Thursday, 18 September 2014

Horsepower or pedal power?

Cycling for the King: a Great War recruiting poster
 Increasingly, horses were used for reconnaissance and for carrying messengers rather than for cavalry charges, but even this function was being taken over by mechanised forms of transport. Just as the cavalry gave way to tanks, so the horse was giving way to motorcycles.

Aged 19 in this photo, taken in France in May 1916, Budleigh Salterton’s Private Charles Reginald Teed, from Budleigh Salterton, is looking rather pleased with his motorcycle in his role as a despatch rider      Image credit: Trevor Teed

On a smaller scale, the bicycle was also proving to be more effective than the horse.  Volunteer cyclist units had been formed as early as the 1880s, with the first complete bicycle unit (the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers) being raised in 1888. Cyclists were occasionally employed during the Boer War. The bicycle was found to be invaluable for reconnaissance and communications work, being lighter, quieter, and logistically much easier to support than horses.


An  Army Cyclists Corps cap badge

The Army Cyclist Corps was formed in 1914, made up of a number of pre-existing cyclist battalions from the Territorial Force where they had mainly undertaken the role of coastal patrols. 


British cyclists passing through the ruined village of Brie, Somme, France in March 1917.  Photo by Lt Ernest Brooks, the first and the longest-serving of the British war photographers during the 1914-18 conflict      
 Image credit:

The first cyclist units went overseas in 1915 to France and Flanders and to Gallipoli and were used mainly for reconnaisance. The conditions of trench warfare made them ineffective for combat use, and even their reconnaissance function was limited given the conditions of trench warfare.  In the last year of the war, however, with the deadlock of the trenches overcome, they once more proved invaluable for reconnaissance. 

Image credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

It was on 31 October 1918 that 22-year-old Private Walter French of XIX Corps of the Army Cyclist Corps was killed in action. He was the son of Archibald and Malera French of Knowle, Budleigh Salterton.  No grave is recorded for him, but his name appears on the memorial in the parish church of St Peter, on the town’s war memorial and on the Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium, seen above.

The Army Cyclists Corps was disbanded in 1919.

Visit ‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews include: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!!!” 


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