Military Bicycles – The Early Years

“Look, look!” Aymo said and pointed toward the road.

Along the top of the stone bridge we could see German helmets moving. They were bent forward and moved smoothly, almost supernaturally.

As they came off the bridge, we saw them. They were bicycle troops . . . Their carbines were clipped to the frame of the bicycles.”

                               ~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

This week was Veterans’ Day (or perhaps Armistice Day, or maybe even just another Sunday/Monday, depending on where you live) and I thought a belated review of bicycles in military history might be an appropriate (and fun!) little romp for us to take together.

Hard to imagine this being practical
Hard to imagine this being practical

Say what you want about militaries, but I think we can all agree they are never hesitant to incorporate new technologies into their organizations.  Bicycles are no different.  As far back as 1870, both the French and Germans were testing Penny Farthings (those old-fashioned bikes with the huge front wheel) as dispatch riders and scouts in the Franco-Prussian War.  I suspect the tests didn’t go very well.

Still, interest remained.  When the Safety Bike was invented in 1885, the British used them as scouts in military exercises that sasme year.  The French Army formally introduced bikes into the service only two years later.  In 1898, US Army LT James Moss effectively led 100 black soldiers on bicycles to dispel riots in Havanna, Cuba.  In 1890, bicycles saw their first significant military action in the 2nd Boer War where both sides successfully employed them.  The Boers created the Wielrijders Rapportgangers Corps and used bikes instead of horses whenever possible to save the animals for actual combat.  They developed a technique of placing leather strips between the tire tube and rim and thus greatly reduced punctures, making their machines much more reliable than the British.  For their part, the Brits developed this interesting piece of gear known as the War Cycle, used on railway lines:

This could be converted to carry a Maxim Machine Gun and had a top speed of 48kph
This could be converted to carry a Maxim Machine Gun and had a top speed of 48kph

Other enterprising uses of bicycles in the 2nd Boer War included using them to carry carrier pigeons, as transporting them on horseback upset the birds too greatly.  The Scots Guards used a collapsable bike to carry a kite for photography and later to lift an aerial for use in wireless telegraph experiments.  One can only imagine a overworked Scotsman as he huffed and puffed across the South African plain to get his kite in the air.

The Americans were busy at this time as well.  In 1891, the First Signal Corps of the Connecticut National Guard was established as the first American bicycle unit. Tests were conducted to determine how fast cyclists could deliver messages.  One cyclist delivered a message faster than an entire flag signaler team, while a relay team carried a single dispatch from Chicago to New York City in just four days and 13 hours. A follow-up challenge brought a message from Washington, D.C. to Denver in just over six days.  In 1896, the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps moved from its home base in Montana over 1,900 miles to St. Louis in 41 days.  That’s almost 50 miles per day with no roads.  The 25th was the same unit that would be used against the Cuban riot two years later and its commander was the same Lt Moss.

The 25th Bicycle Infantry, Departing Ft. Missoula, MT
The 25th Bicycle Infantry, Departing Ft. Missoula, MT
Swiss 1905 Bike
Swiss 1905 Bike

By the early 1900s, almost everybody was getting into the act.  The Swedish 27th Gotlandic Infantry Regiment replaced horses with bicycles in 1901.  By 1942, the Swedes had six bicycle infantry regiments.  The Swiss began equipping some of their infantry with a bicycle built to customary high Swiss standards in 1905.

Italian Bersaglieri (Light Infantry) with folding bicycles
Italian Bersaglieri (Light Infantry) with folding bicycles

Bicycles continued to be of use in WWI.  When generals originally thought the war would be one of great movement, bicycles were considered to have great potential.  As the war ground to a halt in the trenches, bikes lost their utility as combat vehicles and their use was primarily to get soldiers to the front.

Only thirty years after the invention of the Safety Bike, bicycles had proven their worth in combat in a myriad of different uses.  This post only scratches the surface of the military’s use of bicycles.  As the winter days grow colder and my cycling decreases, I’ll regale you with the rest of the story – WWII to present.

You have been warned.


Further Reading:

Military Bicycles:  A Short History

Military Bicycles (Utility Cycling)

Wikipedia:  Bicycle Infantry

Hell On Two Wheels:  The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps

Bicycles In The Anglo-Boer War of 1889 – 1902

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