Reminiscences of a Canadian Despatch Rider in Belgium in the Early Days of the Great War

By Unknown, Photography by Unknown

From the November 1918 issue of Motorcyclist magazine

Private Louis F. Berteau saw 15 months service with the Canadians in Belgium. Joining the Ninth Battalion, First Canadian Contingent, he sailed from a Canadian port Sept. 28, 1914, arriving at Southampton, England, Oct. 16. The following two months were spent in training at Salisbury Plain, one of the famous English drill grounds, and his command reached the front in January, l915. He was among the first 30,000 Canadians who went over to help the mother country.

He was in the thick of the fighting around Ypres in Belgium in April, 1915, and afterward his command was sent to the Messines sector. In July he was transferred to the First Supply Column as a despatch rider, this unit serving the entire Canadian contingent. He continued in despatch service until March, 1916, when he suffered shell shock at Ploegsteert, Belgium, and was invalided to England. Spending 11 months in a hospital at Taplow, near London, he then was sent home to Canada and received his discharge in February, 1917. He later came to Southern California to reside permanently.

The following is not a consecutive story but a narrative of experiences having an intimate relationship with motorcycles and despatch duty in Belgium in the first days of the war.

My first machine in despatch work was an Indian but I later transferred to a Douglas “flat twin.” At that time most of the machines used in our sector were the English Douglas and B.S.A. There were also a few Indians and Harley-Davidsons. In Belgium most of the roads were paved with cobblestones and high crowned. In wet weather they were frightfully slippery and I found the lighter machines easier to handle. Heavy traffic had cut up the roads badly, but I soon got accustomed to the rough going and did not mind it. One didn’t have any choice but to make the best of it.

At that time most of the machines in use were solos; there were very few sidecars and these mounted machine guns and were attached to machine gun batteries. In action they followed the infantry close when an advance was under way and were very valuable in bringing up the machine guns quickly-much more so than if the men had to carry them . In an advance these motorcycle units went forward over the roads leading in the direction of the advance and were not driven across fields over which the infantry crossed.

What happens when a despatch rider gets a puncture? Well, if we were in an awful hurry we “rode her flat” until the first chance we had to slip in a spare. If we had time or were not under fire we stopped on the spot and slipped in a new tube. We always carried a spare butt end. If under fire we rode until we felt it safe to stop and then changed tubes. I always made it a point to keep my tires in the best of shape as I knew my life might depend on it at any time. Whenever a tire showed signs of wear I pulled it off and put on a new one. It didn’t pay to take any chances. The same applied to our entire machines. I always put mine in the shop when it needed any repairs and took out another.

Having been in the infantry before doing despatch work I had experience with both and liked the latter much better. There were many reasons. A despatch rider was better paid than a foot soldier. At that time a Canadian despatch rider. first class, if attached to an ammunition column or mechanical transport was paid a dollar a day more than an infantryman. The despatch rider does not have to sleep in a trench and generally has a better and warmer bed than the soldier. He also has a chance to get better food. I don’t wish to in any way disparage any branch of the service but simply show why I preferred despatch work.

By Unknown
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