When you think of the First World War the first thing that springs to mind is an image of anguished soldiers scrambling over mud-washed trenches and barbed wire fences into the uncertainty of no man’s land. It’s a well-documented period of history full of horrors like trench foot, shell shock and mass graves. But following the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, when we paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the war’s bloodiest battle, we would like to reflect on one of the army’s more obscure regiments – the Army Cycling Corps.
‘Today cycling is a wide-ranging leisure activity but in 1914 times were very different,’ Andrew Jones, one of the organisers of the upcoming Ride to the Somme fundraiser, reflects. ‘The British Army suffered heavy losses at the beginning of the war and there was a general thought that if enemy forces were going to invade they’d do it along the East coast. The army needed mobile troops and, if you think logically about it, there was no better way to get around than a pushbike. They were less expensive than motorbikes and were used by most people in ordinary life.’
So in 1914 a number of designated cycling battalions were established to move territorial forces to these at-risk coastal locations, including a number of Yorkshire battalions. They were very popular with men anxious to serve their country. ‘The criteria for joining the army was quite strict at the beginning of World War One,’ Andrew explains, ‘so a lot of people joined the cycling battalions instead. There’s a poster advertising the cycling battalions that says “bad teeth is no bar”, because at that point you couldn’t join the army if you had bad teeth.’
One of the most notable of these battalions was the 5th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. ‘Yorkshire as a county raised an army of 400,000 men during the Great War,’ Andrew exclaims, ‘as many as the whole continent of Australia. The 28 Yorkshire battalions that existed before the war grew into 83 and included 333,000 Yorkshiremen. Hull supplied 70,000 of these men.’ It’s fair to say that the city got well and truly behind the war effort.
Initially the cycling battalions were used to conduct patrols along the coast and look for potential signs of attack. But with numbers rapidly depleting on the frontline, the cycling battalions were soon called upon to perform extra duties. ‘As soon as fighting started in earnest in France and losses were suffered, these territorial forces were brought into the main army,’ Andrew explains. On 7 November 1914, a matter of months since the fighting began, the country’s 15 individual cycling battalions were absorbed into the official Army Cycling Corps and the cyclists began to prepare themselves for combat overseas.
As you’d expect, this involved considerably more training. Drills were introduced, soldiers learnt how to move with their bikes as a unit, as well as how to tackle hurdles and obstacles. Keen to utilise the bikes to their full potential, the Army Cycling Corps were also instructed on how to tow machine guns and transport wounded soldiers on stretchers (as the image above shows). But there was also a very sinister side to this training. ‘They were prime sniper targets,’ Andrew explains. ‘So part of their training was how to be a sniper in order to avoid being sniped.’
It wasn’t long before the dreaded call came. With their bikes in tow the cyclists boarded ships bound for Le Havre with the daunting prospect of a ride to the frontline ahead of them. The young men who had gallantly signed up to the cycling battalions to serve their country were now far from the Yorkshire coast, peddling down foreign roads en route to what would become one of the most devastating wars in human history – it’s a striking image.
In France the cyclists’ role was officially reconnaissance and communications, but this was actually only a small part of what they were asked to perform. ‘Once the heavy fighting started across the front the roads quickly became strewn with mud which wasn’t great for the bicycles,’ Andrew recounts. ‘We found a letter in Scotland that suggests that the Corps would cycle behind the frontline and fill in gaps where there were losses on the front.’
Sadly many of these men cycled to their deaths on the frontline. Of the 400,000 Yorkshiremen who served in the First World War, 35 were awarded Victoria Crosses and a staggering 230,000 were wounded or killed. It is believed that over one million people (on both sides of the conflict) were wounded or lost their lives during the four months of the Battle of the Somme alone. Among them were 389 soldiers from the Army Cycling Corps, not including the countless others who were not identified as belonging to the cycling battalions.
Now, a group of volunteers will recreate this ride from Le Havre to Thiepval to pay their respects to those who lost their lives and help raise funds for SSAFA, a British charity which has been providing support for the forces and their families since 1885. Among them are Clare and Jonathan Clapham from Tadcaster who will be completing this extraordinary journey on a tandem, and Conrad Pheasant who is riding in memory of his relative John Francis Cragg, a second lieutnant in the East Yorkshire Regiment, who was killed on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, aged 28.
A three-day journey covering more than 200 miles, Ride to the Somme starts with volunteers being asked to report to the “recruiting centre” at the Imperial War Museum on the 31 August, before boarding ships as their ancestors had done 100 years before. ‘We chose Le Havre because that is where the majority of the cyclists were sent over from,’ Andrew explains. ‘They were sent on the ship with their bikes and cycled right off onto the beach. We’re going to cheat a little bit because you can cycle from Le Havre to Amiens in one day, so we’re going a little bit of a round-the-houses route. These guys are raising money for charity so they need to put a few miles in. They’ll arrive in Amiens on the second day and then visit a number of key locations around the Somme on the third.’
The ride culminates with the volunteers paying their respects at The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval which lists the 72,195 missing British and African soldiers who have no known grave as well as paying specific respects to the members of the Army Cycling Corps who are commemorated at the nearby cemetery in Pozieres.
Despite playing an important role in the First World War, the Army Cycling Corps haven’t been given the recognition they deserve. So let’s rally round, show support for Ride to the Somme and work to keep this memory alive for at least another 100 years. Lest We Forget.
For more information about the Army Cycling Corps and Ride to the Somme visit www.ridetothesomme.org.uk