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Motorbike dispatch riders - the unsung heroes of two World Wars

Dispatch riders were paid well, but received little recognition for their service
Dispatch riders were paid well, but received little recognition for their service
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Thursday, 23, Jul 2015 09:39

by Josh Budd and Megan Henderson

Dispatch riders received very little recognition during the wars, though their roles were vital in delivering important messages and information while facing grave danger

In all wars, there are always those who go unnoticed, those who are pushed to the background leaving the sacrifices they made and the hardships they encountered out of the history books and, more often than not, out of our memories.

One such group of unrecognised wartime servicemen are the dispatch motorcycle riders - an integral part of history that helped shape the world as we know it, despite having received no official form of recognition to this day.

Riding through warzones, coming under enemy fire, sleeping it rough in rain or hailstorms,

we at MotorbikeTimes think it is about time that these unsung heroes were recognised for their insurmountable service and dedication when the world needed them most. So join us as we dig a little deeper into the role of the motorcycle dispatch rider.

Motorcycle dispatch riders came to use in the military after it became necessary to find alternative methods of communication rather than the radio or telephone, as Robert Fleming, historian and curator at the National Army Museum, London, explained.

"The Royal Engineers Signal Service also brought battlefield telephones and early wireless sets into service, but telephones relied on overground, or 'OG' lines which were frequently cut by artillery shelling, and wireless could be intercepted and didn't have great range 100 years ago. So the humble despatch rider was still relied on to get messages through."

Several different motorcycles were utilised by riders, but it was the British-made Triumph that was used most frequently throughout the First World War.

Of the Triumph, Fleming goes on: "The Triumph had a 550cc side-valve four-stroke engine with a three-speed gearbox and belt transmission, and with around 3½ horsepower, could manage a very respectable top speed of 45-50 mph, and was nicknamed the 'Trusty Triumph'," he laughs.

Due to their high demand across the country, in August 1914, the War Department asked if motorcyclists would volunteer their bikes for dispatch work, and received a hefty response from British civilians. The London office had many more applicants than places; with positions filling up fast, over 2,000 applicants missed out.

"Young lads were desperate for wheels," begins Dennis Cooney, a dispatch rider for the National Service shortly after the first World War, and a member of the Vintage Motorcycle Club.

"You couldn't afford any really, but to go into the army and be given a motorbike to ride, you know, that was great! You were called to join the army and you've probably never been out your village, and the thought of joining the army and going to London."

All villages with all the young chaps volunteered because it was an adventure, a different part of the country," continues Cooney.

The life of a dispatch rider proved more treacherous than an infantryman, and were paid accordingly. Swept up by what Fleming describes as "an initial patriotic euphoria" at the outbreak of the war, young men were quick to enlist.

When rider and bike were approved, they were immediately paid £10, and were given £5 to be paid on discharge. While in the military the riders were paid 35 shillings per week - the equivalent of £1.75 today.

For riders, enlistment as a dispatcher lasted a year, or however long the war lasted.

Enlistment did not fall under the jurisdiction of conscription; dispatch riders took their positions voluntarily. It was the only voluntary position aside from paratrooper. Although their role in the war was life-threatening, many have received no recognition for their efforts.

"For the hierarchy in the army, you were doing a job, there were lorry drivers, tank drivers," Cooney says.

Despite their lack of recognition, riders did hold rank, automatically making corporal, with the opportunity to progress further. They were ranked due to their requirement to address high-ranking officers. As a result, evidence suggests dispatch riders' rank was unfairly earned, based solely on its practical merit - this in turn rubbing many other soldiers up the wrong way, according to historian, Fleming.

"They were considered by many to be little more than glorified messenger boys or couriers. Few people other than fellow riders really appreciated the constant danger to which they were exposed," he goes on.

A dispatch rider had no control over the duties that he was given on a daily basis. Duties could vary, but riders were primarily used to deliver messages to different units or headquarters.

According to Fleming, dispatch riders delivered anything pertaining to official business, from intelligence reports to weather reports. They also carried reconnaissance film and photographs. "If they risked capture, they were expected to destroy the message, by swallowing it or burning it if necessary.

"Many tried to memorise it, in case they could escape and still deliver their message. Many of the messages were so important, if a rider didn't return within a set time, a second rider would be sent with the message."

Messages were usually labeled 'Secret' or 'Top Secret'. 'Secret' messages were allowed to be signed for by any clerk, whilst 'Top Secret' messages had to be directly delivered to the assigned officer.

Riders had to deliver the message via the most direct route, in the shortest possible time. 'Top Secret' messages could bring dispatch riders right to the front lines.

Information during both World Wars was on a need-to-know basis, leaving dispatch riders in the dark as to what each message contained.

"You didn't know, no one told you," begins Cooney. "You had a package to deliver and that was it, you had no idea what was in it. What you were taking, you had no idea, you took it, got a receipt written and back again. No one told you anything - in my case they'd come at 5 o'clock and say 'take this'. You didn't argue, you just went."

Riders were given a pistol to defend themselves, but usually speed was their best defence. Expected to adapt to all situations whilst on the road, riders were given a toolkit to tend to any mechanical issues encountered while travelling.

Fleming comments: "It included all the easily replaceable spare parts such as a spare belt or chain, a spare tube, valves, type repair kit, spark plugs, magneto, piston rings, nuts and washers - just about one spare of everything on the bike."

Guided by an ambiguous and unreliable map, riders were often taken through unfrequented parts of the world, sometimes into horrendous conditions. To avoid detection, riders were forced to travel off road at times. The rough terrain left mud caked under wheel fenders, making navigation difficult. Sometimes fenders were simply removed.

"One of the things that the army were very keen on was people being able to ride off the road. If they could enter you for the trials which required more skill and balance, in their opinion it made you a better rider on the road," Cooney says in closing.

Even though drivers were told not to take unnecessary risks, they faced sleep deprivation, accidents due to poor road conditions, and enemy fire. Confronted with numerous obstacles and a constant fear for their lives, dispatch riders played a vital role in the war. We at MotorbikeTimes wish these unsung heroes received the recognition they truly deserve.

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