On a Motorcycle in World War One

Dustjacket of the original edition
Dustjacket of the original edition
The motorcycle widely used by the British in World War I
The motorcycle widely used by the British in World War I
Wounded British in their trenches
Wounded British in their trenches
Belgian refugees
Belgian refugees
Christmas at the front
Christmas at the front
Refugees and bicycles
Refugees and bicycles
Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon

Watson, W. H. L. (Capt.)

Adventures of a Motorcycle Despatch Rider .

Diggory Press, 2006 e-book.

William Blackwood and Sons, London, 1915.

World War I is a war that I do not comprehend. It was a completely unnecessary endeavor, an unmitigated horror. I am not fond of any war, but I can usually determine the causes and grant them some worth: I can see how and why they were perceived as important and thus led to armed conflict. This is not true of World War I, where the causes are so out of proportion with the result, and appear to have been shallow when they were put forth as causes. A generation of men walked into a slaughterhouse--for what? For an assassination in an age of assassinations? For an archduke in the time when the aristocracy as a revered and sacrosanct class was disappearing, where it had not already disappeared? To exercise armies that had been constructed and, therefore, must be used, or why have armies? In order to relieve Europe of its boredom? In order to re-draw old maps with new boundaries? It was a ridiculous, almost laughable, debacle, were the consequences for so many not so terrible.

I don't understand it, and so I keep trying to gain some insight, some grasp, of the phenomenon. In the past month, I have read two contemporaneous books on the subject. One by Roger Casement is both an explanation of the 'real' causes of the war and a plea for a German alliance, in preface to a more general European alliance, with Ireland against England. (Here's his analysis in a very brief nutshell: England caused the war and is responsible for it). The other is my subject today, Adventures of a Motorcycle Despatch Rider , by Capt. W. H. L. Watson of the British Expeditionary force, published in 1915, and now available as an e-book.

Watson's book is not a help in determining the causes of World War I. That is not its purpose. It is war cast as an adventure, with some nods to disillusionment and the disappearance of the romance of war under the realities of combat and, worse, waiting for combat, although these read as false and superficial. Watson did not like losing friends in the war, but he seems to have enjoyed the war itself, apart from its losses. Being a soldier proved something to him about his own nature, toughness, and cunning. He came out of Oxford, joined the motorcycle corps, and bought a motorcycle. He entered the war and began to feel like a grown-up, like a veteran.

What interests me in Watson's memoir, shaped, he says, from letters he wrote home, primarily to his mother, are the unintended revelations. He wants to tell me the story of battle as he experienced it, and I am attentive to the sidelines, to the details he does not pay close attention to, but includes without an appreciation of their importance. These can be highly revealing regarding the social world of England prior to the war, at least the shape of English society according to the observations of a rather elite member of English society, an officer and an Oxford man.

Watson does part of his training in Ireland. The Easter Uprising of 1916 is only a few years away. The position of the Irish within the English empire has been a point of vicious debate for years. What does Watson see in Ireland? "Ireland was a disappointment. Everybody was dirty and unfriendly, staring at us with hostile eyes". He observes the hostility, but he does not try to discover its origins. He does not really think about it at all. To this young graduate of Oxford, Ireland is another colony, in which one could hope for happy natives, but does not seek causes for their unhappiness. "When it was quite dark we stopped at a town with a hill in it. One of our men had a brick thrown at him as he rode in, and when we came to the inn we didn't get a gracious word, and decided it was more pleasant not to be a soldier in Ireland." It requires the help of the police to billet the men "magnificently on the village". Billeted, he is happy, and does not think that it is perhaps such actions, such forceful appropriations of Irish space, homes, and society, that feed the resentment he has encountered. Anyway, not all the Irish feel the same, but the village in which their training is centered embraces them as the home unit, sending them care packages and cheering for them, he is sure, even in their absence. I do not imagine that Roger Casement and young Watson would have much to say to each other that the other was prepared to understand, and that, of course, was one of the grave problems of the Irish situation.

Watson is a man of a certain class, and it shows, sometimes in very strange distinctions. He proudly and with humor relates his own theft of fine wine for private enjoyment with his friends from a French chateau, and the subsequent hiding and loss of the same wine. However, when he sees 'Tommies' looting the vehicles and bodies of Germans slain by artillery fire, he is not so amused, but rather horrified by their behavior. It is an odd distinction to make, that theft from friends is acceptable and rather amusing, in a schoolboy's fashion, while that of the enemy for his chocolate is barbaric and not amusing at all. There is civilized opportunity and uncivilized robbery, and the distinction between the two is a question of class and of breeding. War is hell, certainly, but there is the proper way to conduct oneself within it, the way of the Oxford man, and there is that other way, the way of the lower classes.

He does respect the fighting abilities of the professional soldiers and the raw recruits, and he is rather shame-faced before them, until he reminds himself that he, too, was at these battles and survived them. He is concerned at the beginning of his service, an untested university man placed in command of real soldiers, that he perform well and do good service in their eyes, not only in his own. He is aware that this is new to him, and old to them, that he is entering a way of lie that they know well and that he knows not at all. It has its requirements, its culture, and he is an alien in the body of the army, careless of the important tasks, like keeping his gun which he loses at least once while picnicking on a hill, that until he volunteered were of no importance at all. Bravery is important, where it was not at Oxford, for what was there at Oxford to be brave about?

Loyalty and cunning are important. The fashioning of stew from what one can find is an art, and if there is one thing Watson is very concerned about consistently it is his diet. He blames this on the fact that many of his letter were to his mother, and that she was very concerned with his diet, but his assurance that the diet of the motorcycler is superior to that of the infantrymen, his awareness of his privileges regarding what he can eat and when, is too consistent and joyful for it merely to be a boy's pandering to his mother's concerns. Food is a real issue, a dull, but constant, annoyance in its scarcity and pleasure in its presence.

World War I is so consistently cast as a European war in which European lives were lost that it is easy to lose sight of the extent to which the combatant countries were empires, and as empires drew colonial troops into their European dispute. Watson passes Algerians and Senegalese troops in French service on his way to Ypres, and Sikhs from India in the service of Britain. They are out of place in his eyes, yet the European countries could not do without them. France made up for manpower shortages in her own borders through the importation of African soldiers, an issue the Germans would make much of during the post-war dance of reparations, blame, and the occupation of the Rhineland. (A good web article on the Senegalese contribution to the French effort may be found at http://www.worldwar1.com/france/tseng.htm ). According to a USA Today article, more than a million African and Asian troops served in World War I, and they are largely forgotten today, so that we are left with a war of empires without imperial troops and, in fact, the role of empire both in the genesis and in the fighting of the war is easily evaded.

How does a war fought in a settled territory affect the people who live there? In our visions of war, we often depopulate the battlefield and then place the armies upon it, as if there was an easy shift from civilian to military use of land, roads, and infrastructure. World War I in our collective imagination is a war of trenches, and in those trenches there are no civilians, certainly no chickens or old women trailing their priest down the road. There were, however, old women and priests on the road, along with women, children, old men, and cripples. These were the refugees of shelled towns, and the village residents whose homes became not their property but the contended stations of battling armies, so that the British left, the Germans came, the Germans left, and here were the British again.

Many of these residents and refugees were women, subject to perils in wartime that men perpetrated but did not publicly avow, except as allegations against the enemy. Germans raped and took advantage of French and Belgian women; Englishmen did not. Watson does not describe rape, but he discusses the fear of it: a woman nursing an infant who feared when the British left the Germans would render her incapable of looking in her husband's eyes again, a French girl who weeps when the British leave, afraid of what comes next. Watson's concern is not with these women, nor with the refugees on the move. He is concerned with the road and their suitability to the travel of the army, as are his superiors. The roads, once arteries by which civilians traversed their home ground, are now routes by which material and personnel are moved to the front or away from it. The army's concern is to convince the refugees to leave the roads to them, to get out of the way.

It is difficult in reading a memoir, as it is difficult in life, to determine how much of what we are told is performance and how much is real. We and those around us play roles everyday. We mourn when we are supposed to what we are supposed to, we perform our grief and compassion regardless of how superficial the wound might be. We perform the attitudes of patriotism, of bravery, of opposition, and of rebellion. Some of what we invest in our roles is truly felt, and some is not. Some of our performances are merely that, performances for the crowd played out in fear that we will be found out, that we will, if we fail to perform well, be revealed in our true selves--less patriotic, less brave, less opposed, or less rebellious than we seem or than we are expected to be. I have the same problem with Watson. He is consciously of his class, consciously the Oxford man writing for other Oxford men, and claiming the authority of that origin to convince others of his veracity and his integrity. His dash and exuberance, his romance with the military, and his impatience with the realities of military organization and pedantry are connected to this vision of himself as the Oxford graduate, the cream of the intellectual crop, valuable to Britain in a way that other men, lesser men, are not.

I leave this memoir knowing nothing more of the genesis of World War I than I did before I read it. However, I leave it with a little more insight into the generation that died in that war, at least, into the Oxford officers who died in that war. Watson survived it. He left the motorcyclists to join the tankers, but he survived. Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke did not survive, but they shared with him the tension between the romance of war imagined and the horror of war fought by modern means. Watson says of the infantrymen that they became either animals, and he calls himself at one point "an animal that delivers despatches", or parts of the machine, and this seemed to be a common experience of World War I. It was war without the pathos and romance of knights in armor, or even of war against the savages in Africa and India. It was war in the service of a machine that made war in order to keep making war. And yet young men continued to fight it, to die within it, and sometimes, as with Siegfried Sassoon, to escape it once only to return again and keep fighting it without belief that it was for anything at all.

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Comments 4 comments

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

It sounds like an interesting book if just to follow the adventures of the author.


DougBerry profile image

DougBerry 4 years ago from Abilene, TX

Back in grad school, I had a course in WWI. The only two books that the entire class was required to read were The Long Fuse by Lafore and Death's Men by Winter. Both are still excellent choices.


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

dahoglund, it was an interesting book, especially as it is from the despatch rider's point of view, not the trench-trapped infantry.

DougBerry, thanks for the hints. I'll look them up.


htodd profile image

htodd 4 years ago from United States

Looks like a great book..Thanks for interesting article on that

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