Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Cyclists to Arms!

Ibbetson, Ernest. "The London Cyclists," 1912. ©IWM, Art.IWM PST 0873.
Another delightful find from the archives, thanks to the IWM's web resources (once again). This dynamic 1912 image features a group of men in the 25th County of London Cyclist Battalion. This particular regiment, also known as the 25th London Cyclists, was established in 1908 as a division of the Territorial Forces.  The  unit has a dedicated website full of information and multimedia items. In his account of the regiment, historian Simon Parker-Galbreath writes,
"The London Cyclist Battalion patrolled the coast of England to watch for a German invasion. After air attacks began in May 1915, bicyclists with signs "Take Cover" warned British citizens to find shelter."
"Are You Fond of Cycling?" Poster, ca 1914-1918.  © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893)

Parker-Galbreath notes that, while cyclists served on the battlefront as part of the British Army, the London Cyclists were an important part of homefront defense during the war years and eventually were dispatched to battlefields in the Middle East and India. There, they would continue to serve through the Great War's end until being demobilized in 1919. The 25th London website includes PDF images of the Battalion's periodical, The Londoner. It appears that this journal was published in India for battalion troops stationed there from 1916-1919.

25th London Cyclists Badge, ca 1908-22. © IWM, Item INS 7264.
The energy of the men in the poster, who have sprung from their cycles and stand poised for battle, is extremely compelling and somewhat disturbing. The troops stand with a quaint village behind them, placing themselves on the front lines of combat--between home and an English past, we might say, and an unknown and unnamed, but menacing, future. Their enemy is invisible, the threat it poses is unclear and unsettlingly vague. That the poster was created in 1912 suggests that a modern conflict was already sensed on the horizon, its reach feared powerful enough to touch English soil and shape the new century. Even at this early date, for our ghosts of 1914, war was already, chillingly, a phantom coming into view.

© Fiona Robinson

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