The Army Cyclist Corps was formed in 1914. It originally absorbed a number of pre-existing cyclist battalions, from the Territorial Force. All the pre-existing units were part of the volunteer movement that became the Territorial Force in 1908. More cyclist units were raised during the war, but these all wore the ACC badge whereas the pre-existing units wore their own distinctive unit badges.
Various Rifle Volunteer Corps formed cyclist sections in 1885. In 1888, the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps became the first cyclist battalion and it remained the only one until the formation of the Territorial Force in 1908, when three existing infantry battalions were converted to cyclists, and six totally new cyclist battalions were formed. Four more battalions were formed between 1911 and 1914. Until 1914 the battalions were used largely as coastal patrols.
The following cyclist battalions existed on mobilisation in August 1914:
- The Norfolk Regiment;
- The Suffolk Regiment;
- The Royal Sussex Regiment;
- The Essex Regiment;
- The Kent Cyclist Battalion;
- The Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion;
- The County of London Cyclist Battalion;
- The East Yorkshire Regiment;
- The Northern Cyclist Battalion;
- The Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment);
- The Highland Cyclist Battalion;
- The Devonshire Regiment;
- Isle of Wight Rifles – “Princess Beatrice’s” Battalion;
- The Hampshire Regiment;
- The Welsh Regiment
In 1915 the first cyclist units went overseas to France and Flanders and to Gallipoli. Here they were usually broken up and employed as divisional companies in something of a reconnaissance role. Each infantry division then had, as part of its “mounted troops”, a cyclist company with the same number as the division (e.g. 1st Cyclist Company for the 1st Division).
The days of the cavalry were coming to an end as the use of the War Horse in trench warfare became expensive and impracticable. Less expensive than motorbikes and used by most people in ordinary day life, the cycle was an everyday reconnaissance and communication weapon in the fight against the enemy.
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.
Casualty records show 862 members of the Army Cyclist Corps killed in action of which 544 are buried or remembered on The Western Front.
It is not possible to know exactly how many military cyclists there were during WW1, but it is estimated that at least 100,000 British soldiers used bicycles in some capacity, as did at least 150,000 French and Belgians.
In 1914, the British army had 14,000 men in cycle regiments and battalions, increasing to 20,000 by the end of the war. When the US entered the war in 1917, they shipped 26,407 bicycles with them to France, although they didn’t have any established bicycle corps.
Private John Lamont from Dumfriesshire, of the Army Cyclist Corps, wrote home on 15th October 1915 from France about some terrible scenes that he had witnessed.
He began politely with thanks:
Your welcome parcel received today … The cakes were in excellent condition, and you can depend they were enjoyed, more so as we just returned from the trenches this morning about one o’clock, where we have had some hard times. Since last Saturday we have been continually on the go, biking here, marching there, back to the bikes, then off again to some other part of the line, a few hours there, then off again to some other part, and so the time has gone in, with hardly a warm meal, very little sleep, until today we have been left to ourselves.
Indeed, it has not been much of a rest, as we have all our clothing, equipment, rifle and bicycle to clean, but we don’t take that into account, and just smile through it all. By the time this reaches you I suppose you will be reading some details of the titanic battle which is raging here. We have taken our share in it, and now, as I have time to think, I am actually surprised to find myself with a whole skin. However great the British losses are, the German losses are bound to be twice the amount, not to say anything about prisoners of which I have seen hundreds in these last three days. The scenes were awful, too ghastly for description, but they will remain forever stamped on the mind.”
Thanks to Richard Brodie from the Devil’s Porridge Museum, Dumfriesshire for the John Lamont information.
Returning for 2018 will be our Historian Julian Fulcrand. Julian lives just outside Albert very close to Thiepval.
Not only is he an expert on The Somme but living and being brought up in the area he brings a French perspective to the event.