World War one conjures up images of trenches, mud and carnage, most of it playing through our heads in the form of flickering old film or battered photos. It is not a time period that is normally associated with motorcycles and yet they did play that part and quite an important part at that.
The United States used 80,000 motorcycles during the campaign, most of them Indians, but by the end of the war 50% of Harleys were going to the military. In the UK it was a similar story; Triumph alone sold 30,000 Model H Roadsters to the military. It was a 499 cc four stroke that produced 3bhp, and it did not have pedals, which made it one of the first true motorcycles!
The soldiers on the bikes performed a variety of jobs, from stretcher carriers, taking wounded for treatment from the front lines, perimeter patrols, ammunition carriers and of course the most famous and important job, Dispatch Riders, keeping communications going between the command and the front line.
It was the beginning of August 1914 when the Royal Engineers Signal Service that first used Dispatch Riders in the British army. The War Department asked people to volunteer, WITH their motorcycles for dispatch work and they were inundated with volunteers. They had 2000 more people offering to serve than there were places and so they could cherry pick the ones they wanted. These “lucky” guys were paid £10 on signing up and £5 when they left; they were also paid 35s a week, which is about $112 today. When they demobilized their bike would be bought off them at the valuation price or they would be given a new one.
So off these young men went, into the hell of the First World War, full of jingoism and confidence not knowing the hell they would find. Here is an extract from the memoirs of one rider taken from the book Adventures of a Despatch Rider by British Army Capt. W.H.L. Watson:
“Then came two and a half miles of winding country lanes. They were covered with grease. Every corner was blind. A particularly sharp turn to the right and the despatch rider rode a couple of hundred yards in front of a battery in action that the Germans were trying to find. A "hairpin" corner round a house followed. This he would take with remarkable skill and alacrity, because at this corner he was always sniped. Into the final straight the despatch rider rode for all he was worth. It was un-pleasant to find new shell-holes just off the road each time you passed, or, as you came into the straight, to hear the shriek of shrapnel between you and the farm.”
If you would like to read the whole story the book can be found on Amazon.
It was not only the men that served on bikes, Women of the WRAF Women’s Royal Air Force also rode bikes but not in the front line. The original idea was that the ladies would be trained as mechanics but so many volunteered that they were also placed as riders, delivering messages between camps all across the UK.
So when you climb on your bike, just think about those brave men, and women, who served their countries on theirs 100 years ago….and feel just a little bit of pride that you are keeping the two wheeled tradition going!