THE thirty-three years from 1887 to 1920 witnessed the conception, birth, growth, adolescence, and premature death of military cycling (as distinct from mere despatch riding) in the British Army.
It is impossible to name the man who first conceived the idea of cyclist soldiers; who first mentally visualised super-mobile troops, able to march 50 or even 100 miles a day, moving swiftly and silently on mounts requiring no fodder or drink and little or no attention. It is however certain that while Professor of Tactics on the staff of the R.M.C. at Sandhurst, in 1887, the idea of the employment of cyclists for military purposes was mooted by Lt.-Col. A. R. Savile* who was, even then, a very keen touring wheeler, and it cannot be disputed that by mustering the first parade in history of cyclists for military purposes on the cricket ground of Saint Thomas's College, Canterbury, in the early morning of April 8th, 1887, he earned the right to be acclaimed the " Father of Military Cycling."
An extract from an unknown periodical reads as follows :-
In an article contributed to the "Military Cyclist," in 1906 Col. Savile thus described his command at these Easter maneuvers :
At 2 p.m. the Cops paraded again at the same place, and commenced an extensive reconnaissance of the country on the west side of Canterbury. I had a shrewd suspicion that the civilian element' thought they would learn much more about a soldier's work if we tossed up for sides and entered into a mortal combat amongst ourselves on the cricket field. But obedience was the order of the day, and there was certainly much curiosity to discover the practical meaning of the long word, ' reconnaissance,' which had been dinned into their ears a few hours earlier. The ' scorchers ' of the force, too, were quivering with impatience to be in the saddle and hunt for an enemy.
The right division took the area on the north side of. the London Road, extending to Whitstable, and then working along the shore westward ; the left division spread out as far south as Chilham and Challock Lees, detached scouts-these were the racing men and the road record breakers-were sent to various distant places on special missions. A strong body, with advanced guard, moved along the main road towards Faversham, regulating the progress of the two wings, and keeping in touch with them. In a very short time the whole force was extended in fanshape on a front of about 12 miles, the numerous patrols maintaining a system of perfect inter-communication from flank to flank, and the work of gathering information and writing reports proceeded steadily and efficiently. We were accompanied by a host of newspaper correspondents, photographers and horsemen ; the latter found great difficulty in keeping near the cyclists of Capt. Cohen's detachment... On reaching the line of Sheldwich-Faversham-Nag's Head, the whole ' screen ' formation closed inwards and assembled at Faversham under cover of the advanced guard holding the position in front at Ospringe.
Particularly good work was done by a detachment on the extreme left, under T. de B. Holmes, who in later years commanded the 26th Middlesex.
The writer might safely have concluded with, " Such was the first day of military cycling in the world," for all the Continental armies lagged far behind ours in adopting this new arm, though, as will be gathered later, the British Higher Command did not wax at all enthusiastic for very many years, and probably, at no time, appreciated the full possibilities of cycles in warfare or the keenness of the well informed minds which were striving against official passivity to evolve the technique of this branch.
So impressed were the participants in these 1887 operations that, within a week of their conclusion, Major Wallace Carpenter (late 6th Dragoon Guards Carabineers) made application to the War Office for authority to raise a Corps of Volunteer Cyclists, to be known as " Cyclist Guides," with an establishment of 216 all ranks. At first glance this number would seem to indicate that it was proposed to have 16 commissioned and warrant officers and 200 other ranks, but records show that the odd 16 men were to be musicians. The imagination does not require the aid of a comic drawing, such as was published at a later date, to conjure up a vision of, say, a man precariously retaining his equilibrium on a cycle while beating a bass drum. If the humorously absurd side of this suggestion can be appreciated, there is the satisfaction of knowing that H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge, the C. in C., did not like the idea at all, and that the then Secretary of State for War expressed himself as being prepared to decide, out of hand, that the suggested new arm would be of no use. The sponsors of the idea, however, refused to allow their child to be still-born ; negotiations were continued, with the satisfactory result that in August of the same year Major Wallace Carpenter was provisionally authorised to enrol volunteers for service as cyclists on the clear and typical understanding that no public money would be forthcoming, to aid the venture, for that year at any rate.
Unhappily Major Wallace Carpenter was forced, through ill-health, to retire, and it fell to the lot of Captain (shortly afterwards Major) Percy Hughes Hewitt (also late 6th Dragoon Guards), who had continued the agitation for official recognition, finally to receive on February 11th, 1888, the information from the Adjutant-General, Lord Wolseley, that the offer to raise a Corps of Cyclists had been accepted,
and that, to conform to the general practice whereby all Volunteer Corps bore a county designation, the title would be " 26th Middlesex (Cyclist) Rifle Volunteer Corps." Actually the word " Rifle " was dropped, as will be seen from the following, which was the first official notification of the existence of the new unit to appear in the " London Gazette."
It is interesting to note that the Corps started with two ex-regular officers, and that all the subalterns were men well known in the cycling world of the day.
Lieutenant Holmes (the son of. Major Knox Holmes, who was regarded as the " Grand Old Man " of the cycling world in the " eighties ") subsequently commanded the battalion from 1892 to 1894. M. D. Rucker was an amateur trick rider, besides being an ex-champion, and he it was who astonished the Duke of Cambridge, subsequently, by his success in riding across country on a cycle. Those of a younger generation, who have examined the machines of that day, rather wonder how progress was made on them along roads, let alone across fields.
Recruiting was commenced at once, and about twelve men started drilling at St. George's Barracks under ColourSergeant John Johns, who was subsequently transferred from the Grenadier Guards to fill the position of Sergeant-Major of the Corps, which did not officially exist until the 1st April (which fell on Easter Sunday in 1888). Nevertheless, the first muster was held on February 24th. The first parade for field work took place on Wimbledon Common on the 3rd March, while on the Thursday before Good Friday the battalion-thus still being in a pre-natal state met at Guildford for Easter Manoeuvres. We find it reported that although one or two ardent spirits-presumably in company with their strenuous bodies-rode down by way of the Ripley Road, the London and SouthWestern Railway carried the majority. Before following these enthusiasts any further a digression will be made to study their equipment and terms of membership.
Martini rifles and the old pattern triangular bayonets were served out, and members were generously allowed the startling privilege of purchasing (for three guineas) the uniform with belt and pouch, and the large black pouch for reserve ammunition which was designed to fix on the back of the saddle of their machines. This was the only equipment that the individual members of the Corps possessed when they went forth at Easter, 1888.
The form of application for membership of the " Proposed Corps of Cyclists Guides," which was accompanied by a form of particulars (addressed from Temporary Head quarters, 28, Ashley Place, Victoria Street, S.W.), informed all and sundry that the proposed subscription was to be one guinea per annum, and that no entrance fee would be charged to the first three hundred members. To overcome one of the difficulties of the day, it was decided that three different Troops-consisting, respectively, of bicycles and safeties, tricycles and tandems,-should be formed, and that the management of the Corps should be carried on as in a Volunteer
Regiment (It should be noted that the proposal form was circulated before the unit had been given a name.)
Intending members were very considerately informed that they would be told off to different Troops according
to the machines they rode, and the pace at which they travelled. On the form of application various questions had to be answered and importance was apparently attached, quite rightly, to one which sought to ascertain the longest distance ridden in one day by the candidate.
" There had been a heavy snowstorm the previous week followed by a thaw, and the roads bid fair to test the training of anyone cycling over them. The Stoke Hotel sheltered the Cyclist Corps for the night, and at 6 o'clock on Good Friday morning the Corps paraded in the yard at Guildford railway station. Spectators were not many as it was a cold grey morning with a promise of rain to come. There was more curiosity amongst those forming up on parade, as to how the others were mounted and equipped, than among the citizens of Guildford, although in their very midst a new arm of the service was parading for the first time.
It must be borne in mind that many Volunteer Battalions had been allowed to form Cyclist Sections, and these formed the bulk of the force ; but any cyclist in a Volunteer Battalion in which a section had not been formed, was allowed to attend the manoeuvres, so the diversity of uniforms and machines was very great. The majority of the Cyclist Corps rode safety bicycles, but there were several mounted on tricycles, including Colonel Savile the commander of the force. Also, many of the good old ordinaries were on parade, their riders dressed in helmet, tunic, trousers and gaiters, with rifle slung over the shoulders, and only those who have ever ridden an ' ordinary' will realise what it meant to mount with a Martini waggling round. Another 'ordinary ' rider had his
rifle fixed in a clip down the backbone of the machine, and speculation was rife as to how he would climb on to his saddle over the muzzle of his rifle, which reached above the level of his saddle. There was one section on 'Clavigers,' safety bicycles worked by a crank instead of a chain, so that the riders simply moved their legs up and down like a treadmill; then there was a fearful and wonderful combination known as a Victoria Tandem, consisting of six or eight pairs of wheels coupled together, and carrying 16 men with a large box trailing behind holding engineering tools. This was promptly nicknamed the 'centipede,' but its owners called it the 'Flying Sapper.' It, however, did not fly and soon broke down, a fate which also befell the maxim gun of the Cyclist Corps. This was mounted on a multicycle with two men to ride it, but it broke down in the first six miles, and was not seen again till we got to Dover on the following Monday. The Cyclist Corps formed part of the left column which was to proceed via Alton and Winchester to Luscombe Corner, where the right column, which was to proceed via Basingstoke, was to unite with it, and the whole force to close the main exits from Salisbury on the east side.
The whole force reached Winchester soon after 12 o'clock, detraining and forming up within eight minutes, which was far less time than cavalry would have taken. The old High Street, which in its time has seen so many different warriors since the Romans first formed a camp there, witnessed the march of the column past the point where the statue of Alfred the Great now stands. En route it met and passed the Mayor and Corporation in full state on their way back from service at the Cathedral, and it is safe to say that each party closely regarded the other, for each, in its way, was an object of curiosity.
After a halt of one hour to allow for lunch, the column moved on towards Stockbridge, which was reached about 2 p.m. It was at this point that real difficulties commenced. The weather broke up, and as the hill by the town was climbed the rain came down in torrents, whilst a strong south-westerly gale-blowing dead ahead-forced the men to lean well over their handle-bars. Roads became very slippery and, as if to try the patience and endurance of the somewhat raw troops still further, it was found on reaching the downs that flints had been freshly laid for some miles, thus obliging the column to wheel its cycles along the path by the side of the road. This succession of evils caused the line to tail out, and by the time the advance guard reached the Pheasant Inn (which is about five miles
from Salisbury) it became necessary to call a halt to enable stragglers to rejoin.
The rain was still pouring down, but it was known that the enemy were not now far off. Encouraged by this thought, there was a ready response when Col. Savile cried out,
To prove the vagaries of the English climate, it was a fine frosty morning when Col. Servile, leading the way on his tricycle, moved at the head of his newly-born command.
The foregoing recital can only add to one's admiration for the men who could be so far-sighted that, handicapped as they were, they could still appreciate the potentialities of cyclist soldiers.
Before leaving this text-book there is one more definition which must be recorded. It runs thus : "Steering man. The steering man of a cycle is the man who holds the steering handles." It seems well that this explanation was
included as otherwise there might have been some confusion.
Although comment in a light vein has been made on one or two of these orders, the instructions as a whole, even read in the light of nearly forty years afterwards, are most comprehensive and prove, if proof is necessary, that the whole question of organisation and discipline was seriously and minutely studied.
Easter manoeuvres continued to provide the main annual field training. In 1890 we see that Gilbertson Smith (then a Sec.-Lieut. and Actg.-Adjt.) signed a parade state at Charing Cross Station on April 3rd, showing that, counting officers, "A" troop mustered 22 and " B " 9. This figure increased by one to thirty-two at Dover three days later, and seems to have been the highest attained during that Easter.
From July 11th to 25th such men as could manage it attended the annual Bisley Camp. The particulars relating to this were signed by Gilbertson Smith, who, to prove his versatility, signed them as Lieutenant and Acting-Quartermaster. With delightful optimism, probably quite justified, he called for the names of any members who were willing to go down on the day before the camp opened, or early on the day itself, to form a fatigue party. Members were informed that for £2 10s. 0d. they could be allotted a space with two others in a bell tent for the whole period. This
sum covered the provision of a camp bedstead complete with a pair of blankets, mattress, bolster, basin, washstand, looking glass, lantern, strip of matting, water can, chest-ofdrawers, bath, pole strap and other items which the "geligraph " has not clearly defined. Extra to this comprehensive list, a camp table could be hired for the fortnight at an inclusive charge of 2/6.
The life of the Volunteer in those days appears to have been largely made up, on the lighter side, of smoking concerts and sports meetings, for practically the only records available at the time of writing this history deal with functions of this nature. It has not been thought fit to include particulars of these, as although doubtless of interest to the participants they can give little real idea of what Volunteer service really consisted.
A week after this performance, "A" troop, commanded by Captain de Bruno Holmes, decided to make an attempt to better this time and a team, led by Lieut. Gilbertson Smith, started from Hitchin on Saturday, 25th October, through Harlow, Clifton, Caldecotte and Beeston, straight
along the Great North Road to Kate's Tavern, thence to Peterborough, returning the same way to Beeston and from there direct to Hitchin through Biggleswade. It must be remembered that only solid or cushion tyres existed in those days and, in accordance with the conditions of the test, each man's cycle was fully equipped with rifle, sword, knapsack, and overcoat, in addition to weights representing 10 pounds of ammunition, and that the same machines had to be used throughout. The weather was unpropitious, the team starting in a fog which did not lift until Buckden (26½ miles) was reached. At this point, flooded roads-the water reaching over the cyclists' pedals made the going very difficult. Nevertheless the whole team covered the first 50 miles in 5 hours 6 minutes, and after a hasty meal the return journey was commenced under more favourable conditions, the final point being passed 10 hours 57 minutes 12 seconds from the start, thus beating "B" troop's time by 26 minutes 42 seconds.
In November, of that year, we find that the bayonet team of the 26th, under Sergeant F. H. Summers, was considered so efficient that it was pressed to give an exhibition at the annual Stanley (Cycle) Show at the Agricultural Hall. The press comments on this were very complimentary.
In 1897 the unit, for the third time, gave a display at the Royal Military Tournament at the Agricultural Hall, providing an excellent opportunity for Sergeant Rule, while riding at speed, to perform his spectacular act of picking up a wounded man from the ground. In the same year the Corps formed part of the Guard of Honour at the jubilee of Queen Victoria, a parade which lasted twelve hours.
These operations do not call for any particular comment as they seem to have followed the general line of field training.
Although trained particularly with a view to moving, wherever practicable, on wheels, the Corps did not neglect the ordinary " foot slogging " side of military routine. In fact, far from neglecting it, they seemed to have entered, with their usual enthusiasm, into a competition designed to encourage marching, for we see that, in February, 1899, five teams-each consisting, it is believed, of one Sergeant, one Corporal and six men-set out to cover a course of nearly 15 miles. The winners, under Sergeant Summers, completed the full distance in 2 hours 44 minutes 55 seconds, with the second team less than eight minutes behind them.
It seems safe to say that, if this performance was carried out in full marching order, the weight was considerably lighter than that carried by troops 2o years later.
The Easter manoeuvres of '99, at Woking, are memorable for the fact that a Maxim gun, the motor haulage of which was the joint invention of a Mr. Charter, of the Cyclometer Company, and Sergeant " Jack " Rule, of the Battalion, was used for the first time. The motive power was supplied by a motor tricycle, the engine of which, from the illustration, appears to have been a single cylinder two stroke. The gun was mounted between two wheels and was attached to the back of the tricycle by a hollow tube which, with a super-imposed saddle, acted as a trail when the gun was in action. The hollow of this tube was utilised to carry a pole and tackle so that, in the event of the disablement of the motor-tricycle, the gun could be pulled by four cyclists. The team consisted of eight men, each of whom carried a box containing 25o rounds of ammunition.
This period cannot be passed over without making reference to the part played by the unit in the South African War. Of the 81 men on the strength of the unit at the 1st November, 1899, 18 volunteered for active service, and all of these were duly accepted and ultimately served-nine of them with the famous City Imperial Volunteers, who were more commonly known as the C.I.V.'s.*
In 1900 the agitation, which had been proceeding since the formation of the Corps, resulted in permission being granted for the establishment to be raised to 240. Records show, however, that the actual strength was only about half this total.
In 1904, Major C. E. Liles, who had held the appointment of Commandant from the 13th February, 1895, retired and was succeeded by Gilbertson Smith. This officer had received his majority in 1896, and had acted from that date, not only as second-in-command but also as Brigade Signalling Officer, in addition to carrying out the duties of Acting Adjutant.
In this year (1904) the Battalion was attached to the 2nd (South) Middlesex V.R.C., and a year later moved to its new Headquarters in the Horseferry Road, Westminster.
The Contribution of the 26TH Middlesex to the City
Imperial Volunteers (1899-1900).
To give an idea of the composition of this really unique force, it should be noted that "C" Company, alone, had about 30 colour-sergeants and sergeants serving in its ranks as privates.
Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the hardest, trek carried out by the infantry, then took place. A flying column was formed under Lord Kitchener, and marched hard on the heels of the ever elusive De Wet, covering 224 miles in the first fourteen days. It did some good work, but failed to hold De Wet, who escaped through the Magalisberg range of mountains. It was on the conclusion of this forced march that 1,000 miles of trekking in South Africa was completed. The battalion then marched back again to Pretoria, bivouacking outside the town, and enjoyed another well-earned rest for nearly a month. Whilst stationed there, Kitchener called upon the C.I.V. to furnish him with a dozen cyclist orderlies, and these were detailed under one of the 26th Middlesex men.
Little else of interest remains to be related. The unit eventually sailed from Capetown on the 7th October in the Cunarder "Aurania," reaching Southampton on the 27th, but not landing until Monday, the 29th.
On marching out from Paddington Station the members of the battalion were astonished to see Volunteers lining the streets, also a fair number of other people. The crowd gradually got thicker, and at Hyde Park Corner it formed a solid mass. It was here that they passed between the lines of the 26th Middlesex, and were able to recognise many old friends. H.R.H. The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII.) greeted them from Marlborough House. In Trafalgar Square and along the Strand, difficulty was experienced in keeping "fours" and from the Law Courts onwards it was a case of push all the way, in single file, to the Guildhall. It was a royal welcome home.
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