How motorcycle despatch riders helped win World War One

despatch rider with map

Published on 22 March 2018 by Robert Drane

Technological breakthroughs are a necessity during war. The Great War was no exception, with an increased need for motorised transport directly influencing the production of motorbikes, speeding up their evolution. These were bikes built out of, and during, a crisis – bikes designed for rugged application.

It almost seems wrong to consider that a conflict on this scale – and one in which an estimated 8.5 million people died – saw the inception of some remarkable motorbikes. But this is the story of some of those machines.


The bikes

At the outbreak of war, motorbikes were little more than crude approximations of the modern bicycle. From the early ‘safety bicycles’ to the motor prototypes, most were little more than internal combustion engines slapped onto wooden frames – the archetypal ‘boneshakers’. But most major manufacturers took notice of the early four-strokes, like the De Dion Bouton (which though light and small, could only lay claim to half a horsepower), copying its construction.

Mercifully, modern motorcycle design had evolved somewhat more by the time war broke out in 1914. Clyno, Blackburne, Douglas, Triumph, Royal Enfield, Sun, BSA, Phelan & Moore and Norton were all amongst manufacturers that contributed bikes to the British war effort, and many were given lucrative military contracts, producing bikes in large numbers. As a result, many were unable to keep up with domestic demand.

Though numbers are difficult to pin down, it’s estimated that Douglas alone produced 70,000 bikes for the Allied forces, 25,000 of which were 348cc twin-cylinder machines, made specially for the army’s newly mobile despatch riders. Triumph, meanwhile, boasted a British order for 30,000, though it also supplied Greek despatch riders with 550cc single-engine bikes. Royal Enfield manufactured for both the UK war department and, notably, won a contract to supply to the Russians.

old Triumph motorcycle

George Harmer, of Norfolk Motorcycle Museum explains that those early machines were a far cry from what modern riders are used to.

“In 1914, it was still the beginnings of the modern motorbike and most of them were belt, not chain, driven. They would have been side valve or two-stroke machines, as overhead valves didn’t really come into being until later.

“The main development came in the 1930s − prior to that they were very basic, just glorified, over-weight bicycles. The frame mechanism, the wheels, were more sturdy than bicycles − but to look at them, they looked very similar, with an engine in the bottom of the crank case.”

Harmer’s 1916 model – which he says is unlikely to be different from those used in The Great War – is a two-speed.

“That would have had a separate clutch like a conventional motorbike. A bit cruder and rougher, but it still did the same job.”


War in the saddle

What would it have been like to ride a bike like that?

“It would have been a little bit hard, there wasn’t much – if any – suspension on them. So they were a bit basic as far as comfort goes. The seat is fairly well sprung, with two springs underneath the seat which would move about.”

Like a retro leather bicycle seat?

“Yes, only more robustly made.”

old motorcycle seat

How does the belt drive affect the ride of the bike?

“It was quite smooth, there’s no chain to jerk about and in those days if you had – or if it rained hard, or if you were trying to ride in snow – that would probably slip, because it would slide around on the pulleys. But people used to have a pocketful or tin full of sand, which they just sprinkled over the belt and the pulleys; and that gripped. As you were going along, if your belt started to slip, if you were in the countryside, then you would just go to the hedge, and sprinkle some earth over the belt.”

Guns James Hewing, of the National Motorcycle Museum, thinks it was a “really rich period”. In the museum’s collection is a magnificent – and beautifully restored − Clyno Vickers machine gun combination model.

“It’s a very impressive thing,” he says, “we still have the original machine gun.”

Hewing tells me that the motorcycle machine gun section consisted of six Clyno combinations, two with guns, two without (which had armoured shields and served as reserve gun carriers), and a third pair to carry spare ammunition and equipment.

“The section was completed by an officer, and an NCO, on solo motorcycle. So in effect there were six combinations and two solo.

“The bike carried a Vickers machine gun and an armoured shield, which was attached to the sidecar chassis by tripod. Normally the gun would point forward, but as necessary it could be swivelled into reverse position.”

I tell him that during my research it’s been hard to pin down definitively if these things were fired on the move. Or would you have had to stop, dismount, and use the tripod?

“It could be fired on the move,” he says, “and with most of these bikes, usually a simple seat was provided on the floor of the sidecar with boxes of spare ammunition and replacement gun parts, and water in a container to keep the gun cool. We have all the information written down from a write-up in The Blue ’Un. I suspect this information was taken first hand.

“The gun was seldom − if ever − fired when the motorbike was in motion because of the accuracy. But when required it could easily be detached from its mounting and used in a conventional firing position. So that’s not to say that it couldn’t be fired on the move − but more often than not, it wasn’t the modus operandi. They were used as a sort of quick and easy mobile gun position. The most mobile gun position of any vehicle of its kind.”

Matthew Brosnan, of Imperial War Museum (IWM) North, offers some perspective when I ask if this sort of warfare was terribly practical. Firing a machine gun from a sidecar sounds like the stuff of comic strips – heroic, but perhaps not entirely historically accurate.

“It would have been a pretty unusual thing to have had in the First World War. On the Western Front for most of the war, the fighting was relatively static. It was trench warfare, so motorcycles were slightly limited in terms of what they could do.

“But during 1918 the nature of the fighting did change, and there was an enormous series of German offensives in the spring of 1918 that took place from March to early summer. After the situation stabilised, the Allies had their own series of offensives that went right through to the end of the war in November.

“During that period − especially after the initial German spear offensives had broken through the Allied trench lines, and then also later when the Allies had broken through German trenches − the nature of the fighting became quite a lot more open. It began to take place over some areas that were heavily scarred by artillery fire.

“I would say that if there was a stage where they began to fight in a more attack-minded way, it would have been in that place during the war. But you associate this sort of thing much more with the Second World War.”

I want to know more about this Clyno machine, though. Hewing has more from the archive round-up.

“Usually in the sidecars,” he says, “there was petrol, oil and carbide for the lamp.

Because of course they weren’t electric lights. More often than not they would carry carbide strapped on behind the gunner.”

Hewing also knows about the kinds of men to whom these bikes were issued.

“The machine gun corps consisted of three sections, two of which supported the cavalry and the third section were the motor machine gun corps, who were more mobile. They decided to equip this branch with sidecars, and trials were carried out to determine the most suitable motorcycle sidecar for war service. In the end, the award went to the Clyno six- and eight-horsepower three-speed combination.

“The Clyno was not only considered to be the most well-designed but also, the easily removed V-twin engine and interchangeable wheel, enclosed drive chain and three-point sidecar suspension made them exceedingly practical. They were considered to be the most practical by the war department, although Scott, Matchless and Royal Enfield bikes were also used.”

old motorcycle chain


How easy were machines of the period to fix, considering despatch riders would have ridden alone without a sidecar, or room for much kit?

“You can imagine that because the engines weren’t particularly reliable, an easily removable engine, interchangeable wheels and an enclosed drive chain would have helped. They would have been relatively easy to fix − because they were crude and simple things. But it’s alright saying that if you need a new piston, you can replace the piston. But what if you haven’t got a piston on you?”

We talk again about these early adopters, who turned their passion for bikes into a way to serve their country.

“The early adopters had to be by definition their own mechanics, so even for the middle-class domestic riders of that time − there obviously wasn’t a dealer down the road. They were buying their machines directly from the factory, which could have been hundreds of miles away, if they weren’t building their own. So if there was maintenance to be done by those early adopters, it would have been done by themselves or at the local blacksmiths, or ‘smithy’.

“These guys that were then seconded into despatch riding by the army − and then subsequently into the motor machine gun corps − did tend to be very au fait with their own mechanics.”

What things could commonly go wrong with bikes of the period?

“Carburettors were obviously very crude, and so more often than not there would tend to be problems with carburetion ignition systems, especially in arduous or damp conditions. And the belt drives could obviously be problematic in wet conditions.

Principally, it would be those exposed elements.”

George Harmer has some insight about the tyres on those early models:

“They had a different type of tyre, which had almost the tyre and the inner tube complete. The bottom of the tyre used to go right round the rim. This type was popular up until the mid-’20s, and then they changed the design to the ordinary tyre, which is clipped over the rim.”

What would have happened if you had had a puncture?

“Well, that was basically the same as anything else − you would have had a plaster in your basic kit. In the war they would have probably had a depot with half a dozen mechanics sitting in a tin hut somewhere and they would have taken it in for a repair! They probably had an empty section working on things like that.”

Matthew Brosnan agrees.

“A despatch rider would have been trained to do basic mechanical stuff to fix the common things that might occur, like punctured tyres. I imagine they would have had a basic kit with them most of the time. But – in a similar way to the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force – you have your pilots that do the flying, but then you also have a whole support network of technicians that do a lot of the engineering work. You would have similar people who worked on the motor vehicles as well.”


All in the mind

From a psychological perspective, I’m keen to ask Brosnan about what it would have been like to ride along the Western Front as a despatch rider. It was such a different experience to that of the Tommies in the trenches, and must have been a lonely business.

“As a soldier on the ground, you tend to only know what’s going on in front of you or in your immediate surroundings; the reality of what being in a trench and being involved in battle is like. But as a despatch rider – chances are, you’re going to be a little bit safer, because you’re a bit further away from the sharp end of the really dangerous action.

“Having said that there’s still a risk,” he continues. “Particularly with the increased use of aircraft – you might encounter bombing raids and long-range heavy artillery, so you’d be at risk from shell-fire. But you did probably get more perspective on how things are organised and how information is conveyed.

“A despatch rider might sometimes be taking messages from a brigade commander to a battalion commander in the higher echelons of the command network. So they might have had a better sense of how things work and why the command structure has to be as it is.”

Finally, I ask Hewing what kind of bike he’d have wanted, had he been a despatch rider himself.

“Well that’s easy,” he says. “In terms of reliability and what have you, it would have to be the mighty Clyno.” He almost whispers this. “With a machine gun! It’s a fantastic-looking thing.”


Many thanks to George Harmer (Norfolk Motorcycle Museum), Matthew Brosnan (Historian at Imperial War Museum North, Manchester and James Hewing (Director of the National Motorcycle Museum).





Top image: By National Library of Scotland [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons