03 August 2014

Fighting The Great War On Two Wheels

As you no doubt learned in your history classes, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, triggered the events that led to World War I.

He was killed on 28 June 1914.  Other countries made promises and issued ultimatums to each other, based on the sorts of relationships they had with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its allies--or enemies.  

Everything came to a head in the first days of August in that year.  On the first, Germany declared war on Russia.  And, on this date 100 years ago, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium.  Then, on the following day, Great Britain declared war on Germany.

 Jack Hales

The Great War, as it came to be called, was the first international armed conflict in which aircraft--and one of the first in which motorized vehicles--were deployed. Bicycle battalions were also deployed in an attempt to mobilize fighting forces that could move more swiftly than regular infantry units.  Aircraft were invented barely a decade earlier, and motorized vehicles weren't around for much longer.  So they didn't have the range or maneuverability later versions of those vehicles would have.  Also, a single plane, motorcar or tank would need several soldiers to operate and maintain it, and at least one more to scout out and shoot (or bomb or gas) enemy combatants.


On the other hand, on a bicycle, a single soldier or other individual person could travel as a self-contained one-man fighting unit, as Hilary Searle of CycleSeven points out.  For example, members of the British Army Cyclist Corps were issued bicycles that held kit bags in the rear, under the seat.  Rations and personal items were stowed in those bags; from the frame's top crossbar hung an emergency toolkit.  Groundsheets were rolled up and suspended from the handlebars; even rifles could be carried on soldiers' bikes.

Members of the Army Cyclist Corps were specially trained as mechanics.  Hmm...I wonder what my life would be like if I'd learned how to fix in the Army rather than from the first edition of Anybody's Bike Book

As Ms. Searle points out, His Majesty's Army had to draw up regulations for using the bicycle, not only in the battlefield, but in drilling and ceremonial occasions.  The rulebook, first drawn up in 1907 and revised in 1911, contains such pearls as this:

'A cyclist standing with his cycle, with rifle attached to it, will salute with the right hand, as laid down in Section 19, returning the hand to the point of the saddle on the completion of the salute. When at ease, a cyclist, whether mounted or leading his bicycle, will salute by coming to attention, and turning his head to the officer he salutes. A party of cyclists on the march will salute on the command Eyes Right, which will be followed by Eyes Front, from the officer or NCO in charge.'

I would've loved for the cadet commanders to teach us that in our ROTC program!  Better yet, this:

'The position of the cyclist at attention is the same as that of the dismounted soldier, except that he will grasp the left steering handle with his left hand, and place the right hand at the point of the saddle, elbow to the rear.'

All right.  I'll stop being snide and cynical long enough to show that, every once in a while, the term "military intelligence" is not an oxymoron:

'Bicycle tyres should be wiped with a damp cloth after a march, so that all grit, which if left might cause a puncture, may be removed.'

'The rate of marching, excluding halts, will generally vary from 8 to 10 miles per hour, according to the weather, the nature of the country, and the state of the roads. A column of battalion size should not be expected to cover more than 50 miles in a day under favourable conditions.'

"Favourable conditions"?  In World War I?  Did such things exist? Some terrain on the Western Front proved too much even for cyclists (as tough a bunch as we are), as the heavy iron bikes got bogged down in mud or simply were unrideable on rough terrain.  (They were fine on tarmac.) For that reason, the military brass decided that cyclists had little tactical value and disbanded the Corps after the War.



  1. Great post. The U.S. Army also dabbled in bicycle transport prior to the Great War. The 25th Infantry U.S. Bicycle Corps, an all-black regiment, pedaled from Yellowstone National Park to St. Louis, Mo., Imagine the reception they received along the way. http://www.nrhc.org/history/25thInfantry.html

  2. MT--That's a chapter of our history few people know about. I guess it's (sadly) not surprising when one considers that the soldiers were black as well as cyclists.

    I wrote a post about the 25th almost two years ago:


  3. D'oh! I must have forgotten that post. Just goes to show you that I need to check back here more frequently. By the way, my wife and I often ride in Yellowstone. The scenery is spectacular. Twenty years ago the roads were awful, but they have been repaired and now sport a nice wide shoulder in most areas. There's a lot of traffic through the busy summer months, but it's not too daunting because the speed limit is 45 mph. They even have a few bike-only days during the spring.

  4. MT--Don't feel guilty about forgetting about that post. As brilliant as they are ;-) I can't expect anyone to remember all of them.

    I'd love to cycle in Yellowstone some time.