Two Wheels to War – Volunteer motorcycle despatch riders and the British Expeditionary Force 1914

Two Wheels to War is the story of the first motorcycle despatch riders – the talented volunteers who served alongside the Regular Army in 1914.

With no military training, they served on the retreat from Mons, at the Marne and the Aisne, and they endured the First Battle of Ypres before winter 1914 brought stalemate to the early days of the Western Front. The book follows them into 1915, when despatch riding became routine and the group gradually dispersed as they were commissioned into other units.

Our book project started from our interest in how new technology is developed – in this case, motorcycles. My brother, Martin, restores early motor vehicles – particularly those made before the First World War, and up to the early 1930s. As well as using his engineering skills, he studies the stories of these vehicles and, as an amateur genealogist, I’ve often worked with him to trace the people who made them and used them, and their descendants.

At the time, we were researching the story of Cecil and Alick Burney – a pair of brothers who designed an innovative motorcycle in 1912. They were among the very first to volunteer as motorcycle despatch riders and we found their medals and 1914 photograph albums in an auction.

The Burneys’ captioned group photographs helped us to connect the Burney brothers with W.H.L. Watson


W.H.L. Watson was an Oxford undergraduate who volunteered at the same time as the Burneys. Riding their own motorcycles, they were sent to the Fifth Division – and when they landed at Le Havre, Watson, the Burneys and nine others quickly bonded into a highly effective unit.

From Mons to Ypres, these amateurs had a hectic and character-building experience. The despatch riders won praise from the Regulars for their work in keeping the army together when it threatened to disintegrate during the retreat. Many also won gallantry medals.

After that first phase of the war, Watson collected his letters home and turned them into a book, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, which showed the character of the first despatch riders. They were an elite who adapted well into army life. Many were university-educated and others were professional motorcycle engineers. Nearly all of the 1914 despatch riders were later commissioned – either as infantry officers or in specialist units like the Royal Flying Corps or Army Service Corps.

We uncovered the real identities of the original 12, which was concealed by Watson under nicknames such as ‘Pollers’ or ‘Fatters’, and then we turned to tracing their families. To our amazement, we found five children of these 12 men – all with living memories of their fathers, as well as many other relatives. We met their wider families and searched museums and archives. All the while, we were building a detailed picture of their lives from service records, the men’s own letters and diaries, and family photographs.

The tidal wave of patriotism which followed the declaration of war is well known. The volunteers of the new armies have been celebrated many times over – in print, in photographs and in film. They were the courageous men of the battalions which suffered such horrendous losses going over the top in 1916. Less well known is the story of the old Regular Army – the original ‘Expeditionary Force’. By Christmas 1914, their losses – though less than the later disasters – had robbed the army of military skills and leadership, and made the creation of the new armies longer and more arduous than it might have been.

In reading about the 1914 campaign, we were struck by the courage and aggression shown by all sides – British, French and German – when there was a ‘firing line’, but no ‘frontline trenches’. Many units – infantry, artillery and cavalry – used fighting tactics which would have been recognised by the soldiers who fought at Waterloo a hundred years earlier. Many officers went into action with newly sharpened swords, and there were even a few cavalry charges.

Several new accounts of the 1914 campaign were published about the time we began our research, but few challenged the conventional wisdom that only a handful of motorcyclists reached France in 1914 and that they had a limited impact on the campaign. Some studies even omitted the Divisional Signal Companies, to which the motorcyclists belonged, from their ‘order of battle’ pages.

Our examination of service records showed that there were many more motorcyclists than previously thought. We concluded that at least 400 motorcycle despatch riders served in France in 1914.Whilst the contribution of a handful of motorcyclists could be overlooked, the fact that so many were deployed so early forced us to reconsider their role and achievements – particularly when we realised what a carefully selected group they were.

German airmen prisoners at 5th Division Headquarters

Letters and diaries kept by individuals are still turning up and being published for the first time. Two Wheels to War stands out because it includes material from more than half the members of a small group. It contains the full text of Watson’s Adventures of a Despatch Rider, together with words and pictures from more than half of his colleagues. The photographs portray many men who can be identified; sometimes, we can identify the exact date when the picture was taken. We have added notes on units and people, and explanatory comments on unfamiliar terms.

Two Wheels to War will be showcased to vintage motorcycle enthusiasts on our stand at the International Classic Motorcycle Show at Stafford Showground on 22-23 April, along with a Douglas despatch rider motorcycle and – a work in progress – Martin’s restoration of a Blackburne of the type designed and used by the Burney brothers. There will then be a family event at Milestones Museum in Basingstoke, to which we’ve invited members of nine of the original 12 families. Lastly, we have a good relationship with the Royal Signals Museum at Blandford Forum, who want to add our working papers to their archives.

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2 Responses to Two Wheels to War – Volunteer motorcycle despatch riders and the British Expeditionary Force 1914

  1. Hello Nick, I purchased the book yesterday at Stafford and you asked me for some links to Western Front Association. I am afraid I couldn’t find your email address but if you would care to contact me at the address below or through Facebook I’ll gladly send you the links you requested.
    Nigel Shuttleworth

    • Nick Shelley says:

      Hi Nigel, thanks for posting your request – hope you’re enjoying the book! I’m putting the details in email box below and look forward to hearing from you

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