The Great War was the first conflict in which motorcycle Despatch Riders played any sort of role in battlefield signals. The Royal Engineers took on the main task of providing them and men were specially trained pre-1914 to operate motorcycles. Those with motorcycle experience were brought in when volunteers flooded in after the outbreak of war to cope with the expansion of the army.
This image shows a motorcycle Despatch Rider in winter dress wearing a standard British Army greatcoat but of the shorter type issued to drivers of vehicles and horse transport. He has leather gloves for a better grip and to keep his hands warm when out on his bike and he has a scarf to protect his neck area. On his head is the first wartime issue cold weather gear for British soldiers, the so-called ‘Gor Blimey’ hat. On it is his pair of Despatch Rider goggles. His Royal Engineer cap badge is visible in the middle. Post war the RE Despatch Riders formed an old comrades association which was active well into the 1960s.
Italy entered the Allied cause in 1915 and for the next two years the fighting took place between Italian troops and units from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the Battle of Caporetto the entire course of the war in Italy changed and it look as if the Italian Army might collapse. British troops were transferred from the Western Front from October 1917 and found themselves in some cases moving from the mud and slime of Passchendaele to an Italian winter, which several veterans I interviewed who fought there thought was much more preferable! The British units found themselves in Northern Italian, principally in the area around Asiago. They would remain here, later joined by both French and American units, until the Austro-Hungarian forces collapsed in October 1918. By this time more than 1,000 British soldiers had died in Italy, with more than 5,000 wounded or sick.
This photograph shows British and Italian troops at a railway siding. The British soldiers are Royal Engineers and may well be from the Railway Operating Division running the railway system that supported the British forces here.
I had an excellent few days at the remarkable War & Peace show last week. It’s always a good place to catch up with friends interested in Military History and also pick up some images for the archives from some of the many military stalls at the show.
This was one of my finds last week; a nice photograph of men of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers operating a steam train on the Somme in March 1918. The caption on the reverse indicates this train was being used to evacuate French civilians feeling from the German advance on the Somme at that time. Civilians running from a German attack is something we more associate with WW2, but it happened many times in WW1 as well, especially in the spring of 1918 as the German Army almost broke through on several parts of the Western Front.
Great War Photos shuts down for the summer now; it’s been an amazing year with more than 70,000 unique visitors since we started in January. Thanks for all your support and see you in the autumn!
As I’m off to the Somme to make a documentary with Dan Snow this week, it will be a Somme-themed week on Great War Photos.
This image shows a group of men from a Divisional Signal Company of the Royal Engineers. There was no Royal Signals in WW1 and signalling work was done at battalion level by infantry signallers and for larger formations by the REs. Photographed amid the ruins of a typical Somme building – possibly a church or town hall by the large chalk blocks – these men have all the kit they need to carry out their signalling work. Rolls of cable allowed field telephone to be connected; some men have the tools needed to cut and trim the cable; examples of field telephones in their leather bags can be seen and the man on the front right holds an example of a British phone in his hand. Signallers wore a white and blue armband and although it is not clear on every man in this image, the armband is being worn here.
The men have obviously recently been in action and some trophies of war can be seen amongst their kit; two German Picklehaubes are visible, as is an example of a German Luger. The meaning of the caption on the board – ‘The Cherry Stickers’ – sadly appears to be lost in time.
The use of trains in the Great War is a neglected subject; railways were the super-highways of the day used to transport everything from material to men and horses. In the British and Commonwealth forces trains were operated by the Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the Royal Engineers which recruited men who had worked on the railways in civilian life to operate the trains on active service.
Depicted here are trains of the ROD abandoned on the Somme during the March Offensive of 1918. They were photographed by a German soldier at this time just off the Albert-Bapaume road close to the village of Pozières. The British had put in a railway system here as a Casualty Clearing Station had been in operation at this point in 1917 and the wounded had been brought in by ambulance and then moved further back by train. The trains had also brought up artillery ammunition for a number of shell depots that had been established in the area. The barren nature of the Somme battlefields at this time is evident in the background.