About the Author

Ted Glenn

Ted Glenn is Professor and Program Coordinator of Public Administration at Humber College. An advisor to various Canadian governments for over 20 years, Dr. Glenn specializes in public sector training and governance.

Books by this Author
Riding into Battle

Riding into Battle

Canadian Cyclists in the Great War
also available: Paperback
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Chapter 1: Battle of the Humber

1st Canadian Divisional Cyclist Company

On August 5, 1914, Canadian governor general H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught announced that Canada would follow Britain into war with Germany. Within days, Minister of Militia and Defence Sam Hughes issued a call-to-arms and raised a fighting force of more than 30,000 volunteer troops; an estimated 5,000 more than that made their way to the newly created training camp at Valcartier, Quebec, in early September. “Accommodations at Valcartier,” recalled one Cyclist, “left much to be desired, particularly at the outset as practically a new camp had to be set up, including four miles of Bell tents for sleeping purposes.” With surprising speed, the basic logistics of camp life were sorted out — tents erected, water lines installed, latrines dug, mess organized, rifle and artillery ranges built.

Once the volunteers were assembled at Valcartier, senior command of the First Canadian Contingent turned to organizing them into a fighting force. The Canadians followed British practice and established both regimented units like infantry and specialized “troop” units like engineering and medical units that reported directly to divisional command. Amongst the latter was the 1st Divisional Mounted Troops, a unit made up of the 196-member Cavalry Service Squadron (drawn from the 19th Alberta Dragoons) and the 93-member 1st Canadian Divisional Cyclist Company drawn from general volunteers at Valcartier.

Since the Boer War, cyclists had been paired with cavalry units to carry out duties that required troops to dismount. The thinking was that the “act of dismounting deprived a cavalry unit of the services of the men detailed to care for the horses. As one man could only manage four horses or so, the transition from saddle to boot cost a cavalry unit some 25 percent of its rifle strength. A cyclist unit, however, did not have to worry about its mounts running off on their own accord or being hit by stray small-arms fire.” Cyclists were generally trained to perform a range of duties across the battlefield. In an advance, cyclists were trained to “find the enemy out for the infantry [and] keep in touch and warn the infantry of the proximity, and, if possible, strength of the enemy.” Behind the trenches, cyclists were trained to patrol roads, regulate military traffic, secure important bridgeworks and crossings, guard prisoners, and support divisional communications as dispatch riders. In addition, cyclists were expected to perform a range of other duties as required, including “orderly duties,” “seeking out of spies and watching suspects,” and “supplying working parties for digging trenches and other earth works.”

The 1st Division Cyclists had only two weeks to train as a company before marching to Quebec City for embarkation to England on October 3. As with most volunteer’s experiences at Valcartier, though, much of their time was “spent in filling out forms and undergoing inoculations that left everyone sick for several days.” This was certainly the Cyclists’ experience. As one recalled, “There was little opportunity for any special training in the short time to go prior to embarkation for England — in fact, the comparatively short stay of all units in Valcartier did not allow much opportunity for any organized training. This was confined mainly to platoon and company drill with a few route marches and some target practice.” And there was only “the odd bicycle” available to train on; the Cyclists were not supplied with their own bicycles until arriving at Salisbury Plain in England in October.


After waiting onboard the SS Ruthenia for more than a week for transport, the 1st Division Cyclists arrived at Pond Farm, Salisbury Plain, about 75 miles southwest of London (near Stonehenge), on October 14. Salisbury, like other camps across Britain, had been established to train the Empire’s volunteer army under the command of the Earl of Kitchener. Side by side with recruits from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, the “camps were bursting at the seams with Canadians. We had barely arrived when the rain started to fall and kept falling during our whole stay. We soon lived in a quagmire. At times the rain even penetrated the canvas of the tents while they were standing. Quite often they fell, as it was difficult to anchor the ropes in the mud. However, the boys were young and full of pep and it took a lot to get them down.”

To “counteract the effect of the mud and rain,” the Cyclists and other soldiers made forays to pubs in the town of Salisbury, other surrounding towns, and even London as the canteens at camp were initially dry. According to one Cyclist, “Quite often this was without a pass — something of which the Military Police did not exactly approve when they caught up with us, and the escapades of some of the more unruly individuals which were not really too wild, tended to give Canadians a bad name. We were sometimes referred to as ‘Kitcheners Canadian Mob.’”

The incredibly wet weather (it rained 89 of the 123 days the First Contingent spent at Salisbury) and disarray attendant to organizing the logistics of a massive war effort prevented much in the way of productive training at Salisbury. Cyclists Major Clayton Bush and Commanding Sergeant Major Fred Delavigne recalled, “There did not appear to be any set drill for Cyclists at that time — some of the officers wanted dismounted Cavalry Drill and others Infantry Drill — but they finally settled for Cavalry and as it eventually transpired, came nearer the requirements.” And even when bikes were finally issued, “the mud at Larkhill was so terrible during the remainder of October and ensuing months that cycling was out of the question most of the time.”


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