First World War Cy­clists

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - By David Mcpher­son

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

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