Unit History: Army Cyclist Corps
The first form of the bicycle was invented in 1817 in France as an alternative to horses, when crop failure following the volcanic eruption of Tambora, lead to the mass starvation of horses in France. There followed many different versions of this early bicycle, which on the whole was considered a rich man’s toy until 1890, when a new safer version of the bicycle was invented and formed the basis of modern bicycles. During the First World War it was believed that this popular form of transport could be of use in the war effort.
Bicycles were lighter, quieter and logistically easier to manage than horses making them ideal for reconnaissance and communications work and had first been used in this way during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The Haldane Reforms of 1908 reorganised the Volunteers, Yeomanry and the Militia Regiments into a Territorial Force following the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907. As part of this nine initial Cyclist Battalions were formed;
• 25th (County of London) (Cyclist) Battalion, The London Regiment
• 10th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Royal Scots
• 5th (Cyclist) Battalion, The East Yorkshire Regiment
• 8th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch); later the Highland Cyclist Battalion
• 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Norfolk Regiment
• 7th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Welsh Regiment
• 8th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Northumberland Fusiliers; later the Northern Cyclist Battalion
• 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Queen's Own (Royal West Kent Regiment); later the Kent Cyclist Battalion
• The Essex and Suffolk Cyclist Battalion
After this initial formation various units were added over the next six years; 7th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Devonshire Regiment in 1908, in 1910 the Essex and Suffolk Cyclist Battalion split into; 8th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Essex Regiment and the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment. In 1911 two more battalions were formed; 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment and the 9th (Cyclist) Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment and finally in 1914, the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion was formed.
Therefore on the eve of the First World War, the Territorial Force had a strength of fourteen cyclist battalions. The majority of these were Territorial battalions as part of the regular infantry Regiments. However, four battalions - the Huntingdonshire, Highland, Northern and Kent Cyclists - were independent without Regimental affiliation. These territorial were primarily used for coastal defence and supplied drafts of men to the regular forces. However some battalions such as the Kent Cyclists were converted to infantry and used for foreign service in India.
The Army Cyclist Corps was founded in 1915 in order to cover these battalions, and would later extend to cover the battalions of the second-line yeomanry Regiments converted to cyclists.
Small groups of men were formed as a cyclist battalion in each Division on the Western Front but were rarely committed to action as the conditions of trench warfare they were generally found to be ineffective. The battalions were mainly held back for the resumption of ‘normal’ mobile warfare, to be used for reconnaissance.
Following the war cyclists were perceived as having little future value and the Corps was disbanded in 1919 with all remaining Territorial battalions converted back to conventional infantry by 1922.
Army Cyclist Corps during WW1
Since 1815 the balance of power in Europe had been maintained by a series of treaties. In 1888 Wilhelm II was crowned ‘German Emperor and King of Prussia’ and moved from a policy of maintaining the status quo to a more aggressive position. He did not renew a treaty with Russia, aligned Germany with the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire and started to build a Navy rivalling that of Britain. These actions greatly concerned Germany’s neighbours, who quickly forged new treaties and alliances in the event of war. On 28th June 1914 Franz Ferdinand the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was assassinated by the Bosnian-Serb nationalist group Young Bosnia who wanted pan-Serbian independence. Franz Joseph's the Austro-Hungarian Emperor (with the backing of Germany) responded aggressively, presenting Serbia with an intentionally unacceptable ultimatum, to provoke Serbia into war. Serbia agreed to 8 of the 10 terms and on the 28th July 1914 the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, producing a cascade effect across Europe. Russia bound by treaty to Serbia declared war with Austro-Hungary, Germany declared war with Russia and France declared war with Germany. Germany’s army crossed into neutral Belgium in order to reach Paris, forcing Britain to declare war with Germany (due to the Treaty of London (1839) whereby Britain agreed to defend Belgium in the event of invasion). By the 4th August 1914 Britain and much of Europe were pulled into a war which would last 1,566 days, cost 8,528,831 lives and 28,938,073 casualties or missing on both sides.
The Northern Cyclist Battalion
04.04.1914 Formed at Newcastle-on-Tyne as part of the Northern Command.
Aug 1914 Moved to Morpeth war station.
1916 Moved to Alnwick.
July 1915 Formed the 10th Provisional Cyclist Company.
1916 Moved to Skegness.
June 1918 Moved to Burton Constable.
1915 Formed at Newcastle-on-Tyne.
Mar 1916 Disbanded and remaining personnel transferred to the 1/1st & 2/1st Battalions and the Machine Gun Corps.
The Highland Cyclist Battalion
04.08.1914 Stationed at Kirkcaldy as part of the Scottish Command and then moved to East Linton war station.
July 1916 Moved to St. Andrews.
May 1918 Moved to Ireland and stationed at Enniskillen and Tandalstown.
Nov 1914 Formed.
July 1915 Personnel for the 1st Provisional Cyclist Company.
1916 Moved to Montrose.
1917 Moved to Arbroath.
May 1918 Moved to Curragh.
Mar 1916 Disbanded and remaining personnel transferred to the 1/1st & 1/2nd Battalion and the Machine Gun Corps.
The Kent Cyclist Battalions
04.08.1914 Stationed at Tonbridge as part of the Eastern Command and then moved to Canterbury war station.
1915 Moved to the Kent and Sussex coastal defences attached to the 57th Division.
02.12.1915 Moved to Chisledon and reorganised as an infantry battalion.
08.02.1916 Embarked for India where it remained.
July 1915 Personnel for the 9th Provisional Cyclist Company.
1916 Moved to Canterbury.
Mar 1917 Moved to Ramsgate attached to the 5th Cyclist Brigade.
Mar 1918 Attached to the Cyclist Division at Lydd.
Formed 1915 and disbanded in 1916.
The Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalions
04.08.1914 Stationed at Huntingdon as part of the Eastern Command and then moved to Grimsby war station.
1916 Moved to Scarborough.
June 1918 Moved to Whitby.
Oct 1914 Formed.
1916 moved to Sutton-le-Marsh, Mablethorpe.
Mar 1917 Moved to Alford and then Chapel St. Leonards.
May 1918 Moved to Skegness.
1915 Formed and disbanded in 1916 with remaining personnel transferred to the 1/1st & 2/1st Battalions and the Machine Gun Corps.