"My Word to the Amateur of America is: Begin at Once Some Form of Military Training"
By GUGLIELMO MARCONI
Editorial Note: It is a well-known fact that Mr. Marconi has never written a line for publication. The article which follows is based on an exclusive interview which was given to the editor of this magazine in connection with his work as Acting President of the National Amateur Wireless Association, and is published as Mr. Marconi's official statement to the loyal wireless experimenters of the United States.
THE most striking feature of my observations since I have been on this official visit to the United States is the surprising ignorance of your wireless men concerning the conditions in the fighting zone abroad. It has required a readjustment of viewpoint for me to appreciate the fact that so much of the scientific development of the wireless art has been kept secret for military reasons; naturally the United States cannot know of things which to us have seemingly become elementary.
For example, it appears that American wireless men still look upon a portable set as a novelty; whereas, on the Western front, and particularly in the trenches, portable sets of all types have become indispensable. They vary in appearance from carefully designed equipments in neat containers to a key, coil and crudely manufactured accessories, strapped to a board. There has been no attempt at standardization--we have not had time.
A second impression, very general among Americans, is that wireless has not been a great factor in the war. In various quarters I have heard it said that you understood wireless was tried in the early months of the fighting and, being found impractical, was virtually abandoned so far as the army is concerned. Nothing could be further from the truth. To illustrate its great importance in modern warfare, I have only to say that with the exception of the first two or three months of the war, wireless has furnished the sole means of communication in the first line of trenches.
THE WIRELESS MAN HOLDS THE FIRST-LINE TRENCH
No longer are wire telephones and telegraphs used in the trenches bordering no man's land. We found it impossible to maintain these lines with the constant shelling by high explosives. When you go into a first-line trench to-day, you will find very little else occupying it but the wireless men. These trenches are not filled up with infantry at all times, as the popular conception has it. Unless an engagement is in progress, there will be found only a handful of fighting men with machine guns, distributed in small detachments about every 400 yards, and supported by the ever-present wireless man with his portable set. Through the continued and heavy shelling it is not possible to maintain many troops in these trenches, so until an advance of enemy infantry is observed, the wireless man and a few infantrymen to protect him are in sole possession. With the first observation of an infantry attack, the wireless man gets in action and sends back his call for troops from the supporting trenches. They pour in then through a traverse and the hand-to-hand engagement begins.
It can be readily seen from this that the Allies faced some serious problems in supplying the right sort of men for this duty, and, in fact, in supplying the armies with sufficient wireless men for their needs. We were far better equipped, however, than the Americans, because of the fact that the European nations had large standing armies with men well trained for their soldierly duties. It was better for us to take soldiers and train them as operators, and this we did. We had very little choice in the matter, however, because we had no great body of amateurs to call upon, as you have in this country. Your war problem, so far as wireless is concerned, is obviously directly opposite to ours--by our, I mean all the allied European nations. It appears to me the most logical, and the only practical thing to do here, since you have no great standing army, is to train your wireless operators as soldiers, which is a relatively short process when compared with the necessity which we faced of training soldiers technically. I do not know but that you are better off than we were, for this reason. It is certain, anyhow, that the United States can be a material factor in the war by sending us at the earliest possible date all its available wireless men.
What I have said may convey the impression that there is no such person as a wire operator at the front. On the contrary, there are a great many, as many I should say as there are wireless operators, but certainly not more. Their duties are a little different. They maintain the very important telephone and telegraph communications between the supporting trenches and the field bases, and keep in operation a network of connecting lines directly back of the fighting zone. There is a constant need for signalmen, and the American development of amateur experimenting having been so extensive. I look to the wireless men to make a great record in this war.
HOW AERIAL WIRES ARE STRUNG ALONG TRENCH TOPS
The trained signalmen of the United States Army are a fine, efficient lot, and they will do very effective service for us in France; but their numbers are so few they will have to be considerably augmented to occupy the space we provide in our tactical organizations. Furthermore, as with us before the war, the United States Army has done its field work on a maneuvre basis. They will have much to learn, and something to unlearn, just as we did. But used as a leaven for the host of civilian signalmen which can be quickly gathered together, they will be very valuable.
So pressing has been the need for operators, we have taught some of our men transmitting only, and assigned them to duties where a knowledge of receiving is not essential. It is, of course, obvious though, that a man who can both send and receive is far better equipped for duties where the lives of thousands of human beings are involved.
There seems to be a general misunderstanding in this country as to the use of aerials. I have heard it said that most American wireless men believe aerial wires are laid along the bottom of the trenches, and that masts have been dispensed with. This is not literally so. In the first line of trenches, the aerial wires are strung along a parapet just behind the barricade. Some of the aerial lines in the supporting trenches are raised a few feet above the ground. Still further back, where greater distances must be spanned, masts are used, but these are bamboo poles with a maximum height of twenty feet. We are not using the familiar sixty and eighty-foot sectional masts, which were part of all tractor wireless equipments before the outbreak of hostilities. And we use horizontal aerials, not so much to eliminate the size of the mark which draws artillery fire, as for convenience.
THE AIRCRAFT WIRELESS GOVERNS ALL ARTILLERY FIRE SPOTTING
Now in the consideration of wireless as applied to air service, I have a subject which caused me greater surprise than anything I have learned here as to American misconceptions of what has been done. The general supposition seems to have been that spotting of artillery fire has been accomplished through the use of various forms of visual signaling, such as flags and smoke bombs dropped from a 'plane. The truth of the matter is that our entire heavy artillery fire control is conducted by wireless from aircraft. At the very outset of the war, we had neither equipment, experience or personnel to accomplish this, so it was our custom to send up an observer with the airplane pilot who carefully drew a picture of the enemy battery emplacements, flew back to his own lines and dropped these drawings. This is no longer done. The observer now notes the results of his artillery fire and sends back by wireless such messages as "Too short." "Three to right." "Two to left," and so on.
The reconnaissance machines are protected by fighting 'planes which fly in squadrons over enemy lines, attacking every enemy machine they encounter, and thus allowing the observers to complete their work undisturbed. It is such an ordinary sight to see these airplanes at all hours of the day that their presence means nothing special to us. They are merely part of the great fighting machine which we have builded up. Their observations continue all day long and are of incalculable value. Many of the airplanes now in use show amazing development in power, speed and carrying capacity; we have quite a number of 'planes which carry as many as six or eight men armed with machine guns.
The wireless operator who makes the observations for fire control is provided with a map of the terrain blocked off into small squares. As he spots the fall of the shells, he sends back by wireless the number of the square and records a hit or gives directions for greater accuracy. While he is spotting he is continually subjected to tremendous shelling; white puffs of smoke break around the reconnaissance 'planes all day long, but it is surprisingly seldom that they are hit.
JUST WHY THE AMERICAN AMATEUR IS VALUABLE IN WAR
I do not know that I can say anything further than the generalities with which I have just dealt, because our technical development is a very carefully guarded secret. Quite amazing things have been done in the navy, as well as in the army, but I am not at liberty to disclose any of the details. I do wish to say this, however:
American wireless men are exceptionally well qualified to take an active part in important signaling work. Much valuable material will be found in the amateur ranks, as these young men are accustomed to transmission on short wave-lengths. A great deal of our communication is carried on with low power and wave-lengths in the neighborhood of 200 meters--the exact type of communication to which they are most accustomed.
We have not had the reserve of amateurs which the United States has to call upon. So the training of our soldiers for communication has been both rapid and continuous. For example, in Chelmsford, England, we have a school where seldom less than 400 men are studying at a time.
The demand for wireless operators is best illustrated by saying that at least half of the signalmen are wireless operators. The communication service is about equally divided between wire and wireless.
America is fortunate in having perfected its organization of the amateur field. The National Amateur Wireless Association, which has had my hearty support since its inception, has done valuable work in co-ordination and standardization of instructional methods. The younger men in the experimental field have a very definite place in the war scheme. The military laws of the allied nations did not permit using boys under eighteen, but I can see no reason why a boy of sixteen who has the necessary qualifications cannot be used; in fact, I think this will be done, if it is not already being done. Ability to communicate at a speed of twenty words per minute is adequate, for it is seldom that we have to use a greater speed than this, but while operation of this kind can be taught in a comparatively short time to any intelligent person, the amateur has a tremendous advantage in possessing the fundamental knowledge of wireless, which requires extended study. Extremely valuable also is his knowledge of all kinds, sizes, and types of low-power equipment.
MARCONI'S HOPE TO SEE YOU "OVER THERE"
My word to the amateurs of America is: Begin at once some form of military training. Begin with essentials, and later take up the study of map reading and observation; it will help wonderfully in increasing wartime efficiency and will be invaluable to those subject to draft.
I am not given to inspirational utterances as a rule, but I have been impressed and pleased with what I have learned of the work the amateurs are doing in the Junior American Guard. I had hoped to see them in an exhibition, but my engagements prevented this.
Perhaps it will not be long, however, before I will see many of them--over there.
Editor's Note.--This message to wireless men was given just before Mr. Marconi left America. His safe arrival in Paris on August 6th has since been announced.