Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Day

I'm a Briton. Like many Britons, the Great War took a great toll on my family. My grandfather served, as did my great grandfather, four great uncles and six first cousins. Of these twelve family members who served, five were killed. So for me, the remembrance of these relatives has been an important part of my life.

For many of us in the British Commonwealth, the 'War to End All War' is not something that's truly in the past. The ultimate sacrifice that a million British and Commonwealth men and women made reverberates through the decades, hopefully making us realize the futility of war. The Great War ended at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. In Britain and the Commonwealth, we commemorate the Sunday closest to this date as 'Remembrance Day'. This year, the 11th actually falls on a Sunday and as I write, the 11th hour is only a few minutes away. When I post this at 11am, I will be observing a minute of silent contemplation.

Since this is a cycling blog, I'd like to take this time to remember the Army Cyclist Corps. This was a corps formed from over 8,000 pre-war cyclists, all volunteers who were, like many of the readers of this blog, cycling enthusiasts.

The first complete bicycle unit (the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers) was raised in 1888. During the Boer War, the bicycle was found to be invaluable for reconnaissance and communications work. Unlike the horses that had, until that time, formed the basis of reconnaissance units, the bicycle was silent and needed little if any maintenance, so in the first decade of the 20th Century, as these characteristics became well appreciated, more and more cycling units grew within the army.

On the eve of the First World War, the British Army had fourteen cyclist battalions. In the first weeks of the war, these were employed widely and very successfully as scouts, infiltrating enemy positions, severing communication lines, attacking ammunition columns and generally harassing the enemy. 

These, in the day when heaven was falling, 
The hour when earth's foundations fled, 
Followed their mercenary calling 
And took their wages and are dead. 

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
 They stood, and earth's foundations stay; 
What God abandoned, these defended, 
And saved the sum of things for pay.

In 1915, the Army Cyclist Corps was founded. It was later expanded to include 12 more battalions raised from second-line yeomanry regiments which had been converted to cyclists.

Men from the Corps were sent overseas in small groups, forming divisional cyclist companies. Contrary to popular belief, cyclists were employed in combat, and the common perception that they were ineffective is false: cyclists were always considered to be mobile infantry, and as such they would leave their bicycles when mobility was impossible or unnecessary. So in conditions of trench warfare of course many of the Corps' bicycles were stored and the men of these units were employed in more conventional roles. In 1918, with the deadlock of the trenches overcome, the men of the Army Cyclist Corps once again mounted their bicycles, and their mobility once more conferred an advantage in terms of communications, scouting and reconnaissance.

Despite the success of the cyclists, after the war, the cyclist units were disbanded. By 1922 all remaining cyclist battalions had been converted back to conventional units.

833 men of the Army Cyclist Corps were killed in the Great War. 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.
The Bicycle in Wartime
BSA Folding Bicycle
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries by A.E. Housman
For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon


  1. Thank you, Ian. Wonderful post in memory of that generation of men, many of whom never came back.

  2. I imagine that these were the first cyclists to wear helmets--and for good reason seeing the destruction they encountered in the photo.