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1900: Cuckfield at the Centre of an ill-fated military experiment to 'repel enemy incursions'

Updated: May 27, 2021

In 1900 26th Middlesex (Cyclist) Volunteer Corps was 'the only unit in Britain devoted entirely to the development of cyclist tactics'.

The thirty-three years from 1887 to 1920 witnessed the conception, birth, growth, adolescence, and premature death of military cycling (as distinct from mere despatch riding) in the British Army.

London Daily News - Monday 06 August 1900






An unique experiment in the way of adapting the use of the cycle to the requirements of an emergency defence scheme designed to repel the incursions of an invader who may have effected a landing on the south coast is now being carried out by Major-General Sir J. F. Maurice in this county of Sussex. Here in a nutshell is the plan upon which the operations, which commenced yesterday, are being continued today, and will be brought to a conclusion tomorrow, are framed:

An enemy is reported by telegraph all over the country as threatening a landing at Brighton and Shoreham. As soon as the news arrives cyclist riflemen, previously organised, assemble at a rendezvous prearranged tor each corps. From the north 48,000 cyclist riflemen move south from the metropolitan area to take previously-assigned positions along the line of the Hogsback-Redhill-Godstone; thence they move simultaneously by several southern roads upon tile road running east and west through Billingshurst, Cowfold, Cuckfield, and Hayward’s Heath which is intended to serve as the main lateral communicating line for detachments pushed on farther southwards along the several roads towards Brighton.

Simultaneously with the movement of the troops from the north, there are co-operating cyclist forces moving on to the lateral line from the east and west, the object of the whole of this hurriedly concentrated force, being to check the advance of the invader until such time as the Home Defence Army shall have been assembled and equipped for the field at their respective mobilisation centres, and placed in a position of dealing an effective blow at the enemy.

Military volunteer 1900

The experiment- a portion of the entire scheme-is being watched with the keenest interest and has attracted a large number of military men to this district as onlookers. General Maurice established headquarters at Cuckfield yesterday, where he has with him Lieut.-Col. Balfour (London Scottish V.C.R) Acting Chief Staff Officer, Lieut.-Colonel Oughterson (Army Service Corps), and several other acting staff officers. No attempt has previously been made in this country to assemble anything like so numerous a body of cyclist-riflemen as that which is now under our General's command, although it is not now expected that the detachment will quite reach the total of 2,500 men who were expected. At any other time, and particularly in another year, such an experiment as that we are now witnessing would no doubt have brought together a much greater number of Volunteers, many of whom have, in the last few months, been severely taxed in order to comply with the conditions of the emergency courses of training ordered for this year.

As it is, however, detachments have joined the Northern force from as far up country as Sunderland, while to the Western force Devonport has contributed and the Eastern force has in the main been collected at Colchester. Up to the time of writing we of the Northern force have not yet come into personal touch with either of the forces that co-operatively are advancing on our flanks, and we do not expect to see them until shortly after dawn to-morrow morning. The remarks appended must consequently be taken as only applying to the Northern force, which is under the command of Major-General Henry Stracey, but it may here be remarked that the Commander of the Western force is Brigadier-General the Hon. H. Crichton, and that Colonel Collins, Chief Staff Officer of the South-Eastern District (Colchester). is leading the Eastern force.

The Hogsback and the Billingshurst-Cuckfield roads are ridges running east and west, about fifteen to twenty miles apart, and connecting them, are a series of roads affording lateral communication between the one and the other. The various contingents that assembled yesterday evening, on the former ridge were allotted each a separate road for their descent upon the second. It was hoped that all would have arrived on the lower parallel by about eight o'clock last night, but this expectation was scarcely realised. Some got out of their reckoning and lost their way, others were unable to leave their employment in London and elsewhere to commence their ride at the appointed hour, and in some instances it was nearly midnight when they reached their billets in the schools and public buildings allotted to them. The first stage of the operations has demonstrated how great, and perhaps inevitable, are the difficulties that beset those charged with a rapid concentration and subsequent advance of irregular troops, and proves the wisdom displayed by General Maurice in ordering the advance to the second line-the Bilingshurst-Cuckfield line-before attempting the major concentration of his forces.

This will be made this afternoon, the centre of the concentration being the cross roads at Bolney. Owing to the interruption of the telegraphic service in the South of England, caused by the recent gale, I am compelled to have resource to other means of forwarding this dispatch, which I must now close so far as today's work is concerned. The concentration and southern progress of the northern force this afternoon, - advancing as in the formation of three provisional battalions along one road, as a purely tactical movement, promises to be as interesting as any of the entire series. It will bring the northern force into within striking distance of the invader in the morning, and then also in touch with the friendly bodies or our flanks. The “enemy" will be furnished by the 1st Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, a small force of cavalry, and a section of field guns which this morning left Woolwich for Brighton, where they are to lie to-night. In my next dispatch I hope to refer in greater detail to the work this afternoon, which is just about to commence.

The following is the composition of the three provisional battalions of the northern force, whose advance will be screened by a detachment of the 10th Hussars, with a machine gun, all mounted on cycles. No. 1 Battalion: 3rd V.B. West Yorks. 16th Middlesex V.C.R. 4th Middlesex V.C.R 5th Middlesex V.C.R 4th V.B. East Surrey, and 2nd South Middlesex V.C.R. No. 2 Battalion: 26th Middlesex (Cyclists) V.C.R., 1st V.B. Royal Sussex, 1st V.B. Cheshire, 1st V.B. Royal Warwickshire, 3rd V.B. Durham Light Infantry, 1st London (Rifle Brigade) V.C.R., 2nd V.B. Manchester Regt. No. 3 Battalion: 1st Middlesex V.R.C. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd V.Bs Royal Fusiliers, 1st and 4th V.B.'s Royal West Surrey, 3rd and 4th V.B.'s East Surrey, 1st Surrey V.R.C., and 17th Middlesex V.R.C.

During the afternoon the weather was most unfavourable, rain falling heavily during the: whole of the time the corps were out. Some civilian cyclists from Woolwich and a number of local consuls of the Cyclists' Touring Club acting as guides, suffered considerably, and the greatest anxiety is felt by the staff tonight as to their comfort with the scanty bedding and equipment available. Local resources have been requisitioned, and as many fresh blankets as the tradesmen of the locality could furnish obtained. In all probability there will be some modifications of tomorrow's plans.

With thanks to the following historical websites for the images



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