Cyclist John Stewart Edgar was typical of the total of 898 men who served with the South African Motor Cyclist Corps. He was born in 1898 and was a shop assistant in Johannesburg before spending four months in the Depot Battalion in South West Africa. When he was eighteen he enlisted in the 7th South African Infantry on 7th April 1916 and served in Nyasaland, East Africa for 10 months before he was hospitalised with malaria at Voi. Later he was sent back to South Africa and convalesced in the Number 4 General Hospital, Roberts Heights. On the 26th February 1918 he enlisted in the South African Motor Cyclist Corps. On his second attestation, when responding to the question, “Have you previously served in any military force and if so what are the particulars of such service?” he lied and wrote, “No.” He returned to Nyasaland in March 1918 but again contracted malaria. In his 21 months service in East Africa he had six attacks of malaria. He was finally discharged in February 1919. Although a late reinforcement to the Corps, his experience with malaria would have been typical of many of the cyclists.
One member of the S.A.M.C.C. who was killed by enemy action was Colonel Fairweather who died on 18 February 1917 while moving up to what he believed were friendly forces at Rupira in what is now Tanzania. The S.A.M.C.C. War Diary record of the event stated that, “Col. Fairweather was attacked by Wintgens with 500 – 600 men and many machine guns. Col. Fairweather was killed early in the day. He had gone out to satisfy himself that scouts reports were correct and was picked off by snipers. Sgt Harris* captured. Cyc Homan mortally wounded, died 3 a.m. on 21st.”
*Sergeant Frederick Harris, originally from Palmerston North, New Zealand, was a Boer War veteran. A newspaper article recounts Sergeant Harris’ captivity.
Fairweather was buried by the Germans who asked the sixteen members of the Motor Cyclist Corps they were holding prisoner to attend the service. A guard of honour was provided by askaris, African soldiers, but the usual salute was not fired because British forces were close by. Among the prisoners who attended the funeral was Wally Clarkson who later became a Springbok rugby centre and toured New Zealand with the 1921 Springboks.
Colonel H B Cuming, CB, who was the commander of the Kaffrarian Rifles during the Anglo Boer War, wrote of Colonel Fairweather:
"He was without doubt the most gallant fellow I ever worked with in the field. His complete indifference to shell fire and bullets amazed me. He was an excellent officer in every way, and his death is an irreparable loss to the Active Union Defence Force. In every detail of his work he was thorough and full of useful ideas." (http://www.AngloBoerWar.com)
A former Railway employee wrote that:
"The men who served under him were unanimous in their praise and liking of their Commander, whose chief anxiety at all times, even at great personal sacrifice, lay in promoting the welfare and comfort of the rank and file ... Quick to commend and reward good services, he was equally spontaneous in his denunciation of the bad ... He was a man of the most honourable and lofty principles, and the country generally, still more the Railway Administration and the military service, can ill spare him." (http://www.AngloBoerWar.com)
Colonel Fairweather is buried in the Iringa Cemetery, Tanzania along with seven other members of the Motor Cyclist Corps.
The S.A.M.C.C. created an impressive sight and sound when on the move with their machines. Captain Ashley wrote in a letter to The Motor Cycle (October 12th 1916) that, “it was a grand sight to see the 400 B.S.A.s thundering along with their exhausts open. When the corps is on the move it covers seven miles of road, and the engines make a noise just like the breakers on the sea shore.” Colonel E. S. Thompson recorded in his diary that when the Motor Cyclist Corps left for Kilossa on 13th August, 1916 they were making “a great noise.” It is hardly surprising then that he recorded five days later that No.4 platoon of the Motor Cyclists had been ambushed.
Sergeant J.G. Maker of the 5th Mountain Battery, South African Mounted Riflemen described some of the work that the Motor Cyclists carried out. He and an officer had climbed up a ladder inside a church steeple and were looking for targets when a motor cyclist arrived with information about enemy machine guns. The Mountain Battery put the machine guns out of action. This gave Sergeant Maker considerable satisfaction as these particular machine guns had been treating him “without respect,” as he put it, for quite some time. When a South African force ran into an ambush the colonel sent a message back to headquarters by motorcycle saying that they were heavily engaged and needed urgent reinforcements.
The men of the S.A.M.C.C. proved to be very resourceful. On the 24th November 1916 two cyclists were ordered to travel 70 miles over rough roads to the hospital at Madibera where there were a large number of askaris and 18 German soldiers who wished to surrender. After a day and a half the two cyclists reported back and then returned to the hospital with a convoy of 18 including a doctor and medical orderly. They also carried food, medical supplies, and petrol. In December 1916 a patrol of eight cyclists was sent out as escorts to a lineman who was to repair the telegraph line. The patrol was ambushed and had to leave their motorcycles and take to the bush on foot. One of the men walked 40 miles through the bush back to base with news of the event. Because their supply lines were so long men of the Corps were forced to improvise. Mechanics converted a Maxim machine gun tripod using spare back wheel and parts of a window frame so that it could be used with a Lewis gun. Some of the surviving S.A.M.C.C. badges are cut out of sheet brass and may have been made in the field.