The Post and Telegraph Department at war

Page 6 – Communications on the Western Front

In April 1916, the recently formed New Zealand Division was transported by troopship across the Mediterranean from the Egyptian port of Alexandria to Marseille in the south of France. For the remaining 2½ years of the war, the division was to be one of more than 50 in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front – which was itself dwarfed by the French Army, let alone the opposing Germans. Unlike at Anzac Cove, the New Zealanders were a now a tiny cog in a mighty military machine.

For the men of the Post and Telegraph Department who had enlisted, and for their fellow-soldiers assigned to postal and communications duties, there were also continuities. Letters and parcels remained crucial to maintaining morale – perhaps more so than anything else except food. New communication technologies were developed and applied rapidly as part of the ceaseless quest for a decisive advantage on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the men of the Mounted Brigade Signal Troop stayed in the Middle East to fight the Ottoman Turks in Sinai and Palestine during these years.

The mail must get through

As its fighting units were sent to northern France and began preparing for battle, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s headquarters, reserve, training and base hospital components established themselves in England. In July 1916 the New Zealand Army Base Post Office (BPO) moved across the Channel from Calais to London, where it was initially attached to the British Army Home Depot post office near Regent’s Park. In November 1916 the BPO moved into the huge Mt Pleasant sorting office, which had been built for the Royal Mail on the site of the former Coldbath Field Prison.

The number of New Zealand postal staff in London grew from 60 men in September 1916 to 83 in February 1917. By August 1918, when Postmaster-General Joseph Ward visited the BPO and expressed his pleasure at its ‘excellent organisation’, the staff numbered more than 130. That month they were moved from billets with civilians into two large rented houses.

From mid-1916 the NZEF’s Director of Postal Services was Major F.D. Holdsworth, previously Auckland’s Chief Postmaster. The BPO was soon running as efficiently as any post office back home. Bags of letters arriving by ship at ports on the south coast of England took between 24 and 36 hours to reach the BPO. When a mail arrived from New Zealand the staff worked 14-hour days to process it.

Mails were sent daily to France, and twice daily to NZEF camps and hospitals in England. Letters were given priority over parcels and newspapers. The mails were sorted into bags by unit before being sent via the BEF Base Post Office in Calais to a field post office. At the railheads they were delivered to orderlies for distribution. Each New Zealand infantry company had a soldier assigned as a postman. Soldiers’ letters home were sent to London for preliminary sorting and bagging before despatch to New Zealand.

Mail usually took two or three days to reach a field post office from London. As battle casualties mounted, more mail had to be redirected to hospitals. In late 1916 Major Holdsworth reported that ‘hospitals in France are very irregular in furnishing addresses, but the New Zealand hospitals and camps in Britain are very prompt.’ [1]

The men and their families appreciated this service. In mid-1918 a newspaper correspondent praised ‘the admirable organisation of the New Zealand Post Office in London. His son was recently wounded in France, and ten days after the soldier was admitted to hospital in England, letters, parcels, and copies of the Auckland Weekly News were delivered to him there.’ [2] The regular receipt of mail boosted morale – on the other hand, disruptions to the post are said to have sparked more complaints than any other annoyance apart from poor food.

In 1918, 442,000 parcels weighing a total of more than 700 tons were posted from New Zealand to NZEF personnel. This was more than twice the number – and weight – of all the parcels posted in New Zealand in 1900.

The New Zealand Army Base Post Office in London was closed in October 1919 when the last large group of returning soldiers left England for the voyage home.

‘Sommewhere in France’

Soldiers found ingenious ways to get around the prohibition on disclosing their whereabouts in letters home. The ‘Unofficial War Correspondent’ of the Victoria University College Review wrote that:

We arrived at 6 p.m. at our port of disembarkation. Coming along the coast and up the harbour, we had a grand view. That delicious and insouciant bird, the censor, will not permit me to mention names; but I may tell you that we passed the castle in which Monte Christo was imprisoned. Do you remember your Dumas? [3]

The New Zealand Division was to spend several months in 1916, and again in 1918, based in the Somme region of northern France. Many postcards and letters were slyly despatched from ‘Sommewhere in France’.

Communications on the Somme

Except during the August 1915 offensive, signals had not been thought to be very important within the confined Anzac perimeter on Gallipoli. The flattish landscape of northern France posed different challenges for communication which the men of the New Zealand Divisional Signal Company – many of them expert P & T operators – tackled with characteristic ingenuity. By 1918 the signallers were taking full advantage of new techniques and apparatus.  

The Divisional Signal Company was doubled in strength in February 1916, with sections attached to each infantry brigade. Many of the personnel of the Reserve Signal Company stationed in England were recovering from wounds or illness.

Soon after their arrival in Armentières in northern France in April 1916, the signallers improvised a field telephone exchange by acquiring plugs and jacks from the abandoned local civilian exchange. In September they took over a German field exchange unit captured on the Somme. They finally received British cordless exchanges in March 1917.

Signals training prior to the New Zealand Division’s commitment to the Somme offensive in September 1916 covered the use of semaphore flags and signalling to aeroplanes as well as lines. ‘Arrangements for pigeons were made and 40 extra signallers from Battalions, and twelve cyclists were attached to the Div. Signal Company.’ [4]

Some linesmen, such as Sapper Bill Pinkham, a former P & T cadet, seem to have actually enjoyed going out on trench raids. During the September 1916 battles Pinkham – ‘a very strong man’ – carried wounded men back for treatment. Linesmen often risked their lives crawling through craters and trenches with heavy spools of wire to repair lines under shellfire and the threat of gas attack.

A communications revolution

The Somme battles reinforced the need to bury communications cables many feet underground to protect them from artillery bombardment. Preparations for the 1917 Messines offensive included making use of men who were ‘resting’ to bury hundreds of yards of cables right up to the front line. The Cyclist Battalion was often assigned this duty, supervised by experienced P & T men like overseer of lines H.F. Chandler. New techniques of twinning and laddering wires also improved the continuity of communications.

It was also clear that messages must be sent in code. Thanks to the conductivity of moist soil and the primitive state of insulation technology, enemy listening stations could pick up Morse signals 4500 m from the front line. A British corps which suffered heavy casualties on the Somme had later found a complete operation order for one of its previous attacks in a German dugout. This had been read over the telephone by a careless Brigade Major. For some time after this revelation the New Zealanders hand-delivered all messages about troop movements.

During the attack on Gravenstafel Spur near Passchendaele on 4 October 1917, the Divisional Signal Company wireless section made its ‘first really successful use of power buzzers and amplifiers’ to relay audible signals in code. [5]

The limitations of terrestrial technology were shown during the sequel to Gravenstafel, the disastrous attack on Bellevue Spur on 12 October in which nearly 850 New Zealand troops lost their lives. After heavy rain, the power buzzers and amplifiers were waterlogged and useless. There was no communication between brigade HQ and battalions for hours, but fortunately a telephone connection was restored in time for Brigadier-General W.G. Braithwaite to persuade Army HQ to call off a renewal of the attack that would have wiped out what remained of the New Zealand brigades. The cancellation signal was sent visually.

War of movement

As the New Zealand Division rushed back to the Somme in late March 1918 to help stall the German spring offensive, the signallers were on the move for four days, opening and closing offices as they went. At times like this, motorcycle despatch riders came into their own, providing the most effective communication until the front line stabilised and cables could be laid to the new positions.

Feathered recruits

In mid-1918, New Zealand homing pigeons were sought for the war effort after their British counterparts suffered heavy casualties. ‘The government would be pleased to receive offers of birds from fanciers in New Zealand'. [6] The feathered recruits ‘should be as young as possible’ – they were easier to retrain. Several hundred birds were sent from New Zealand in September 1918, but it is unclear if any of them saw active service.

Among the signallers killed when a shell landed on Rifle Brigade HQ at Colincamps on the Somme on 28 March was Gisborne postman William Arthur Birkett, who had been awarded a Military Medal for his bravery in laying telephone lines under machine-gun fire at Bellevue Spur. Second Lieutenant Cyril Bassett VC was initially buried in the explosion but managed to restore communications within 15 minutes.

Signallers played key roles in the New Zealand Division’s 100-mile-plus advance during the last Hundred Days of the war. The horse-drawn cable wagons were crucial, allowing lines that had become obsolete during the advance to be uplifted and relayed. ‘By wires we improved our army techniques and gained victory.’ [7] Wireless communication too finally came into widespread use by the New Zealanders in 1918 as lighter sets with greater range became more widely available.


[1] PO 80/41, Major F.D. Holdsworth, 14 November 1916, cited in Howard Robinson, A history of the Post Office in New Zealand, Government Printer, Wellington, 1964, p. 194.

[2] ‘Local and General’, New Zealand Herald, 29 June 1918.

[3] ‘With the New Zealanders’, The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, October 1916, p. 45. Alexandre Dumas’ fictional hero was unjustly imprisoned in the Château D’If in Marseille Harbour.

[4] Roy Ellis, By wires to victory, Batley Printing, Auckland, c. 1968, p. 42.

[5] Ellis, By wires to victory, p. 58.

[6] 'Pigeons and the War', Feilding Star, 6 July 1918.

[7] Ellis, By wires to victory, p. 81.

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'Communications on the Western Front', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-May-2016

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