The Canadian Cyclist Battalion

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Looking at the First World War, the men in the trenches, the nurses behind the lines and the aviators in the air tend to get most of the notice. As I have covered before, especially when it came to the loggers and farmers who contributed to the war effort, there were many who did their part. One little known battalion for Canada that not only did their part, but with distinction, was the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion.

At the time that the First World War broke out, bicycles were still a relatively new form of technology, having appeared in their most recognizable form in the late-19th century. They had been used in the Boer War, but it was in the First World War that they would get their real time to shine.

With the outbreak of war, it was clear that a bicycle-mounted army had several advantages over a horse-mounted army. One of the biggest benefits was that the bicycle could cover as much ground as a horse, but without the need for care and attention, and they were quiet.

The Calvary Journal Volume Four would state that cyclists had an advantage over horsemen as messengers if the roads were broad.

Many considered cyclists to be good soldiers as well as they were believed to be above average in intelligence and many did not drink.

One historian, F.P.U. Croker, would write, quote:

“The act of dismounting deprived a cavalry unit of the services of the men detailed to care for the horses. A cyclist unit, however, did not have to worry about its mount running off on their own accord or being hit by stray small-arms fire.”

The First Canadian Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force began training cyclists at Valcartier, Quebec in September of 1914.

Cyclists would be recruited through posters that asked for, quote:

“Men with a fair education, as some knowledge of map reading is desirable. Young fellows who have had experience in surveying, engineering or such office work as is performed by bank clerks have proved useful men in the Cyclist Corps.”

One advertisement in The Globe in December 1916, stated, quote:

“Cyclists in demand to chase the Huns.”

In their training, the cyclists were trained in bombing, bayonet fighting and the use of the Lewis machine gun. The cycles were also equipped with a bed roll and a rifle on its side. A fully-loaded bicycle weighed over 40 kilograms, but a cyclist would be expected to transport men and supplies over mud and other terrain, more than 60 kilometres, in a single day.

One cyclist, speaking about the various items they needed to carry on their bikes, would say, quote:

“Prior to any long move, a good deal of this was jettisoned. One was always aware of a heavy kit on the long hills.”

In basic training, conducted at Camp Exhibition in downtown Toronto, troops worked at learning not only how to ride a bike in some cases, but how to navigate on a bike while holding a rifle.

Captain Dick Ellis, who I will talk of later, would say, quote:

“If our training bore little relationship to the type of warfare then being waged in France, where so-called mounted troops were fighting grimly in the trenches of Sanctuary Wood, it was interesting training anyhow.”

One exercise the cyclists took part in was the Battle of Humber, in which the enemy would be retreating from an offensive force consisting of the 10th battalion, two batteries of artillery and the Divisional Cyclist Corps. One soldier would say of the exercise, quote:

“The scene of the engagement covered a space of some three square miles, three-quarters of a mile on each side of the Old Mill.”

Once basic training was done, the troops would then make their way to England for advance training.

The First Canadian Cyclist Corps left Canada on the SS Ruthenia, arriving in England on Oct. 20, 1914. They then proceeded to Pond’s Farm on Salisbury Plain, where they were under the command of Captain C.S. Robinson. The bicycles were provided by Tommy Russell, who owned Canada Cycle and Motor Company Ltd.

In England, the troops dealt with heavy mud, which made training extremely difficult as cycling was mostly out of the question when the ground was too wet. Other incidents were more humorous than irritating. In one case, as the men were training on their bikes, they saw several women bathing in one-piece bathing suits on the beach near Bristol. This was the first time the Canadian men had seen these bathing suits and due to being distracted, there was a large pile-up of cyclists but thankfully they had repair kits and were back on their way soon.

The cyclist companies would be formed into four divisions.

The First Divisional Cyclist Company consisted of five officers and 88 other ranks, and would arrive in France on Feb. 10, 1915. Four days after the company arrived, Alex Peattie of Red Deer, Alberta would be killed in action. His brother, also in the Cycling Corps, survived the war.

The Second Divisional Cyclist Company consisted of nine officers and 176 other ranks and would arrive in France on Sept. 15, 1915. The Third Divisional Cyclist Company consisted of eight officers and 193 other ranks, and would arrive in France on March 27, 1916. The Fourth Divisional Cyclist Company consisted of eight officers and 191 other ranks. The Fourth Division was delayed in its movement from Canada to England due to a lack of accommodation for the troops in Britain. A Fifth Divisional Cyclist Company was formed in England in 1916 but disbanded in early 1917, so essentially the division was never formed nor saw combat as a division. The troops within the division would become part of the reserve force.

The battalions were called Suicide Battalions, or Gas Pipe Cavalry, due to the high casualty rates they suffered.

One cyclist would say later, quote:

“We were not yet doing any actual fighting ourselves but we were in the thick of it most of the time and suffered many casualties.”

Due to the high casualties, the cyclists would see their number diminish and they were formed into the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion within a year of arriving in Europe. The Battalion was formally created on May 16, 1916, consisting of the First, Second and Third Divisions. The Fourth Division would be disbanded and re-assigned as the Canadian Reserve Cyclist Company. One reason for this was the fact that the cyclists often spent four to six weeks in the lines under intense fire, putting them in greater danger than other troops.

Other hazards existed for the cyclists, including bombs exploding around them and creating craters they had to navigate. George Blackstock would write his mother in May of 1915 telling her that he had to leave his bike against a tree so he could navigate a cratered field and deliver a message to a general. He would write, quote:

“The big shells, usually have a very local effect as they go well into the Earth before bursting and go straight up throwing mud and pieces of iron. They are really far more terrifying than harmful, unless you are within three yards of them.”

Upon arrival in France, the cyclists soon found that they were not being used for what they had trained for. While they had learned to fight, signaling and topography techniques, they had a more static nature during the war. The cyclist duties included carrying out traffic control, ambulance carriers and trench guides.

One cyclist wrote later, quote:

“Our first experience of cyclist work in France was wielding pick and shovel, digging saps and machine gun emplacements. It was about the most slavish and uncongenial work we had during the whole war.”

During the Battle of Ypres, the cyclists were assigned the duty of guarding prisoners, important crossings and bridges, as well as serving as dispatch riders. During the battle, the Germans attacked with chlorine gas and the cyclists were part of the counterattack.

One cyclist, would write quote:

“We had to push our bikes along the ditches and I won’t forget the gas. Tying a wet sock over my mouth and nose helped a little. We had no gas masks or steel helmets in those days.”

After the battle, cyclists were assigned to process more than 4,000 German prisoners of war. Once that was done, it was back to trench support work. Even that could be dangerous.

On July 21, 1916, Norman Sands wrote in his diary, quote:

“When lifting a heavy girder into place, Fritz started to sweep. We held on until the first bullet hit the end of the girder. Everyone let go and the two of us landed in a shell hole filled with water. Got soaked. Glazier didn’t make it and the beam landed on his stomach. He started to yell like a stuck pig with the Germans only 50 yards away. We pushed his head under the water to quiet him until we got our bearings. Three of our men got hit going back at Shrapnel Corner. Tough lucks.”

Sands would survive the war and become a director of Eaton’s, but he had received 24 shrapnel wounds by the end of the war. As a result of his experiences in the war, Sands rarely rode a bike in civilian life.

In July 1917 during the Battle of Passchendaele, the cyclists mostly worked in the trenches as support. One cyclist writer stated quote:

“We were soon scattered all over the Canadian Corps area at the usual jobs such as laying light railways, working on prisoner-of-war cages and manning machine gun posts. Our Lewis gunners established ack-ack posts up alongside our field artillery. When sleeping, we pulled another sandbag over each leg allowing the mud to cake on and keep our legs warm.”

During the last 100 days of the First World War, when the Allies began to push against the German lines in the final push of the war, the Cyclist Corps showed themselves to be more than just manual laborers or traffic wardens. Without the manual labour need, they cyclists began to perform intelligence work, which was what they were originally trained for. They would be sent up in advance of the infantry to keep in touch with the retreating Germans. They also served as battalion runners, dispatchers and scouts during that time, while also taking part in direct combat.

The Cyclist Corps would work closely with armored cars, motorized machine guns, trench mortars, motorcycles and engineers.

On the 22nd Day of the Last 100 Days, in the northern sector, the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion established posts right up to the Scarpe River in order to keep intelligence and reports moving, for example.

In August of 1918, during the Battle of Amiens, it was felt that the cyclists came into their own as the open warfare environment gave them the chance to carry out the work that they were trained for, including being troubleshooters and advance patrols.

Lance-Corporal Alan Macnab would write, quote:

“We started forward at 8 a.m. and passed through the leading infantry by 10. We chased Fritz all day and finally ran into his reserves about 5 p.m.”

He would continue, quote:

“Being out in advance most of the time, we never knew when we were going to run into trouble, and lost quite a few men. Sometimes it would be snipers, sometimes machine guns, sometimes field artillery, firing directly at us from positions in the open.”

The next day, Macnab and his unit would be part of a terrible misunderstanding. He would say, quote:

“Halfway to our objective, the French dropped a barrage of 75 mm shells on us and the French infantry advanced on us with fixed bayonets.”

By the end of that friendly fire exchange, two cyclists had been wounded.

On Aug. 26, the Cyclist Corps were at Arras, where it was said, quote:

“The cyclists, on wheels again, did considerable reconnaissance work and assisted the infantry in the fighting for such places as Villers-les-Cagnicourt where 22 of our officers and other ranks became casualties in a very brief engagement, seven being killed outright.”

Also in October as the push continued to Cambria, one group of Canadian cyclists saw the Canadian Light Horse at full gallop run straight to the German lines, with over 60 horses killed and the soldiers forced to dig in against the Germans. The cyclists were then sent to help another group of cyclists who were being impeded by German artillery.

Bill Mennill, would write, quote:

“By the time we started through Naves, the main street was shambles of shell holes, bricks, telephone poles and wire. It was a case of riding through, hell for leather and the devil take the hindmost.”

Upon arriving at the bridge, now gone, they left their bicycles and continued on foot. By the time the cyclists reached the Germans and took them out of action, one-third were killed or wounded. When the cyclists returned to where they had left their bicycles, they found many destroyed with shrapnel.

Alan Macnab would write, quote:

“I said goodbye to my trusty old Planet Junior Cycle, which had been issued to me in the spring of 1915 in Toronto and which I had babied and scrounged parts for. It was cut in two.”

On Oct. 31, the cyclists reached Canal de l’Escaut outside Valenciennes where most of the bridges had been destroyed. The cyclists work with the engineers to build a bridgehead across a lock gate. They then proceeded into the town, clearing out machine-gun nests and snipers. The cyclists would be the first British Empire troops to go into the town after the German retreat.

By the end of the war, the Cyclist Corps had fought at Ypres, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

On Nov. 11, the cyclists were in Mons, Belgium. Capt. Ellis relates, quote:

“On Nov. 11, there was naturally a big celebration in Mons, including a march past, but some of our men who were then over three miles past Mons did not know that the war was over actually at 11 a.m. until a German official car came through to arrange the take-over by the British.”

The first Allied soldier to cross the Bonn Bridge into Germany after the Armistice of November 1918 would be Garnet Durham of Regina, a Canadian cyclist. Another cyclist received the surrender from the German Imperial family. Although, if that happened, is up for debate. According to the story, a group of cyclists were in Mons when Prince Frederick arrived as part of the treaty signing party. He saw Jock Farquhar from Langham, Saskatchewan and mistook him for an Allied official. He handed over his sword as a symbolic sign of surrender. Did it happen? Who knows, but it makes a good story.

By the end of the war, of the 1,138 cyclists who enlisted, 261 were killed or wounded, a casualty rate of 23 per cent. Even for those who survived, the lasting effects lingered for years.

Jack Wilson was a courier with the Cyclist Battalion and would serve at both Passchendaele and The Somme, delivering messages along the trenches and going over the top. He would be hit with gas twice during his time as a cyclist. When he returned home to Canada, his doctors told him he had to leave Hamilton to find better air. He would move to Victoria, and live until 1961.

Ellis would state, quote:

“They were typical Canadian cyclists to a man. They lived hard, fought hard, and died hard, when they came to it.”

The Toronto Star would write in April 1919, quote:

“In the last two years of the war, no battalion had a more adventurous life than the cyclists.”

On Nov. 15, 1920, the Cyclist Corps would be disbanded. Oddly, despite the heavy losses the Cyclist Battalion suffered, they were never awarded battle honours. Even though the troops were considered to be bicycle infantry, and therefore eligible for battle honours, it did not happen. One reason for this may have been the fact that battle honours were issued in the late-1920s, and the corps were disbanded before that.

The men who served as cyclists would go on to a variety of careers including as company presidents, engineers and politicians. Tom Kennedy would suffer facial disfiguration as a member of the Cyclist Battalion, he was also one of the cyclists involved in the pileup upon seeing the women bathing. He would go on to serve as the Premier of Ontario from 1948 to 1949. 

Following the war, Ellis produced a periodical called The Cyclone, which was for the former members of the Cyclist Corps, and were about the members. Ellis would also hold reunions for the members up until 1987. In 1937, he bought a bottle of champagne, which would be consumed by the last two remaining veterans of the Canadian Cyclist Battalion. As it would turn out, in 1993, the last two were a man named Billy Richardson and Ellis himself. Ellis would be the last remaining member of the Cyclist Corps, when he passed away in 1996 at the age of 100.

I will finish off this episode with a poem called Ode to the Pedal Pusher, written by Ted Henderson of the First Division Cyclist Corps.

We Often recall the old CCM
The first old steed we rode
With its coaster brake and the streamlined frame
And one rear rack for our load.

Information comes from Cycling Magazine, The Bicycle Museum, Google Arts and Culture, Canada At War Blog, Legion Magazine, Macleans, The Little Village That Grew, Canadian Lawyer Magazine, Military Art Blog,

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