Two-Wheeled Warriors – A Brief History of Bicycles on the Battlefield

Danish soldiers ride into battle on bicycles.

THE BICYCLE (as we know it today) was developed in the 1890s as an alternative to the tall, and rather dangerous penny-farthings that were all the rage in the late 19th Century.

Originally known as “safety bicycles”, the pedal-driven two-wheelers took Europe and North America by storm. By the end of the decade bicycles were largely seen as a symbol of the leisure, consumerism and personal freedom that was fast becoming a by-product modern industrialization and the newly emerging middle class.[1] But bikes didn’t just capture the imagination of weekend explorers and summertime picnickers. Nineteenth century military planners quickly realized the value of them on the battlefield.

They were cheap to manufacture, easy to maintain (and unlike horses) required no feed, water or care, yet bicycles allowed foot soldiers much of the same mobility enyoyed by the cavalry and at a fraction of the cost. [2] Bike riding infantry could carry heavier loads father and faster than men on foot, and riders would still have the energy to charge into battle, even after hours of pedalling. Not surprisingly, before the century was over, all the major armies of Europe were experimenting with bicycle-mounted infantry.

Training Wheels
Even before the invention of the safety bicycle, some armies were testing out the functionality of two-wheelers. According to an article about military bicycling on the website BikeRadar.com, during its war with France in 1870, Prussia relied on messengers equipped with early rudimentary push cycles to carry communications to and from the front lines. But with the arrival of the bicycle, the race was on to see which nation could make the best use of pedal power.[3]

The French army formed experimental bike regiments in the 1880s in which troopers would carry the standard infantry gear while riding on a foldable bike that could be mounted on a rucksack when not in use. [4]

In the 1890s, the U.S. Army equipped a number of black (then know as “coloured”) regiments with bicycles and practiced sending these mounted troops on long-range maneuvers and patrols, sometimes as far as 1,000 miles.[5] Even famous all-black mounted outfits like the 10th Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers”, were equipped with cycles in the 1890s, which they used to traverse the vast road-less expanses of Montana.

The first use of bikes in actual combat came during the Second Boer War (1999 to 1902). While used by combatants on both sides, a group of Boer raiders led by Daniel Theron used bikes to quickly strike at British forces.[6] Theron became such a menace to the British in South Africa, London put a £1,000 bounty on his head.

World War One Italian light infantry with their foldable bikes.

The World Wars
By the outbreak of the First World War, all of the competing powers were using bicycles for everything from scouting and recon to troop transport and communications. Even the evacuation of the wounded became bike-borne.

During the First World War, the British formed an entire bike-mounted army group named the Cycle Division, while the Italian Bersaglieri light infantry used bicycles throughout the conflict.[7] In addition, the German army had up to 80 Radfahr-Bataillonen of bicycle battalions by war’s end.

Military cycling continued to flourish in the post war era. The fuel-pressed Japanese relied heavily on bikes in their invasion of China in 1937. Four years later, when the Imperial Japanese Army descended onto Malaysia, the plan called for the widespread use of bicycles.[8] In this instance however, the Japanese army didn’t bring its own bikes along; the battle plan called for the army’s systematic appropriation of civilian bicycles at the invasion’s outset. Using their seized bikes, the Japanese quickly swept across the Malaysian peninsula, in some cases cutting off the defenders’ line of retreat.

Germans, Finns and Soviets all used bicycles as well during the Second World War, as did the British and American forces (albeit to a less extent).

A Tamil bike patrol in the recent war in Sri Lanka.

… You Never Forget
While warfare became increasingly mechanized in the Post War era, some militaries still found room for bicycles. In the Vietnam War, Viet Cong forces operating on a shoestring budget made very effective use of bikes to ferry supplies deep into South Vietnam along the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In 2001, the Swiss, one of the last users of military cycles, finally phased out the last remaining bicycle companies, which had been in operation since before the First World War.[9] Amazingly, one of the models of bikes used by the Swiss military had remained largely unchanged since 1905. The Swiss army’s abandonment of its bikes seemed to spell the end of military cycling once and for all. However during the recent civil war in Sri Lanka, under-equipped Tamil forces used civilian mountain bikes to shuttle troops to and from the battlefield quickly and cheaply.

Today, there continues considerable interest among bike collectors in vintage wartime bicycles.

An m/42 military bike.

A fascinating Aug. 13 article on the website BikeRadar.com describes both the history of military biking and interviews a number of collectors about the growing popularity in surplus military bikes as artifacts. According to the article, Japanese military bikes, as well as those from both Switzerland and Sweden are much sought-after items. In fact, when the Swedish military mothballed its bike battalions in the 1970s, it sold many of its popular m/42 models to civilians as surplus. The durable and reliable one-speed bikes quickly became a hot commodity among trendy college students, so much so that in the 1990s, a Swedish bike manufacturer began turning out a line of bikes using the original military m/24 specs.

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SOURCES

1. http://www.sciencetech.technomuses.ca/english/collection/bikes4.cfm

2. http://grist.org/biking/2011-10-11-bicycles-at-war/

3. http://www.bikeradar.com/fitness/article/military-bicycles-a-short-history-34906/

4. http://grist.org/biking/2011-10-11-bicycles-at-war/

5. http://www.singletracks.com/blog/uncategorized/buffalo-soldiers-the-original-off-road-bikers/

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_infantry

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. http://www.bikeradar.com/fitness/article/military-bicycles-a-short-history-34906/

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