THE FOLLOWING story, which dates from 1909, demands a little background. As it appeared in Motor Cycling it’s no surprise that a motorcyclist saves the day. But what was a military fantasy doing in a bike mag? Jumping on a bandwagon, that’s what. ‘England Invaded’ stories had appeared by the hundred since the 1870s, no doubt inspired by the way the Prussians had given the French such a swift kicking in the Franco-Prussian war. (Some of the best of these tales were collected in Michael Moorcock’s excellent anthologies, England Invaded and Before Armageddon.)
George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking was a particularly dark example (we lost) – HG Wells’ 1898 seminal War of the Worlds was a remake with Martians replacing Germans (we lost, until the Martians caught colds).
The Invasion of 1910 was a 1906 novel written mainly by William Le Queux (with HW Wilson providing the naval chapters) which preached the need to prepare for war with Germany. The novel was commissioned by Alfred Harmsworth as a serial which appeared in the Daily Mail. London newspaper vendors were dressed as Prussian soldiers complete with pickelhaube helmet and placards showing maps of where the ‘invaders’ would be next day–the story was even amended to feature towns and villages with large Daily Mail readerships. The Invasion of 1910 was translated into27 languages; sales topped a million. The idea for the novel is alleged to have originated from Field Marshal Earl Roberts, who regularly lectured English schoolboys on the need to prepare for war.
To Le Queux’s understandable dismay, a pirated and abridged German translation (with an altered ending) appeared the same year: Die Invasion von 1910: Einfall der Deutschen in England. This wasn’t the first change, mind you. Le Queux’s book was originally published as The Great War in England in 1897 with France as Britain’s implacable enemy. In this version German soldiers land in Britain to help repulse the French invasion and are welcomed as saviours.
In 1903 Erskine Childers published The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service, a rattling good yarn which also portrayed the Jerries as the bad guys (the 1979 film is worth a look).
Moorcock’s title Before Armageddon reflects the sobering fact that within a few years of being inspired by such tales of derring do, a generation of young men were to discover the horrors of mechanised warfare.
Enough of the background. Make yourself a cuppa and settle down for a rattlin’ good yarn…
IN TOUCH WITH THE INVADERS
Some Thrilling Episodes, Showing the Possibilities of the Motor-bicycle if this Country were Invaded.
The following wireless message was received at the War Office on the 30th July 1916: “Sandyness Bay, Sunday 30th July, 1916. Time, 4.25am. Fifteen thousand foreign troops with all impedimenta landed this morning one mile west of above point. All telephone and telegraph wires cut in neighbourhood. Foreign fleet with transports are anchored within 500 yards of coast. Sea calm, slight fog.”
Motorcyclist Jones of the Kent Cyclist Battalion, who had finished the remaining drops from a tin of ‘Shell’ into the tank of his twin, screwed down the cap and threw the empty can into the corner of the garage. He had heard the news of the landing of the enemy from his drill-instructor, whilst the British fleet were executing some elaborate manoeuvres in the Irish Channel.
Shortly after Jones was speeding round the town, regardless of red triangles, to the homes of his comrades, warning them to appear at the drill hall at 7am. Dress, full marching order, water bottles filled, rations for 48 hours, rifles and capes on machines, blanket and waterproof on cycle carrier. Thus Jones rode like fury, for as a trained military cyclist he knew that time was very precious. It took him just under an hour to complete his work of alarm. Arriving again at the drill hall he reported himself to his instructor to await further orders. So, after despatching several telegrams to his company’s officers, Jones returned home to complete his own equipment.
Monday, 7am – all was hustle and bustle at the hall. Everybody was as keen as mustard and anxious to be in touch with the enemy who had so audaciously stolen a march on old England at such a critical time. The roll-call numbered six officers, 12 motorcyclists and 380 ordinary cyclists. Their neat khaki tunics beneath the cartridge-filled bandoliers looked smart and becoming. At 7.15am they were despatched to the scene of coming action in small companies of 40 to 60 men. The motor-cycle section were the leading files and were sent on with all possible speed to locate the position occupied by the enemy. All went well for a time, with the exception of one machine which constantly misfired and in consequence soon lost ground.
The first 20 miles was covered in 35 minutes. Suddenly above the din of muffled exhausts came the sharp sound of rifle shots, unmistakable close – in fact a bullet entered the oil tank of one fellow’s motor and the hole had to be stopped up temporarily with a lump of clay. A halt was made at once and cover obtained behind a tall, thick hedge at a bend of the road, which spot gave a good view of the road to the right and left. Here a council of war was held to discuss matters.
To proceed further along the road meant certain capture, so one motorist was despatched off to warn the cyclists in the rear, and another four were detailed to scout the neighbourhood on foot.
An hour elapsed before any news of the enemy was forthcoming. At last a despatch came to hand. It was from Jones and ran thus: “200 foreign cyclists with machine guns halting at the 67th milestone on London-Dover main road.” Following this came several more purporting that the enemy had practically laid a line of troops from the South to the North Foreland and were rapidly marching on to Dover, Canterbury and Chatham, sweeping everything and capturing everybody before them. It now remained for these few cyclists to harass the enemy to such a degree that part of our regular army could be brought by motorcars and trains from Aldershot and Salisbury Plain to resist the enemy’s attack on London.
A maxim gun section was hurried off to protect the coastline and road at St Margaret’s Bay. Thanks to the new motor roads, under the direction of the Road Board, punctures were unknown. Other sections were sent to Ashford and on to Faversham. The proportion of combatants was about 150 foreigners to four English. So it was quite obvious that we could not expect to hold out for any length of time.
Presently Jones returned from Canterbury pulling a very long face and limping slightly in the right leg, caused by a stray bullet glancing off a steel pillar and taking a lump of flesh from off his thigh. A bandage was speedily placed over the wound and he resumed his duties with renewed vigour, using his motorcycle whenever possible so as to resume the strain on his injured leg.
Maidstone was made the headquarters of the cyclists and a line of patrols was organized from Chatham on the left to Rye on the right, covering the retreat of the motorcyclists, who now occupied Faversham, Chatham, Ashford, and the little tone of Hythe. The day wore steadily on and all efforts to successfully delay the advance of such overwhelming numbers were useless.
Jones thought for a few moments. “If I could only raise the alarm at Chelmsford and bring the Essex Battalion into action we might be able to give the enemy about ’50 rounds of nickel at dawn’ on the following day.”
Notwithstanding his wounded thigh he approached his commander for the necessary leave of absence. The officer wished him luck and a safe journey, and also hinted at promotion at the termination of the war. A few minutes spent in overhauling and lubricating the motor was thought necessary, and punctually at five o’clock a start was made from a spot five miles west of Canterbury.
“I had a narrow squeak at Harbledown, Jones reported later, “in running into two of the enemy in the main street. They, however, were quite taken by surprise, for at that moment out came my revolver and one was left dead on the tarmac surface. Faversham soon appeared in the distance but I was hauled up before entering the town by some of our scouts. It was the work of a few seconds to explain my errand to the OC, and amid many cheers I vaulted into the saddle, opening at the same time the throttle and extra air to the fullest extent.
“What a ride it was – no slowing down whatever. Up and down hill my twin took me without a murmur. Rushing through the deserted streets of Sittingbourne, with eyes glued on the open road in front, on, on and on, never slacking an instant. I gave the spark lever another notch and the speed increased perceptibly. I was now afraid of overheating. As a precaution I cut out the silencers and dosed the crankcase liberally.
Up Hartlip Hill I simply flew, and then on to Rainham. A few minutes more elapsed, and Jezereel’s Temple loomed in sight. This remarkable, unfinished structure marks the approach of the steep incline into Chatham. Arriving at the top of the hill I reluctantly closed the throttle and retarded the spark slightly. Several more of our company were faithfully guarding the main roads at the foot of the hill, and after establishing my identity I was allowed to resume. Over Strood Bridge, I passed through the town and in a few minutes I was steering the well sprung front wheel towards Gravesend.
“A speed of over 50 miles and hour was attained in places, which speaks volumes for the perfection and reliability of the modern motorcycle. At Gravesend a turn to the right was made, leading to the ferry. Fortunately it was still in working order, so placing my machine on board we embarked for Tilbury.
“Twenty-four miles now separated me from the headquarters of the Essex Battalion of Cyclists, and the clock chimed out the hour of seven. Pulling out a map of Essex I made a rapid mental note of the road to Chelmsford. Remounting my faithful twin I resumed my journey to Horndon-on-the Hill, Langdon Street and Billericay. So far nothing further happened of interest except for an abrupt halt to allow a herd of bullocks to cross the road.
“Once through the town I let my motor take the ‘bit between its teeth’ as it were, and she simply romped away out into the open country again. Another six miles and Gallywood was reached and passed. Now only a league further to travel. Only a league; yes, but what a long three miles it seemed. The mileometer was reading 42.5 miles. Mechanically I raised and depressed the oil pump. With the throttle still open and a free exhaust I made for the centre of the town of Chelmsford. As luck would have it I had just turned into another street when I ran into a group of Territorial cyclists who were evidently discussing the war situation. I dismounted instantly, and rushing up to the surprised men I told them all the news and begged them to help in checking the advance of the foreign troops. Fortunately again it happened to be a drill night so I accompanied them to their spacious drill hall at a short distance off. Here I was introduced to Colonel Frenshaw, and after a few minutes talk he decided to mobilize the battalion. There was not much drill for the Chelmsford lads that night.
The light was growing pale, and the men of the 5th Company (Machine Gun Section), under the able leadership of Lieutenant Dalmeny, were feeling weary and tired after their long ride, towing the two .303 Maxims. Their destination was St Margaret’s Bay, and after posting several pickets in and about the village the remainder billeted at the only available inn. At midnight they paraded and marched off to their respective places under cover of darkness. All was still, and the lighthouse at the South Foreland had now ceased flashing. Once out of the almost hidden village one team took up a position commanding a view of the sea so as to frustrate a possible landing of the enemy from that quarter. The other commanded the roadway, with instructions to watch the railway line as far as Martin Mill Station, a hamlet about a mile to the north-east. Both positions were admirably suited for the purpose of attack and defence. Everything was now ready and dawn awaited eagerly.
Just as it was getting light and the moon had shed its last feeble rays a company of infantry was seen to be moving towards the left-hand gun team, marching briskly along the high road, innocent of their coming fate. The distance separating the two forces was one scarcely 900 yards. What awful doom awaited those ill-fortuned men. “Three more minutes and then open fire,” said the OC quietly to the men at the gun. “Right, sir,” replied the gunner. “Two minutes,” broke in the officer, and then a short pause. “At the enemy in front at 500 yards – rapid.” This order was repeated in a cool and collected tone by the gunner. “Fire!” shouted the officer.
Instantly there was a terrific volley of lead as the firing lever was pressed for a few seconds. In a very short space of time the road was in a pitiful state, bodies lying one on top of each other, ’mid shouts and cursing.
Fully 80 per cent were killed and wounded in less than five minutes. So much were they taken by surprise that numbers of them had not even lifted a rifle against us.
The right-hand team reported transports out to sea just off Deal, but no trace of the enemy.
Later in the day both our positions were attacked by a much larger force. Again the Maxims broke the silence, and again the enemy’s casualties were heavy. Clouds of steam issued from the miniature guns, and at times it was most difficult for our gunners to take good aim, especially now that the enemy’s rifle fire was getting uncomfortably warm.
It was nearly nine o’clock before the cease-fire sounded. We had lost seven men and 12 wounded whilst, as was reported later on, we killed and wounded of the enemy three officers and 237 men on that memorable day.
That night an attempt at landing was made by the enemy, under cover of a thick mist, to disembark troops at St Margaret’s. Slowly the large troopship could be seen, with the aid of powerful night glasses, coming as close as possible to the coveted shores. Within 200 yards boats were lowered from the davits, evidently filled with soldiers. However, we were quite ready to receive them.
As the eastern sky began to herald the dawn of another day the gunner on the right-flank maxim carefully trained his sights on the foreign boats. Then fixing the traversing gear with his foot and depressing the muzzle of the gun slightly he awaited with bated breath the signal. The light was improving. Already eight boats were fully manned. What a surprise we should give them. The first boat contained several officers with their staff, and as they neared our beloved land our cool and grim-looking gunner turned the crank lever over twice and gripped the rear cross piece tightly. “At the enemy in the first boat at 400 yards – rapid fire – commence,” roared out Lieutenant Dalmeny.
A hail of lead greeted the ill-fated boats and not one escaped alive. So terrible was the slaughter that the remainder hurriedly decided to return to their ship, which they did but not until three more boats were despatched to the bottom riddled with holes.
On board the enemy opened fire on us, but so completely were we hidden under cover, and their aim so erratic, that no great damage was done. At the end of another hour the vessel steamed away out to sea, having learnt a good lesson in a very short time.
Severe fighting throughout the county became general, and the men of the Kent Cyclist Battalion were often scattered and defeated imp an unfruitful attempt to hold a railway or a roadway. The enemy was steadily pushing forward their attacking line, and already the following towns flew the hated flag, viz Canterbury, Faversham, Ramsgate, Margate, Deal and Sandwich. To London they certainly meant to get at all costs.
At 6pm Lieutenant Dalmeny received a despatch from Maidstone, the headquarters of Colonel Laverhill, commanding Kent Cyclist Battalion, asking him to come with all possible speed as the enemy were in large numbers in the vicinity and threatening every moment to swamp the town. Lieutenant Dalmeny mustered his faithful men and a start was made at 6.20pm. Evidently the war was getting a serious matter, and unless we were reinforced within a very short time a wholesale capture of the battalion would follow.
At 9pm the little party, amid wild shouts of delight, entered the county town to join Colonel Laverhill and the rest of the battalion, now numbering only 200 men.
Reveille sounded at 4am on the following morning and a combined attack was made on Ashford, where the enemy had commandeered several railway locomotives and rolling stock, evidently with the intention of entraining for London.
All that day skirmishing and long-distance sniping prevailed. A railway bridge was blown to pieces by our demolition party, forcing the enemy to alter their plans.
The enemy were still concentrating their forces in the town and by nightfall practically the whole of their forces were flocking in and plundering everything they could lay their hands upon. The cyclists completely encircled the town moving up and down the dreary, drenched roads, silently and swiftly mounted. The final attack must either end in absolute victory or defeat. The weaker must go to the wall.
Dawn broke at cast. An indescribable scene presented itself to the Kent Cyclists. There lay a heap of ruins in the centre of the town and men could be seen clearing the debris and using the largest timbers as bullet-proof shield or barricades for the injured. A volley from our rifles greeted the enemy with evident surprise. They rushed here and there for their firearms, but before they could muster a strong firing line dozens of the poor fellows met a well deserved doom. They swarmed the top windows and roofs of houses and poured a regular hail of lead from above. The fight still weighed in the balances. Who will win? Who will win? How bravely our fellows fought – time after time running into the very jaws of death in the act of saving a wounded comrade.
Steadily we were being driven back and our lines broken through. We were losing, losing fast. Our men were unable to hold out any longer under the withering fire of the foreign infantry.
Lieutenant Dalmeny was seriously wounded, but he was able to crawl out of range and take cover behind a haystack close to the main road to Chatham. He lay there thinking that the next moment might be his last, and then would follow the loss of his beloved comrades. Hark! What was the meaning of that peculiar sound borne down on a strong west wind? Purrrrrr, purrrrrr! It came nearer, and eventually the familiar sound dawned upon the poor officer. It was the throb of a powerful twin-cylinder motorcycle, possibly the rider carrying an important message to the front. Painfully Lieutenant Dalmeny struggled to the corner of the haystack, which was visible to anyone passing along the road. He took out his blood-stained handkerchief in readiness to warn the oncoming motorist of his danger. Would the signal be seen or would the cyclist enter almost certain death at the rate of nearly 50 miles an hour? Louder and louder the unsilenced exhausts sounded, and in a flash the machine came into view. Up went the warning sign, and next minute Lieutenant Dalmeny fainted.
Jones made his officer comfortable and told him that at no great distance down the road there were 520 men and officers of the Essex Cyclists’ Battalion and over 300 cyclists from the London Corps. He then took the orders to support the weak firing line of the Kent Cyclists.
Adjusting the throttle and raising the exhaust valve, he bounded into the saddle, released the lever and slowly advanced the spark as the speed increased. Three minutes later Jones was informing his superior of the news of the conflict – how the enemy were finding various outlets for their troops and forcing back the English.
How the Kent Cyclists cheered as the welcome reinforcements came up in the nick of time. Rush after rush was made upon the enemy. A maxim was brought into action. Soon the enemy found themselves hemmed in on every side. A railway truck containing 280lb of nitro-glycerine was shunted with terrific force into the beleaguered town and striking against an obstacle detonated with awful violence. A huge tongue of flame laminated the surrounding buildings, and soon all inflammable materials were started everywhere. At five o’clock in the afternoon the English made a final onslaught. It will always be remembered in the history of the cyclist battalions. The rush lasted barely eight minutes, but in that short time every man who failed to surrender was immediately shot down. This unexpected charge quite overcame the enemy, who thought it would have ended in an easy victory.
Needless to say, Jones was promoted to the rank of sergeant and now holds an important position in the Territorial motorcyclists.
THAT ENDING reflects the social structure of the time – Jones saves the day but even in fiction there was no question of a battlefield commission for a chap from the artisan classes.
Back in the real world, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sparked off vigorous correspondence in the Daily Express by proposing the formation of “battalions of motors and cycles in place of the present artillery and yeomanry cavalry”.
The Green ‘Un, noting that the great man was “one of the earliest motorcycle enthusiasts who was often to be seen astride his Roc” expressed disappointment that he favoured “the formation of a cycle corps only, when his scheme would appear to more especially appeal to the motorcycling community with patriotic opinions”.
While accepting Sir Arthur’s ideas about using “petrol and steam motors for drawing the bulk of the artillery” Motor Cycling’s correspondent pointed out that cyclists who had just covered 50 or 60 miles could hardly be expected to “fight a battle with a ferocious enemy, arising in all its might after a comfortable night’s rest”. Instead, he asked, “why not motor-bicycle scouts – or even battalions? It is true that a good machine is expensive, but it costs no more than a war-horse, nor does it consume fuel when lying idle… just think which side you would back to win if one army had pedalled themselves 100 miles and the other had arrived at the scene of the action after a comfortable and invigorating spin on their motor-bicycles.”
He pointed out that riders from the volunteer Auto-Cycle Legion had “acquitted themselves splendidly” during recent army manoeuvres”, adding that, unlike horse-mounted cavalry, a motor-bicycle “painted in khaki or some other neutral tint would defy the keenest glasses of the enemy… in an emergency one machine fitted with a carrier could convey two people across country. “And while on this subject the possibility occurs of a motor-cyclist winning the VC for riding up into the danger zone, rescuing a fallen comrade and carrying him off to safety amidst a storm of shot and shell, regardless of his life – and of his tyres!”