Monday, September 3, 2018

THE MAN WHO SAVED PARIS: Roger West’s Ride 1914, By Michael Carragher, Unicorn Publishing Group, UK

Lieutenant Roger R.F. West, DSO

For those with only general knowledge of the events of World War I, here is an on-the-scene memoir that will bring it alive. This is an important book because it gives us one man’s story while placing him within the conflict happening all around him. British-born Roger West was of Anglo-German stock, with many German friends, but when the war broke out he volunteered to serve with the British. Being an expert motorcyclist, he was assigned as a despatch rider to the 19th Brigade in France, which bore the brunt of the fighting in the first few weeks in 1914. Even while in the heat of battle, he jotted events in his diary (Aug 4-Sept 18) and told of many hair-raising experiences.

The bridge at Pontoise-lès-Noyon
Historian Michael Carragher proposes that it was a seemingly casual act by West that changed the course of the war. When West discovered that the bridge at Pontoise-lès-Noyon had been left open to the German advance, he volunteered to ride back and blow it up. This prevented the Germans from crossing a key river and soundly defeating the French and British since, by taking Paris, the Germans would have won the war in a matter of weeks.
West’s diary entries are reproduced in full, with explanations by Carragher that give a broader picture of how West’s experiences fit in with the horrors occurring that same time. We learn how German armies poured through neutral Belgium in their attempt to destroy the French military and sweep down to take Paris. Only the tiny British Expeditionary Force got in the way, and their fighting has achieved a mythical status for the endurance of British regulars in the face of the ruthless might of the Germans who outnumbered them several times over.
British despatch rider
West tells an absorbing story of how he moved around the battlefield amid chaos and uncertainty and his account is full of atmosphere and detail. Even though he was crippled with a badly damaged foot, he still rode around the clock, delivering dispatches and directing and assisting soldiers separated from their units. The picture of an exhausted but determined young man, trundling around the battlefield on a worn-out motorcycle, is gripping, thanks to West’s vivid descriptions of those times.
After the war West was awarded The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) the first decoration awarded to the Intelligence Corps for his bold act that had saved Paris. In his memoir, written later but based on his diary, West modestly states: “I was astonished when I heard the idea put about that I had saved Paris… a gross if enthusiastic overstatement… but the demolition of the bridge at Pontoise no doubt played some part in the outcome of events.”
German Cavalry Patrol
One moving incident haunted him all his life. While hiding beside a road in France he saw a German patrol approaching. In his own words: “So here were 21 Cavalry, at 200 yards or less; and myself prone in the long grass above them. I sighted on the leader and then another and another. Eleven of them at least were sitting ducks, and as good as dead, and maybe all 21 before they could reach any sort of cover. It was my duty to kill them. Or was it? For once, in the impersonality of war, I could see them close-to, as fellow men, such men as I had met and been friends with at Bonn University before the war. The horses slopped along with heavy feet, and the leader’s head was bowed on his chest from sheer exhaustion. So, they had been having a hard time too. I squeezed the trigger lightly but not enough to fire, and then crawled back down the embankment to my cycle. I tried to rationalize it to myself - my rifle was full of dust and might have jammed; I was probably unsteady and might have missed; but I knew in my heart I could not have murdered those men.”
The book stays true to Roger West, showing how the tough time he had in the war, and the loss of so many dear comrades, led to his lifelong suffering from PTSD, then called shell shock. After the war was over he left England and moved to British Columbia whose mountains calmed his spirit. In 1938 he moved with his wife to California and became an advisor to Paramount Pictures, working on many movies before ending his days in Carmel, aged 84.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

SAN FAIRY ANN By Michael Carragher Published by FireStep Press, Brighton, UK

Review by Tony Murphy

Author Michael Carragher is a teacher in Ireland who specializes in First World War Studies and it is his opinion that it was the British dispatch riders, on British motorcycles, who prevented a German victory. An avid motorcyclist, Carragher gives a convincing presentation in this book that shows the day-to-day activities of the riders. The title captures the maybe daredevil attitude of these men (yes, they were all men) as they cheerfully made a joking adaptation of the French saying “Ca ne fait rien!” that means “It doesn’t matter!”
This dreadful “War to End all Wars” lasted over four years and resulted in more than 20 million deaths. It introduced new technologies such as aircraft and tanks to the battlefields of Europe and involved armies from all over the world. 
Why does Carragher say the dispatch riders won the war? Communications! The Germans, who relied on horses for their cavalry and to pull large bulky cannons, chose radios for communications. Then in its infancy, radios were unreliable and easily intercepted, far less efficient than the person-to-person dispatch rider.
They could communicate directly with the troops in the trenches and always had an advantage in traffic situations. A corporal on a bike had priority over a general in a Rolls Royce in traffic jams (of which there were many) with convoys sometimes ten miles long on muddy trails that passed for roads. A dispatch rider, when heading to the front, could carry a basket on his back with more than a dozen carrier pigeons to be left with those in the trenches so they could communicate with HQ when needed.
Ironically, it was the Germans who had invented the motorcycle 40 years earlier and these riders experienced technical problems with their British motorcycles.  The manufacturers across the English Channel were continually trying to make their bikes more suitable for war. Drive belts were better than chains? Yes, they were. Side valve engines were the design of choice. Why? Carragher is convincing in his analysis of the reasons for these and other technical features of the day.
And what about the bikes themselves? The Triumphs actually originated in Germany years before but were now made in Britain. There were about 25 different brands in service, including Douglas twins, BSA’s, Norton’s and Matchless, a number of them fitted with sidecars carrying machine guns, called “Chariots of Automatic Fire.” In 1914 when the war started the British army had 166 motorcycles and by 1918 when it ended they had 48 thousand.
Carragher gives us an excellent summary of the war itself, with the causes and the politics that prolonged what could have been a shorter and less costly conflict. But the story of the bikes and their brave riders and their heroic exploits provides most entertaining reading that almost counters the depressing history lesson of the death and destruction of 100 years ago.

My brother Tony Murphy knows about the motorcycle world having been the top racer in the USA at the age of 21, a title he held for 4 years. Later he joined  Peterson Publishing as Editor for Motorcycle Magazine. He presently represents ROTAX in the US as the sole importer of often rare or difficult to find motorcycle parts.

Friday, May 25, 2018


I met Mae West in a quite amusing and memorable way back in 1976 when she was appearing on the Dick Cavett Show on CBS. This was when I was the TV critic for the Hollywood Reporter and was invited to a press party to celebrate Mae West’s historic reappearance on screen (no matter how small the screen she could always fill it magnificently).

When I arrived at the festivities there she was, in a low-cut red-spangled gown, with the familiar shoulder-length blonde wig, sitting like a queen on a throne, surrounded by a bevy of men. All the male reporters from the industry had turned up to see and talk to this Goddess. I saw how she was talking with her deep growl, and provocative smile, and heard their laughter and retorts. I started to move closer so I could join the adoring crowd – after all I was a significant journalist at a major event and paths always opened for me.

However, a young women, obviously a publicist for the show, stopped me. I’m sorry she said, You can’t go over there. Miss West never allows women reporters to get even close to her.
I stopped, prepared to argue, ready to insist, but then I looked over to the dais and saw why. This was a love fest, men adored her, men got it. Of course, women, myself included, would have noted the creases in the red dress, the dusty blonde wig, the deteriorated countenance of this legendary octogenarian diva.

Mae West was a genius of illusion. The woman that her male worshipers wished we all could be - sexy, witty, challenging, independent, and ready for whatever action they imagined. Was she beautiful? She was 83 and yes there was a radiance to her that transcended time. Okay Mae, I smiled to myself, I got it!

As the Hollywood Reporter is a paper of record, my review of the show is somewhere in the HR archive, and you can see the full Cavett interview on You Tube.