Frozen in time: the bikes and banter of WW1

Pete Kelly looks through a batch of images from the Mortons Archive illustrating the vital role that motorcycles, their riders and mechanics played during the First World War, which finally ended 100 years ago on November 11, 1918.

In moments of relaxation, the banter and tomfoolery would have been much the same as
that enjoyed among motorcyclists today, but this was the First World War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, which started on July 28, 1914 and finally came to an end on November 11, 1918, leaving behind tens of millions killed or horrendously wounded.

Royal Signals dispatch riders with their trusty Triumph Model H machines engage in a bit of banter for the photographer.

So important was the role of motorcycles and motorcycle combinations during that war that manufacturers were kept at full stretch to keep up with the demand, and it’s estimated that around 50,000 were in use at the peak of the conflict, including Triumph, Douglas, P&M, Scott, BSA, Sunbeam, New Hudson and others.

One of the most vital two-wheeled roles was that of the dispatch riders, who rode over the crumbling, potholed excuses for roads to deliver vital messages by hand or released carrier pigeons to do the same thing.

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While most of the motorcycles in this busy 1917 erecting shed photo are Triumphs, the one being attended to on the right is a Douglas.

In his book San Fairy Ann, Motorcycles and British Victory 1914-18, Michael Carragher described the courage of one such rider, a keen motorcyclist by the name of Roger West, who rode his own bike more than 1000 miles trying to volunteer his services before finally being commissioned “for six months or the duration of the war”.

OBM reviewed Michael’s book in the May 2014 issue, just a few weeks before the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, and we make no excuses for repeating the story here:-

Grub’s up – and after being involved in the battle for Hill 60 at Flanders, in the spring of 1915, the lads with the motorcycle gunship enjoy a triumphant fry-up.

“Plunged straight into the war effort, he rode his Army-issue bike night and day, sleeping in barns, carrying out roadside repairs and adjustments, and once fixing a puncture within 150 yards of
the enemy.

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Read more and view more images in the November 2018 issue of OBM – on sale now!

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