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

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.

Does a despatch rider have a better time than a foot soldier? Yes. He gets excitement and action in plenty without having to suffer the cold and wet and other discomforts of the trenches. If he is on head quarters duty or attached to some column he may get a good billet with some French peasant family and if he keeps a little supply of money with him he can buy food and have little luxuries cooked for him by these people.

If of the peasant class, these families are usually quite poor, and are only too glad to prepare a meal and share it with him. Our ordinary rations of stringy bully beef, when cooked and fixed up by one of these good people were simply delicious. Furthermore, often one comes on a family who are practically starving, and in such case a despatch rider can share his rations and get them cooked appetizingly in return.

Another thing which appealed to me was that after taking up despatch work I was not continually cooped up in one spot but was free to move a round.

Use Anything On Wheels to Get There

When a despatch rider’s machine becomes disabled while he is carrying messages, if he cannot fix it he abandons it and continues on foot until he overtakes someone mounted going in his direction. Another rider if he comes upon a dismounted comrade must take him aboard if possible and carry him as far as he can without neglecting his own duty. Likewise a convoy if overtaken by a despatch man on foot must give him a lift. The despatch rider under such circumstances can demand transportation from anyone whom he overtakes and is in a position to render it.

I had a rather exciting adventure of this kind one day on the edge of Ypres. There was a compound curve just outside town which was called Suicide Corner, many having been killed there and the risk of making it being quite hazardous. The Germans had the range down pat on this corner and used to throw shrapnel over whenever they saw anyone approaching it or thought there was a chance of potting something. More than one ammunition car and despatch rider had fallen victims here.

The safest way to get by here in daytime, we found, was to stop just back of the beginning of the curve and wait until a shell burst, then dash right through the smoke and trust to getting past before anyone saw you and could send over another. But the Huns were foxy and sometimes used to send ‘em over one right after another.

End of Machine Blown Off; Rider Unhurt

This day I waited a second too long after a shell burst before making the break and before I got through, another shell came right after the first and blew the whole rear end of my machine off. I didn’t get a scratch but if I had been another second later I guess I wouldn’t be here to tell about it. There was nothing to do but abandon the machine and go on foot until I got another, or a lift of some kind. I hadn’t gone a quarter mile when I came on another despatch rider and his machine, a B.S.A., lying in the road. He had been caught by one of the shells being sent over here and killed by shrapnel. His machine wasn’t damaged a bit so I took it and continued on my way.

In those days we didn’t know what salvage was and when a machine was wrecked it was abandoned on the spot. Now, no matter how badly a machine is smashed up it is sent back to the repair base and if it can’t be fixed, such parts as are good are saved for rebuilding other wrecks.

The Despatch Rider’s Work

Probably most people know in a general way what a despatch rider’s duties are. The name signifies the kind of work, but there are some features of it not generally known which may be of Interest. A despatch rider carries his messages in a leather pouch slung from a shoulder strap and also held against swinging, by his belt. His receipt book also is carried in the pouch. He must sign for all orders received and must have all orders signed for on delivery. Messages are sealed, of course, and a rider never knows their contents. A rider has orders to destroy all messages and documents if possible, if taken prisoner or likely to be. Messages usually are written, and on rare occasions, are verbal.

Among other duties a despatch rider also is sometimes called on to pilot an ammunition train or supply column to a dumping ground at some point on the battle line. Often this has to be done under heavy fire.

When a heavy battle is on, despatches are relayed from battalion headquarters close to the firing line by what are known as battalion or trench runners. These take the messages from the rider and usually three of them start out. The plan is to get one through if possible. If but one man started he likely would get killed, but with three it is figured that at least one will get through. These runners have one of the most dangerous tasks in the army. They have to go forward under fire, some times very heavy, walk over shell torn ground and through shell craters and at night are liable to get lost in the darkness or fall into a big shell hole full of water.

The “D.R.” Under Fire

Here is what a despatch rider goes through under heavy shell fire. One day a small village near Ypres was being heavily shelled and I had to go through it. Many of the houses were blown to pieces by shells while others had been only shattered or in a few cases slightly mussed up. Shells were flying all around as I came through and I saw an old woman sweeping debris from her front door. All the glass had been broken but the house was still intact, while others all around had been blown to bits. It was only a question of time when her house would go.

She was all alone and mumbling to herself. She understood neither English nor French and I tried to get her to leave but she would not. I left some food with her and went on a few miles. Half an hour later I came back that way and her house was gone; the spot was clean. A shell had landed and blown everything bare and I suppose she went with it. Many of the refugees, particularly the old people, will not leave until the last minute even when a town is being heavily shelled. Sometimes they will stay until they are killed, being loath to abandon their homes and hoping they will escape injury.

Living a Lifetime Again In a Second

One of my narrowest escapes carne one day two miles behind the lines. I had brought in despatches and was awaiting orders to bring back to the front. In the square of the village was an ammunition train of 75 or 80 cars parked, waiting to go up when orders came. They were parked in a space about a block and a half in area, and there also were piled some 35,000 to 40,000 cans of gasoline there.

One of the big German Taube bombing planes appeared overhead suddenly and commenced dropping bombs on us. I was standing talking with a corporal and private attached to the ammunition train. The first bomb destroyed a house to our right. The second tore down a wall, and the third landed right among the three of us within a four foot circle.

It hit the pavement without touching any of us and by great luck did not explode else we all would have been wiped out. It dug into the hard pavement and broke in three pieces. Talk about quick thinking, while that bomb was dropping from my head to my feet my whole life flashed past me. You say one can’t think under such circumstances but I did, and very clearly I want to tell you. I even had time to wonder if I would feel any pain when the bomb exploded or if I would never know anything, and it certainly was some mental reaction to find myself unhurt after it hit. When a shell or bomb fails to go off they are known as “duds.”

This bomb was about 18 inches long with a propeller on one end to keep it straight in falling, and weighed, I should judge, about 25 pounds. Unless it has since been wiped out, the spot where that bomb struck is marked by a cross and the date chiseled in the pavement by the village stonemason.

“Getting” a Hun Sniper

Snipers? Yes I had one lively experience with one. It was inside our lines and a chum and myself were riding toward the front one night. I was 50 feet ahead of my pal when a bullet whizzed right back of my ear and a voice called out in good English, “I’ll get you next time.” After we passed the spot my chum rode alongside and we decided to go back and try to get the sniper.

We agreed that my chum was to ride up and clown the stretch which we thought the sniper was covering and if he fired I was to watch for the flash and locate him. Yes, my chum had nerve, but I would have done the same. There wasn’t any choice as to which of us should do it. After the sniper had fired two or three times and missed-it was dark, you know-I finally located his flash and my chum got off his machine and walked up and down the stretch. When he fired again we both got the flash and emptied our automatics at him. We heard a moan and went over and found him hidden behind some shrubbery back of a wall. We got him in the shoulder.

He spoke very good English. We brought him in. No, a sniper is not killed when captured. He is in uniform you know, and regarded as a legitimate combatant even though he fights under cover. A sniper takes mighty big risks even as it is and usually gets it good before a great while.

Private Louis F. Berteau As a Canadian Dispatch Rider m Belgium, Indian mounted