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Cycling and War




blog-0886330001401250115.jpgMemorial to Francois Faber, inside the Basilica, Notre-Dame de Lorette


[Originally written early 2010 before my journey, the following has been slightly reworded today.]


July 2010 saw two European Tours that held great importance for me. Both began their journey in the Netherlands, traveling down through Belgium and France, where they culminated in the city of Paris.

The first began in Rotterdam on the 3rd July and was initially watched closely by myself, late at night on TV – this of course was ‘le Tour de France’. The second was the FFFAIF Western Front Commemorative Tour, and along with my FFFAIF Tour companions, I landed in Amsterdam 11 days later. As we made our way into Ypres, the Tour peleton (main bunch of riders), already half way through their journey, were pushing their tired bodies through the French mountains from Chambery to Gap.


Le Tour, which began in 1903 as a publicity stunt, continued each year thereafter, growing into the world’s greatest cycling race, only grinding to a halt during the years of 2 world wars. 1914 saw the last of the tour for 4 years, and the beginning of Australian participation. Victoria’s Duncan ‘Don’ Kirkham and Iddo ‘Snowy’ Munro began the race in Paris along with 143 co-riders, at 3am on the 28th June. While later that day 2000 kms away in Sarajevo, the ‘Black Hand’ set off the chain of events that culminated in the Great War, with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. During the next month the cyclists fought their own battles through the mountains and valleys of France, while the major powers sorted out their allegiances.


Two days after the Tour rolled across the line in Paris, with the 1913 winner, Belgian Philippe Thys having lead from start to finish, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia (28th July). This was followed by other declarations of war, including Germany declaring war on France on the 3rd of August and then Belgium on the 4th – which of course lead to Great Britain declaring war on Germany, and effectively bringing Australia into the mix.


Kirkham and Munro had proved that Australians could hold their own in a foreign country against all adversity, not only finishing the grueling race, but coming in 17th and 20th respectively. With the threat of war imminent, they had joined the exodus from France and returned to Australia, while many of their fellow cyclists went straight into the fray – some never to return.


Three well-known victims were Lucien Mazan (who rode as Petit-Breton), winner of the Tour in 1907 and 1908; Francois Faber, winner in 1909 (and 2nd 1908 & 1910); and Octave Lapize, winner in 1910 (the only one of 6 Tours that he had finished).

Faber was the first of the three to give his life. A member of the French Foreign Legion, he was killed on the 9th May 1915 in the Battle of Artois. Lapize, who served as a fighter pilot, was shot down on the 28th June 1917, and died from his injuries on the 14th of July. Petit-Breton also lost his life in 1917 when he crashed into an oncoming car on the 20th December at Troyes, having already lost his younger brother Anselme in the June of 1915.


Another French Tour cyclist to make the ultimate sacrifice was one of the Alavoine brothers, Henri, who died on the 19th July 1916. Henri had never made it to the podium, as had his brother Jean (including 3rd place in 1914), but had managed a 25th place in the 1913 Tour.


After Kirkham and Munro had returned to Australia, Munro twice attempted to join the Australian Flying Corps, but was rejected because of his feet – they were simply “to flat for flying!” (His son however, who was not so flat-footed was accepted to serve during WW2.)

With the lack of cycling events due to the war, Kirkham opted to take up farming until racing resumed. Meanwhile his older brother, Malcolm, chose to leave his farm to enlist in the Light Horse in the June of 1915. Rising through the ranks, ‘Mac’, as he was known, was a Lieutenant in the 59th Battalion when he was killed by a shell on the 2nd September 1918, in the action near Peronne. As the 2010 Tour began its leisurely final stage into Paris on the 25th July, I and my fellow battlefield enthusiasts were setting out on our 2 day exploration of the Peronne area, and ‘Mac’ was uppermost in my mind.


A year into the war, one keen Victorian cyclist decided to use this preferred means of transport, to cross the Australian continent from Darwin to Adelaide to enlist. Admittedly, he was also using this exercise to try and break the cross-continent record set by his mate the previous year, and in which he himself had failed due to an injured ankle. Unfortunately, bike trouble upset Jack Fahey in his second attempt at the record, but he did finally make it to Adelaide where he married his sweetheart, and promptly enlisted on the 21/9/1915. Spr John Andrew Fahey (552) sailed with the No. 1 Mining Corps in February 1916, and probably never rode another bike for the duration of the war.


Bicycles had been used by the British military since at least 1885, with the other major powers soon following suit, and their usefulness was eventually realized during the Boer War (2nd).

The European and British armies incorporated Cycling units into their structure from the onset of the Great War, but Australia could not be swayed towards their value until 1916. As the AIF returned to Egypt from Gallipoli and the reorganization of units began, new Cyclist Companies were raised. Many of the original volunteers came from the Light Horse, and one of these was Pte Thomas James Robinson (2061) who joined the 4th Div Cyclists from the 3rd LH Regt. Pte Robinson returned to Australia in 1919 and followed a professional career as a cyclist, competing against such greats as Hubert Opperman – only putting aside his wheels at the age of 66. (Living until 2001, age 104, he was known as the ‘Last Light Horseman’.)


The Cycling units were yet another form of mounted infantry, without the high maintenance associated with the horse, nor the suitability to the heavy desert sands of the camel – and so they were destined for the Western Front.

Cyclist training included scouting and reconnaissance, but for most of the war small parties of the men found themselves being ‘detached’ all over the country on a plethora of odd jobs. As well as despatch riders, patrolling and signaling, these included general work parties, POW guards, burial parties, repair gangs, salvage work, loading and unloading supplies, assisting local farmers with their harvest, traffic control, cable laying etc etc etc.

There were also times when they left their bikes in safe keeping and took their part in the frontline trenches as Infantrymen. This endless list of detachments gives some idea of how unnecessary the Cyclists were as a unit in static warfare, and yet how useful they were to the general support of the Army overall.

Although a lot of their work kept them from much of the fighting, they still faced their share of danger, which of course resulted in casualties.


The first Australian Cyclist to lose his life on the Western Front was L/Cpl Clifton Gordon Leslie (947), who was unlucky enough to re-enter his dugout during a German bombardment on the 30th October 1916 – just as it was blown to smithereens. L/Cpl Leslie is buried in the Bernafay Wood British Cemetery, Montauban, France.

It’s believed that the very first British soldier to be killed in action on the Western Front was a 16 year old cyclist, John Parr. He was operating as an advance scout, when he met with the enemy and was shot on the 21st August 1914. Buried by the Germans, this young lad who lied about his age to enlist, can be found in the Saint Symphorien Cemetery, Belgium.


Although the Tour riders of today ride far more sophisticated bikes and travel under better conditions than those of earlier days, and of those from the Cyclist Corps – there are still some things that never change. Pushing uphill on a bike still takes a lot of strength and willpower (even with fancy gears); staying upright on thin tyres over cobble-stoned streets and icy roads still takes a lot of skill – and there will always be unsuspected obstacles:

Tour riders have often battled collisions with spectators and stray dogs, sometimes resulting in the same situation as Ptes Allan Foster McConnell (4557) and Charles Robert Richardson (4884), who found themselves badly bruised and shaken, and their cycles unrideable, after a collision with a shying horse. Sadly Pte McConnell was later blinded by an explosion, but married a nursing aide and returned to Australia, raised a family, and lived to the ripe old age of 93. At the end of 1916 Richardson was also badly wounded and returned to Australia in 1917 for discharge.


Pte John Green (1053) luckily escaped injury when his rifle detached from its carrier and ripped out some of his wheel spokes. Similarly, although it’s unlikely to rip out spokes, the damage to bike and Tour rider can be quite severe when a discarded ‘feed bag’ becomes entangled in a wheel, sending them crashing to the ground.

And then there’s always that slight touch of two wheels when riders are close together in a bunch. Many a Tour rider has come a cropper, often bringing others down with him when this has occurred – an ‘accepted accident’ amongst riders today. But typical of the larrikin Digger, apparently it was a favourite pastime of the Cyclists to nudge the wheel of their officer, in the hope of seeing him fly into a roadside ditch.

Although this wasn’t the case with L/Cpl Henry George Manson (4546) in July 1916, when in a tight situation, his wheel clipped that of the rider in front sending himself sideways under the wheel of a passing lorry. Even though it contacted both legs, he was lucky to recover after only a month in hospital, but transferred to his original battalion (14th Bn) after recovery, only to be KIA at Bullecourt on the 11/4/17. Manson, who is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, left behind a widow and son.


On a lighter note, Pte William Smith (1994) was the catalyst for an impromptu battalion swim, after both he and his bike plunged into a canal whilst riding to St Omer in July 1917. (At the very time when Le Tour should have been in full swing) Pte Smith was retrieved safe and sound, and returned home that way in 1919.

Not so lucky was Pte Percy Norman (1335), the last Australian Cyclist to die before wars end. Percy ‘accidentally’ drowned when he rode into the canal on the 17th October 1918. His body was later retrieved and buried in the St Pierre Cemetery, Amiens.


Another late war death was New Zealander, John ‘Jack’ Arnst. Jack had never ridden the Tour de France nor served in the Cyclist Corps, but he was a champion cyclist, known in both NZ and Australia. Serving with the Canterbury Regt, NZEF, he was killed in action at Bapaume on the 25th August 1918, being buried at Grevillers British Cemetery.

John Parr (mentioned earlier) may have been the first British soldier killed in action on the Western Front, but interestingly one of the last British soldiers killed in the war was also a Cyclist. Pte Edward Sullivan, had served since 1914, and was a Lewis Gunner in the 7th Corps Cyclist Battalion, when he was killed the day before Armistice, on the 10th of November 1918. He too is buried in Belgium, in the Irchonwelz Communal Cemetery.


With the war over, 1919 saw the resumption of le Tour de France, which was welcomed back by its hosts with even greater enthusiasm than earlier years. The war ravaged country needed some form of enjoyable diversion after so much heartache and bleakness, and although racing bikes and equipment were incredibly scarce, they managed to make do.

Since its inception, Tour founder Henri Desgrange was always looking for ways to make the Tour tougher for the riders, but also more interesting for the spectators. The race leader was hard to spot tucked up in the bunch, especially in 1919 when due to lack of dyes after the war, all participants were dressed in grey. So when part way through the race, one of the race directors came up with the idea of a yellow jersey to be awarded to the leader, Desgrange jumped at the idea. And so ‘le maillot jaune’ (the yellow jersey) was born, and it was first awarded to Frenchman Eugene Christophe on the rest day after the 10th stage. Eugene’s Tours were constantly dogged by bad luck, and he never actually managed to win one, however, he had been lucky enough to have survived the war – though it did “take the best years of his life”. Eventually taking the lead from him and winning ‘yellow’ for 1919, was Belgian, Firmin Lambot – making it 2 Belgian riders that ‘book-ended’ the First World War. The Belgians then continued to dominate until 1923 when France at last reclaimed her race.


Another that had survived the war was the Italian, Ottavio Bottecchia, who had served for some time in a Cycling unit. Having turned professional after the war, he went into his first Tour de France in 1923, finishing second. The following year he became the first Italian to win the Tour, and then followed this up with another win in 1925. Unfortunately his career was cut short 5 days before the start of the 1927 Tour, when he was found dead near his bike – under (violent and) mysterious circumstances.

The Australians didn’t return to the Tour until 1928, when a team of 4, including Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman, who had been greatly helped in his training by ‘Don’ Kirkham, managed to finish an impressive 12th.


As my own Tour took me on my (second) battlefields journey through the beautiful countryside of Belgium and France, I soaked up the spirit of the great Aussie Battlers, who have cycled their way into history through war and peace, and in doing so, have earned the respect of many. Vive le Tour!


Heather (Frev) Ford, 2010, 2014



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my GF in law was a competitive cyclist in Sydney and the Northern Rivers area of NSW before the Great War. 

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