A Bit of Biking History (part 3)

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Courtesy ANDREWR (originally posted at ukrm.net)

History of the Motorbike (Chapter 3)

The Motorcycle goes to war

With the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 Britain entered a new era. It was obvious that this war, already christened the “Great War”, was going to offer more opportunity than ever before to have people killed in scenic locations. Breakthroughs such as the aeroplane and mustard gas were new to the battlefield and greeted with mixed feelings by the generals of the day, who considered it much more sporting to kill your enemy face-to-face. The role of assessing these new devices was assigned to General Sir Idwal Bung, a notoriously corrupt Welshman. It is from this man we get the popular euphemism for taking a bride – namely “Back hander”, which was his nickname. Bung based his decisions solely on how much money the representatives of various industries would put his way and had, by the end of the war, accumulated a personal fortune in excess of £10million, or more than £15million in today’s terms.

The motorcycle industry, however, had not been sufficiently generous when stuffing the brown envelopes and only two motorcycle divisions were founded. The first, and most notable, used bikes specially adapted for off-road usage, with high ground clearance and industrial strength suspension. This group, The Kings Own Scramblers, were led by Captain Julian Twerp, described by his batman, Sergeant David Logger, as being: “an illegitimate ursine of a man with a stomach of steel who could send enemies screaming at the very mention of his green dressing gown.” The second group, The Royal Mounted Hogs, lead by Captain Gower specialised in trench warfare – which was a mistake on motorbikes. For miles around their base their characteristic battle cry of “Is there anybody there?” could be heard from the bottom of ditches. Both groups fell under the overall command of Major Charles Gainsborough – the father of modern motorcycling himself. Motorcycles as a tool of war may have worked during WWI, were it not for three factors:

  1. The two motorcycle divisions hated each other and spent more time fighting each other than the enemy.
  2. Nobody had thought of a way of mounting any kind of gun on a motorcycle and preliminary tests with the rider trying to load, aim and shoot a rifle while controlling the bike had led to “inconclusive” results.
  3. Both motorcycle divisions were based in Once Brewed, just South of Hadrian’s Wall.

The geographical location of the motorcycle divisions may seem strange, but the official plan was that, in the event of German invasion, the royal family and other important people would flee to Scotland and leave the biking divisions behind to fight off the enemy. Thus it was that while men fought and died for weeks over a few yards of muddy soil the bikers sat waiting for the Axis powers to suddenly advance 600 miles.

Obviously boredom was a serious problem, especially as the licensing laws had just been introduced. Lacking motivation, leadership and, in many cases, higher brain functions the motorcycle divisions were left to amuse themselves.

The military records of the time show the form that this amusement took. The 50 men of the two divisions accumulated between them the following charges during the four years of the war:

Being out of uniform 2,517 counts
Being bang out of order 17,344 counts
Conduct unbecoming a solider 945 counts
Conduct unbecoming a goat 321 counts
Grand treason 1 count
Refusal to show up for execution 3 counts
Drunk and disorderly 73,051 counts (1 overturned on appeal).

Major Gainsborough spent the entire war running court martials and was awarded a Victoria Cross for his bravery in doing so.

One should not, however, write off World War I motorcyclists as being merely hard drinking yet disorganised ruffians. After 2 years of war the bikers tired of Northumberland and decided to go into battle. The first the high command knew of this was when major Gainsborough turned up for an inspection only to find the barracks deserted with a note pinned to the door reading “Gone to fight the Hun, back after the war.”.

Apparently the whole thing had started after a particularly heavy drinking session on the night of June 29th 1916. Sergeant Logger records in his war diaries (“Captain Twerp – You don’t want to fight with this bloke”) that somebody had suggested that, if the weather was nice, they should go for a run the next day. The initial destination was to be Newcastle, to have a run up The Hill. Somebody had then complained that they were sick of short runs and that Durham would be more fun. In a typical display of one-upmanship the destination had quickly gone from Newcastle to Durham to Yorkshire to Nottingham then London, Portsmouth, France and finally Berlin. Somebody, who was obviously too sober, had pointed out that the entire German army was between them and Berlin (or, as they put it – we might have some hassle with the law, lads). However Captain Twerp had heard that Herr General Sven Kooms, a senior German army propagandist, had recently announced “Zat Captain Tverp, he rides like ze big girlie poof.” And was itching for a chance to “twat the cunt”.

So it was that, on the morning of 30th June 1916, all 50 members of the two biker groups set off for Germany. The journey was fraught with problems – the Little Thief at Scotch Corner was ransacked after it took them an hour and a half to serve a pot of coffee, Captain Twerp arrived in Doncaster an hour and a half ahead of everybody else and, by the time they turned up, he was pissed out of his brains and couldn’t ride for another half hour and, finally, the entire Hog division was lost as the group rode past a particularly reflective window on the Kings Road.

So it was only the Scramblers who arrived, weary, dirty and down to their last bottle of vodka in France just before 7:30am on 1st July. In the distance two mighty explosions were heard which signalled to the group that something was happening that they were far better out of and they went for an early morning drink. The bar chosen by the group housed 3 English toffs – Henry, Dougie and Eddie and a Frenchman called Joe who all seemed to be drinking rather heavily. This immediately attracted the attention of the bikers who challenged them to a drinking match.

In the end the drinking contest lasted until 17th November – although it was nearly ruined by the toffs being constantly interrupted by messengers, prompting them to have a big debate about who they should “send in next”. This led to Captain Twerp yelling across to them “Are you lot drinking or are you fucking around?”. The contest came to a tragic close when PFC “Diamond” Ginger was struck in the back of the head with a black pool ball. Dougie commented that this was “the darkest moment in the history of the British Army”.

Following the strain of the drinking contest many of the bikers were left suffering from “Schnapps shock” and were unable to continue pressing on into Germany to give General Kooms a good slapping. Not wanting to split his troops up Captain Twerp elected to have a quiet holiday in Northern France which he found “quiet and relaxing”.

In the end, with one thing and another (mainly the other), the Kings Own Scramblers didn’t continue on towards Germany until early 1918. Pressing on through the lines of the Western front the 24 bikers were confronted with the might of nearly 200 German divisions sweeping toward them, making their final push toward Paris. Faced with these overwhelming odds Captain Twerp faced his troops, looked them in the face and said “Bugger this, let’s go back to Northumberland”. Which they did.

However, as the war drew to a close behind them they were to find England very different to the place they had left behind.

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