Monday, April 18, 2016

The Somme and the Role of the Bicycle

This year marks the centenary of The Battle of the Somme, recognised as one of the bloodiest battles in human conflict with over 1 million casualties over a 4 month period. At the beginning of the War the British Army was a relatively small force and was increased rapidly by volunteers with often whole streets and villages seeing every available man enlist. 100 years on people today are the last that will have spoken directly to those that fought on the Somme.

Today cycling is a wide ranging leisure activity but in 1914 times were very different. Throughout the UK there were 15 designated cycling battalions who were absorbed into the Army Cycling Corps. Many stayed in the UK as part of home defence while others, and their bikes, headed to France and the frontline. 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.

To mark the occasion there will be an organised 3 day cycle ride over 200 miles called appropriately, Ride to the Somme. It will culminate by paying respects at The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval which lists the 72,195 missing British and African soldiers that have no known grave. There will also be specific respects paid to members of the Army Cycling Corps who are commemorated at the nearby cemetery in Pozieres.

When riders enlist they will be asked to report on the 31st August to the “recruiting centre” which will be the Imperial War Museum and from there will cycle in Northern France and in particular, on the last day, visit locations where their ancestors will have fought. Entries will close at the end of May. This event will be raising funds for SSAFA who played a crucial role in World War I supporting families and soldiers upon their return home. SSAFA are the longest serving national tri-service military charity. For 130 years, they have provided lifelong support to those who are serving or have ever served in our Armed Forces.

Of the 15 battalions not surprisingly one was from London:

The County of London Cyclist Battalion, which is highlighted at Pozieres Cemetery one of the key destinations on Day 3 of The Ride.

Private John Lamont of the Army Cycle 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.”

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