Author, David Venner, now aged 66, has fond memories of his time with his great uncle Albert (no, not THAT uncle Albert!), but David never heard Albert speak about his time as a Dispatch Rider in the Great War and even more surprising, David was given a copy of Albert’s cryptic diary entries from that period in history after his death in 1966 in Argentina. Albert had been sent to Buenos Aires in 1926 by his employer, Crossley Brothers of Manchester, who made marine diesel engines, to set up a branch of the firm there and he stayed for the rest of his life.
We caught up with David during a break in his busy schedule promoting a book based on the diary and asked him to tell us more about this intriguing story.
“The diary was basically cryptic notes Albert scribbled down during breaks between despatches. It was found by my mother (who was Albert’s niece) after his death and she gave it to me.”
David continued “Obviously it was fascinating to decipher his notes and knowing him made it seem to come alive in a way I don’t think would have happened if I hadn’t known him.”
Asking about Albert’s background, David said “Albert was born in 1885 in Broughton near Salford, the eldest son of a printer. When he left school he became a draughtsman engineer. In 1911 he was living with two other lodgers at 9 Slade Hall Road, Longsight.”
“He was a motorcycle enthusiast and travelled all over Britain on his Douglas Twin; by February 1919 he had travelled all over the Western Front as a despatch rider on his Army issue Triumph Model H.”
As with all authors, before a single word is written, comes the time-consuming task of research. “The research and editing process took about 18 months, with a further 12 months before publication.”
Unfortunately, with the Great War ending so long ago, David did not get the chance to meet any of Albert’s comrades but thankfully, knowing Albert was enough.
Although not an owner of a vintage British motorcycle he has come to respect the skills and courage required to ride any machine “in the horrendous conditions of war” as he put it.
David was also kind enough to let us reproduce some extracts from Albert’s diary and share some of his photographs from that time.
14th September 1914
“I have called at the Royal Field Artillery [RFA] recruiting office several times but they have no news when we shall be called up. The infantry are now taking men but I do not care for the infantry. I always hated walking! I do not think I ever walked five miles at a stretch; I have almost lived on wheels since I was twelve years old. I would cycle to the end of the road to post a letter and later I took to motorcycling as the natural sequel to push cycling. The infantry with its “foot-slogging” has no attraction to me. In the RFA I should ride a horse or have a seat on a limber or waggon, or at least that is what I thought. I put my name down for future units which might be formed and waited hopefully for several weeks. Some of my friends have gone to join the Manchester Pals Battalion and I am greatly tempted to follow them in sheer despair at not being able to get into the RFA.”
3rd March 1915 In training at Buxton
“We are now engaged in schemes in which the whole company takes part. Telegraph lines are laid across country to outlying villages where signal offices are set up, usually in a room of the village pub. The Despatch Riders [DRs] keep communication between these offices and HQ which is in Buxton. One of the offices is in Castleton, 10 miles away. There is great competition between the riders to set up the fastest time between the two places.”
4th May 1915 Moving to Signal Company’s HQ, Hitchin
“The DRs travelled down by road, the mechanic and me bringing up the rear to give aid in case of breakdowns. I do not think we rode more than 5 miles continuously without having to stop and help one rider or another. I am beginning to think that some of these fellows will never make riders. A man should understand his machine as well as be able to ride it.”
20th November 1916 Engelbelmer, on the Somme
“We are now wallowing in mud … on the road it varies in consistency from that of a thin watery soup to that of dough. The latter variety picks up on the tyres of the waggons and lorries like a snowball gathers snow and falls off in huge clods. Motorcycle mudguards get choked very quickly and bring the machine to a standstill. We have taken off our mudguards and the result can be imagined.”
10th October 1917, Zidote, near Ypres
“At ‘Jackson’s Dump’ I found a DR from another division trying to start a machine with a water-logged magneto, a hopeless job to remedy in the pouring rain. I gave him a lift on the carrier of my machine, against regulations but excusable on a night like this.”
7th June 1918, Cavillon, France
“We have lost one of our riders, Musto, who collided with a French staff car last night. His leg is badly smashed and he had other injuries; not much chance of him being a DR again. Quite a good sort but not much of a rider”
After the Armistice in November 1918, Albert reflected on his wartime experiences and how it had affected his outlook on life: “Whenever my thoughts turned to my return to civilian life, assuming I was lucky enough to get back, I always thought of starting my life again where I left off, but now my ideas have changed: I am a different person. Before the war most of my leisure time was spent in search of mildly dangerous sports: motor cycling, speed trials, hill climbing. I lived on a motorcycle mostly for business. All that is over, I have had enough excitement for a lifetime, all I want is the peace of the English countryside and the solitude of the hills, lying in heather listening to the gentle hissing of the wind.”
Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones to survive the war, returning to Crossley Brothers and becoming their Chief Engineer. He died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1966, aged 80.
After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon. He has written two previous books: The Venners of Somerset and Devon (privately published) and Information for a Rural Community (British Library). David is married with two grown-up children and three grandchildren.
The book was published in 2015, by Pen and Sword Books, to coincide with the centenary of WW1. David has been busy promoting it ever since and said that the book can be purchased from the publisher (), from Amazon, or through any good bookshop. The full title is ‘Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18, the diary of Sergeant Albert Simpkin, MM’ ISBN 978 1 47382 740 0
David has donated a full typescript of the diary to the Imperial War Museum in London.