The Hunts Cyclists: The County Battalion in World War I

The History Society was treated to a captivating account of the origins and activities of the Huntingdonshire Cyclist Battalions during World War I, presented by Martyn Smith. He began by explaining that although the use of bicycles in warfare goes back to the 19th Century it was only after 1908 that cyclist battalions were created in the British army. Although Huntingdonshire was keen to establish its own Battalion, the War Office was concerned that the county would not have the numbers to justify the creation of a Battalion of about 500 men. However, by early 1913, after prolonged lobbying, the War Office agreed to its formation. At the same time it allowed Huntingdonshire soldiers of the Bedfordshire Regiment to transfer over, which most did. Starting with only 50 recruits the Battalion quickly expanded to form eight companies that were based around the county, and at the outbreak of war the companies totalled nearly 600 men.

The Battalion’s original orders, given on 31st March 1914, confirmed that its duties were solely confined to Britain and its home defence. Perceived as mobile troops, the Battalion’s responsibilities primarily focused on communications and signals, scouting and observation duties. Being mounted, on cycles not horses, the cycling Battalions were seen by the army as cavalry not infantry, and the Hunts Cycle Battalions soon became known as the ‘Gaspipe Cavalry’. Those enlisting had to provide their own cycles and the nickname emanates from the availability of gas pipes that were used for the cycle’s construction and repair. As war approached, recruitment increased, helped perhaps by recruiting events such as the annual Battalion camp, which was always held by the sea. The enthusiasm to enlist at the outbreak of war was illustrated by Martyn’s grandfather who, at the age of 15, travelled with a friend to join up. At St Neots railway station, and without tickets, the two teenagers were collared by the train’s guard who marched them down to the recruiting centre for them to prove their intention. Initially, the Battalion’s companies were tasked with manning the county’s bridges and crossroads, but this did not last long. After mobilisation the Battalion was sent to Immingham, near Grimsby, where, being embarrassingly underequipped, the troops had to manage with only one cycle between three soldiers.

Later, the Battalion was divided, with the 1 st Huntingdonshire Battalion moving to Yorkshire where it was responsible for ‘coast watching’ between Scarborough and Spurn Head. The 2nd Battalion remained in Lincolnshire, to undertake similar coastline duties. In Yorkshire, conditions and equipment for the troops were rudimentary and the pairs of soldiers on lookout duty had to build makeshift shelters to protect themselves from the elements. In addition, they were issued with old Japanese single shot rifles and given only five rounds of ammunition with which to engage the enemy. The pairs of coast watchers received orders that in the event of an invasion one soldier was to fire off all five rounds at the enemy, then depart immediately to the nearest command post with news of the invasion, for it to be relayed to Scarborough. Meanwhile, the second soldier was left alone to fend off the invaders with his five bullets.

When Scarborough was shelled by the German Navy the population was angry with the Battalion for not doing more to stop the bombing. However, there was also great pity for the soldiers who, in their exposed cliff-top and beach vantage points, had to survive the vagaries of the British weather, including one of the coldest winters on record. As a result, locals were involved in knitting socks for their isolated, suffering coastal lookouts. One of the local recruits to the Battalion was a Scarborough resident who later became a famous Hollywood film star. Charles Laughton enlisted shortly after his 18th birthday, perhaps at his parents’ hotel which was the 1st Battalion’s officer’s mess. He was posted to undertake coastal duties near Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire with the Hunts 2
nd Battalion, before subsequently being posted to fight in France. He was one of many soldiers from the Hunts Cycle Battalions who opted to sign for ‘Imperial Service’, which allowed those in British based commands to serve overseas. Sadly, many did not return home.

Martyn also mentioned two very different, but no less fascinating personalities who were involved with the Battalion. In November 1916 Lt. General Aylmer Hunter-Weston, or ‘Hunter-Bunter’ as he was known in the army, was appointed as honorary head of the Hunts Cyclist Battalions on the death of the Earl of Sandwich, its first CO. Although an experienced soldier, Hunter-Weston’s reputation was not particularly laudable, with Field Marshall Haigh’s remark that he was a ‘rank amateur’ perhaps being one of the more generous comments. His military incompetence led to his commands suffering extremely high casualty 
rates and at one stage it appears he was close to being dismissed. His appointment to the honorary position with the Battalion was seen as a determined attempt to ‘promote’ him sideways. Another personality was the Battalion’s chaplain, Rev Kenneth Davenport Knowles, affectionately referred to by the soldiers as their ‘Sky Pilot’. His published list of sermons have been described as somewhat soporific, but stuck in the front of each copy for those Hunts Cyclists being sent to France was his personal page of moral guidance. In addition to its spiritual content it warned, among other things, of the dangers and consequences of any romantic entanglements with local French women.

In concluding his presentation Martyn outlined the administrative process for identifying and recording those killed on the battlefield, and the prerequisites for them having a war grave and memorial stone. He used three of the ‘fallen’ from Warboys to take us through the procedure, which included pictures of his visits to their graves in France. On each occasion he placed a small cross on their graves to commemorate their sacrifice, part of his admirable commitment to ensure they are not forgotten. On a lighter note, his final photograph showed three members of the ‘gaspipe cavalry’ smartly dressed in their uniforms on Scarborough beach. On this occasion though, they were not on their bicycles but riding donkeys, all with a grin on their face and smoking a Woodbine! Their smiles perhaps conceal the commitment of the Hunts Cyclist Battalions, often in very difficult circumstance, to the protection of the nation during the war.

‘We shall remember them’

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