One hundred years ago: the formation of 16th Corps Cyclist Battalion

One hundred years ago this week, three divisional cyclist companies in the Struma Valley were merged to form the 16th Corps Cyclist Battalion (Army Cyclist Corps).

Hardly the most significant event of 1916, but I don’t need much excuse to mention cyclists. My grandfather volunteered for the 28th Divisional Cyclist Company on its formation in Winchester in 1914, served with it on the Western Front in 1915 – including at the Second Battle of Ypres and Loos – then went to Salonika with it, and then served in the 16th Corps Cyclist Battalion until being laid low with malaria and dysentery in 1917.

Divisional Cyclists

British infantry divisions began the war with a mounted element comprising a cavalry (or yeomanry) squadron and a company of cyclists who, from November 1914 were cap-badged as ‘Army Cyclist Corps’. In 1916 the decision was taken to consolidate divisional mounted troops at corps level in Corps Mounted Regiments and Corps Cyclist Battalions.

16th Corps in the Struma Valley had three cyclist companies from the 10th, 27th and 28th Divisions which rendezvoused at Badimal – overlooking Lake Tahinos at the southern end of the valley – on 8th, 7th and 9th December respectively. They became:

  • 10th Divisional Cyclists – A Company
  • 27th Divisional Cyclists – B Company
  • 28th Divisional Cyclists – C Company

Corps Cyclists

With just three companies it was a small battalion and, with the impact of malaria, the companies were certainly short of their official strength of about 200 bicycles each. Even so, there was a loss of men as surplus ASC and RAMC personnel were quickly redeployed and in early January 1917 Lt Jones-Savin and 15 NCOs were sent to the General Base Depot as ‘surplus to establishment’. It was not until February 1917 that the Battalion started Lewis Gun training to boost its firepower, with Hotchkiss Guns added in March. On the Doiran Front 12th Corps Cyclist Battalion was even smaller, having just two cyclist companies to draw on, from 22nd and 26th Divisions; 60th Division arrived from France without its cyclists, presumably having already given them up to their corps cyclist battalion.

The Battalion began its existence, under the command of Major Hilton-Green, with a busy round of training, route marches and parades and was soon on patrol in the Struma Valley, keeping an average of 25 men in the advanced front line over the winter.
IWM photograph (Q 32577): Cyclists picking tobacco, Struma Front, November 1916; so shortly before the formation of 16th Corps Cyclist Battalion.
Cyclists picking tobacco, Struma Front, November 1916; so shortly before the formation of 16th Corps Cyclist Battalion. © IWM (Q 32577)

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Author: Andy Hutt

Andy's interest in the campaign comes from his grandfather, Arthur, who served in Salonika as a sapper with the Royal Engineers from 1916-1918. Opinions expressed in these posts are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society.

5 thoughts on “One hundred years ago: the formation of 16th Corps Cyclist Battalion”

  1. Lieutenant John Savin Jones-Savin transferred from the Cyclist Corps as described above in January 1917. He joined 11th Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was killed in action on 27th March 1917. He is buried at the Karasouli Military Cemetery and commemorated on the memorial to the fallen of the College at St Johns Oxford. The Welsh Fusiliers were on patrol west of Machukovo when ambushed by Germans. A fellow officer recorded as follows:

    ‘Our fellows got a devil of a mauling from rifles and bombs attempting to fight their way out. Survivors bring back the news and another patrol organised to bring in the missing. They too, by worse luck are ambushed and suffer considerable loss. A black day in patrol records…’

    1. Thank you Nigel. I can provide some more detail on Lt Jones-Savin as he features in the War Diary of 28th Divisional Cyclist Company (WO95 4907). He joined the Company at Béthune from training on 14 October 1915. This was just after their involvement in the Battle of Loos and just a week later they were on their way, via Marseille and Egypt, to Salonika. The Company landed in Salonika on 2 December 1915, spending a fortnight in the Lembet Road Camp. On the 15th they moved to the 28th Division’s position around Givezne/Guvezne on the Salonika/Seres road; Lt Jones-Savin was in charge of the company transport for the move. More exciting duties followed as he led several reconnaissance patrols: one to Langaza to seek out any advanced British positions and one on the road to Lahana, where they were eventually stopped at a Greek army post. The War Diary reports on 30 April 1916 – whilst camped near AHQ Kalamaria – the promotion of Temporary Lieutenant Jones-Savin (ACC) to Second Lieutenant, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, with effect from 04 March 1916 although he was to remain on secondment. Interestingly, CWGC records (Karasouli grave D. 879) shows him as ‘Army Cyclist Corps attd. 11th Bn. Royal Welsh Fusiliers’. In June the company started its move to the Struma valley and incidences of sickness began to appear, with Lt Jones-Savin reported sick to 84 Field Ambulance on 13 July 1916. He returned from hospital a week later and was soon back on patrol in the lower Struma valley. The War Diary stops at the end of August 1916, so the next mention we have of him is in the 16th Cyclist Battalion Diary, noted above. At his death on 27/03/1917 he was 27 years of age.

  2. I’m wondering if there’s anything in the War Diaries regarding my great uncle, Pte Joseph Devine XVI Corps Cyclist Battalion, Army Cyclists Corps (formerly 10623, Royal Irish Fusiliers), Regimental Number 5769. I have a fairly full history of his movements between Regiments and Companies from France to Salonika and I know that Joe was in a group of men from the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, under Sergeant-Major William McCanley, that was transferred to the Army Cyclist Corps to become part of the 27th Divisional Cyclist Company. He was with XVI Corps Cyclist Battalion during the final offensive in Macedonia from 1st to 30th September 1918, including the capture of the Roche Noir Salient (1st / 2nd September), the passage of the Vardar river and the pursuit to the Strumica Valley (22nd / 30th September 1918). Joe was killed in action on 26th September 1918, four days before the end of hostilities with Bulgaria. Joseph has no marked grave and is commemorated on the Doiran Memorial. I wondered if there is any mention of his death in the War Diaries and am not sure the best way to go about tracing his story. Similarly, I wondered what became of his original Sergeant-Major (McCanley)? Many thanks in advance for you assistance.

    1. Dear Kevin – There’s no doubt that the Army Cyclist Corps is very much a minority interest, and cyclists in the Salonika ‘sideshow’ on the secondary Struma Front even more so! It’s a real pleasure to hear from someone who has connections with, and an interest in, XVI Corps Cyclist Battalion. I will be delighted to share with you what I have, but must confess to having nothing on 1918. It is unfortunate that National Archives hasn’t digitised unit war diaries from the Macedonian Campaign, but understandable that the focus has been the Western Front. I spent a day at Kew reading through the Cyclist Battalion’s war diary and noting their movements and activities (not a detailed transcription, I’m afraid), but stopped at December 1917. At that point I was running out of time and writers’ cramp was setting in, added to which my grandfather was medically evacuated with dysentery and malaria during 1917 – so 1918 wasn’t a priority for me. Anyway, I’ll contact you by email about what I have and how best to share it with you. Best wishes, Robin

  3. Thanks Robin. It’d be great to get down to Kew for a couple of days to do something similar myself. I’m trying to check up on Joe Devine (related on my paternal side) but also on my maternal grandfather, Thomas Tracey of the 5th Bn. Royal Irish Fusiliers who was in Salonika from early 1916 onwards as part of the 10th (Irish) Div. Both men came from the same small, rural area of Ireland and arrived in Salonika at almost the same time but they were with different units and it’s highly doubtful they even knew the other was there. My grandfather eventually made it back but Joe did not. Look forward to hearing from you. Best, Kevin

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