A Story of Canadian Military Communications 1903 – 2013
BGen William J. Patterson OMM, CD (Ret’d)
Published by The Military Communications and Electronics Museum Foundation
The 1916 Canadian Corps Signal Service with the Signal School, 5thInfantry Divisional Artillery Signals Section, and
8th Army Canadian Field Artillery Brigade Signal Sub-Section serves in France, 1917 – 1919
The year 1917 began with the Allies planning two spring offensives. The
French were to attack in the area of Compiegne, about 40 miles south of Vimy Ridge, while the British were to attack the high ground around Arras. As part of the British Army, the Canadian Corps was as- signed the most difficult task of all, Vimy Ridge, the key German stronghold, that had resisted three major attacks in 1915 and 1916. While the Allies were planning for their oper- ations, the Germans were making a tactical ad- justment based on defence in depth. Fighting on three fronts had stretched the German Army to the breaking point, and in order to reduce its forces on the Western Front, it shortened its defensive line. The Germans made a surprise withdrawal of about 20 miles across a front of 50 miles in mid March 1917 to the Hindenburg Line. The withdrawal, however, did not include the vital ground at Vimy Ridge, which was the cornerstone of the German defences in the area of Arras.
It was to this area that the Canadian Corps was moved after the campaign at the Somme. It had three months to prepare for the assault. Success was dependent on the Canadian ar- tillery neutralizing the German front line de- fenders until the Canadian infantry reached them. Then the infantry, using new weapons and tactics, could fight its way forward once inside the German lines. The artillery, now
armed with plenty of shrapnel shells to cut the German wire, would lead the infantry into the German defences behind an improved creep- ing barrage, while at the same time Canadian counter-battery guns would be silencing the German batteries. The formation of the Cana- dian Machine Gun Corps (CMGC) armed with the Vickers Machine Gun, capable of both di- rect and indirect fire, gave intimate support to the infantry in the face of German counter- attacks. The infantry at the platoon level, now armed with the Lewis light machine gun, was re-organized into four sections: rifle, grenade, rifle grenade, and Lewis gun, allowing it to fight its way forward using fire and movement. The three months preparation time permitted the Corps to build roads, railways, and tunnels to ensure that the assaulting troops could be maintained during the attack with few casual- ties from German artillery. The extra time also gave the infantry the opportunity to practise their attack in a secure training area set-up to resemble the ground over which they would move.
Canadian Signallers had their part to play. As of 17 January 1917, it was the Canadian Corps Signal Service (CCSS). The corps and divisional signal companies spent the three months preparing the communication lines that would keep the artillery and infantry in immediate contact up to the day of the assault, and then carry them forward right into the
German defences. For example, 4 Div Sigs Coy recorded that it had buried 1,350 yards of cable, 7 feet deep, at a cost of 13,500 hours of work, which was completed just 24 hours before 9 April. 1 Div Sigs Coy noted in its War Diary that 450 men of the 107thBattalion had laboured on its cable laying at a cost of 6 killed and 7 wounded. While wireless was still not ac- cepted by the users, the Wireless Section per- sisted and set up a station close to the front to ensure good reception. Unfortunately, it was spotted by the Germans and received a direct hit, which buried the two operators alive. They were dug out 10 hours later, remarkably un- hurt, but the wireless set was a write-off. Every facet of signalling was employed: from corps HQ to divisional HQ airline was used, from di- vision to brigade both airline and cable, from brigade forward all cable. Even visual signal points, using Lucas Lamps, were established. The Brigade Signal Sections were to accom- pany the third wave in the assault dragging telephone cable behind them. To supplement their manpower, the CHQ Sig Coy sent an of- ficer and ten men to each Division. Most im- portantly, 2 officers and 54 men were assigned permanently to the Canadian Heavy Artillery HQ to ensure that Canadian counter-battery fire was timely and effective. Something new was tried: communication by the induction method, that required no cable. Called Power Buzzer, it needed heavy equipment and high power, which could only be supplied in the front lines by heavy re-chargeable batteries. The heavy equipment had to be manhandled, which was a detriment, and the soil composi- tion affected the reception of the Morse Code signal. In good soil it could transmit a signal up to 2,000 yards. It did work, in some in- stances at Vimy, where wireless did not. One tried and true method was to prepare lad- dered lines, two cables, about 60 yards apart, joined together at intervals like the rungs on a ladder, and pull them forward following the advancing infantry. They had the advantage that if shellfire broke part of one of the lines the current would still flow by way of the rungs to the other line and back again to the broken line beyond the break. The disadvantage was
once broken in many places it was difficult to repair, unlike a single cable.
The thorough preparation by the Canadian Corps was realized at 0530 hours on Easter Monday, 9 April, when the four divisions in line went over the top. Within two hours the infantry were in the heart of the German de- fences. By early afternoon, Canadians were over most of the Ridge and working their way down the slopes toward the village of Vimy. Only on the extreme left flank was the attack floundering. There 4 CID, which had as its ob- jectives Point 145, the highest point of land, the site of the Vimy Memorial, and the “Pim- ple,” an adjoining high point, took four days to secure its final objective. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a Canadian success story and a turn- ing point in the fortunes of the Canadian Corps. After the costly and futile attacks in 1915 and 1916, the Corps proved that with good preparation, training, and experience it could fight and win far beyond expectations. It was also to prove a turning point in the quest for Canadian nationhood.
Sometimes, in the effort to find good places to set up a signal station or to look for German signal equipment, often superior to the British, signallers got themselves ahead of the action. A Spr Gregson went into a dark Ger- man dugout and found some good equip- ment, but while rescuing it, realized that another person wanted it too. After a short struggle, Gregson, who was a powerful man, won out only to find the other person was the German operator, who was trying to take his equipment with him. Spr C.T. Corbett had a similar experience in the Spandau Hof Tun- nel, where he came across four Germans who had been left behind. Corbett’s Colt revolver made the difference and he had four prison- ers. The general appreciation by the signal companies at Vimy was that the telephone using cable worked well, especially by the for- ward elements with laddered lines; visual sig- nalling, wireless, and power buzzer were not needed.
In six days, the Canadian Corps advanced 4,500 yards and captured 54 guns, 104 trench mortars,124 machine guns, and over
4,000 prisoners. The human cost for the en- tire Vimy campaign was 13,477 casualties, 17 per cent of the total of 81,000, far less than the Battle of the Somme and much more re- warding. Canadian Signallers bore their share of casualties with 12 killed, or died of wounds, between 1 January and 30 June 1917: Lt H.L. Uglow, Sigmn T.H. Cashmore, Sgt J. Cunningham, mid, Cpl G.A. Keen, Spr
J. Jardine, Spr H.A. Logan, Spr H. Mann, Sgt
P.A. MacGillivray, MM, Spr G.G. McCollum, Sigmn C. McKinnon, Spr R. McKnight, and Spr H.R. Stewart.
During the same period there were a num- ber of awards. Majs E. Forde and G.A. Cline received the DSO. A special honour was given to Maj Forde, who was appointed AD Signals on 17 June 1917 and promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Now a Canadian was in charge of the Canadian Corps Signal Service (CCSS), although in theory he reported to the Chief Engineer. Maj Cline assumed command of 1 Div Sigs Coy on 20 June 1917. Other awards were made: the MC to 4; DCM to 2; MM to 30; Bar to the MM to 2; MiD to 13.
British attacks continued in the Vimy area
after the capture of Vimy Ridge. The only Canadian participation consisted of 1 CID’s successful attack on Arleux-en-Gohelle on 28 April. In early May, the British continued to attack in the Scarpe River valley, and the Canadian Corps continued to play a small part. One brigade each from 1 and 2 CIDs continued the advance beyond Arleux on 3 May and captured the village of Fresnoy-en- Gohelle. During the attack by 6 CIB of 2 CID, German shelling fell all around the divisional signal office. Fearing a direct hit, Maj A.A. An- derson ordered all, except the superintendent and one operator, out to a dugout, while he operated the divisional exchange personally until the shelling stopped. The Germans were determined not to give up the village, and after the British 5th Division had relieved 1 CID, they counter-attacked and succeeded in recovering all the ground gained on 3 - 4 May. Although local actions continued in the area, particularly some very successful large-scale raids by 3 and 4 CIDs in the Avion Sector dur- ing May and June, offensive operations ceased pending preparations for an assault in the area of the City of Lens. In July 1917, as a re-
LCol Forde, 1917, wearing his DSO ribbon won at Vimy Ridge.
sult of the experience at Vimy and with an an- ticipated attack in the near future, the estab- lishment of the divisional signal companies, for better communications to the divisional ar- tillery, was boosted to 10 officers, plus 3 at- tached, 278 men, and 133 horses. The additional personnel, now part of the HQ Sec- tion of divisional signal companies, were sig- nallers from the two artillery brigades attached to each infantry division. The strength of the CHQ Sigs Coy was also in- creased to 15 officers and 496 men. Although it might seem unusual to veteran signal offi- cers, the supply of signal equipment was often obtained from civilian sources during the First World War. In May 1917, Capt Earnshaw, OC of CHQ Sigs Coy, took Lts Bates and Hughes to Paris to buy spare parts for the French tele- phone exchanges Canadians were using and linesmen’s telephones from the Western Elec- tric store. They were gone three days presum- ably the other attractions of Paris did not go unheeded. Another unusual occurrence was the approval of the Corps Commander for Capt Earnshaw to have three months’ leave in Canada. His position was taken over on 5 July by Maj F.G. Malloch.
On 9 June 1917, LGen Arthur Currie as- sumed command of the Canadian Corps, the first and only Canadian to do so. On 7 July, Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Forces, ordered Currie to capture the City of Lens, the centre of the most crowded coal- mining area in France. By this time in the war, Lens and the surrounding pit-heads were badly damaged by artillery fire. The Canadian Corps, less 4 CID in reserve, took up positions opposite the Lens area by the middle of July. Currie was not happy with a frontal assault on Lens because it lay in a valley bordered by two dominating features: Hill 70 to the north and Sallaumines Hill to the southeast. His solu- tion, eventually agreed to by Haig, was to take Hill 70 by the end of July, making the German defences in Lens open to Canadian observa- tion and artillery fire. To deceive the Ger- mans, Currie mounted a successful diversionary attack by 3 CID in the Sallaumines area on 23 July. In order to ensure perfect communications for the attack, three direct lines were dug from Corps HQ to each Div HQ, while two direct lines were dug from each Div HQ to the Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery (CCHA) HQ. The cable work was undertaken by 20 sappers under the command of Lts C.O. Fellowes and H.A. Golwyne and the digging by 400 men of the 124thBattalion. On 30 July, Gen Currie asked to have Fellowes, Golwyne and their 20 sappers paraded so he could
Two signallers using a German rifle as a pole for a airline connection.The signaller standing has a CSC cap badge but is wearing CE collar badges. [CME Museum]
thank them personally for a difficult job well done. Unfortunately, bad weather meant that the follow-up attack on Hill 70 had to be post- poned from the last day of July to 15 August, so it was almost impossible to conceal the Canadian intentions. The attack of 1 and 2 CIDs began at 0425 hours 15 August 1917, and the tactics successfully employed at Vimy Ridge worked again: careful preparation with rehearsals by the assaulting infantry battalions, a concentrated artillery rolling barrage and pinpointed counter-battery fire, and by bring- ing forward 48 machine guns per brigade to
meet the inevitable German counter-attacks; the attack was highly successful. By 0600, most of the objectives were reached after an advance of 1,500 yards. A diversionary attack by units of 4 CID into Lens itself did divert much of the German firepower away from Hill 70, but the fierce resistance of its German defend- ers showed that they were not pre- pared to give it up easily. German counter-attacks continued almost without ceasing for three days, but after 18 attempts to regain the heights, the Germans had lost the Battle of Hill 70. In order to straighten the front line, a direct attack was made on 21 August by both 2 and 4 CIDs into Lens. While there was some local suc- cess as the fighting went on until 25 August, the Canadians found fighting in a built-up area full of blocked streets, deep cellars, and ruined buildings a new and costly experience. Although the Canadi- ans had captured the dominating ground of Hill 70, the Germans continued to hold Lens almost to the end of the war. The victory cost 8,677 casualties, 17 per cent of the 50,000 troops involved. It did demonstrate that the Cana- dian Corps was a formidable fight- ing machine that was improving
its attack techniques with each successive op- eration.
The action at Hill 70 was particularly costly for signallers as lines forward from brigades to battalions during the advance were constantly broken by shellfire. SSgt Adams laid line be- ginning at 0100 hours on 17 August in No- Man’s-Land throughout the hours of darkness, and continued on for four hours in daylight, although in full view of the Germans, to complete the job. The Hill 70 action also saw a new enterprise for signals: an organiza- tion called I TOC, which stood for Intercept
1917 Corps Operations Room with numerous telephone connections.
Telephone, or IT where the letter T was re- placed by the phonetic alphabet symbol “toc.” Four stations, employing the induction method, were set up for the attack at Hill 70 in an endeavour to discover the location of German artillery batteries, and the location of counter-attack forces.
There were 11 fatalities during the opera- tions for Hill 70: LCpl A. Cochrane, Sigmn J. Coffey, Sigmn H.S. Dowson, Spr J.H. Grandin, Spr H.J. Hammond, Sgt E.W. McLellan, Spr
E.W. Nelson, Spr E.A. Scott, Spr H. Stamp, Sigmn A.D. Watterson, and Spr H. Worthing- ton. There were numerous awards for gal- lantry: the MC to 4; DCM to 1; MM to 24; Bar to the MM to 4.
While the Canadian Corps was undertaking the capture of Hill 70, the British Army was on a campaign designed to capture the Chan- nel ports on the Belgian coast, which were
being used as bases by German submarines. Although the Allied lines went from the Chan- nel to Switzerland, the land near the coast had been flooded by Belgian engineers at the be- ginning of the war, and was virtually impassa- ble. The solution was to attack from the Ypres Salient to gain the high ground beyond the in- undated area, and then to swing toward the Channel ports. The way was barred by the Ger- mans holding a position on a high ridge cen- tered on the village of Passchendaele. Preliminary to the main cam-
paign was the need for the British to seize a spur, the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge. On 7 June 1917, the battle opened at 0310 hours with the detona- tion of 19 mines packed with 465 tons of explosives. The as-
MC sault by 9 divisions was over-
whelming, but the British failed to follow it up with an immediate advance, and lost a chance for success when the weather was still favourable. More time was lost while the British were shuffling their forces to ensure that they had maximum strength at the main point of the next attack. Unfortunately, the Germans became aware of the build-up and proceeded to reinforce their forces in the area. The main attack did not take place until 31 July and initially went well. That night heavy rain began to fall, which went on for four days, bringing the advance to a halt. By 2 August, the Battle of Pilckem Ridge was over, the British having advanced some 3,000 yards but at a cost of 32,000 casualties, three times those of Vimy Ridge. When the weather im- proved somewhat, the attack continued as the Battle of Langemarck, which produced a minor gain to the north of St Julien. The weather deteriorated again and by the end of August, the furthest British advance was only three miles. Although Sir Douglas Haig claimed that the Germans were being worn down by attrition, the same was also true for the British, whose casualties for the month to- taled 68,000. The effect of heavy casualties and abysmal weather had seriously weakened the British offensive, and it was decided to change the point of the attack from the Fifth Army to the Second Army. Once again the re- distribution of forces took three weeks of good weather. The offensive was renewed on 20 September with the objective, the Menin Road Ridge. It was quickly overrun, and the offensive resumed on the 26thwith the capture of Polygon Wood. The British advance contin- ued to the top of Gravenstafel Ridge, a total advance of 4,000 yards in the previous two weeks. Still, the original objectives of 31 July had not been reached; Passchendaele was still more than a mile away from the foremost British troops. Heavy rain began again on 4 October and turned the heavily shelled area into a “porridge of mud.” Although the two British Army commanders recommended a halt to the offensive, Sir Douglas Haig wanted to gain the higher ground of the Passchen- daele Ridge for the winter. So two more at-
tacks were made: one on the 9th and one on the 12th, but fierce German resistance and the muddy ground prevailed, although the British and Australian troops were only 2,500 yards from the final objective. Fifty-one British divi- sions had been bloodied in the Flanders of- fensive and all were exhausted. Only nine untouched divisions remained including the four Canadian, and they were selected to reach the final objective.
On 14 September 1917, the officers and men of 2 Div Sigs Coy, who had landed in France on the same date two years previously, celebrated the anniversary with a party. Only three officers Maj Anderson and Lts Mc- Cracken and McKinnon, who were both ser- geants at the time, and 111 of the 204 men remained. Their record of achievement was 4 MCs, 3 DCMs, 30 MMs, and 8 MiDs. Seven men had been killed and two serving with the RFC were missing. A total of 23 men
had been commissioned, in- cluding many with the RFC. There was an obvious feeling of solidarity in 2 Div Sigs Coy. Dur- ing the month of September,
the CHQ Sigs Coy recorded that MM
No. 57 Airline Company had
constructed 20,000 yards of 12 pair perma- nent airline cable using 275 miles of wire.
The Canadian Corps took over from the ex- hausted Australian-New Zealand Corps (Anzac) on 18 October 1917, almost in the same spot 1 CID had been before the fateful gas attack on 22 April 1915. General Currie faced a dreadful situation. The area leading up to Passchendaele was a vast swamp marred by thousands of shell holes full of water. Cur- rie realized that getting men and guns forward to continue the advance was a matter of engi- neering as well as the Canadian expertise in artillery-infantry co-operation. Beginning on 18 October, 21 CE field companies bolstered by 2 infantry and 4 pioneer battalions, set to work to build plank roads to get the heavy guns of the CFA and their ammunition depots far enough forward to be able to support the infantry assault. Some idea of the amount of work that was required to support the assault-
ing troops can be gauged from the activities of 11 CIB of 4 CID. Placed in reserve, while 10 and 12 CIBs supporting 3 CID made the initial assault on 26 October, the 5,000 men of 11 CIB assisted by building roads, digging a com- munication trench for telephone wire down six feet, carrying supplies forward and the wounded back, and forming a mule train de- tachment of 250 mules. Only by such extreme measures was the Canadian Corps able to ad- vance up the muddy slopes to Passchendaele in four phases. The first, which lasted from the 26th to the 28th, was partially successful and gained a foothold on higher drier ground. The second phase, which began on 30 Octo- ber with 3 and 4 CIDs continuing the attack, was more successful and gained all its objec- tives. The third and last large-scale phase took place on 6 November with 1 and 2 CIDs re- placing 3 and 4 CIDs. The Village of Passchen- daele was finally captured. To complete the capture of the entire ridge, a fourth phase by using only one brigade of 1 CID took place on 10 November. Again, it was successful and
after a short period of consolidating the front line by 4 CID, the Canadian Corps returned to its former position on the Lens-Vimy front by
20 November. In the mind of many who fought there, Passchendaele was the worst of all the fighting during the four years of war. It was costly, too; Canadian casualties totaled 15,654, which was 20 per cent of the 81,000 officers and men involved.