First let me lay my cards on the table !
- Martin Shelly and Nick Shelly
I have long had a keen interest in motorcycles, and from a very early age I was dreaming about riding and touring on one, later on against parental wishes I took to the road, and still today at my advanced age continue to ride and explore the world around me, viewing it in wonderment and awe
Many of the places mentioned in this book are familiar to me from reading about the Great War, and motorcycling along many of the same roads and villages. My wife's family have always been confused by my love of motorcycles, (they being simple country folk, grew up with cars and tractors) but recently it emerged that her grandfather, was a despatch rider in the Great War and rode a triumph Model H (a picture found on the wall of a relative long forgotten about, brought this fact to life and jogged a few memories).
Now the title of this book may lead one to believe that it is all about motorcycles, and that could make for boring and mundane reading for those of you not afflicted with my passion. Worry not, this is a story of the Great War, young men from all social classes coming together, and growing up quickly and learning to cope, while the world changed around them, and staying sane amidst the horror and destruction for which their generation were ill prepared.
This comprehensive book written by Martin and Nick Shelly, who are both motorcyclists and restorers of Vintage motorcycles, and Marque experts for the V.M.C.C., and highly respected amongst the motorcycling fraternity, is a labour of love, and well worth reading.
The book is based upon the diary and letters home of W.H.L. Watson, one of the intelligent and articulate young men of his day, of whom so many were slaughtered in the Mud of the Somme.So many of these Bright young men were lost that universities had to open up to a wider range of students (one of those being the son of a mill worker, J.B. Priestley)
W.H.L Watson wrote about his life, from joining up with the R.E and taking his motorcycle along to qualify (it is likely that he purchased his machine solely to join up) he writes with great skill of his friends and comrades, the experiences and the horrors, and yet makes light of his suffering. His book, published in 1915 was based upon letters that he wrote home, and that his family loaned to his old school to publish, the Censors initially missed this out, the book being heavily censored, the censored paragraph's are all included and highlighted in this book.
To add to this fine work, Martin and Nick have managed to locate many of the pictures taken at that time by Watson and his comrades, and to decipher their real names from the nicknames used in the stories.
Also letters home from from other members of his regiment are included and nicely cross reference the various scenes so vividly illustrated by him.
Many of these articles have not been seen since 1916 , and appear fresh and new to our modern eye.
Also included is an entire chapter devoted to the types and makes of motorcycles used in the Great War, and to the tools and spares that these men carried on their motorcycles, and to the riding and maintenance of them.
Now reading about their trips, often in darkness, on poor roads (long before tarmac), with the risk of enemy action, mechanical failures, friendly fire, and just the physical damage done by riding in such awful conditions, one is filled with respect for their actions; more so when you consider the fact that the motorcycle as a form of transport was still in its infancy and not considered much more than a rich man's toy!
The motorcycles of this Great War generation, share about as much in common with modern motorcycles as do the Wright Brothers flyer and the Boeing 737. They both have engines and they both fly, but their the similarity ends. (I purposely rode one yesterday to make a full comparison)
These machines, jokingly referred to as gas pipes, were little more than a conventional bicycle to which a crude and often unreliable stationery engine had been affixed, lights were either oil or acetylene, punctures common, as were bent and fractured fork blades, broken spokes, bent rims and snapped frames, broken drive belts, or snapped valves, or just mysterious faults beyond comprehension.
Added to this fact was the lack of petrol and oil available and the lack of skill mechanical engineers well versed in motorcycles to assist the riders.
Many human stories of triumph over adversity are in this fine book, of course the heroism and danger is downplayed as was common with that generation.
The story of them getting behind the lines and stealing a car under the noses of the enemy is real boys own stuff.
Upon first joining the Royal Engineers, Watson's opinion of the Regular soldier is not one of praise or respect, but then the different social stratas that they inhabit would explain that.
However given time, his experiences of the British Army, turn his opinions around, and I find he has a fair old judgement of the system before long, balanced and fair, and heaps praise gently upon the men serving under him and of those he serves and works under.
This book ties in well if you are studying the Great War, so many stories of this period were written by the leaders and decision makers, often some time afterwards and with little personal criticism or explanation of their actions.
The battles of Le Cateu, Mons, The Aisne, and the Retreats, the panics, and some terrible actions are well recorded, you will learn much about how the ordinary soldier lived and eat, their opinions of senior officers, the fear as they went out into the night
This is a very comprehensive book, and even those who know little or nothing about motorcycles will learn from it, all the complexities of the machines are explained in simple terms and with great accuracy, without glorifying the technical details. It runs to 302 pages, well printed and easy to read, 100 black and white photographs and 8 maps.
It is a book well worth reading on a dark evening with the window open and the smell of the French countryside wafting in, if only to remind you how lucky you are, and reading it made me wonder how I could have coped under those conditions ?