By Mike Gater
This is an account of Mike’s fathers service as a signaller in the great war, first published in the Royal Signals Amateur Radio Society Journal.
Mike is G4ICC and served as an officer in the Royal Engineers in 1954
64631 Gunner Gater RFA – 1911
My father joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Woolwich on the 17th February 1911 and as Gunner Gater 64631 RFA he was trained in all aspects in the use of the 18 pounder field gun, which included horsemanship. He also qualified as a signaller with flags (semaphore and morse ) and as a telegraphist.
Six field guns made up a battery and each gun had a crew of ten, six to operate the gun and the remainder to look after the horses, assist with the supply of ammunition and to replace casualties. The 18 pounder could fire 30 rounds a minute. They were used in rapid deployment to support the infantry, which required them to be in close proximity to the front line and were often in exposed positions.
The detailed signaller would go forward with his officer to observe enemy positions and send back instructions to the guns using flags. These observation parties were very vulnerable to attack and many signallers lost their lives. Later on, when the opposing armies were established in systems of trenches the field guns were positioned in gun pits a mile or so from the front and messages from forward observation posts were passed using telephone or telegraphy. Miles of wire was run out and maintained by the signallers. This was a never ending task as the wire was frequently broken by enemy shelling, parted by our own vehicles moving to and from the front line or broken where it crossed a network of trenches.
By the autumn of 1914 the battlefield had been reduced to a wilderness with only the stumps of trees sticking out of a sea of mud and the remains of buildings reduced to rubble by constant shelling. The whole area was a quagmire with flooded shell craters making the movement of vehicles and guns a hazardous operation if they strayed off a recognized track. Horses, mules and men were drowned and guns lost in deep shell holes concealed by liquid mud.
In order to pinpoint enemy strong points or guns, signallers had to go out into no man’s land under cover of darkness, seek shelter in a shell crater and look for the flashes of enemy guns. Co-ordinates were sent back to the gunners by means of a buzzer. The connection was made with a single wire to the equipment and with a short spike to the earth to complete the circuit. In the quiet of the night the sound of the buzzer could be heard over a wide area and the drill was to send the message and withdraw as quickly as possible. Sometimes, enemy flares and bursts of machine gun fire made it impossible to return to friendly lines and it was necessary to remain hidden in the crater until it was safe to emerge.
It was not unknown for the observer to spend the remainder of the night and the following day in a crater until he could return to his own lines under cover of darkness. Often the crater was occupied with the putrefying remains of dead bodies, both men and horses, and rats that infested the trenches and surrounding battlefield.
Early Electronic Countermeasures
It was discovered that the enemy were able to intercept messages sent by the crude system of signalling used in the early months of the war and the generals were dismayed when notes of British signals were found in a German trench by one of our raiding parties. Induction enabled signals to be intercepted and the use of the earth as a return was replaced by two wires twisted together (twisted pairs).
During the latter part of 1915 the Fullerphone was invented by Captain (later Major General) A.C.Fuller, Royal Engineers and this was a great improvement over earlier equipment. Further developments were carried out on the original Fullerphone and by the end of the war these devices were in use by most units of the British Army.
My father was in the British Expeditionary Force which landed in France on the 9th September 1914.
It moved north into Belgium to support the French Army in the area of Mons, but had to retreat due to superior German forces which had broken through the French lines. The BEF covered over 200 miles in 13 days and their retreat ended at the River Marne. After a short period of rest the BEF withdrew from the line and moved to Ypres.
From October 1914 until the end of the war, Ypres was never more than seven miles from the front line.
Conditions on the Front Line
Some of the fiercest battles of the war were fought in this part of Flanders. The first gas attack was made by the Germans on the 22nd April 1915. Both sides made small gains at various periods and extensive networks of trenches were established by the opposing armies. The whole area became a quagmire of mud, shell craters, barbed wire entanglements, broken equipment, stumps of trees and ruined buildings.
No man’s land, the ground between the front line of opposing armies, varied in width from about half a mile to as little as 50 yards and was an area of total devastation littered with shell craters filled with water or liquid mud, the decomposing bodies of men whose temporary graves had been exposed by further shelling, dead horses and barbed wire entanglements.
It was relatively quiet during the day, but could be a hive of activity under the hours of darkness with both sides sending out patrols to reconnoitre and probe for weak points in enemy positions and working parties reinforcing the barbed wire defences. Patrols were sent out to take prisoners in an attempt to discover enemy plans which might be revealed under interrogation. All those entering no man’s land were given specific instructions regarding the precise position where they were return to the trenches. Failure to do so could result in them being fired on by their own men as they could be mistaken for a German patrol.
As a gunner, my father served with the 38th Brigade and Canadian 6th Brigade, but he spent most of the war in the Ypres salient. Hellfire Corner and Hill 60 saw some of the fiercest fighting although neither side gained much ground. He used to tell me about the conditions in the trenches which became the homes of the fighting units. The front line trenches were deep enough to hide any troop movement from the enemy and had stepped firing positions at various points for sentries. Crude periscopes were used to observe the German lines. Dugouts were cut into the sides of the network of trenches to provide living accommodation for the troops. Some were quite extensive and the sides and roofs were strengthened with any suitable material that was available. Most were strong enough to withstand a direct hit from a mortar, but a heavy shell from a German howitzer would destroy the whole bunker and any troops inside. Beds were made from wire netting stretched over timber frames and rough furniture was made from boxes. At night the entrance to each dugout had to be covered by blankets. Lighting was provided by candles or hurricane lanterns and spirit stoves were used for cooking. The atmosphere inside the dugouts was fetid from the combined smells of candles, tobacco and sweat. The smell from latrines and the odour of putrefaction added to the general discomfort. Trenches were flooded quite frequently and duckboards were provided to bridge the liquid mud in an attempt to keep feet dry, but many soldiers suffered from trench foot and trench fever. If a man slipped off the duckboards during the night he risked drowning in the mud before his comrades could retrieve him.
German Battle Positions ad Tactics
Some of the German trenches were extremely elaborate and connected to underground shelters 40 feet or so deep. A heavy artillery bombardment preceded and indeed gave notice of a forthcoming attack and the German troops merely took refuge in their deep shelters until the bombardment ceased, which indicated that our infantry were about to advance. Then the Germans emerged and manned their machine guns which caused wholesale slaughter of our troops.
The whole network of trenches was infested by rats who found ample food from corpses of horses and mules and those of men buried in temporary graves in the trench sides and in no man’s land. Rats could be killed quite easily, but the living quarters were infested with lice that bit their victims and caused sores and blood poisoning. They lived in the clothing of their victims and although disinfectant was used when troops were given leave and able to visit the bath houses set up behind the lines they were a constant problem. The eggs could be killed by running a candle flame along the seams of garments, but it was impossible to get rid of them all. Swarms of blow flies added to the discomfort.
Service Support and Communications
Communication trenches connected the various sectors and were used to carry up ammunition, rations, including drinking water, parcels and letters from home, evacuate casualties to forward dressing stations and to enable the movement of troops to and from the front. The main communication trenches were built in a zig-zag shaped configuration in an attempt to safeguard it from the enemy shellfire, but with the increased use of balloons and aircraft for observation it is doubtful if it was very effective.
Food was very basic. Bully beef and a hard almost inedible biscuit was the main source of sustenance. Bread was in short supply and often the men were obliged to eat mouldy loaves. Sometimes, pea soup containing lumps of horse meat was an alternative. During sustained periods of enemy shelling which could last for 24 hours or more, it was not possible to obtain fresh rations and forward troops had to rely on the hard tack biscuits. They were rendered edible by boiling them in water often obtained from a shell crater ! Sometimes cart grease from the wagons was applied to make them softer. Food parcels from home were welcome additions to the basic rations and were shared amongst comrades.
All members of the BEF received a Christmas present from Princess Mary which contained a greetings card, tobacco and cigarettes.
These were greatly prized and some soldiers kept them to give to their loved ones. I still have the one my father received.
Rest and Recuperation
After their period of duty in the front line, units would be moved back from the war zone where welcome bath houses were provided and they could enjoy a brief time in fresh air and relax with the civilian population before returning to the trenches.
During the day the troops who were not on duty would sit outside in the trenches, but were always on call in the event of an enemy attack. Even during relatively quiet periods, there was the danger from mortars or the occasional howitzer shell. A direct hit could kill outright, but flying shrapnel could be just as lethal and caused many casualties.
Communication wires were constantly being broken both by enemy shelling and by our own troops, horses and equipment and the signallers had to trace the breaks and carry out repairs under cover of darkness. At the beginning of the war, the wires were pegged to the sides of the trenches, but they were frequently broken and cables had to be buried to a minimum depth of 18 inches which was increased to three feet.
Communications Security, Accuracy and Timeliness
All messages to and from the trenches had to be treated as secret and signallers had strict orders only to reveal their contents to the officer designated to receive them. Accuracy was essential as errors could be very costly. Indeed serious errors could result in punishment by court-martial. Fast and accurate signallers were highly valued.
252696 Sapper Gater R.E – 1917
In April 1917 my father was transferred to a signal company in The Royal Engineers as a telegraphist and he became Sapper 252696 R.E. He was disabled near Ypres in July 1917 and sent home to England where he spent some time in various military hospitals. He stayed at Quarr Abbey on The Isle of Wight, part of which was used as a convalescent home. Robert Graves author of “Goodbye to all that” spent some time there and mentions it in his book.
Returning to Civvy Street
Eventually my father was discharged with a pension and, in addition to his medals, was awarded the war badge which was given to all soldiers who were disabled and honourably discharged. In civilian life he qualified as a Chartered Secretary and worked for The BTH (British Thomson–Houston Company) in Rugby where he was very much involved with the Company’s Ex-service Association. He served on the Committee for all his working life, both as Honorary Auditor and Vice President.
He used to tell me about his experiences in the war, but would never talk about the circumstances of how he came to be disabled as Sapper 252696 RE. Indeed he never mentioned that he had served in The Royal Engineers when I was commissioned into The Corps in 1954 and it was only after he had passed away and I obtained his Service Record that I discovered this fact.