The Army Cyclist Corps and The Khaki Chums.
Since 1991 The Association for Military Remembrance - 'The Khaki Chums' had been touring the Battlefields of Europe on foot - marching from one place
to another as did the infantry of the time. The only disadvantage to this (apart from the blisters) was the lack of mobility and the limits on what
could be seen on each trip.
Several of the Chums suggested getting hold of original Mk IV army bicycles, restoring them, and using them as an ideal way to tour the battlefields.
It looked like the idea would never get off the drawing board - not just because of the problems in getting enough original bikes. Not only would
they all need to look the same (impossible), they would also have to put up with a fair bit of punishment (sacrilegious!).
In 1997 Chum Mo Stokes came up with the answer. He had been to a bicycle trade show in Southampton and met an Indian man who was the UK agent for
Hero Bicycles. These are brand new but traditionally made Indian roadsters based on old British patterns. The agent was based in Croydon and we did a
deal on 20 bottom-of-the-range Hero bicycles, with 28" wheels, rod brakes and no gears. Then came the mammoth task of turning them into Great War
Mk IV Army Cycles!
The whole lot were transported to Chum Dick Knights' workshop in
Cambridgeshire where stripping, priming, painting and re-assembling would take place, while rifle clips, lamp brackets and front and rear carriers
where were being knocked out on makeshift factory lines by Dick himself, and Chums Gary Hancock and Kev Smith. Original plans and photographs were
used to make exact copies. The Khaki Chums are extremely lucky in having several engineers and machinists in the ranks!
We had several get-togethers at Dick's, sanding paint and chrome ready for re-painting, and then putting them all back together again. We had ten
completed by the summer of 1998 - just in time for our tour of the Ypres battlefield in August to commemorate "The Black Day of The
German Army" in August 1918 - exactly 80 years before.
We assembled at Dover - all dressed exactly as members of The Army Cyclist Corps would have been in 1918. We packed everything on the bicycles, and
set off for Ostend. Despite the unbelievably hot weather (The American weather reports claimed it was the hottest weekend of the century!) the
trip was a total success. We travelled from Ostend along the coast to Neiuport and then via Ramskapelle and the old Belgian front line to
Dixmuide and then on to the Ypres Salient. We spent several nights sleeping out in the open (with no tents or sleeping bags) including a night on the
Ramparts in Ypres next to The Menin Gate. We also slept on the stone floor of a 1920s cowshed at Varlet Farm Poelkapelle (now an excellent B&B).
The mileage was comparatively low but the bicycles were heavily laden and slow
to ride with one speed. As stated in the original manuals of the period (Cyclist Training (Provisional) 1914), we dismounted whenever we met steep
hills and marched up. We had a few mechanical problems with the bicycles - the quality of the metal wasn't good and things did get bent - but nothing
we couldn't repair. Crankshafts, cranks and pedals took the most punishment.
We also took the time to practise the correct drill movements: mounting and dismounting, forming two files, stacking cycles, etc.
The Chums Cyclists have only had one other collective outing on the
bicycles since then - on the Veteran Cycle Club Windsor Great Park Ride, in 1999. However, several of the dedicated cyclists amongst them get out on
their bikes whenever they can. In 2003 we refitted the bikes with the correct colour tyres for the period, which completes the illusion.
Another Battlefield Tour is planned for 2005 to commemorate the Battles of 1915 (Second Battle of Ypres, Neuve Chappelle, Festubert, Aubers Ridge,
Fromelles, and Loos) and we are hoping to field all twenty bicycles for this!
For more on The Khaki Chums there will be a web-site soon - watch this space.
Pte 'Jack' Johnson, 4616
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