[Chris here] From a year ago. Still a great post.
In a small village called Meriden in the centre of England there is a war memorial decicated as follows:
In lasting memory of those Cyclists who died in the Great War 1914 - 1919
In Remembrance of those Cyclists who gave their lives in World War II 1939 -1945.
Whilst reading the Nov Procycling I was moved by their tribute to cyclists who had been lost to the First World War. It transpires the 1914 Tour started the same day Archbishop Franz Ferdinand was shot, and within two weeks of it's end Europe was at war. By it's end over 50 road racers had died, including three Tour winners, a Giro winner and Classic winners. The toll amongst track cyclists was much greater, with many Olympic and six day champions lost.
The more well known names are Tour winners Francois Faber, Octave Lapize, Lucien Petit-Breton. Others include the youngest ever TdF entrant (17yrs old when riding in 1904) Camille Fily, Emile Engel - winner of stage 3 of the 1914 Tour and teammate of winner Thys - who died two months later at Marne, and Giro/Lombardy winner Carlo Oriana.
Continued on the flip.
An hour or so later of googling and surfing a very different picture of cyclists in the War emerges. One forgets that this was the war that started with Cavalry regiments and ended with tanks and airbourne machine guns. At the start of/during the War the armies of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada all had Cyclist Corps (originally usually allied with their Cavalry) and the bicycle was very much a military vehicle.
For example the Belgian army at the start of the war is listed as including:
The Cavalry Division had two brigades, one cyclist battalion, one
artillery group of three batteries, one cyclist pioneer and pontoon company, and
one divisional transport corps.
The Belgian cyclists were in the thick of the action from the very first days of the war. See here The role of the various cyling corps were many and varied from message running, cable laying, transportation, to scouting and reconaisance etc etc. with one of the more extraordinary being this:
In 'Passchendaele', by Nigel Steel & Peter Hart (pages 217-220), there are a number of quotes from Private V. R. Magill, Cyclist Battalion, XVIII Corps.
Magill is talking about heading out into no-man's-land at night, along with other Cyclists and protected by parties of other infantry units, to 'plant' dummies of British soldiers.
After planting these dummies a number of the Cyclists, including Magill, stayed out in no-man's-land to pull lengths of line attached to the dummies making them appear, to the Germans, as if they were an attacking force. After a bombardment the lines were pulled, the dummies rose and the Germans fired away at what they thought were attacking troops, then came the next British bombardment hitting the German in their trenches.
Much better descriptions than I could provide abound on the net. Some I found include
Canadian Cycling Corps - the so called Suicide Battalions.
An excellent overview of how cycling was affected at Cycling Revealed
Which brings us back to the Monument. The work of the various Cycling Corps much have been much appreciated as the monument exists because of the (cycling) public. The Meriden Village magazine provides a brief history of the monument
After an idea by the late Mr. ‘Biddy’ Bidlake, an executive committee was formed in 1919, and in less that a year £1,200 was raised from cyclists and cycling organizations throughout Britain.
The obelisk was built on a concrete base with a concrete column; the column is thirty feet high and is faced with Cornish granite.
On May 21st 1921 in the radiance of the lowering sun at six o’clock before an estimated assembly of 20,000 cyclists, Lord Birkenhead, the Lord Chancellor unveiled the memorial. The keynote of the whole memorial service was to be simplicity and strength without ornament and this is still the tone today.
The Green was packed as far as the eye could see, the throng overflowed on both sides of the highway, all traffic ceased. The visiting cyclists had parked their machines in adjacent meadows. Buglers sounded the last post. After the commemoration service the Reverend R.J. Bouchier, who had been a most generous patron of the memorial fund read a simple dedicatory prayer. Following the dedicatory prayer the school children led the singing of the Doxology to the tune of the Old Hundredth. The pronunciation of the Benediction concluded the official service. What followed was an informal wreath laying at the foot of the memorial by representatives of the various clubs and organizations including the CTC, NCU and the many district associations of the CTC. Amongst the wreaths was a touching floral dedication made up from the racing wheel from the cycle of an unnamed hero fallen during the Great
War. A service has been held every year since the unveiling, with the highest attendance in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
It is worth noting that the Memorial service at Meriden is still one of the largest gatherings of cyclists in the country.
In 1963 a bronze plaque was added to the memorial to commemorate all the cyclists who died during World War II. Now in later years the service has been modified to commemorate all cyclists killed in active service for their country.
This Pathe newsreel shows thousands attending in the 1930s, and the service is still held in May each year - organised by the local cycling club.
Why put the memorial in Meriden - the reasoning was as it is the (nominal) centre of England, putting the monument there made it possible for the for the maximum number of people to be able to cycle to it.
After the War the cycle as a military vehicle was superseded in the main, but a lasting tribute to men of these regiments remains, one by cyclists for cyclists.