Kurt Bayer continues a Herald series on 100 Kiwis who died during World War I.

6: Going to war - on a bike

James Thomson Steven

was a tall farmer from Totara Valley at Pleasant Pt in South Canterbury when war broke out.

He joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and after passing a fitness test and getting his vaccinations, left Wellington with the 1st New Zealand Cyclist Company as a corporal on May 6, 1916.


The New Zealand Cyclist Battalion had been formed in March of that year, using recruits who were training to join the Mounted Rifles. The battalion, whose badge was a winged cycle front wheel and handlebars, was intended as a mobile light infantry.

But when the cyclists, including Corporal Steven, by then aged 23, landed in France in July 1916, they were greeted by stagnant trench warfare. They spent much of their war behind the lines carrying out jobs that included laying cables, felling trees, repairing trenches, controlling traffic and front area reconnaissance.

Because of the heavy casualties, Corporal Steven was soon commissioned as an officer, with the rank of 2nd lieutenant, and later promoted to lieutenant.

As the casualties mounted the cyclists were called in to the frontline - both as infantry and mounted troops.

At the Battle of Messines where more than 700 Kiwis died, and at the second Battle of the Somme, the cyclists were praised for their patrols and reconnaissance work amid heavy shelling.

Lieutenant Steven was serving with the 2nd Anzac Cyclist Battalion in the Flanders offensive when he died of wounds on November 17, 1917 - aged 24. He was buried at Menin Rd South Military Cemetery, Ypres, in Belgium. During the war, 59 members of the battalion lost their lives.

Today, Lieutenant Steven is remembered with his name inscribed on the Pleasant Pt War Memorial. The grey stone monument details the 18 names of men from the rural area who lost their lives in World War I.

It sits on a stretch of grass between a Plunket rooms and a children's play park. Two-year-old Matthew Harrex is playing on a slide and his 5-month- old brother Joshua sleeps in the ute parked kerbside. His mother, Lisa, can't believe that one of the men whose name is on the memorial went to war on a bike.

Her grandfather fought in World War II and she wants her boys growing up to know about the men who fought and died for their freedom.

"Their relatives fought in those wars, and they need to learn about it, and to respect what they did. It's so important."

July 29, 1914
The Herald reports:

• A party of "Servians" on board a steamer on the Danube is reported to have exchanged shots with Austrian troops on shore.
• The British Minister for Foreign Affairs has suggested Britain, France, Germany and Italy work together to secure a peace settlement.
• Servia doesn't have a hope of winning a war against Austria without an ally, according to a military correspondent.

Other news:
• Auckland schools carried out tree-planting ceremonies on Arbor Day but Nelson St school missed out because the ground had not been "properly prepared".