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Cycling battalions at the Somme

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 June 2016

The Divisional Cycle Corps, equipped with folding machines

The Divisional Cycle Corps, equipped with folding machines

© Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

At the end of August Ride to the Somme, a three-day cycle over 200 miles, will begin in London and end 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. The cycle event will also include a visit to the nearby cemetery in Pozieres where members of the Army Cycling Corps are commemorated.

The 15 cycling battalions included the East Yorkshire Regiment which included the Hull Sportsman’s Battalion which suffered heavy loses on the Somme. Yorkshire as a county raised an army of 400,000 men during the Great War, as many as the whole continent of Australia. Hull supplied 70,000 of these men. The 28 Yorkshire battalions that existed before the war grew into 83 and included 333,000 Yorkshiremen. The Yorkshire battalions suffered 230,000 casualties and earned 35 Victoria Crosses during the First World War.

The 5th (Cyclist) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment was a unit of the Territorial Force attached to Northern Command. Their HQ was in Park Street, Hull. A, B, C and D Companies were based in Hull, E Coy in Howden, North Cave and Saddlethorpe, F Coy in Beverley, Hessle, Market Weighton and Pocklington, G Coy in Bridlington, Hunmanby and Filey, with H Coy in Hedon and Withernsea.

Nine soldiers from East Yorkshire are commemorated at Pozieres whilst 879 are included on the Monument to the Missing in Thiepval. East Yorkshire Regiment’s 2nd Lieutenant John Francis Cragg was killed in action serving King and country on the first morning of the Somme on July 1st, 1916. His Major wrote: ‘I am sure no braver fellow ever stepped in this battalion.’

Private John Lamont of the Army Cycle Corps wrote home on October 15th 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.’

When riders ‘enlist’ for Ride to the Somme they will be asked to report on the 31st August to the ‘recruiting centre’ which will be the Imperial War Museum, London and from there will cycle in Northern France and in particular, on the last day, visit locations where their ancestors will have fought. The ride which ends September 4th will raise money for SSAFA which played a crucial role in World War I supporting families and soldiers on their return home.

SSAFA is 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. Their support covers both Regulars and Reserves in the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and their families, including anyone who has completed National Service. They are all entitled to lifelong support from SSAFA, no matter how long they have served. Every year they support 50,000 people. Today there are nearly 5million people living in the United Kingdom who will have served in the Armed Forces at some point in their lives. Every year, around 20,000 servicemen and women leave the services and return to civilian life.

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