Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Motorcycle Despatch Riders of WWI

One of my favourite TV shows is Doyle’s War, a crime show set in England during WW2, where Michael Kitchen's Detective Foyle unravels diabolical crimes in the British coastal hamlet of Hastings, aided by his loyal driver, Samantha Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks), an enthusiastic young woman who is eager to assist in the detective work.  I so would have loved her job!

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Sam driving Detective Foyle source

Women were also used as drivers during WWI, freeing up men for other tasks such as fighting on the front, where women were not allowed.  Car’s weren’t common in 1914, but motorcycles were gaining popularity and cheaper to buy, so more people know how to ride them.  The motorcycle had evolved from the earlier bicycle, which was loved by women the world over for the mobility and freedom it allowed. In fact, as I have mentioned in an earlier post, Susan B. Anthony said, "The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world." Women enjoyed motorcycles as much as they had enjoyed bicycles, and early riders were seen as adventuresome, not as outlaws as motorbike riders would later become.
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A lady on an early Harley motorcycle, c. 1900
Motorcycles began to replace the horse as a method of delivering messages , both in battle and on the home front, and WWI was the first war in which the motorcycle was used for combat service. They were also perfect for transporting important staff around on the terrible roads near the front, as well as in the cities where petrol was limited and rationed.

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WRAF & RAF officer on a Phelon & Moore motorcycle and sidecar combination, source

Motorcycle despatch riders were first used in WWI by the British Army Royal Engineers Signal Service. They were also used by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, where they maintained contact with land bases and some of the riders were members of the Womens Royal Naval Service (WRAF). The first WRAF was an auxiliary organization of the Royal Air Force which was founded in 1918. The original intent of the WRAF was to provide female mechanics in order to free up men for service but so many women volunteered they also filled  positions as drivers.

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A despatch rider in WRAF  seated on her Phelon & Moore 500cc single cylinder motorcycle circa 1918. source

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The same WRAF enjoying a tea break source

The British military often used Douglas or Triumph Motorcycles but some riders brought their own machines, especially the first riders who were mostly volunteers. Until WWI the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world was Indian, producing over 20,000 bikes per year. During the war, Douglas, based in Kingswood, Bristol, produced over 70,000 motorcycles for the military.

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Army Service Corps Douglas Motorcycle WW1.

The Australian Army used motorcycle despatch riders at Gallipoli.  One of these was 18 year old (Sir)Charles Kingsford Smith, who joined the army in 1914.  He transferred to the British Royal Flying Corps, earning his pilot's wings in 1917.  He went on to become Australia's most famous aviator in 1928, when he made the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia.

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Kingsford smith in his flying gear – just like motorcycle gear really, source


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The motorcycle corps of the Australian army in Palestine, February 1918. source

(Sir) Charles Putnam Symonds was 24 at the outbreak of WWI and left his medical studies to joined the British Army.  He also served as a despatch rider, but on the Western Front in the motorcycle section of the Royal Engineers.  He saw action at the Retreat from Mons, then in the battles of Marne and Aisne. He was badly wounded in September 1914, and was sent back to the UK, where he was awarded the m├ędaille militaire, and allowed to return to his medical studies.  After completing his basic medical training he returned  to service as a medical officer, both on the front lines, and attached to the Royal Flying Corps at Farnborough.   After the war he did specialised training in Neurology and  make discoveries in the fields of haemorrhage and hypertension.

A civilian Douglas motorcycle rerouted for war work, c, 1914 source


WHL Watson was also a despatch rider at the Battle of Mons.  In his book Adventures of a Motorcycle Despatch Rider During the First World War, he describes one instance of his time in Dour as follows:
About ten o'clock on the morning of August 23rd I was sent out to find General Gleichen, who was reported somewhere near Waasmes. I went over nightmare roads, uneven cobbles with great pits in them. I found him, and was told by him to tell the General that the position was unfortunate owing to a weak salient. We had already heard guns, but on my way back I heard a distant crash, and looked round to find that a shell had burst half a mile away on a slag-heap, between Dour and myself. With my heart thumping against my ribs I opened the throttle, until I was jumping at 40 m.p.h. from cobble to cobble. Then, realising that I was in far greater danger of breaking my neck than of being shot, I pulled myself together and slowed down to proceed sedately home.
The second time I went out to General Gleichen I found him a little farther back from his former position. This time he was on the railway. While I was waiting for a reply we had an excellent view of German guns endeavouring to bring down one of our aeroplanes. …. I shall never forget the captain reading my despatch by the light of my lamp, the wagons guarded by Dorsets with fixed bayonets appearing to disappear shadowy in the darkness.
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A Despatch rider on a Douglas 2 3/4hp machine, 350cc,  c. 1916. 

Meanwhile in America women were still riding motorcycles for adventure. Mother and daughter team Avis and Effie Hotchkiss, from  New York, completed a 9,000-mile (14,000 km) round trip ride from New York to San Francisco and back on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle-sidecar combination in 1915, becoming the first transcontinental female motorcyclists.  Effie, the driver and mechanic,  was going to go alone, but her mother wouldn’t allow it, so she went to.  Effie remarked, “I just wanted to see America and considered that the three-speed Harley-Davidson for myself and sidecar for mother and luggage was the best suited for the job.” What a great ad!
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Avis & Effie Hotchkiss outside Harley Davidson dealer in Salt Lake City, UT, in 1915. source

In 1916 society girls and sister Augusta and Adeline Van Buren each rode their own motorcycle across the US,  5,500 miles in 60 days, over hazardous roads.  They were active in the national Preparedness Movement , gearing up for America’s entry into the war, and wanted to prove that women could ride as well as men,  and were indeed able to serve as military despatch riders.  They dressed in military-style leggings and leather riding breeches for their ride, a fashion a taboo at that time. During the ride, they were arrested numerous times, not for speeding but for wearing men's clothes. 

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The Van Buren’s in Hollywood, 1916 source

They rode 1,000 cc Indian Power Plus motorcycles equipped with gas headlights, and despite succeeding, the sister's application to the military as a dispatch rider was rejected.  Reports of the day praised the bike, but not the sisters and described the journey as a "vacation", that was an excellent excuse to escape their roles as housewives and "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms". You can read more about them at the motorcycle hall of fame, where they were inducted in 2002.
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Adeline and Augusta Van Buren in 1916 source

By the end of 1917 America was in the War, and Harley-Davidson provided about 15,000 machines for the war effort. The 1918 Harley-Davidson 18-J was Harley's most powerful motorcycle for that year, and with the luxurious matching sidecar, was perfect for driving around VIPs.

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Generals perhaps!
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 source
By 1920, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, selling their machines in 67 countries.  As motorcycle popularity grew, it was only natural that some people became highly skilled in its use.  During the 1920s not only were motorcycle races reinstated, motordromes, or the  “Wall of Death," a scaled-up version of a bicycling velodrome,became popular.
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Margaret Gast, "The Mile a Minute Gal." c. 1920


By 1940, the United States had its first women's motorcycle club,The Motormaids, and by WWII there were many female motorbike despatch riders from all countries.
In 1950 Louise Scherbyn, a pioneering woman motorcyclist founded the Women’s International Motorcycle Association (WIMA) in the USA in 1950 and divisions around the world, including Australia, were formed shortly after.  Women never looked back, and now one in four motorcyclists is female!

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Louise Scherbyn source


Do you ride?  I have a girlfriend who does, and goes to Phillip Island for the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix each year.  Me? I’m married to a personal injury lawyer, so no.  My horse riding drives him crazy enough!

For more photos, please go to tumbler.

Deb xxx














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