The Army Cycling Corps started in England in a voluntary capacity around 1885 believed to be known as Rifle Volunteer Corps. In 1888, the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps became the first cyclist battalion and it remained the only one until the formation of the Territorial Force in 1908, when three existing infantry battalions were converted to cyclists, and six totally new cyclist battalions were formed. Four more battalions were formed between 1911 and 1914. Until 1914 the battalions were used largely as coastal patrols.
The official Army Cyclist Corps was formed in 1914 absorbing a number of pre-existing cyclist battalions, from the Territorial Force. More cyclist units were raised during the war, but these all wore the ACC badge whereas the pre-existing units wore their own distinctive unit badges. 15 cyclist battalions existed on mobilisation in Aug 1914. In 1915 the first cyclist units went overseas to France and Flanders and to Gallipoli. In the early days of the war cyclists (British, Belgium and German) were employed as scouts – for example contact with the Russians pre Tannenberg was first made by German cycling units.
In Belgium British and German cycling units actually engaged each other. One of the Anglo Belgian armoured trains actually carried Belgian cycling troops on board to scout away from the railway line. The Italians had cycling troops used as a mobile reserve to plug holes in the line in the case of an Austrian break through.
In the war a number of duties befell cyclists including:
- Courier work – sometime cycling down communications trenches. This was particularly important when the security of the trench telephone system was found to have been compromised by German Moritz receiving stations
- Security patrols – for example the canal system in both Britain and France could have been very vulnerable to sabotage and was patrolled by cyclists.
The Australian Corp was believed to be formed in Egypt before being sent into battle.
There were four kinds of cyclist units in the British Army of World War I.
- The cyclist battalions of the Territorial Force, which were infantry units.
- Yeomanry regiments of the Territorial Force that had exchanged their horses for bicycles.
- The divisional cyclist companies of infantry divisions
- The corps cyclist battalions of army corps.
The cyclist battalions of the Territorial Force and the converted Yeomanry regiments were used exclusively for home defence. They were formed into cyclist brigades (and, for a short time, cyclist divisions) that patrolled coastal areas. The divisional cyclist companies provided a variety of services to infantry divisions. They reinforced the divisional cavalry squadrons, served as military police and provided working parties to assist the divisional engineers.
Divisional cyclist companies were formed at least in part from drafts from the cycling battalions of various regiments. 1st-8th Divisional Cyclist Companies took part in the campaign in 1914 being employed as scouts and ‘mounted’ infantrymen. For example at the Aisne “Troops of 11th Brigade, 4th Division, III Corps – the leftmost unit of the British Army – crossed the partly-destroyed bridge at Venizel in the early hours of 13 September and were ordered to continue the advance against the heights. Cyclists of the same Division crossed at Missy at the same time. This action was successful.”
By the end of the war in France and Flanders, the cyclist battalions had been reformed and the count was still 15 English with a New Zealand Australian and Canadian Corp added making 18 in total. During the First World War operations, cyclists often found themselves in unfriendly and difficult terrain and had to give up their mounts. Based on that experience the British Army found no long-term role for cyclists. The Army Cyclist Corps was disbanded in 1919.
Not knowing much of the history of WW1 or of WW2 research has opened more my mind to the Australian spirit to respond to the call to arms and the huge sacrifice of human life for all and in particular those we come to know and love the ANZACs. Our heritage being that of mainly English influence shows in our military forces until we became more of a nation of our own standing.
May we never understate or forget to show our appreciation of our forebears making the ultimate sacrifice they have. An integral part of the world’s history has been wars, seeing the rise and fall of those exerting their power and huge cost of many lives, like cancer and heart failure it affects us all.
See you on the road soon God willing.
Thanks to William Clark, member of the RSL and local (Bendigo) war museum for historical records.