Imagine riding in the dark on the muddy, rutted roads of the Western Front on laden bikes, wearing full uniform and a gas mask.
That was the reality 300 men of the New Zealand Cycling Corps faced in the early hours of June 7, 1917, as they rode toward German positions near the village of Messines in Belgium.
Shane Victor’s grandfather William (Bill) Victor was one of them.
He joined the NZCC in December 1916, aged 19, and was involved in all their main actions on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918.
More than a century later, Shane Victor is this month taking part in a two-week cycle tour to some of the places his grandfather went.
The World War 1 Centenary Commemoration ride starts in Brussels on March 29, finishing in Paris on April 11.
There are 37 Kiwis in the group but along with Shane Victor, only two others are from Christchurch – Jillian and John McKie, whose grandfathers were in northern France during World War 1.
Shane Victor, who is the advertsing director at Star Media, remembers how even half a century later his grandfather Bill was reluctant to talk about his war experiences.
Bill returned to New Zealand in 1919 – one of many returned soldiers who suffered from ‘shell-shock’ or what we would today call post traumatic stress disorder.
When he signed up at 19, he was underage by a year.
But life then was tough.
“He didn’t have a job, he didn’t have any school qualifications. He saw it not only as an adventure but as a living.”
Placed with the Cycling Corps, he joined them in Egypt where they were regrouping after the Gallipoli campaign, before moving out to the Western Front.
His grandfather struggled with the memories of the war for the rest of his life, Shane said yesterday.
He carried on cycling though, as a means of transport. He and his wife Daphne, who married in 1930, never held a motor vehicle licence, and still cycled around Christchurch into their 70s.
Bill died in 1977 aged 80. For his grandson, the trip is a chance to connect with history in a very personal way.
“I have a son a similar age to what my grandfather was when he went away. This is an opportunity to put my head in the space of my grandfather – in some cases a 100 years to the day that he was there.”
Jillian McKie’s grandfather Ernest Pallister Hobbs was a gunner with the 5th Battalion Field Artillery and fought in Passchendaele
“He really never said anything about it,” she says. “The only thing my mother said is when they went to visit Napier after the earthquake he said: ‘This was like Passchendaele’.”
For all the sadness of the
war, she is looking forward to finding out more about the area in northern France “where so many people suffered and lost their lives.”
John McKie’s grandfather lost a leg in the war.
David Alexander McKie was in the 2nd Expeditionary Force from 1917-18 and awarded the Military Medal for bravery late in 1918, just six weeks before the armistice: ‘For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the operations in Gouzeaucourt Wood from the 8th to the 12th September 1918. As a company stretcher-bearer he made many trips from the front-line posts during exceptional circumstances and through heavy shell fire with wounded men. He was eventually wounded in the execution of his duties.’
“That was a profound thing in his life,” says John.
“He had gunshot wounds and got septic gangrene and had the dubious distinction of being the last New Zealand serviceman out of hospital after the war. As an amputee in 1918 it had a profound influence on his ability to work and earn a living. He wasn’t able to take over the family farm in Waiau on his return.”
Describing himself as an “enthusiastic recreational cyclist,” John was “very moved” when he visited the Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa and later signed up for the tour when he spotted an article about it last April.
Now just weeks away, John says the historical poignancy is an added bonus to getting out on his bike and seeing a new part of the world.
•The New Zealand Cycling Corps arrived at the Western Front in 1916.
•They performed a similar function to horse-mounted riflemen and conducted scouting and reconnaissance work – though at times they also went into the trenches.
•Heavy losses were suffered at the offensives in Messines, Passchendaele and Kemmelberg.
•In September 1918 they were renamed the New Zealand Cyclist Battalion.
•Germany signed an armistice with the allied forces on November 11, 1918, bringing World War 1 to an end.