Dodging enemy fire – the life of a dispatch rider

The Battle of the Somme left 1.3million casualties and it has come to symbolise the futility of the First World War - meet one man in the thick of it

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July 1, 2016, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, which left 1.3million casualties, with one third of them killed, and is described by the Royal British Legion as “symbolising the tragic futility of the First World War”.

Today, war zones are a telephone call away but in 1916 information from the front line came by carrier pigeon. SALLY ANN VOAK spoke to the descendant of a man who had the dangerous job of dodging shells to take birds to the troops

WHEN he joined the Royal Engineers Signal Squadron, Birmingham-born motorbike enthusiast Oswald Davis was surprised to be told that, because of his motorcycling experience, he would be posted to the pigeon carrier service.

The job was essential and dangerous: dodging enemy fire as he took the precious birds, housed in 28-inch cages strapped to his back, up the Somme line to the Anzacs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The pigeons would then be sent back to HQ with vital information.

Already nicknamed Oz before he started working with the Aussies, his hazardous role was in sharp contrast to his pre-war life where he helped run the family haberdashery business in the Birmingham suburb of Small Heath.

He was an avid writer, a freelance journalist and keen diarist and during the war he kept a revealing, dramatic and often shocking record of his experiences (see right).

On July 18, exactly 100 years after Oswald took possession of his Triumph motorcycle, Oswald’s great-nephew Philip Holdway-Davis and his son, David, 20, will head a convoy of cars, motor cyclists and cyclists on a special pilgrimage starting at the Abbeville Communal Cemetery in the Somme, the muster point where Oswald was issued with his trusty bike on the eve of the big “push” towards the battlefield.

The ride will continue through the battlefields via Amiens, Senlis, the Bapaume Road, Longueval, ending at Ypres and Messines in Belgium.

Anyone can join Philip and David on small or large sections of the five-day trip. En route, Philip will lay a wreath at Thiepval in memory of Oswald and the other First World War despatch riders.

“During the war, telecommunications were virtually non-existent, and those that were in place were usually blown up,” Philip said.

“Given the dangerous terrain and constant bombardment, the riders had to be superhuman: fearless, competent mechanics, fast riders, cool-headed and determined.”

Oswald thrived on the job. As a civilian he had been nobody special but in his army role he brought order to the sometimes chaotic despatch service, and his sense of duty shines through in his diaries.

The heady mixture of service, patriotism and danger brought out his hidden strength as it did for so many men sent to the frontline. He was decorated with the Military Medal for his bravery and service at the age of 34.

“Although Oswald suffered from piles, lice, chest infections, cuts, leg injuries, and frequently escaped death by a hair’s breath, he remained a calm, well-mannered and quite innocent person,” Philip said.

“He fell in love with a Belgian girl, Adrienne, but their relationship was never consummated and he finished the war with disappointment. He missed out on a permanent job in the army as sergeant in charge of pigeons because he had to go back to Brum to help with the failing family business. He never married.”

Oswald continued to write moving poems, sharp and often controversial articles about the war, some published in the Daily Mail. His diary is a testimony to his powerful observational skills and quiet courage.

“Sadly, despite Oswald’s efforts,” Philip said,” the haberdashery business failed. Oswald stayed in Birmingham, and neither he nor his sister Ettie had children. His younger brother Wilfred, my grandfather, moved to Croydon. Oswald died in 1962, when I was two years old.

“As I grew up, mum and dad told me stories about our heroic relative. Both copies of his diaries had been with Oswald’s other two brothers, who had passed away, but I borrowed one copy from an auntie and, six years ago, I went through it properly. I was enthralled and felt privileged to be a descendant of such a courageous and gifted man.

“My great uncle’s experiences have haunted me ever since.

“This year will be very special for everyone with a relative who fought at the Somme. We are lucky to be alive thanks to their sacrifice and valour.

“I now live in Auckland, work in insurance, and have four great kids. This is my chance to say ‘thank you’ to my hero, Great Uncle Oswald.”

Philip has also published a book about his uncle, Triumph on the Western Front, Diary of a Despatch Rider and it is a free download from his website with a 200-page battlefield guide.

Thanks to the Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux and Whitgift Exhibition Centre, Croydon, UK, curator William Wood (its tribute, ‘Remembering 1916: Life on the Western Front’ runs until August 31, 2016) for help with this article.

Oswald's war diary

AS A freelance journalist and writer Oswald Davis kept a diary of his experiences.. Here are some excerpts from the full diary, which is available online.

Sunday July 23, 1916,

Abbeville, Somme

After we were dismissed from parade, we went into the YMCA hut for the service. As we sang, all the pathos of life and tragic partings of the war welled up into the music. Went to the latrines, for I was still suffering from piles. Told to get a move on and Triumph spares were flung at me.

Rode up the long straight hill towards Amiens. Proceeding onwards, met ambulance cars, lorries and troops, tin-hatted, and felt I was nearing war.

At first, the pigeon baskets, about 28 inches square, put the wind up me. Suppose aught goes wrong with the bike, or I get hit? How to manage or fettle with that stifling, strangling load strapped round my back? But, with custom, I gradually forgot these drawbacks.

Monday July 31, 1916,

near Senlis-le-Sec, Somme

Riding at dusk was no breeze. Potholes in the road, loose stones and, where the horse lines were, tracks of engulfing mud. In a ditch of loose stones, came off – a crash in the absolute dark – and thus began to acquire the knowledge that night riding was even more agonising than the pigeon service.

Tuesday August 21, 1916,

“Sausage Valley” (near La Boisselle)

Two brown spurts rose up from the road, and then the shell bursts came. An ambulance, and two general supply wagons with Anzacs on board came crashing through. I rode with such trembling haste as I had never ridden before.

Down in the dugout to rest my nerves. Some sheltering Aussies, probably spotting that I was green, enlivened the atmosphere with gruesome yarns referring to one boot less to clean when their officer’s leg was shot off.

In the afternoon, heavy firing broke out over Thiepval, round which our men had just taken trenches. The bursting of shell and shrapnel was so thick, the flashes looked like bright, shining shoals leaping and turning in the air. Above was a dark blue, threatening sky. What a plight those men were in, holding on under that bombardment. Why should they – how could they? – stick it. My lot seemed a prince’s to theirs.

Thursday August 31, 1916,

Lavieville (about 7km from Albert, Somme)

Told at Lavieville I had to go up to Ypres, but would be issued with a motorcar to carry my pigeons. Meanwhile, I had to proceed on the bike. As we approached Ypres, the fields were green – so different from the Somme. But now we were well in the shelled area. Farms in the fields were sunken as if shrinking in fear – like huge wicker baskets, so riddled were they with shells.

Wings and wheels were vital for Somme troops

MORE than 100,000 homing pigeons were used during the First World War and they had a 95% success rate delivering the tiny scrolls of paper fitted to their legs.

Homing instincts took them back to HQ, often covering 100 miles in two hours, and one bird, Cher Ami, flew 25 miles in half an hour through German fire to deliver a message that saved the lives of the American Army’s ‘Lost Battalion’ surrounded in the forests of the Argonne. And famous French pigeon Vaillant, the “Hero of Verdun,” was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for getting a last message out of Fort Vaux during the 1916 German Offensive. They were so valuable that in 1914, the Belgian army burned 2,500 of them to stop them falling into the hands of the advancing Germans.

Once ‘home’ at HQ the birds had to be returned to the front line and riders like Oswald had the hazardous job of returning them, often under fire.

Great nephew Philip Holdway-Davis said the riders also carried information themselves: “Without them, we’d probably have lost the war. Before 1914, semaphore or shouted commands were used. During World War I, field telephones were connected to HQ via cables or pylons, but both were quickly damaged in battle. Motorcycles are faster than horses and were ideally suited to dealing with the shell-pocked terrain”.

Riders were chosen, like Oswald, from the ranks of the Royal Engineers and when the War Department called for volunteers the response was huge with 2,000 more applicants than places in London alone.

They used the ‘Trusty Triumph’ Model H, which had been developed especially for the army.

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