The history of bicycle infantry worldwide, though little known, is quite fascinating.
In the mid-1890s, with somewhat more reliable bicycles now riding on pneumatic tyres, several armies experimented with their use to replace horses in military duties, especially as messengers and scouts; in effect, taking over the functions of dragoons (mounted infantry).
When and why some of these cyclist formations were sent to India is not quite clear from official historical records. However, the 25th London Regiment’s website indicates that the bicycle-borne troops were not found to be terribly effective in trench warfare in Europe during WWI.
Yet it was deemed fit for Indian troops in Flanders to use the bicycles left behind, while the British troops were repositioned to places like Dagshai as conventional infantry.
On going towards the commanding officer’s house on the southern side of Dagshai hill, one spots the old garrison Anglican Church, still operational.
The hillside below the church is rocky but has a thick covering of green bushes and wild grass. However, a quick scan of the rock face reveals at first glance some kind of an icon, approximately 2×2 feet, with a fresh coat of paint on its periphery.
This is the insignia of the 1/9th Cyclist Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. The 1/9th Hampshires, commanded by Col RA Johnson, were the first to arrive in Dagshai in 1917.
There was also the more “colourful” 25th (County of London) Cyclist Battalion, The London Regiment, stationed in Dagshai in 1918, with a detachment in Jutogh, near Shimla.
When and why some of these cyclist formations were sent to India is not quite clear from official historical records.
Orders for them to proceed for action in Waziristan were rescinded, and they found themselves in the pleasant hill cantonment of Dagshai, with precious little to do except play cycle polo and 6-a-side football, and organise concerts and fancy dress parties.
The 25th London, which replaced the 1/9th Hampshires in Dagshai early in 1918, went a step further.
They formed The Dagshai Entertainers, an entertainment group with its own tenor, bass, comedian, pianist, female impersonator, stage and business managers, not to forget a certain Percy C Chisnall, variously described as an elocutionist, drummer and bandsman.
Percy, in addition to his histrionic talents, was a keen-eyed photographer. The Dagshai Jail Museum has been fortunate to receive a set of some valuable photographs taken by Percy Chisnall.
So, what exactly were the cycling regiments doing in a peaceful Indian hill station cantonment during World War I, that too, without their bicycles?
After all, the British Indian Army had provided 1.2 million men—all volunteers, fighting, and dying, for the British at a ridiculous salary of 11 rupees a month!
Some 75,000 Indians laid down their lives and around 65,000 were injured in the battlefields of the Somme, Ypres and elsewhere, while some of the tommies were living in comfort in the cool hill stations of India.
The answer is evident in some telling photographs recently released in the UK by official sources as the world prepares for the centenary of World War I: the powers that be in Whitehall wanted to minimise British casualties.
The cyclist battalions were packed off to India minus the bikes; it is the Sikh and Gurkha troops of the Indian Army who used these cycles.
With the desire to minimise British casualties apart, it was deemed essential that well-trained, professional British soldiers were available in various parts of India, just in case political unrest broke out.
Interestingly, among those fighting side by side with the Indian troops at the battles near Ypres and Somme were the Irish soldiers of the first battalion of the Connaught Rangers (the “Devil’s Own”), as part of the Lahore Division.
In 1920, this battalion was posted back to India. These Irish troopers staged the Dagshai mutiny against their English officers, precipitating a chain of events that led to the independence of Ireland and inspired India’s struggle for independence.