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July 16th 2014

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A Rough Ride by Hugh Neems

There are many publications timed to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War a century ago. This one, unusually, gives an insight into a motorcycle despatch rider's life...

In the midst of all the other publications commemorating the Great War, this slim large-format hardback grabbed my attention. Well, how could it not? There's a Douglas motorcycle on the front cover, charging across the landscape, no doubt with urgent despatches aboard. I was hooked.

'A Rough Ride' turns out to be rather more than a single perspective on the First World War. Author Hugh Neems reveals that five of his uncles were involved in the action; one of them dodging mortar fire aboard that Douglas, others in the trenches, riding into battle on horseback and even in mid-air with the Royal Flying Corps. So this is much more than a book about the role of motorcycles in warfare: it's a series of snapshots from five different viewpoints drawing on diaries, letters and some very rare photographs. The result is a highly detailed and very personal account - one which starts in a quiet Worcestershire village and ends with 'muted sounds of victory.'

A Rough Ride by Hugh Neems

The chap on the Douglas turned out to be Hugh Lloyd, who enlisted in 1914 at the age of 19 and was assigned to the Royal Engineers as a sapper. He then served the next three years as a despatch rider - using the equipment available to the Signal Company which included '33 fast horses, 32 bicycles and nine motorcycles.' Keeping those motorcycles working during the conditions around Ypres would have been challenging in itself, never mind safely delivering the all-important signals. But Lloyd had some previous peacetime experience to draw on. Aged just 14 he'd spent 'many hours renovating a discarded motorbike before setting off on Saturday evening… and arriving back home in one piece despite punctures, belt slips and spills.'

The narrative of the book follows each of the uncles as the war progresses. One, an Australian railwayman ended up travelling to Suez as part of the push for Gallipoli. His subsequent experience underlines one of the lesser known truths of warfare: that ill health and infection account for almost as much misery as actual battlefield injury. We visit the Somme, Ypres once again, and Arras, and follow Hugh Lloyd into the air as he swaps his wheels for wings.

Neems doesn't restrict himself to his family records and provides all the necessary background to major events and the significance of important engagements, giving global context to his uncles' personal stories. There are some excellent maps and illustrations (colour where possible), as well as dozens of postcards, letters and original military documents: enlistment papers, despatch orders… and casualty forms.

Despite the striking cover image (Hugh Lloyd was one of the DRs who posed for a series of publicity photos) the motorcycling content is minimal. However, it was more than enough to entice me into reading more of a well-written and professionally presented mini-history which more than serves its purpose in presenting the soldiers' perspective of the 1914-18 war: the one which definitely didn't end all wars.

As the author comments in his introduction: 'the near destruction of civilised values and the tragedy visited on millions of lives reveal our human frailty and latent savagery.'

RC reviewer: Rowena Hoseason


A Rough Ride by Huge Neems is published in hardback by Book Guild, ISBN 978 1846249622, at £12.99. Buy a copy from Amazon at a discounted rate.

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