One sunny spring afternoon earlier this year, I found myself wandering round Isleworth Cemetery. This is a fascinating and peaceful place, opened in the 1880s when the graveyard at the nearby All Saints Church became full and was closed to new burials. Among the many memorials at Isleworth is one to a member of the well-known local Pears family (the soap manufacturers), who died in the Titanic disaster of 1912.
There are also a number of memorial stones relating to the two World Wars here. These headstones are easily identifiable, all conforming to the simple and elegant design laid down by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1917. Each lists the deceased serviceman’s name, rank, age, unit and date of death, along with his regimental badge, a religious symbol and a brief inscription often chosen by the family.
As you can see from the photograph (left), William Samworth’s headstone is no different in that respect. But it was the nature of some of the details on there that really struck me. The first and most important thing was his unit. Despite having studied both World Wars in great detail, I had never encountered the Army Cyclist Corps before. I admit I was intrigued by the concept, and determined to find out more about the ACC – and about Private Samworth too…
The bicycle began life in the early 19th century, taking its familiar modern form by the 1880s – which meant it was still relatively new technology by the outbreak of war in 1914. The British Army had begun to take an interest in its possible military uses as early as 1888 and quickly discovered the bicycle was a very useful tool in reconnaissance and communications, being much quieter, lighter and cheaper to utilise and maintain than horses were.
During the first decade of the 20th century, the Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane introduced a series of important reforms that reorganised the structure of the British Army. Amongst other changes, these ‘Haldane Reforms’ created nine battalions of cyclists with five more being formed by 1914 – all as part of the new Territorial Force. Most of these cyclist battalions were originally associated with various infantry battallions until the Army Cyclist Corps was formed in 1915 to cover all of them as one unit.
On the outbreak of war, some of these cyclist batallions were basically converted to conventional infantry and saw active service with their bikes on the Western Front, but most of them served on the home front (as William Samworth did), often working on important coastal defence duties. And it was hard work. Despite riding heavy and unwieldy iron bikes, members of the ACC still had to stick to military protocol and discipline – although I’d imagine saluting a senior officer while staying upright on a bike was probably a rather wobbly experience!
It has been difficult to discover a huge amount of information about Private Samworth 9704 himself – scans of his incomplete military records are a little singed round the edges, which suggests the rest were among the enormous number of World War One army documents that were destroyed in September 1940 when an incendiary bomb hit the Army Records Centre in south London during an air raid. However, his enlistment attestation form has partially survived and it provides some enlightening information about the man and his life.
Army and census information suggest he was almost certainly born in Acton, west London, in the latter half of 1870 (which means he was actually a fair bit younger than his gravestone states – I haven’t been able to find an explanation for this discrepancy, all other official records list him as being in his 40s). Samworth was a 45 year old labourer when he enlisted in the Army Cyclist Corps on September 14th 1915. We also know he was literate (he signed his name) and a member of the Church of England.
His attestation form tells us he had previously been in the army prior to the war (probably the Royal Garrison Artillery), which meant he could enlist under Kitchener’s ‘Short Service’ scheme despite technically being over age. This earlier service may well explain my inability to find him on the 1891 or 1901 censuses – army volunteers then signed up for a hefty period, and it is entirely possible he was serving abroad at this point (and if he’s the same chap I found on the 1911 census as an inmate at Winchester Prison, he was a bit of a naughty boy too!).
Mobilised ten days after his attestation at Hounslow (presumably to the still-existing barracks there), Samworth’s wartime trail goes cold after this. I have been unable to find out whether he stayed at Hounslow or was posted elsewhere, or what he did while he was there – although one assumes he was often to be seen riding his bicycle round the local area, delivering messages and orders and keeping an eye out for anything suspicious.
Sadly, he was only in the ACC for the briefest period, a mere matter of months, as he died on 24th November 1915. Again, there is very little information to be found about this, and there are any number of possible reasons why someone serving on the home front might meet their end – basecamp accidents, ill health, injuries sustained while training, or even as a result of the German zeppelin raids on London which began in that year.
I don’t know what really happened to Private William Samworth, but his is a fascinating (if partial) story of a man who served on the home front during World War One as part of a short-lived military experiment in the use of bicycles during wartime. All sides in this conflict actually utilised the bike, and often quite effectively, but in Britain the ACC and all the cyclist battalions had been disbanded by the early 1920s as the army bizarrely saw them as being of little use in future conflicts, despite the initial enthusiasm of the top brass.
If you know anything more about the ACC or about Private William Samworth himself, please do get in touch!