Eleven facts about motorcycles in the war

November is a time to look back, to pause and reflect on the service of the brave men and women who served in Canada’s military. Motorcyclists served an important role in the First and Second World War. They were often Despatch Riders, delivering messages to the front lines and doing reconnaissance work. It was a dangerous and demanding job, but motorcycles were maneuverable and were able to get to locations that may have been impassable. As we look back, here are 11 interesting facts about motorcycles in the war.

  1. Riders received special training where they learned how to maintain their motorcycles, overhauled their machines once a week, performed training exercises, and experienced how to travel across rough terrain and cross country. 1
  2. Canadian military motorcycles have been used in the Canadian Forces since at least 1908. 2
  3. In World War I Triumphs became the principal machine used by the Canadian Army. 3
  4. The Canadian Army issued helmets to all of its motorcycle riders during World War II. The original helmet was known as a pulp helmet because it was made from a hardened paper mache. 4
  5. Harley Davidson Company produced 20,000 model WLC motorcycles for the Canadian Army. This 750cc model was initially developed for the United States Army, but the Canadian version came with a passenger seat. 5
  6. Russell Downe worked as a motorcycle dispatch rider for most of the war where he was responsible for delivering urgent messages. As a dispatch rider this is what he carried on his motorcycle: two saddlebags, a one man pup tent on the back of the motorcycle, one saddlebag on the side for any equipment he wanted to carry, two or three gallons of gas in a jerry can on the other side because there’s no place to stop and gas up in situations he would be in. He also had a short shovel that everyone was issued for digging a trench, some utensils and a small frying pan that he had gathered. 6
  7. Contributions of Military Motorcycle Riders in the defence of our country were recognized in 2008 when they were inducted into the Canadian Motorcycle Hall of Fame. 7
  8. The crest for the Canadian Army Veteran Motorcycle Units is a WWII crest of a despatch rider that was actually used in a World War II recruiting poster in Canada. 8
  9. The Harley-Davidson WLC model (the ‘WL’ was the engine type and the ‘C’ was for Canadian) were among the motorcycles driven by Canadian dispatch riders and military police in the Second World War and Korean War. 9
  10. “The first Allied soldier to touch German soil after truce was declared, did so upon a motorcycle,” wrote Max Burns and Ken Messenger in The Winged Wheel Patch. 10
  11. Following World War II motorcycle registration in Canada almost tripled from 17,200 in 1946 to 43,700 in 1950. 11