Jul 28, 1914 - Nov 11, 1918

Riding Into Battle

Canadian Centre for the Great War

The Untold Story of Canadian Cyclists in the Great War

Cyclists in War
Since the Boer War, cyclists worked with cavalry units to carry out duties requiring troops to dismount.  “The act of dismounting deprived a cavalry unit of the services of the men detailed to care for the horses…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.”  Source: Croker, F.P.U. “The Man-Powered Military Vehicle.” The Army Quarterly and Defence Journal 101, No. 4 (July 1971).
The Bikes
Like their British counterparts, most Canadian Cyclists rode 24-inch Birmingham Small Arms Company (B.S.A.) Mark IV bicycles in the Great War.  Standard issue were clips for mounting a .303 Hotchkiss Portable Machine Gun “over the handlebar (for short distances when going into action)” and another for carrying the gun “through the frame for long distances, on the march.”  Source: Skennerton, Ian. “Pedal Power: The British Military Bicycle.” Arms & Militia Collector 5, No. 2 (1991).
Recruitment
Recruiters for the five original Cyclist companies advertised for “men with a fair education … as some knowledge of map reading is desirable.  Young fellows who have had experience in surveying, engineering or such office work as is performed by bank clerks have proved useful men in the Cyclist Corps.”  Source: Unknown. “Cyclists in Demand to Chase the Huns.” The Globe, December 1, 1916.
Basic Training
Before heading oversees, many Canadian soldiers took basic training at Camp Exhibition in downtown Toronto.  “If our training bore little relationship to the type of warfare then being waged in France, where so-called ‘mounted troops’ were fighting grimly in the trenches of Sanctuary Wood, it was interesting training anyhow!”  Source: Quoted in Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Battle of the Humber
A recurring training exercise for soldiers at Camp Exhibition was the “Battle of the Humber.”  For one such Battle in 1915, “the enemy was supposed to be retreating from [an offensive force] composed of the 10th Battalion, two batteries of artillery and the Divisional Cyclist Corps. The scene of the engagement covered a space of some three square miles, three-quarters of a mile on each side of the Old Mill.”  Source: Unknown. “Realistic Battle along Humber River.” The Globe, March 25, 1915.
Advanced Training
After basics in Canada, Cyclists and the rest of Canadian troops bound for the Great War headed to England for advanced training.  In the fall of 1914, heavy rains turned camp at Salisbury Plain, England, “into a quagmire.”  The “terrible mud” made advanced training difficult for the First Division, with cycling in particular “out of the question most of the time.” Source:  Bush, Major Clayton E., and C.S.M. Fred V. Delavigne. “History of the First Divisional Cyclist Company.” In Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1914–1918, edited by W.D. Ellis, Toronto: The Association, 1950.
The Trenches
For most of the Great War, Canadian Cyclists performed few of the specialized duties they were trained for.  During the Battle of Ypres in 1915, for example, the Cyclists were assigned to “guarding prisoners, guarding important crossings and bridges, as well as for obtaining information and acting as dispatch riders.”  Source: Everall, Lieutenant. “Precis written by W.M. Everall, 1st Divisional Cyclist Co. July 1915, and submitted to HQ 1st CDN Division.” Cyclone 3, Issue 8 (October 1970).
Hundred Days Campaign
Canada’s Cyclists came into their own as part of Brigadier-General Raymond Brutinel’s Canadian Independent Force during the Hundred Days Offensive (August-October 1918).  Working closely with armoured cars, motorized machine guns and trench mortars, cavalry, motorcycles, and engineers, the Cyclists helped the Canadian Corps develop and execute the combined arms strategy and mobile warfare doctrine it became famous for. Source: Glenn, Ted.  Riding Into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War.  Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2018.
Amiens
The Battle of Amiens (August 1918) was a particular significant victory for Canadian Cyclists as it marked the first time they “finally came into their own. The open warfare gave them a chance to carry out the work for which they were enlisted, namely, as advance patrols and general troubleshooters.” Source: Quoted in Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Arras
The Canadian Corps returned to Arras on August 26 to begin the push for Cambrai.  “The Cyclists, on wheels again, did considerable reconnaissance work and assisted the infantry in the fighting for such places as Villers-les-Cagnicourt where 22 of our officers and other ranks became casualties in a very brief engagement, seven being killed outright.” Source: Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Pursuit from the Sensée
During the Pursuit from the Sensée Canal (October 1918), the Cyclists got in “perhaps their most telling work…Being out in advance most of the time we never knew when we were going to run into trouble and lost quite a few men killed and wounded. Sometimes it would be snipers; sometimes machine guns; sometimes field artillery using “open sights,” that is, firing directly at us from positions in the open.” Source:  Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Valenciennes
On October 31st, Canadian Cyclists reached the Canal de l’Escaut on the outskirts of Valenciennes where “all the bridges had been blown up” and established a bridgehead across a lock gate.  After the engineers put out fires set by the retreating Germans, the Cyclists “proceeded on through Valenciennes, clearing out snipers and machine-gun nests. They were officially recorded as the first British troops to go through the town.” Source: Quoted in Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Mons
By November 11, the Canadian Corps had reached Mons, Belgium.  “On November 11th there was naturally a big celebration in Mons, including a march past, but some of our men who were then over three miles past Mons did not know that the war was actually over at 11 o’clock until a German official car came through to arrange the take-over by the British.” Source: Quoted in Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Dick Ellis
In 1937, Dick Ellis — the unofficial guardian of the Cyclists’ legacy after the war — donated a bottle of Pol Roger to the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association and charged that it be drank by the last two surviving members.  Incredibly, Ellis shared that bottle with fellow Cyclist Billy Richardson in 1992.  Ellis died in 1996, the sole surviving Canadian Cyclist, at the very good age of 100.
Legacy
The Hundred Days Offensive of the Great War proved that Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie’s Canadian Corps had evolved into an innovative, efficient, and highly professional fighting force.  Riding Into Battle (Dundurn Press, 2018) tells the story of how Canadian Cyclists made small, but deadly contributions to that evolution: Out of a total enlistment of 1,138, 261 were killed or wounded, a casualty rate of 23 percent.  Source:  Glenn, Ted.  Riding Into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War.  Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2018.
“They were typical Canadian Cyclists to a man. They lived hard — fought hard — and died hard, when they came to it.” 
Ellis, W.D., and J. Gordon Beatty. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914–1918. Toronto: Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association, 1965.
Credits: Story

The Canadian Centre for the Great War would like to thank the following individuals and organisations for their support:

Author Ted Glenn
A. Chan - Exhibition Design
The Dundurn Press and M. Melski
Library and Archives Canada
MilArt Photo Archives
Arms & Militia Collector
Ian Skennerton
City of Toronto Archives
The Bicycling World and Motorcycle Review
Canadian War Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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