The young William Henry Lowe Watson was at Oxford with a keen eye on Europe. He realized war would break out and determined to enlist on Saturday, July 25, 1914 three days before the war started. He served in the war as a motorcycle despatch rider. W.H.L Watson learned to ride corners like he was on rails, because snipers would locate themselves on corners, knowing the despatch riders would slow down. Watson survived and was promoted. By the time the war ended, two of his friends and fellow despatch riders were killed – Alec and Robert Whyte. Watson assembled a collection of his letters from the front, giving us a motorcycle despatch rider’s view of the war. He titled the book “Adventures of a Despatch Rider.” You can find the full text free online at Project Gutenberg. Read more about his story.
The Battle of Mons – Watson Discovers “The Lines” is a Misnomer
Having sailed to Havre from Ireland sleeping on a pile of ropes, Watson was greeted with garlands and showers of fruit by the grateful French. He further reports that “a woman rushed out and washed my face, and children crowded up to me, presenting me with chocolate and cigars, fruit and eggs, until my haversack was practically bursting.” After some logistical mishaps involving running out of fuel and sprinting around on foot to find his Signal Corp Company during staging, Watson rode off to the Battle of Mons.
Here he began to learn to cope with bad roads and worse maps while keeping a cool head. Watson set out on a mission to find a lost ammunition column and return with their position. A lot of his war time effort would be dedicated to delivering messages to troops with unknown locations. Fearless exploration was required. Watson observed that the concept of “the line” was much fuzzier than we might imagine it to be. With shells bursting around him, he opened his throttle wide. With his motorcycle “jumping from cobble to cobble,” he realized he was at greater risk of breaking his neck than being hit, and slowed down to a less panicked pace.
The Battle of Le Cateau – “Strategic Movements” and Morale
At Le Cateau, the British decided to retreat. The French they encountered would ask if the Germans had defeated them. The Brits soon learned to translate the euphemism “no – it’s a strategic movement.” Riding back and forth along a retreating column, Watson encountered a general who stopped a crew of haggard and demoralized Gordons. He arranged them into neat fours and set their piper at the head. “Now, lads, follow the piper, and remember Scotland” said the general. They resumed with heads held high and morale restored by the clamor of the piper.
Tired and dirty himself, Watson found himself feeling out of place among the spotless officers at the signal corp. But then, reports Watson – “I realised that I was “from the Front”—a magic phrase to conjure with for those behind the line—and swaggered through long corridors.”
In many points in his book, W.H.L Watson gives a glimpse into the human suffering of civilians in war. Retreating from Le Cateau, he describes a poignant moment with a grumpy innkeeper. They offer to pay for their food and drink. The inkeeper gruffly throws their money back at them. He knows the town will be over-run and he must leave with the retreating troops. The previously silent or muttering old man shouts: “What does it matter what I sell, what I receive? What does it matter, for have I not to leave all this?”
A Moving Picture of Civilian Retreat
Watson talks a lot about the mundane experiences of war. Where he slept, what he ate, and his interactions with French civilians. At times relaying the plodding ‘how was your day’ sort of reporting. But at others he illuminates some of his experience with the soul of a poet.
“It may have been the bright and clear evening glow, but—you will laugh—the refugees seemed to me absurdly beautiful. A dolorous, patriarchal procession of old men with white beards leading their asthmatic horses that drew huge country carts piled with clothes, furniture, food, and pets. Frightened cows with heavy swinging udders were being piloted by lithe middle-aged women. There was one girl demurely leading goats. In the full crudity of curve and distinctness of line she might have sat for Steinlen,—there was a brownness, too, in the atmosphere. Her face was olive and of perfect proportions; her eyelashes long and black. She gave me a terrified side-glance, and I thought I was looking at the picture of the village flirt in serene flight.”
It was not the first or the last time that Watson shares his keen eye for the ladies, young and old, friendly or grumpy, the seemed to fascinate him and he did not skimp on details in his letters to his wife.
More Motorcycle Madness
In our next article, we will take a look at Watson’s sense of humor, his insight into war, and what became of our motorcycle adventurer. Meanwhile, you can read more general information about motorcycles in World War I and World War II. We also have an article about the Wrens, women motorcycle despatch riders in the Royal Navy. War was not the only place motorcyclists found danger. Board track racing and the Isle of Man TT both involve some serious risk. If that is not crazy enough for you, check out Fritz Von Opel, strapping rockets to a motorcycle, or Glenn Curtiss, who hooked up a giant blimp engine to his bike. Or just go out and ride – rubber side down! Have fun!