Two Wheels To War

A Tale Of Twelve Bright Young Men Who Volunteered Their Own Motorcycles For The British Expeditionary Force 1914

Martin Shelley, Nick Shelley

 
Date Published :
June 2017
Publisher :
Helion and Company
Language:
English
Illustration :
100 b/w photos, 8 maps
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Hardback
ISBN : 9781911096580
Pages : 302
Dimensions : 9.25 X 6 inches
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In stock
$59.95

Overview
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Two Wheels To War is a scholarly but entertaining look at the largely forgotten world of the motorcycle despatch rider in the early months of the First World War, then a new phenomenon in the field of conflict. At the heart of the book is an illustrated and annotated edition of the underrated – and initially uncensored – classic first published in 1915, Adventures of a Despatch Rider, written by Captain WHL Watson, one of the well-educated young men who volunteered for the Signal service. He and over 400 other motorcyclists were sent to France, some mounted on their own machines, direct from the recruiting office. Sometimes uncomfortably close to the fast evolving action, Watson and his colleagues played a little known but key part in the early campaigns at Mons, Le Cateau, on the Retreat and on the Aisne. They accompanied the BEF returning to the north in October 1914 when the Western Front extended to Flanders, enduring the harsh winter that followed.

His book, which initially escaped scrutiny by the censor, was a graphic and particularly well written account of the reality of war from the Retreat from Mons to the First Battle of Ypres. To illustrate his classic prose, we have unearthed a treasure trove of contemporary photographs, mainly taken by three of his fellow despatch riders in the 5th Signal Company, Pollers, Sadders and Cecil Burney, using the soldier’s camera, the VPK, as the iconic Vest Pocket Kodak camera became known.

As well as Watson’s book itself, we continue his story until April 1915, when he was wounded and repatriated to England. His book was based on his letters home which were serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine (the famous ‘Maga’), an Edinburgh-based publisher responsible for other classics of the time such as The Thirty Nine Steps and The First Hundred Thousand. While convalescing from a shrapnel wound, Watson was persuaded to edit his letters into a book which was released in late 1915. Now commissioned, Watson resumed writing (but in a less personal style than before) about his experiences as an officer commanding a Cyclist’s battalion, articles which appeared in Maga under the title Tales of a Gaspipe Officer. Plans to publish these in book form were thwarted by the censor who had by now spotted that his first book had slipped through the censor’s net and had been withdrawn awaiting review. These Maga articles are republished here for the first time since 1916.

Our introduction offers a new perspective on their story – how the Signal service hurriedly recruited and sent to France more than 400 motorcyclists with their own machines. We have also researched the biographical details of the twelve despatch riders of 5th Signal Company. These reveal their real identities, hidden until now behind the nicknames they used such as “Huggie” and “Spuggy” and the ironically named “Fat Boy”. The appendices describe the motorcycles and equipment the despatch riders used, and finally there is a database of the 400 men who went to France in this role in 1914, which will prove an invaluable tool for their descendants researching their forebears.

About The Author
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Martin Shelley, VMCC Blackburne and OEC Marque specialist, and Nick Shelley, secretary of the Marston Sunbeam Club & Register, are both vintage motorcycle enthusiasts and amateur historians of the early motor industry.The Shelley brothers discovered the Burney brothers’ photograph albums and medals in an auction, and quickly realized they featured in the classic Adventures of a Despatch Rider by W.H.L. Watson. Critically, the captions and names written on the backs of some pictures in the album helped them to identify the 12 despatch riders whose exploits Watson had written about.They have used these striking pictures to illustrate the book, which also seeks to place Watson’s thoughtful memoirs into a wider context through further detailed research. Over the course of six years they have found the despatch riders’ families, unearthed unpublished material written by other members of the unit, read the war diaries and Watson’s correspondence with his publisher, and visited France and Belgium, where they followed the tracks of the despatch riders from Mons to the Aisne, and then to Flanders.The pictures and information they have uncovered are used here to enrich the original text, and to paint a fuller picture of the experiences of the early despatch riders in 1914 and beyond.

Martin Shelley, VMCC Blackburne and OEC Marque specialist, and Nick Shelley, secretary of the Marston Sunbeam Club & Register, are both vintage motorcycle enthusiasts and amateur historians of the early motor industry.The Shelley brothers discovered the Burney brothers’ photograph albums and medals in an auction, and quickly realized they featured in the classic Adventures of a Despatch Rider by W.H.L. Watson. Critically, the captions and names written on the backs of some pictures in the album helped them to identify the 12 despatch riders whose exploits Watson had written about.They have used these striking pictures to illustrate the book, which also seeks to place Watson’s thoughtful memoirs into a wider context through further detailed research. Over the course of six years they have found the despatch riders’ families, unearthed unpublished material written by other members of the unit, read the war diaries and Watson’s correspondence with his publisher, and visited France and Belgium, where they followed the tracks of the despatch riders from Mons to the Aisne, and then to Flanders.The pictures and information they have uncovered are used here to enrich the original text, and to paint a fuller picture of the experiences of the early despatch riders in 1914 and beyond.

REVIEWS
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“ … As a description of how motor cycle dispatch riding was developed there can be no better text.”

- Brooklands Bulletin

“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. 5 stars.”

- Army Rumour Service

“ … A magnificent book… Exceptionally well researched, beautifully illustrated and printed on high-quality, glossy paper, this is everything a good history book should be.”

- Cross and Cockade

“ … a delightful book which can hold a reader’s interest for a long period of time. If you are not tempted to buy a copy, this review has failed in its intention to enthuse readers for the subject. Highly recommended.”

- Vintage Sports Car Club Bulletin

“ … a studiously researched, well-written volume.”

- Classic Motorcycle

“It is one of those rare titles that are so emotive it is difficult not to become completely absorbed. The layout, print quality and photographic reproduction is exceptional. Highly recommended.”

- Society of Automotive Historians

“ … The Shelley Brothers are to be congratulated on this excellent book. The original text by Willie Watson and the additional information collected by the Shelleys has produced what is, to my mind, the best account of the role in life of the despatch rider in the First World War. The book is well worth reading, I recommend purchase of this book by anyone interested in early motor cycles, despatch riding or the First World War.”

- Sunbeam Club News

"....If you have an interest in the earliest generation of military motorcycles, “Two Wheels to War” should be required reading."

- Greg Williams, The Antique Motorcycle Magazine

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