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.

War on two wheels – the Mechanical Mounted Infantry

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 4893);

If ‘war in the air’ was early recognised as a salient feature of the events – and language – of WWI, then war on two wheels was another which also regularly surfaced in Clark’s first notebooks. As in combinations such as cyclist-detachment, cyclist officer, or cyclist troops, the bicycle was another vehicle of war which was often praised for its modernity – and evidence of progress — in contemporary accounts. From our perspective, this can perhaps surprise, revealing something of the innocence of these first weeks of war when tanks (and their own accompanying language, still lay in the future, as did the diction of gas as a form of attack). Clark noted down the following example from the Daily Express on 1st September 1914, which neatly set out the historical imperatives of change in this respect:

‘In the South Africa war we wanted men who could shoot and could ride horses; in this European war we want men who can shoot and ride bicycles, the Mechanical M.I’.

Thie “Mechanical M.I”, as other cuttings explained in full, was the Mechanical Mounted Infantry. The Daily Express, as Clark observed, provided a useful definition too, for the advances apparently being made in this respect:

‘primarily the cyclist is an infantryman, a trained solder mounted on an iron-clad steed that moves on at an easy twelve miles an hour and requires no feeding or watering, no veterinary attendance, and no two days to four days rest’.

Clark here picked out iron-clad as another new use, especially in this applied sense. It meant a cycle, as his annotations explained.
Like war in the air, accounts of the military engagements – and utility – of the cyclist troops could,  also prove remarkably partisan. A report from a cyclist officer which appeared in the Daily Express on 1st September 1914 (in a clipping included in Clark’s first notebook) noted, for example, that ‘the cyclist troops of the Allies have already been in action and the new arm, the “mechanical mounted infantry,” even at this early stage of the great war, has “made good”’. As it added in further commendation: ‘it may almost be said to have scored a triumph’. For Clark, this neatly provided a trio of interesting forms, none of which had –or indeed have since — made their way into the OED.
The use of cycles by the enemy could, however, attract comment which was more critical – even if, from Clark’s point of view, it was equally useful in demonstrating the introduction and use of words. ‘It is really a comic idea to send a cyclist-detachment into Russia’, as the Daily Express – perhaps with some reason – recorded on Saturday 5th September 1914. ‘127 cyclists had been taken prisoner’, it reported: ’three squadrons of German cavalry, supported by a company of cyclists, were cut up by Russians’. The ‘poor cyclists have a very bad time on the Russian roads’, it stated in apparent sympathy.
As in other respects, Clark’s record of words in time can here vividly remind us of certain aspects of history which have perhaps faded in popular memory (as well as of combinatory forms which dictionaries such as the OED do not record). As history itself proved, however, the use of cycles as an active force in war – viewed with optimism in these opening weeks — would be equally subject to change and obsolescence as positions became entrenched, and a very different style of war came to the fore.