Cyclists still at war: the carabineer cyclists at the Front.

The adventures of the Mechanical Mounted Infantry continued to draw press attention across the autumn of 1914, bringing other new patterns of language in their wake. One form which Clark assiduously noted down in this context was the carabineer cyclist, a combination which was  (and indeed remains)  unrecorded in English dictionaries. As we are informed at, for example, carabineer is now a distinctly historical form, and is labelled accordingly. Its definition, however, suggests a history which is by no means in alignment with WWI and the evidence of words in war time which Clark provides. As the entry explains, a carabineer is ‘A cavalry soldier whose principal weapon was a carbine’, Cavalry, if we follow the link, provides the further meaning ‘(In the past) soldiers who fought on horseback’, as in ‘the cavalry charged up the hill; the army numbered around 100,000 cavalry’. ‘In previous wars, horsed cavalry had performed such a role, but cavalry were generally of little use in the trenches of the Western Front’, as a further example avers. Carabineer cyclists are distinctly anamalous in this light.

Such definitions have, of course, their own place in history. The first citation for carabineer in the Oxford English Dictionary is, for example, from Nathan Bailey’s 1721 Universal Etymological English Dictionary: ‘Carabineers, horse-men who carry Carabines’. Later examples in the OED  confirm the continuity of this sense. Nevertheless, if, as modern lexicography suggests, cavalry is traditionally the essence of the carabineer, then extracts such as the one below, taken from the Daily Express on the 30th September 1914, offer rather different readings in which the (German) cavalry is placed in marked opposition to the carabineer cyclist, whose superior skill (and mount of a rather different kind) is clearly made to win the day:

A Belgian carabineer cyclist showed me a cavalry cap, with the familiar skull and crossbones embroidered on the front, which he tore from the body of a horseman after shooting him in a wood near Erpe on Saturday afternoon.

This is taken from a first-person (and first-hand)  report of a war correspondent who, as here, sought to provide an eye-witness account of the realities of events at the front. Against the stasis of meaning which English dictionaries suggest, carabineers had, at least in this context, clearly moved on, riding bicycles rather than horses, even if the gun remains an essential aspect of their armoury. Clark provides another similar example from a news report headed ‘Roadside Battle Pictures’: ‘Another carabineer cyclist pounds along the road, and slows up long enough to shout, “We are to advance.” (Daily Express, 30th Sept 1914).

In 2014, the OED entry for carabineer meanwhile still remains rooted in a far earlier time. First published in 1888, it has, as yet, not been updated, and its most recent evidence dates from 1873. The entry for carbine reveals similar problems of time and change: ‘A kind of firearm, shorter than the musket, used by the cavalry and other troops; ‘a kind of medium between the pistol and the musket’ (Johnson)’. Evidence stops in the mid-19thC, and includes examples such as the Duke of Wellington’s  Dispatches from 1815 (‘I will apply for the Carbines for your Cavalry’) and W. Greener’s  Gunnery in 1858 (Double rifled carbines can be constructed of so light a weight that their exclusive use for cavalry is not far distant’). Nevertheless, as my history colleague at Pembroke confirms, carbines – at least for the British – no longer defined the carabineer in WW1, though – as for the Belgian forces — carabineer (as title) could be used to define particular regiments in the infantry. News reports in the autumn of 1914 frequently refer to carabineers, though carabineer cyclists represent a new departure on both counts, and in ways which extend, of course, to language and the combinatory forms which specific points of history can yield. Entries of this kind provided still more justification for Clark’s self-appointed role in watching language change, and recording the potentially ephemeral forms which could, as here, arise.