The Post and Telegraph Department at war

Page 4 – Communications at Gallipoli

Communications were crucial during the First World War. Signallers played a vital role conveying orders to the front line and sending up-to-date information back to headquarters. They were also well placed to disseminate information informally. Regular mail services were equally important in keeping up the morale of troops fighting far from home, often in dreadful conditions. Men from the Post and Telegraph Department were prominent in maintaining both these forms of communication.



A Divisional Signal Company formed from detachments provided by the four military districts was part of the Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force that left New Zealand in October 1914. Its four officers and 109 NCOs and men were divided into three sections. Attached to the company was a Signal Troop for the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade.

From mid-August 1914 the Divisional Signal Company trained for five weeks at Awapuni Racecourse in Palmerston North under Sergeant-Major Vickery, who ‘took sadistic pleasure in bullying the P. & T. operators trying to get untrained horses over hurdles.’ These 12 hand-picked men were all capable of sending messages in Morse code at a brisk 40 words a minute.

After their arrival in Egypt in December, signals training with the New Zealand and Australian Division emphasised the use of heliographs, which sent messages in Morse code by using a mirror to reflect sunlight. This system had worked well during the South African War but was much less suited to cloudier climates. The need for each signal office to have a runner standing by to hand-deliver messages was underlined during the New Zealanders’ first fighting, against an Ottoman Turkish attack on the Suez Canal in February 1915.

The landing

Like other units of the division, the Signal Company prepared to fight in the Dardanelles with limited understanding of the conditions they would face there. The three officers and 86 men who travelled by train from Cairo to the port city of Alexandria in early April 1915 were accompanied by 61 horses. These were not landed at Anzac Cove on 25 April alongside the officers and 61 of the men – but 16 bicycles were. Parties of signallers were attached to each battalion and to brigade and division headquarters.

Many of the signal lamps and heliographs were lost during the landing from small boats under fire. Using semaphore flags was largely impracticable as most parts of the beachhead were exposed to Turkish fire. A wireless set was swiftly set up on the beach, but telegraph lines and runners were the most common means of communication ashore. Linesmen risked their lives rolling out and repairing lines, but by 28 April divisional, brigade and battalion headquarters were linked by secured duplicate wires. Men carrying messages to and from the front line were in even greater danger, and several were killed in the first days. Ottoman Turkish snipers took a steady toll of linesmen – some of whom fought back by going out in pairs as snipers.

For the first six weeks P & T men Roy Vause and Fred Kent-Johnston manned the signal office around the clock, living on poor food and little water with bullets constantly whizzing past their dugout. Their colleague Peter Holmes was based at divisional headquarters. There was never enough men or equipment, although the simultaneous arrival on 4 June of 20 telephones and 20 signallers with the 4th Reinforcements helped. By this time the front-line trenches were linked to brigade headquarters by telephone.

The August offensive

Each battle took a fresh toll of experienced men. When the Canterbury Battalion was relieved from the front line on 6 June, the Aucklanders who replaced them had no fit signallers left and the Canterbury signallers had to stay on at Quinn’s Post, the most dangerous position at Anzac. During periods of ‘rest’ the signallers laboured with picks and shovels making roads and dugouts for the officers.

What would prove to be the last attempt to break the deadlock on Gallipoli, the August offensive, made extreme demands on men already weakened by dysentery and months of inadequate nutrition. With an enlargement of the Anzac perimeter anticipated, old wire was collected and equipment moved to the outpost from which the New Zealanders would advance. Just before the attack almost the whole company moved out to No. 3 Post. As infantrymen clambered up steep slopes in the dark, linesmen struggled behind them manhandling wheelbarrows loaded with large rolls of wire.

Lance-Corporal Cyril Bassett, an Auckland bank clerk, won the only Victoria Cross awarded to a New Zealander on Gallipoli for his bravery in laying and repeatedly repairing telephone wire from the headquarters of the New Zealand Infantry Brigade on Walker’s Ridge across to Pope’s Hill on 7 August. It was Gisborne postman William Birkett who managed to get a line and a telephone up to Colonel W.G. Malone at the Wellington Battalion headquarters on Chunuk Bair next day. Birkett then toiled alongside Bassett until the following morning, repeatedly mending this wire under fire. Both men were in a party which took another line up to Chunuk Bair on the night of the 9th, just hours before the English troops now holding the crest were overwhelmed by a Turkish counter-attack.

More signallers were killed during the New Zealand attacks on Hill 60 later in August. In an action by the Mounted Rifles Brigade on the 27th, for example, two of the six men in two detachments had been killed and another injured by the time a telephone was got working in a captured trench. Few of the men who had landed in April were still in action, and the arrival of a party of signallers – ‘mostly P. & T. men’ – with the 6th Reinforcements in October was welcome. Among them was Corporal Jack Young, a skilled operator and qualified line-tester who helped raise the standard of the company’s work. Young returned to the P & T Department following his return to New Zealand. He was director-general for most of the Second World War.

The evacuation

With their privileged access to information, signallers were a prime source of news – and rumour – on Gallipoli. An Australian officer complained that signallers and officers’ batmen ‘gave the troops the news as freely as any sensational newspaper’. In early December it was signallers ‘conjecturing and comparing notes’ who spread word of the evacuation of heavy guns and stores from the peninsula, a sign that men were likely to follow.

Signallers had been among the first New Zealanders to land on 25 April, so it was fitting that P & T staff member Peter Holmes and another signaller, Neville Hopkins, were the last men to leave the New Zealand position at the Apex, at 1 a.m. on 20 December. As they shut their office, ‘there was nobody behind them except the Turks. They had to close a barbed wire entanglement across the gap. As they were doing this, Neville said to Peter jokingly “Let’s go back”. Peter told him what he thought of him, and finished closing the gate.’ The signallers were on the second-last barge to leave Anzac Cove.

The postal service

The Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force included a small postal detachment headed by Donald McCurdy, who at the time of his enlistment in August 1914 was a typist in the Post and Telegraph Department and commanding officer of the Wellington Post and Telegraph Senior Cadets.

As Officer in Charge of NZ Military Post Offices, Lieutenant McCurdy supervised postal field officers based at Divisional Headquarters, the headquarters of the New Zealand infantry and mounted rifles brigades, the Divisional Train and Zeitoun Camp. When New Zealand troops left Egypt for the Dardanelles in April 1915 an Advanced Base Post Office was set up in a shed on the wharf at Alexandria. By October 1915 it had moved to a more spacious building and had a staff of 30, about half of them Post and Telegraph Department men.

Between April and August 1915, 2340 bags of mail were sent to New Zealand forces in the Middle East – a total of 60 tons, including 6 tons of letters. The mail was received bagged by unit and was sorted alphabetically so that items for men known not to be at the front could be redirected to them.

Mail was sent to and from Gallipoli via the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force’s base at Mudros on the Greek island of Lemnos. Men – fit reinforcements or wounded evacuees – war materiel and supplies had higher claims on scarce shipping capacity, and mail came through sporadically. Often it was offloaded at the British enclave at Cape Helles and had to be transferred to a smaller ship heading for the Anzac beachhead.

Mail at Anzac

Postal facilities at Anzac Cove were primitive. A fortnight after the landing, the ‘head post office’ was a dugout measuring 5 feet by 6 feet, and just 5 feet high. There were no sorting sacks, hoppers or desks, and the mail had to be packed up each night to make room to sleep. Shells sometimes burst just outside the dugout in the area where the staff ate and took occasional breaks.

The ‘post office corps’ at Anzac was 26-strong. Eight men worked aboard a communication ship, with the rest ‘scattered about in twos and threes all over the fighting area’. Bags of mail were carried to and from the trenches over difficult country at constant risk of shell and sniper fire. Mule carts carried bags to waypoints where the mail was passed on to battalion or brigade postal orderlies. The bags were then tied to pack mules that were led by Sikh soldiers of the Indian army up to the trench lines, where the orderlies delivered the mail.

Letters for men who had been killed were stamped and endorsed by an officer for return to sender. Men admitted to hospital or detached from their units for other reasons were given pre-addressed cards with which to authorise the redirection of their mail. Those who were incapacitated relied on nurses or less seriously injured soldiers to arrange this redirection, and to read and write letters on their behalf.

Letters written by troops to loved ones back home followed the same path in reverse. Outward mail was received at Anzac until 7 p.m. each evening, then sorted overnight for dispatch via Mudros early the next morning – if space on a ship was available. The trip from writer to recipient took about seven weeks in either direction.

Writing home

For the men on Gallipoli, receiving letters from loved ones was one of the few bright spots in a bleak routine. One soldier wrote that when mail arrived from New Zealand, ‘a sort of secret and silent cheerfulness possess[es] everybody and it is then you see the far away looks’. The non-arrival of mail was the second most common complaint after the poor quality of and lack of variety in the food. The loss of letters from home, whether through enemy action or when a trawler carrying 150 bags of mail capsized in early August, was felt almost as keenly as the death of a comrade. So vital was the service that the abrupt cessation of outgoing mail in December was a strong hint that evacuation was imminent.

While letters and newspapers eventually reached their intended recipients on Gallipoli ‘with something approaching regularity’, the unreliability of the delivery of parcels from family members and patriotic organisations led to accusations of pillaging and demands for ‘a public shake-up … of the Military Postal Department’. An on-site investigation by former Postmaster-General Robert Heaton Rhodes found that problems with parcels resulted mainly from bad packing and inadequate labelling.

Many of the letters home written in the first months of 1915 were published in New Zealand. Men who had exaggerated their role in the Suez Canal fighting were ribbed mercilessly when newspapers extolling their deeds arrived in Egypt months later. Fewer letters were published from October 1915 as the military censorship system became more effective and the reality of war was brought home in the form of shiploads of wounded soldiers.

Pens and paper soon ran out, and by early June men were scribbling with blunt pencils on bits of wood, cardboard from tobacco boxes, biscuit tin lids and even the biscuits themselves, which were better suited to this use than human consumption. Field postcards bearing only standard messages such as ‘I am quite well’ or ‘I have been admitted into hospital …’ were issued to men regularly and used increasingly. Responsibility for censoring letters lay with company commanders, who usually had more pressing concerns and delegated the task to junior officers. The fact that chaplains also did duty as censors probably encouraged self-censorship. Yet in practice, most men seem to have been able to write freely, apart from the occasional removal of geographical references.

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'Communications at Gallipoli', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-May-2016

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