The Bicycle Goes to War
Date posted: April 19, 2017
CYCLISTS! YOUR KING & COUNTRY NEED YOU!
New cyclists battalions to be raised at once. Who will ride in the ranks of the famous Essex regiment? Unique opportunities for keen, fit wheelmen
How and where to join…
Most of us have more than one hobby, a number of interests, which can be quite varied. When you receive an opportunity to combine two or more in the one exercise, you grab the opportunity. Recently, after reading a thought-provoking article in “Cycling Australia” by Michael Hartman (March-April 2015), it gave me the chance to combine my love of cycling with my historical interests, in particular that of war history.
In this the year of the centenary of Gallipoli, and also the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, spare a thought for the part that bicycle technology played in the battlefields of France and Belgium and elsewhere across the world.
Michael tells us about his uncles from northern NSW, and the part they played, when the ANZAC Cyclist Battalion was established by “hot, bored and eager” Australian soldiers in Egypt in 1915. He poses the idea of how incredible it might be to consider the bicycle as a serious weapon of war.
He quotes the British Cycling Magazine in 1914: “The reasons of the success of the soldier-cyclist are not far to seek. In the first place it must be realised that his mount, unlike that of the cavalry man, is silent in progress. This gives him an enormous advantage over his noisy foe, whose horse betrays his presence even when galloping over grassland. In short, the cyclist can hear and not be heard. He can approach speedily and noiselessly, and without warning can attack the enemy, who, all unconscious of his presence, often falls an easy prey”.
Bicycles were a relatively new invention. No carbon fibre frames or lycra outfits! The AIF had cycling units during many of the early major battles, deployed to the front line as well as undertaking cable burying, traffic control and reconnaissance work.
They carried water bottles and rifles, a kitbag with kit and rations, a toolkit on the handlebars, a bedroll sometimes on the handlebars. They wore their heavy army issue clothing, although sometimes knee breeches replaced the baggy army trousers. All units had colour patches and badges, square with a white background and a superimposed red middle square. Bicycles were fine over firm, hard dry, ground, but struggled in the muddy conditions and often rubble strewn roads of the Western Front.
Even in 2008, in East Timor, bicycles were used to improve field patrols. Bicycle infantry was utilised in the late 19th century by Britain, Europe and the USA. They lessened the need for horses, fuel and vehicle maintenance. They could carry more equipment and travel longer distances than foot soldiers, and could substitute for horses as messengers and scouts.
With an ease of economy, simplicity of training, relative silence, ease of logical support, and being lightweight could be carried over obstructions, they became a logical alternative.
The first known use of the bicycle in combat was during the Jameson Raid, where cyclists carried messages. Even tandem bicycles were used, patrolling railway lines on specially constructed machines fixed to the rails, in the Second Boer War. France and Britain developed a folding bicycle which could be collapsed and carried across the rider’s shoulders. A bicycle ambulance carried a stretcher between three bicycles, one in front and two behind.
The USA, France, Italy, Poland, Finland, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan and Russia all developed a cycling infantry. Cycle-mounted infantry was utilised in both World Wars, with the USA even dropping bicycles from aeroplanes to reach troops behind enemy lines.
During WWI Britain used three types of bicycles – military folding bicycle, military roadster and civilian roadsters. The principle manufacturers were Raleigh, Enfield, BSA, Royal Enfield, Rudge-Whitworth, Bianchi and Columbia. AIF bikes were issued from England and manufactured by Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA). Soldiers usually had a standard military issue machine, with standard tyres with little or no grip.
Manpower initially comprised cycling enthusiasts, and they proved their worth. Athletic and cycling clubs were prime candidates for enlistment. The trenches however forced the reassignment of many cyclists from their cycling units to infantry units.
The humble bicycle…!
Patsy Moppett, Editor, The Nepean District Historical Society Newsletter, 4 December 2015