arranged, and these lines all stood up very well, the bulk of the enemy fire being directed on our front system of trenches.
The parties carrying up Gas Cylinders during the night prior to the assault necessitated constant maintenance of the lines.
ORDERLIES. Each Company furnished orderlies to Battalion Headquarters, and each Battalion furnished orderlies to Brigade Headquarters and each Brigade furnished orderlies to Divn Headquarters.
These orderlies were used as despatch runners, assisted in carrying signalling equipment, and were available in case communication by wire was interrupted.
THE ASSAULT. By direction of the General Staff, the supporting line laid two wires per assaulting Battalion as they advanced. D 1 was used for this purpose. Actually only one of the wires so laid was over through and that only for a few minutes. Subsequent examination discovered that most of the men who were laying the lines had been killed.
It is not recommended that any wires be laid forward to enemy trenches till we are firmly established therein.
The assault of the left Brigade at daybreak was successful. The assault of the right Brigade was hung up till the afternoon.
ARRANGEMENTS FOR ADVANCE OF BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS. Brigade Sections were provided with two light Indian drums of D 5 wire (each drum carrying about ¾ a mile of wire) with which to extend themselves in case of an advance. These drums were carried on light stretchers made locally. The onus of leaving one good line behind them was laid on each of the forward Brigade Sections, the Reserve Brigade being warned to come in on one of these lines should it advance, and to further extend it should pass beyond the assaulting Brigades.
Strict injunctions were issued to Brigades that, should they advance, they should on no account, close down their signal office till another office has been opened in their new position, and secure communication established thereto, and that until such time as the new office had been established they should work from the old Signal Office by orderly. Though these instructions were carried out it was found that an insufficient number of orderlies to keep satisfactory touch with Brigade Headquarters when it advanced were left behind, and further that these orderlies who were left behind did not always know in which direction to look for their advanced headquarters.
Orderlies should be picked men – selected for their intelligence and zeal, and should a move take place they should be carefully instructed as to where to look for new Brigade Headquarters.
LEFT BRIGADE. The Assault of the left Brigade being successful, the Brigadier moved from his report centre almost at once, moving first to a former Battalion Headquarters and then to a Company Headquarters and then across “No man’s land” into German lines. The Brigade extended from the Division, on existing trench lines (previously selected) as far as the front trenches, and thence laid D 5 as arranged, to the German lines and on to new position of Brigade Headquarters. This line was on the whole satisfactory and was on no occasion dis[connected] for any length of time.
The restlessness of the Brigadier of the Left Brigade did not help towards good communication as his whereabouts were difficult to ascertain. It is thought that a Staff Officer should always be left at the existing Signal Office till communication to a more forward office shall have been secured.
It is found that some Brigadiers are inclined to use their Signal Officers as Staff Officers and to send them forward to do reconnaissance work. This practice should be discountenanced.
OBSERVATION OFFICER. The German trenches were situated on a ridge the capture of which would give a view of the country beyond. At the last moment the Staff decided to send forward a Staff Officer to observe and keep the G.O.C. informed direct on the situation. A line was demanded to his observation post and it was suggested that when he advanced, a signaller should accompany him and ‘run a line’ to whatever position he should take upon the captured ridge. This meant an extension of some two miles in length! The signaller was also to carry visual equipment in case the line should go!
No time was available to lay a trench line to front trenches from which an extension could be made. To meet the Staff requirements, therefore, a D 5 cable was laid during the night preceding the assault on the ground in the open from the report centre straight toward the German lines. About a thousand yards of cable was so laid, and a T off of D 3 was laid to the selected observation post which was in an old trench some few hundred yards away. As soon as the German trenches were captured, the observation officer was to move forward. To provide the extension required, a party was made up consisting of an officer, an N.C.O., and two men (all visual signallers), and a driver with horsed ‘spawn wagon’ – a local construction – carrying a drum of D 5 cable, a drum of D 3, and visual equipment.
This vehicle consisted of an airline barrow with extra wide flanges shrunk on to the wheels, an extended axle to provide a wider wheel base and more stability, angle iron handles and wooden shafts.
As soon as the Observation Officer announced by telephone that he was about to go forward, this party sallied forth and met him at the point to which the line had previously been laid, extending on the line from there as they went forward.
The move forward, however, proved somewhat premature, for the attack of the Right Brigade, towards the centre of which the line was being laid, had been held up. The party came under machine gun fire when about five hundred yards from our front line. The barrow was upset and the horse was wounded and broke away (to return almost immediately to his picket line).
The party took refuge in a trench and opened an office from which the situation was reported.
In the afternoon after the surrender in front of, and the subsequent advance of the right Brigade, the ‘spawn’ wagon was righted and pushed forward by hand as far as the German wire. (Note: The line had been laid beside a track which had previously been bridged over trenches to permit of the advance of artillery). On reaching the German wire, an extension with D 3 cable was made to the top of the ridge to the selected observation post. Valuable information was furnished by means of this line which gave excellent signals. The officer i/c of the party was therefore instructed to extend it in German Trenches to the new left Brigade Headquarters. This was successfully accomplished and the line was used thereto as a speaking line. During the first day of the battle this line was only cut two or three times.
The observation officer returned to Headquarters at dark
RESERVE BRIGADE. Towards late afternoon the Reserve Brigade supported the Left Brigade, its Headquarters moving to a dug-out within about a hundred yards of Left Brigade where it came into circuit on one of the existing lines.
To provide alternative communication, a party with a second ‘spawn’ wagon, carrying two drums of D 5 was sent out after night fall under an officer to lay a line by a different route to the advanced position of the Left and Reserves Brigades.
This line which was over 3 miles in length, was successfully laid alongside communication trenches. The party returned with the ‘spawn’ wagon without casualties.
Right Brigade. The attack of the Right Brigade had been held up till late afternoon when the surrender of the enemy in front cleared the way and the Brigade swept forward. Brigade Headquarters advanced in one bound to a point about 1 ½ miles beyond the German front line, extending as it went with D 3 from the advanced position taken up by the Divisional Observation Officer.
Repeatedly broken by shell fire and repeatedly repaired, no useful results were obtained from this line, which was only through for a very few minutes.
Divisional Headquarters now talked about a move forward, and a cable detachment was sent to lay a line from the point selected for new Headquarters to the Right Brigade. This detachment met a crump, was unable to find the bridges across the trenches in the dark, and returned. Orders, however, had been received meantime that the Right Brigade would be relieved, and the Brigade returned to its old Headquarters in our trenches, coming back in circuit on the old lines. The projected move of Divisional Headquarters was therefore abandoned. During the night Signals on the line laid, in the first instance, for the Observation Officer began to fail, owing to the passage of advancing Artillery, and before morning the line had been cut to bits and had to be abandoned.
Second Day. The Left Brigade was to continue the attack. Staff decided to again send out an observation Officer, and it became necessary to lay another line. Profiting by the previous days experience the line was this time laid (by a spawn wagon party) close to a communication trench so as to be out of the way of traffic. It was successfully laid, gave good results, and was subsequently extended to Left Brigade.
The second line which had been laid by spawn wagon the first day was now constantly getting broken by shell fire. An Officer was therefore sent out with a party and arranged for two test points, by means of which faults were quickly localised and repaired.
This arrangement worked admirably.
Visual. Visual from a station near Divisional Fighting Headquarters to Brigade Headquarters was arranged for and tested. It was not however required, as the lines stood up. It was arranged to send forward another station to the captured ridge should the brigades advance beyond, and communication by wire fail.
Actually the long advance of the Right Brigade came rather suddenly, and before the visual station had got out (some 2 ½ miles over deep mud) and got into touch, the Right Brigade was relieved. As it turned out the night was misty and visual would have been doubtful. The visual stations were supplied by Divnl. Cyclist Company.
It is recommended that in order to keep in touch with Brigades which advance quickly, as did the Right Brigade, a visual station be pushed forward to some suitable forward point to which communication has been established by wire. It is thought that communication by wire will prove impossible.
The visual station should be held in preparedness as far forward as possible.
A certain amount of visual by flag and lamp was used between brigades and battalions. Between Battalions and Companies, 8” home-made wooden discs were used.
Wireless. A trench set was allotted to the Left Brigade, and was to accompany Brigade Headquarters when they advanced.
Actually at the moment of the advance the shelling was so heavy that the brigade section officer decided to leave the set behind and to send for it later. It would probably however have been better to take it along in the first instance, for considerable time was lost later on in finding it and getting it to new position of Brigade in the German lines.
It was finally set up just behind the ridge and got into touch with the parent pack set. The aerial was only broken once or twice. Actually no messages were sent by wireless.
Pigeons. Each Brigade had a Pigeon station. The only time, however, that communication by such means would have been useful was when the Right Brigade pushed right forward, and it was then night.
General. The resources of the Company were very much strained through having to arrange for, equip, and man three distinct headquarters.
It should be impressed on the Staff that after brigade headquarters advance beyond their fighting positions, they will be lucky if they have one line through to each brigade, and that talking should be cut down as much as possible.
The example of the General Officer who, in the middle of a battle wrote a message of 138 words, dictated it personally down the telephone, and then handed it to Signals for transmission, is not one to be emulated.
Much time is frequently lost in delivering messages owing to the difficulty in finding brigade and other headquarters.
Signal Officers should bear in mind the necessity of signalising the presence of their Signal Office. Flags Distinguishing Telegraph should be carried, and it is even advisable to place orderlies at junctions to direct message carriers to headquarters.
It is thought that the importance of arranging visual to keep communication during an advance cannot be exaggerated.
The “Spawn Wagons” proved invaluable. In case of necessity the horse can be unhooked and the wagon lifted across a trench.
Every Divisional Signal Company should have them.
The routes to be bridged over our own and the enemy’s trenches should be carefully ascertained beforehand, as it may become necessary to send out a Cable detachment or a spawn wagon party.
No means on maintaining communication should be neglected.
The Motor Cyclist with the Signal Brigade managed to get his bicycle forward and it proved invaluable.
Where the enemy trenches are on a ridge, Brigadiers will almost certainly want to move forward as soon as the ridge has been captured. This should be foreseen and extensions prearranged. Signal Officers should not neglect to inform offices working to them of any impending or projected move. Should they at any time not be working direct to headquarters they should keep headquarters informed as to where messages for them should be sent for delivery.
It was found that lines carefully pinned Knee-height in trenches gave good results. Gunner lines laid, in spite of all advice to the contrary, outside trenches, were absolutely useless.
The assembly of the attacking force in, and the subsequent passage of supports through the trenches renders continued maintenance essential, if the line are to be used for extension after the advance.
Lines laid on the ground or buried in shallow trenches across bare open ground which is not likely to be crumped often give most excellent results. Trenches through places likely to be crumped should not be less than 6 feet deep. Three feet trenches if used should only be half filled in. The advantage of this is that while fill protection is obtained against shrapnel fire, the trench is always easy to follow, and the wires are easy to find.
Moreover the unfilled portion of the trench gives a certain amount of confidence and protection to the linemen.
It has been found that where labour in not forthcoming to dig a deep trench through a crumped area. Shallow open trenches give good results.
It should not be forgotten that two mounted Despatch Riders were found necessary and authorised for Brigade sections during the retreat. These, and the mounted despatch riders belonging to Divisional Headquarters should be available in immediate readiness.
It is more than probable that in a moving fight these will provide the only possible means of rapid communication.