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Motoring to War

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Motoring to War
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Author(s): Horace Wyatt & E. Alexander Powell
Date Published: 2013/12
Page Count: 172
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-206-6
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-205-9

The motorised wheels of war begin to turn

In 1914 as the B. E. F was quickly hurried to the battle lines—by whatever means possible—British troops were amused to see familiar commercial vehicles trundle past, resplendent with their colourful advertisements for household products. The French civilian population was equally amused, bemused and occasionally confused by this incongruous sight. The Great War, with powered flying machines, submarines, motor transport and tanks, was the first major mechanised war. The invention of the internal combustion engine metamorphosed the waging of war. Motor transport could efficiently move both men and materials, the dispatch rider was no longer the glittering aide-de-camp but a drab, goggled corporal on a motorcycle, and weapons of destruction could be carried behind the steel plating of motorised armoured cars and tanks. This subject fascinates those interested in the history of modern warfare and to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Leonaur Editors have compiled this special three-in-one book about the Great War from the perspective of ‘the motor.’ The first title here is an excellent overview of the subject, accompanied by useful illustrations and diagrams, which covers each aspect of the motor at war. Next is a manufactures catalogue with detailed views and elevations of the very commercial vehicles that carried British troops to the front in 1914. The final piece is an extract about motor transport and armoured vehicles in the first decades of the 20th century. This is a useful reference guide for all military vehicle enthusiasts.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

The earliest mobilisation took place on the Doncaster racecourse, where about 150 cars assembled in a few hours in response to telegrams. This fleet remained concentrated for some days, but the eventuality against which it was intended to provide did not materialise. Large numbers of the A. A. members were employed during the first two or three weeks of the war to guard telephone and telegraph lines and cables, until permanent arrangements could be made for this service. Hundreds of motor cycle and car members undertook long spells of duty by day or night under the supervision of the post office officials.
In connection with the conveyance of wounded, the Association placed fleets of cars at the disposal of the chief military centres throughout the country, its members holding themselves in readiness to go out at any hour during the day or night, to carry wounded from the railway stations to the hospitals. In a considerable number of cases, the motorists so employed undertook, at their own expense, to convert their cars into ambulances, and a large number of machines so transformed were sent across the channel to work behind the firing line.
Vehicles were also forthcoming in plentiful numbers to meet refugees, and take them to their temporary homes. Hundreds of motorcycle members volunteered for dispatch-carrying work, and the committees of the National Service League and other recruiting bodies in all parts of the country were supported by cars, light cars, and motor cycles with side cars, ready to pick up recruits and convey them to the enlisting depots. At normal times, the Association employs on the main roads of the country over 500 road patrols, whose duties involve continual cycling over their appointed beats from daybreak until dark. These men were evidently ideal recruits for the cyclists’ battalions required for scouting work. Over 250 of them enlisted in various regiments, or rejoined their old regiments, while a picked body, over 100 strong, was formed into the first two companies of the 8th Essex (Cyclist) Battalion, under the command of the Secretary of the Association, Captain Stenson Cooke, who was formerly a member of the London Rifle Brigade.
The Commercial Motor Users’ Association undertook the enrolment of men competent to serve as motor transport drivers, and also formed on behalf of its own members a kind of transport exchange. A similar scheme on rather broader lines was handled by the Imperial Motor Transport Council, the idea being that while some business concerns would experience difficulties in effecting deliveries owing to their horses being requisitioned, others—owing to the disorganisation of trade—would have suitable facilities standing idle. In that event considerable trouble might be saved by bringing into existence some machinery capable of establishing contact between the two groups.
The council also undertook work in assistance of the Motor Ambulance Department of the British Red Cross Society, and circularised its oversea members with a view to assisting the maintenance of British export trade in motor vehicles.
At the outbreak of war, steps were immediately taken by the War Department to secure for service all the motor lorries of subvention type working for commercial houses. These not being numerically sufficient for the whole needs of the army, several thousand other motor lorries of approximately the same carrying capacity, but of varying types, were requisitioned somewhat hastily. The quality of the fleets thus formed was variable, even though a process of weeding out at the ports of embarkation did something towards securing uniformity. In the same way the urgent need of employing many thousands of transport drivers naturally led to the enlistment of men of varying capabilities. Drivers handling lorries or ’buses are in some instances required to be fairly capable mechanics. In others, any interference with the mechanism of their machines is discouraged, and they are taught to be entirely dependent on the mechanical staff at their headquarters. Such men, while thoroughly skilled in handling a vehicle, are not really fully qualified for the business of a motor transport driver in active service.
Very considerable numbers of London motor omnibuses were taken off the streets and converted into ambulances or lorries, and similar vehicles have also been used for the transport of troops and other purposes. As soon as matters had had a little time in which to settle down, it became apparent that the government did not intend to rely on the system of requisitioning to make up the wastage of their fleet in service, or to provide transport for Indian and Colonial troops, or for the new armies in course of formation. For this purpose large regular orders were placed with many of the leading manufacturers, and in some instances these orders amounted to taking over practically the entire output. No exact figures are available as to the rate at which, during the early stages of the war, the government took delivery of new motor lorries, but there is little doubt that the weekly supplies ran into three figures, and that a continuance of very substantial orders will be necessary right up to the conclusion of hostilities.
In European countries, the comparative shortage of industrial motor vehicles rendered necessary a more wholesale programme of requisitioning. Thus, for example, Paris was promptly denuded of the whole of its fleet of motor omnibuses, about 1,100 in number. A few years ago, the old double-deck type of motor omnibus, at one time used in Paris, was discarded in favour of a long-bodied single-decker, capable of carrying up to about forty passengers. These machines are so designed to the requirement of the government as to be capable of being transformed rapidly into waggons for the carriage of meat. The windows are replaced by wire-gauze screens, the seats removed and the handrails fitted with hooks. Alternatively, the ’buses can be equally easily adapted for the carriage of wounded, by simple fittings from which stretchers or hammocks can be slung. During mobilisation, numbers of motor vehicles were employed in France to transport troops, and, moreover, those of the Paris ’bus type are of undoubted utility for this purpose whenever it may become necessary to transfer moderately large bodies of men rapidly from one point to another, where convenient railway communication does not exist.
All the Continental countries involved in the war made strict provision against the export of motor vehicles of any kind, while even in Great Britain an order was, for a period, in force, prohibiting the export of heavy industrial vehicles. It was, in fact, realised in advance in all quarters that a war of such magnitude and involving the employment of such huge numbers of men, could not conceivably be fought along the lines anticipated and subsequently realised, unless full dependence were placed upon motor transport in the first case for the provision of food supplies, and as a corollary for a similar service of warlike stores, for the carriage of wounded, for scouting, and for enabling commanders and staff officers to travel with sufficient rapidity and freedom to make it possible for them to realise with sufficient accuracy the essential facts with which they were called upon to deal.