The Post and Telegraph Department at war

Page 5 – Communications in the Middle East

In early 1916 the Mounted Brigade Signal Troop, which had served on Gallipoli, joined the rest of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade in a new Australian and New Zealand Mounted Division. This division was part of the British army's Egyptian Expeditionary Force, formed to take the fight to the Ottoman Turks in Sinai and Palestine (part of the Ottoman province of Syria). Meanwhile, a New Zealand Pack Wireless Troop was preparing to join the Indian Expeditionary Force in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).


The 62-man New Zealand Pack Wireless Troop arrived in Basra in southern Mesopotamia in April 1916. The dispatch of these men – most of them Post and Telegraph Department staff who were members of the Post and Telegraph Corps in New Zealand’s Territorial Force – was a response to an appeal to New Zealand and Australia from Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India, for wireless operators and signallers. In 1915 an Indian division was sent to attack Baghdad, the second city of the Ottoman Empire, in an attempt to divert Turkish forces from Gallipoli. By late in the year it was bogged down, still well short of its goal and desperately in need of more effective communications.

Most of the initial members of the troop were wireless operators or drivers. Thanks to constant practice at Trentham Camp and Basra they could get a radio set into action in the field within eight minutes. With little to do in their early months in Mesopotamia, they staved off boredom by copying Turkish wireless signals; once the Turkish code was cracked, these provided valuable information.

Because of the wear and tear of near-desert conditions on equipment and horses, the troop was later bolstered with mechanics, farriers, saddlers and carpenters. Heat, dust and disease took their toll on the men too – 13 of the 179 New Zealanders who eventually served in the troop died, most of fever or dysentery.

The New Zealanders formed part of an Australian and New Zealand Wireless Signal Squadron within an augmented British force that finally captured Baghdad in March 1917. Later 32 members of the Pack Wireless Troop served in ‘Dunsterforce’, which moved north through western Persia (Iran) in support of Armenians and Cossacks who were harrying the Ottomans on their eastern borders. Four New Zealanders died on this expedition, which saw some hard fighting.

In May 1918 the Pack Wireless Troop was withdrawn from the Middle East and sent to France, where it was merged with the New Zealand Divisional Signals Company just before the November armistice with Germany.

Sinai and Palestine

The Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF), including the Signal Troop of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade, moved east from positions along the Suez Canal in April 1916 and had reached the territory of modern Jordan and Syria by the time the Ottoman Empire surrendered 2½ years later.

During the slow advance across the Sinai Desert in 1916–17, the main forms of communication were heliographs (mirrors which reflected sunlight), wireless and despatch riders on Triumph motorcycles. In July 1916 long Ottoman columns were spotted from the air. News of this unexpected enemy advance was sent by wireless to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, which returned from a patrol to help win the subsequent battle at Romani.

Telephone lines were run out as positions were established. They were always at risk of being damaged by the camels which were also in EEF service. Motorcycle despatch riders were particularly effective during the 1917 Battle of Gaza and the subsequent advance into Palestine. For much of 1918 the Signal Troop languished in the malarial Jordan Valley. Here

thirty-two signallers … maintained 110 miles of cable, operated a thirty-line exchange, ran a wireless station, commanded visual stations, provided carrier pigeons and motor cycle despatch riders. The increased use of encrypted wireless signals provided an additional Signals chore. [1]

Before embarking for home, the Signal Troop maintained communications as the Mounted Rifles Brigade helped suppress nationalist riots in Egypt in March–April 1919.


[1] Laurie Barber and Cliff Lord, Swift and sure: a history of the Royal New Zealand Corps of Signals and army signalling in New Zealand, New Zealand Signals Inc., 1996, p. 52.

How to cite this page

'Communications in the Middle East', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 27-Oct-2016

Community contributions

No comments have been posted about Communications in the Middle East

What do you know?