First World War Cyclists
The Canadians who rode into battle by bike
Members of the 1st Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion called themselves the Suicide Squad. During the First World War, 261 of 1,138 men in the unit were killed or wounded. Author Ted Glenn chronicled the formation of the bike battalion and the fighting it faced in Riding into battle: canadian cyclists in the great war. Here, the Humber College professor and historian discusses the book’s inspiration, some of the biggest research surprises and the role cycling played in driving the narrative forward when writer’s block struck.
What inspired you to write this book? I had been working on something else about Toronto in the post-war period. I was amazed by how war crazy our city was. Year after year, and day after day, Camp Exhibition saw trains arriving with all these troops. During my research, I read a reference to the cyclists coming home and I was like, “What?” That intrigued me, especially that they did all their training at the Canadian National Exhibition grounds. They also did mock battles and training up and down the Humber River. That’s where I ride my bike to and from work. (You see deer, coyote, and other stuff you wouldn’t expect to find so close to the city.) I know these places and felt an immediate connection to these men.
What were some of the most surprising stories you learned during your research for this book? The bikes themselves represented a real technological innovation. Bikes first came onto the scene during the Boer War where they were used in light cavalry, instead of horses, out in front of the main infantry for scouting, screening and other reconnaissance missions. The other part I really grew to appreciate through my research was the sense of humour these guys had.
These guys were mostly young, and they had to be in amazing shape, correct? They all were young – in their late teens and early 20s, except for the officers. And you are right: they had to be really fit. They were also really smart. On average, the cyclists had more education than the other recruits. A lot of them had some university experience since they were being recruited into communications, signalling and reconnaissance roles. Imagine riding these bikes 57 km in the middle of the night, with a full kit weighing about 90 lb., and not getting run over. What were the bikes like these that guys rode? They weren’t racing machines, right? No, of course not. These were heavy-duty bikes and not really good for racing. Each had a 24" frame, clips on the handlebars for smaller machine guns and clips on the frames to strap on rifles.
For many writers, cycling inspires their muse. Is that the case with you? Did you write some of this book in the saddle? Definitely. For me, cycling and running are what I do when I hit a block in my writing and I need to just let my thoughts wander around and then reformulate. I had a number of blocks writing this book, especially when I could not figure out how to string a certain narrative from Point A to Point B. When that happened, I would just say, “Forget it,” and go for a ride.
above Cyclists of the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force at the Scottish Lines near Poperinghe, not far from Ypres
below A cyclist of Brutinel’s Brigade, near Ottawa for the Governor General’s inspection