The Army Cyclist Corps

The Army Cyclist Corps was a corps of the British army active during the First World War, and controlling the army’s bicycle infantry. The military use of cycles began in the mid 1880s when some of the Volunteer Battalions set up cycling sections as a sort of Home Guard in case of invasion. In the Boer War the bicycle was found to be invaluable for reconnaissance and communication work. By the start of the Twentieth Century there were some 8000 cyclists in various Companies and Volunteer sections.

At the eve of the First World War the Territorial Force contained fourteen cyclist batallions and in 1915 they were incorporated into the Army Cyclist Corps.The bike was designed to enable the rider to travel as a completely self contained one man fighting unit. Everything from his rifle to his cape and groundsheet could be stowed away on his bike. A small kitbag carried behind the seat held rations and personal items while an emergency tool kit hung from the crossbar. On tarmac roads the heavy iron bike was fast and effective but often had to be abandoned in rough terrain and muddy conditions. ‘Cycle Artificers’ were used to maintain the bikes and members of each battalion were specially trained as mechanics.

Armycycle1915

Of course the army had to draw up regulations for the use of bikes in the field of battle and in drilling and ceremonial occasions. The first book of regulations was drawn up in 1907 and revised in 1911. It contains such gems as
‘A cyclist standing with his cycle, with rifle attached to it, will salute with the right hand, as laid down in Section 19, returning the hand to the point of the saddle on the completion of the salute. When at ease, a cyclist, whether mounted or leading his bicycle, will salute by coming to attention, and turning his head to the officer he salutes. A party of cyclists on the march will salute on the command Eyes Right, which will be followed by Eyes Front, from the officer or NCO in charge.’
Furthermore
‘The position of the cyclist at attention is the same as that of the dismounted soldier, except that he will grasp the left steering handle with his left hand, and place the right hand at the point of the saddle, elbow to the rear.’
There was some common sense.
‘Bicycle tyres should be wiped with a damp cloth after a march, so that all grit, which if left might cause a puncture, may be removed.’
‘The rate of marching, excluding halts, will generally vary from 8 to 10 miles per hour, according to the weather, the nature of the country, and the state of the roads. A column of battalion size should not be expected to cover more than 50 miles in a day under favourable conditions.’

In the first months of the war the cyclists were used for coastal defence work in the United Kingdom. The work of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion was described in a poem written by their chaplain, Rev. K D Knowles.

The Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalions

1914.

We come from a little county,
But we muster a thousand men,
Recruited in town and village,
And away from the flat bleak fen;
We patrol the Eastern coast, sir,
We are the boys who do not shirk
Though the wind blows stiff
Yet we guard your cliff,
For that is the Hunts. boy’s work.
G. N. R. to Grimsby,
Bicycle up to Hull,
Pedal on to Hornsea,
A forty-five mile pull,
Ride up north to Filey,
Or ride down south to Spurn,
We’ll do our job for a daily “bob,”
But we’ve more than our pay to earn.
We’re bred from the old Fen stock, sirs,
Which oft times fought with Montagu;
We’re hewn from the self-same rock, sirs,
Stern old Oliver Cromwell knew;
And throughout the two Battalions
You’ll not find a father’s son
Who will bring shame
The old fighting name
Of the lads of Huntingdon.
G. N. R. to Grimsby,
Bicycle up to Hull,
Pedal on to Hornsea,
A forty-five mile pull,
Ride up north to Filey,
Or ride down south to Spurn,
We’ll do our job for a daily “bob,”
And the fame that we mean to earn.


13th Platoon D Company Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion

Jack Hales, pictured below, was also part of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Batallion. He was involved in the Gallipoli landings and also served in Turkey and France. He left England shortly after the end of the war, moving to Canada then Australia before finally settling in New Zealand.

Jack Hales

On the occasions that the cyclists were used in combat they were generally found to be ineffective. The terrain on the Western Front was unsuitable for bikes and they were discarded early on with the unit proceeding as normal infantry. Following the war the cyclists were perceived to have little value and the Army Cyclist Corps was disbanded in 1919. By 1922 all remaining Territorial cyclist battalions had been converted back to conventional units. The 1st Kent Cyclist Battalion was the sole battalion to be awarded battle honours – The North West Frontier in 1917, Baluchistan in 1918 and later Afghanistan. A plaque in Canterbury Cathedral records their losses.

Similar Posts