Popular Science Monthly, May, 1917, pages 795-799:
TO the public at large there is little that is romantic in the performance of the wireless man in warfare. He does not charge with bayonet fixed to rush an enemy trench. He does not kill or conquer. And the popular imagination finds it hard to see a hero in a man whose duty is the mere recording of others' exploits.
Like the dispatch-rider, indeed, the wireless operator is likely to become conspicuous only when he fails in the task assigned him. Then he has an opportunity to judge his importance by the measure of the opprobrium poured on him. When he fails, of course, he never fails alone.
Yet technical and unheroic as his task may seem, it calls for gallantry equal to that of any. Not only does he share in all the risks run by the Tommies, but he lacks all their means of defence. Though he stands side by side with them in the front line trench, ready to join in the attack, his sole weapon is his wireless apparatus. He carries neither rifle nor bayonet.
The position of the wireless man is now quite definite. There is no scrap in which he does not have his share, no division of the army in which he does not have his place, whether it be infantry, artillery, air-service or cavalry. That he is absolutely indispensable in achieving results has been conclusively proved in the battles along the Somme by endless instances of distinguished services rendered. In spite of his obscurity, he has won many decorations.
But that his service is still far from perfect, however effective it has proved, was still evident when I left France less than a year ago. I do not intend to be technical in my explanations in this article, but, in order to make clear the experimenting that has been done in wireless in this war, it is necessary for me to go back to the beginning. My aim is to give a short history of the wireless in France--its development in brief outline.
At the very outset of hostilities, before the trench warfare had begun and the armies had settled down to their present deadlock, the wireless was necessarily of a different character from that used now.
Then a motor lorry set--a 1½ K. W. Marconi set--was supplied to the Signal Branch of the Royal Engineers. All through the retreat from Mons and during the fight on the Maine, this set was used and did excellent work.
But with the end of the moving fighting and the beginning of trench monotony, the lorry set lost its value. Soon it was entirely supplanted by the systematic working of trench telephones, and for a while the wireless went almost completely out of use.
But not for long. The ineffectiveness of trench telephones under certain conditions was soon very painfully apparent. When actual fighting was in progress, they failed more than once at critical moments. Sometimes a shell would break down the communications; or an artillery battery would carry off the air line poles; or an enterprising Tommy, on his way through a communication trench, would cut off a length of cable to make a shoe lace.
Even commanding officers who were always sceptical on the subject of wireless in the trenches, were forced to confess that their old friend, the telephone, was not always reliable in case of a crisis. So, on their recommendation, it was decided to undertake some experiments which would perfect the wireless for warfare.
It was now decided that the requirements of the new fighting called for a portable set for the first line trenches, and a group of officers who had already distinguished themselves in various capacities, were detailed to take charge of the work and evolve an instrument for the purpose.
They introduced a small, simple set consisting of a 1-in. spark coil, Leyden jar condenser (3) and an aerial coil. Receiving, a single inductance, silicon detector, variable capacity 'phone condenser and 'phones 1000 ohms. The aerial was supported on two 8-ft. bamboo poles, 80 ft. apart with a single wire. The ground consisted of a wire gauze mat 8 by 3 ft. With this set it was discovered that fairly loud signals could be heard from three to five miles.
When the instrument, however, was put to its first real test at L------, it rose magnificently to the demands of the situation, acting to its full range of five miles.
For a long time this set was used with excellent and unvarying results. In regard to the transmission of messages it lacked nothing. But it had just one drawback--a minor one but occasionally important. Being placed loosely on a board, it was clumsy to carry, a fact which often hindered the work by causing loss of time.
Once more the officers set to work. It was a Captain L------ who found the means of combating the difficulty. He discarded the board, and substituted a box 18 by 9 by 9 in. in which he placed the set. This was carried on the back and proved to be a most compact and convenient instrument.
I remember when the first experiments were made with this set, some distance behind the line. They took the form of contests between the wireless and telephone. A detachment from each would start off from a trench, as if during an actual engagement, to a position some 500 yd. distant. Then each would do his utmost to establish communications as quickly as possible.
From the very first the wireless man won by an average of some thirty seconds, no small consideration in warfare, when perhaps it is a question of holding ground already gained.
The instrument being now perfected, the next question was the training of the men. In England depots were at once established, and young fellows already equipped with a working knowledge of the job, such as Post Office Telegraphers and the like, were enrolled in the wireless section.
Similar schools were established in France behind the lines at each of the Army Headquarters, and the officers in charge would occasionally go into the trenches and pick out a few of the most intelligent infantry men with a view to training them as operators. No Tommy but tried his hardest to be picked. He looked on the training as a good opportunity to rest, a nice break in the monotony of trench life.
In addition to these schools for the training of operators, there was also one for the officers, to which I myself was attached for some time in the capacity of lecturer. The wireless section is now, of course, one of the largest and most important factors in the Royal Engineers, but at that time it was comparatively unimportant, and there was naturally a shortage of officers fully trained in this branch of the work.
Consequently to meet this deficit it was the custom to bring back signaling officers from their brigades for a short, sharp course of two weeks. This, coupled with their previous knowledge of telegraphy and circuits, was found to be sufficient to make them efficient leaders.
The operator naturally took longer, being absolutely untrained in such work, and his course usually lasted from three months to four or even more. The measure of his qualifications, however, was high and definitely fixed. He had to be able to send and receive at the rate of twenty-five words a minute, English, and twenty words a minute code and foreign languages. He had to be able to assemble and dismantle Marconi 1½ K. W.; also to have a working knowledge of trench sets and a thorough knowledge of army procedure.
As a matter of fact, he rarely needed to work to the full height of his ability, for, in actual warfare, he found that the necessary speed rarely exceeded from fifteen to twenty words a minute, according to the activity of the Boche gunners.
The wireless, as I have said, is now an essential part in all trench warfare. When the infantry advances to an attack, the operator is always slightly in the rear. Where formerly a detachment of men had to reel out hundreds upon hundreds of yards of cable to establish telephone communication between a trench newly taken from the enemy and the first line reserve behind, now the operator simply picks up his box, his ground mat and his aerial single-handed and advances simultaneously with the attackers. Arriving at his new position, he props up his aerial, lays his ground mat, and communications are established almost at once.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of his duties. When an enemy trench is being taken, it is he who reports the progress of the encounter--the number of the enemy, the nature of their defence, the amount of the casualties on either side, the condition of the trench when it is finally taken--whether it has been badly damaged by artillery fire, or whether it is practically intact. If a gas attack is coming, it is he who sends the warning to the men behind to put their gas helmets on.
If the aeronaut can be called the eyes of the army, the wireless man is its ears. Naturally their work is made to dovetail. When one sees, the other hears and also reports.
One of the main duties of an aviator, as you probably know, is to reconnoiter for the army, and to report on the accuracy of the artillery fire and on the location of the enemy batteries.
But he does not have to descend to report his discoveries. For he, too, is equipped with a wireless set--a Wilson set is the one usually carried--with which he transmits his information to the man below.
This man is stowed away always in a dug-out, at a little distance from the battery. It is in accordance with the information he receives and transmits that the artillery fire is directed.
Every branch of the army, as you see, has its own particular station, and its own particular duties to discharge.
Back at Army Headquarters where the large station 1½ K. W. Marconi is situated, the work of the wireless mainly consists in intercepting communications from the enemy and taking aircraft reports. But though each of these stations works separately, they are all in close touch at all times. For instance, every battalion carries two trench sets, each having two operators. They are in the front line with the infantry. Back with the reserve, about one hundred yards behind, are two more sets and two more operators. Back still further is a larger set at Brigade Headquarters. At Divisional Headquarters is a ½ K. W. set, and at Army Headquarters is a 1½ K. W.
An attack is made. The battalion operators go over slightly in the rear of the infantry. They communicate with the station in reserve, who in turn pass it on to Brigade Headquarters, who pass it along to Divisional Headquarters, who report it to Army Headquarters.
A few have asked why this method of communication is adopted, and have suggested that it would be more effective if one large set were established close behind the line, to replace all these individual trench sets. Communication, they say, would then be direct with General Headquarters, and much time might be saved.
That was tried. I remember the occasion distinctly. The station was erected, the apparatus installed. This consisted of a motor lorry set, 1½ K. W., 120-foot steel mast, an umbrella aerial, with a complement of three operators. It stood for just two hours. Then over came one of those huge 5.9 shells, and the lorry set, the steel mast, the umbrella aerial and the three operators were all shot sky-high. I presume they have since then come down again. The result of this experiment, naturally, was an increased regard for the trench sets. But these were by no means perfect as yet.
Of course, in addition to the latter, there are automobile sets, aero sets, wagon sets which are used for all moving fighting, and pack sets for the infrequently active cavalry. But none of these has required the time and attention devoted to the instrument used by the infantry.
As the aerials have to be erected over the trenches, the poles being stuck on the parapet, they were naturally attractive targets.
Naturally their operators came in for their share of the snipers' shells.
In this connection, I would like to tell the story of a friend of mine, Lieutenant L., which will bear out my contention that, when it comes to the scratch, a wireless man can be as cool as the next.
He was adjusting one of the stays of his aerial pole which had been disturbed by the falling of a shell close by. As he was doing so, over came a second shell, known to the Tommies as a "whizz-bang," which gave him a direct hit, tearing his arm clean away, except for a stump of 4 inches. He looked at it calmly for a couple of seconds.
"Well, that's a ticket for blighty," he exclaimed then, and fainted. (Blighty, it might be explained, is a Hindustanee word for home which the Tommies have adapted for their own use from the vocabulary of the Indian troops.)
It was such accidents as this, however, combined with the occasional collapse of the aerial, that convinced the authorities of the need for further experimenting. The officers were now given a more or less free hand to test ideas of their own.
When I left France, many new devices had already been introduced. From what I hear, they have since been perfected.