Did you know that early on the morning of 7 June 1917, hundreds of New Zealand cyclists rode their bikes into battle over the muddy roads of the Western Front?
Imagine riding in the dark along with 300 other men over the muddy, rutted roads of the Western Front on fully-laden bikes, wearing full uniform and a gas mask! This was the reality that faced the men of the New Zealand Cyclist Corps in the early hours of 7 June 1917 as they rode towards German positions near the village of Messines in Belgium.
By the standards of the Western Front in 1917, the Battle of Messines on 7 June was a striking success, one in which the New Zealand Division played a major role. The key objectives were met, although at a terrible cost to the Division – 3400 casualties, 700 of them fatal.
At the time one Australian and two New Zealand cyclist companies served together as the II Anzac Corps Cyclist Battalion, a separate unit from the New Zealand Division. They also played an important role at Messines, one that is less well known.
The New Zealand Cyclist Corps
The New Zealand Cyclist Corps had been created in New Zealand in March 1916 using recruits who were training to join the Mounted Rifles. Intended for use as mobile light infantry able to carry out advanced reconnaissance tasks, the cyclists found on arrival in France in July 1916 that the stationary nature of trench warfare meant bikes were of limited military value. Although they did serve as infantry on occasion, the cyclists spent much of the war behind the lines performing tasks such as controlling traffic, laying cables and repairing trenches.
The cyclists’ contribution to the Battle of Messines began well before the action kicked off in June.
For six weeks from 2 April 1917 the cyclists and some New Zealand Division troops were formed into the temporary New Zealand Working Battalion. This unit was mainly tasked with digging trenches for laying telephone cables in preparation for the June offensive. During this period the Battalion dug an impressive 37 km of trenches ranging from 1.8 to 3 metres in depth – deep enough to withstand high-explosive shells. This was difficult work carried out at night without artificial light. The official history of the New Zealand Cyclist Corps records:
All this work was carried out behind the front line in the area which received the full benefit of the enemy's wrath. The ground through which we dug was in many cases a sea of shell holes. Naturally the ground was very loose, and I have in many cases seen where a digger would be just completing his task (7 x 6 x 2½ feet) and have the whole trench fall in.
After completing this work the cyclists were sent to billets at Steenwerck, where they rested and made final preparations for their part in the attack on Messines.
Cycling to battle
The cyclists’ task on the day of the battle was to build a 1.8-kilometre track that would allow troops of the Otago Mounted Rifles to ride their horses through the tangled wire, shellholes and waterways between the Allied and German positions. The mounted troops could then exploit the gains made by the Australian and New Zealand infantry. The track was to be built in less than four hours, under enemy fire.
At 2.15 a.m. on 7 June, 13 officers and 291 troops from the battalion cycled about 13 km from their billets at Steenwerck to White Gates on Hill 63. Shortly after setting out, the cyclists were forced to don their gas masks as enemy gas shells landed nearby.
The cyclists reached White Gates in good time and left their bicycles behind as they made their way to the front line by foot. At 3.10 am an explosion of mines and massive artillery bombardment (said to have been heard in London) signalled the start of the Battle of Messines.
One hour later, as the infantry advanced, the cyclists began building the track from the previous front line across no-man's-land and through German trenches to a point called Middle Farm about 450 m north of Messines.
Building the track required filling in shellholes and trenches, cutting wire and bridging a stream. The work was extremely dangerous as they were continually subjected to German shellfire. This was particularly heavy at the Steenbecque Stream, where a small bridge had to be constructed. Four Anzac cyclists were killed and 22 others wounded in this area. As the regimental history records:
To advance against an enemy during a heavy fire, when there is a chance of hitting back, is quite a different matter from working under heavy fire when no such chance exists.
The cyclists worked at an impressive pace and had the task completed by the time the mounted riflemen arrived at 7.30 a.m.
Commanding Officer for the cyclists, New Zealander Major Charles Evans, was Mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work at Messines, during which
he reorganised his men when scattered by heavy shell fire, and continued to supervise the work, which by his personal example was rapidly completed under heavy fire, and proved subsequently invaluable to the success of our options.
After the battle
Following the battle the cyclists were employed digging trenches for and burying cables from the old front line south and west of Messines into the territory captured on 7 June. The work was carried out at night and the men were frequently subjected to enemy fire, suffering two fatalities and several wounded.
Later in the year the New Zealand cyclists laid vital communication cables prior to the attack on Passchendaele. They went on to play an important role in the battles of 1918, on several occasions fighting as infantry. In the closing phases of the war their ability to move quickly made them useful as scouts and advanced troops as the Germans rapidly retreated. By the end of the war 708 men had served in the New Zealand Cyclist Corps, of whom 59 had been killed and 259 wounded (51 more than once).