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.