Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War

Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War

Posted on September 20 by Ted Glenn in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
Share on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on Pinterest

Since the Boer War, cyclists had been used on the battlefield as light cavalry responsible for reconnaissance, scouting, screening, and communications. The thinking was that the “act of dismounting deprived a cavalry unit of the services of the men detailed to care for the horses. As one man could only manage four horses or so, the transition from saddle to boot cost a cavalry unit some 25 percent of its rifle strength. A cyclist unit, however, did not have to worry about its mounts running off on their own accord or being hit by stray small-arms fire.” Following British practice, Canadian command established Cyclist companies for each of the divisions during the Great War, eventually merging them into one Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion in 1916.

 

For most of the Great War, Canadian Cyclists performed few of the specialized duties they were enlisted and trained for. Bogged down in the trenches from the winter of 1915 to the summer of 1918, the Cyclists mostly delivered dispatches, patrolled roads, carried stretchers, and dug trenches. At Vimy, one Cyclist recalled their major contribution being “putting most of the Ridge in sand bags.”

 

All that changed with the Hundred Days campaign at the end of the Great War. As part of the great Allied offensive, Canadian Cyclists fought hand-in-glove with the armoured cars, machine gun and trench mortar lorries, cavalry, motorcycles, and engineers of Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel’s Canadian Independent Force to keep the retreating Germans from re-entrenching. At Amiens, Arras, and especially in the pursuit of enemy forces from Cambrai and the Canal du Sensèe, the Cyclists worked well in advance of the rest of the Canadian Corps to keep the Germans on the move. As Cyclist Allan Macnab recalled, “we were [then] organized as pursuit troops operating with the Calvary, mounted 6” howitzers and engineers and getting in perhaps our most telling work. We cleared out many a village and machine gun nest in advance of the infantry and protected engineers when the latter constructed or repaired the bridges across canals and streams. We also tested the roads and villages for mines and ‘booby’ traps.”

 

The Hundred Days campaign was proof that Lieutenant General Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps had evolved into an innovative, efficient, deadly, and highly professional fighting force. The legacy of Canadian Cyclists in the Great War is based on their small but important contributions to that evolution, especially in the development of the Corps’ combined arms strategy and mobile warfare doctrine.  

 

The Cyclists’ legacy came at a deadly cost: Out of a total enlistment of 1,138 men, 261 were killed or wounded — a casualty rate of 23 percent.

 

Read the untold story of Canadian Cyclists in the Great War in Ted Glenn’s Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War.

Ted Glenn

Posted by Dundurn Guest on November 21, 2017
Ted Glenn photo

Ted Glenn

Ted Glenn is a professor at Humber College and writes about Canadian government and history. He divides his time between Grey County and Toronto.