Cyclist’s Corps Postcard

This week’s postcard is a fairly standard portrait of a World War One private soldier, taken in three quarters profile and wearing the standard World War one era 1902 Pattern Service Dress, albeit with extra hooks and eyes added to the collar to draw it in and make it look a little smarter:

What makes this postcard a little more interesting, however, is the insignia on his collar which is that for the Army Cyclist Corps:

The late Victorian and early Edwardian period was a boom time for interest in cycling, both in a civilian and military setting. The internal combustion engine was still in its infancy and the bicycle was a relatively cheap way of providing a military unit with far greater mobility than was possible on foot. Men on bicycles could move along paved roads at a steady 10-15 miles an hour and had a far greater range than soldiers on the march. Bicycles were adapted with a rifle rack that allowed a service rifle to be carried attached to the frame and although equipment carried had to be reduced, cyclist units allowed a rapid scouting force to be deployed without the expense of maintaining horses, kaming them ideal for use with the Territorial Force. In 1908 following the Haldane reforms, there were eight cyclist battalions in the British Army:

  • 10th (Cyclist) Battalion, Royal Scots
  • 8th (Cyclist) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers; later the Northern Cyclist Battalion
  • 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Norfolk Regiment
  • The Essex and Suffolk Cyclist Battalion
  • 5th (Cyclist) Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment
  • 7th (Cyclist) Battalion, Welsh Regiment
  • 8th (Cyclist) Battalion, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders); later the Highland Cyclist Battalion
  • 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment); later the Kent Cyclist Battalion
  • 25th (County of London) Cyclist Battalion, London Regiment (from the 26th Middlesex)

A tenth, the 7th (Cyclist) Battalion, Devonshire Regiment, was raised later in 1908; in 1910, the Essex and Suffolk Cyclist Battalion split into the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Suffolk Regiment, and the 8th (Cyclist) Battalion, Essex Regiment; in 1911, the 9th (Cyclist) Battalion, Hampshire Regiment and 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment were formed and, in early 1914, the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalion was formed. On the eve of the First World War, the Territorial Force thus stood at a strength of fourteen cyclist battalions. Ten of these were Territorial battalions of regular infantry regiments, whilst four – the Northern, Highland, Kent, and Huntingdonshire Cyclists – were independent battalions without regimental affiliation.

On the outbreak of the First World War, the cyclist battalions were employed on Coastal Defences in the United Kingdom. Their role was considered to be so important that, initially, none of them were sent overseas. In 1915, the Army Cyclist Corps was founded to encompass these battalions; it later extended to cover a dozen more battalions raised from second-line yeomanry regiments which had been converted to cyclists.

Most units of the Corps served out their time in the United Kingdom, providing replacement drafts to infantry battalions; some were converted back to conventional infantry and saw active service, such as the Kent Cyclists (on the North-West Frontier) or the 2/10th Royal Scots (in northern Russia).

Formed units of the Corps were not sent overseas; this was done in small groups of men, with the divisions possessing individual cyclist companies and composite battalions later formed at corps level. These were rarely committed to action, rather being held back in preparation for the resumption of “normal” mobile warfare. Cyclists were employed in combat, but in conditions of trench warfare they were generally found to be ineffective. In 1918, however, with the deadlock of the trenches overcome, cyclists once more proved invaluable for reconnaissance.

Two battalions, 25th (County of London) Cyclist Battalion and the Kent Cyclist Battalion fought in the Third Anglo-Afghan War.

The Corps was disbanded in 1920; by 1922 all remaining Territorial cyclist battalions had been converted back to conventional units.

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