MILITARY BICYCLES IN WORLD WAR ONE
During the Boer War the practical value of the cyclist corps did not rise to expectation, and Sir Redvers Buller raised all the hornets of the Cycle Press about his ears by saying so, politely, but very frankly. In the Great War, however, the value of the cyclist was very great indeed. So much so that, in his despatch of November 20th, published on November 30th, Sir John French wrote:
‘I am anxious in this despatch to bring to your Lordship’s special notice the splendid work which has been done throughout the campaign by the Cyclists of the Signal Corps. Carrying despatches and messages at all hours of the day and night in every kind of weather, and often traversing bad roads blocked with transport, they have been conspicuously successful in maintaining an extraordinary degree of efficiency in the service of communications. Many casualties have occurred in their ranks, but no amount of difficulty or danger has ever checked the energy and ardour which has distinguished this corps.’
The divergence of these two verdicts is not difficult to explain. In South Africa the trackless veldt is not ideal for the operation of cycle wheels, whereas in the thickly-roaded districts of France and Flanders cyclists found the ground eminently suited for their wheels. Also since the South African War the motor-cycle had become a practical and reliable vehicle, and the motor claimed the lion’s share of the credit accorded to the wheeled sections of the army.
– War Illustrated, 1915
During WW1, all the major combatants deployed bicycles. It’s not possible to know exactly how many military cyclists there were, but it’s estimated that at least 100,000 British soldiers used bicycles in some capacity and at least 150,000 French and Belgians. A bicycle was an ideal means of transportation as it was comparatively lightweight – it could be carried over obstructions – and as well as being ridden could be loaded with equipment and pushed. It was particularly well-suited for conveying despatches, guerrilla action, patrols and reconnaissance …a motorcycle was faster, but a bicycle was silent.
In 1914, the British army had 14,000 men in cycle regiments and battalions, increasing to 20,000 by the end of the war. When the Americans entered the war in 1917, they shipped 26,407 bicycles with them to France. They did not have any established bicycle corps: bicycles and Harley-Davidson motorcycles were available as required.
There were three types of bicycle used by the British army during WW1:
MILITARY FOLDING BICYCLES: In Great Britain, mainly built by BSA and Phillips, to specified pattern. Other styles built by Peugeot in France; Bianchi in Italy; also Austrian and Russian versions.
MILITARY ROADSTERS: Many of the top manufacturers offered militarised versions of their civilian roadsters. They were generally single speed machines; usually with more robust frames (i.e. if the company also made a tradesmen’s bicycle, that frame would be used for the military machine); wider 1 3/4″ wheels; without a chaincase; and with various combinations of military fittings, eg rear and front carriers, rifle clips, inflator pump, and tool bag with tools.
CIVILIAN ROADSTERS: The majority of bicycles used during WW1 were normal roadsters. Military accessories were available from Terry, Brooks, Gamages or individual manufacturers. A rear carrier was the most common accessory. Front carriers and rifle clips were often fitted too. The most essential items were an inflator pump and a toolbag containing basic tools and puncture repair outfit.
Cyclists were initially excited by the prospect of exclusive cyclist battalions, enlisting with their friends and fellow riders. In the early days of the war, military cyclists proved their worth, and there were numerous reports of their bravery in the British cycling press. But trench warfare forced the reassignment of soldiers from cyclist units to infantry units, and though bicycles were still used extensively throughout the war by all sides, there was less need for actual cyclist units.
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…
Athletic and cycling clubs were prime candidates for enlistment, and additional battalions of the Territorial cyclist corps were raised all over the country.
BOMBS THAT WAKE THE SLACKERS
Possibly by the time these notes appear there may have been other raids on London; but in any case, the first raid of Monday last week gives one some idea of the comparative futility of the Zeppelin …according to the official account, about ninety bombs were dropped, which caused the deaths of four people and injuries to several more, chiefly through fires set alight by the bombs. Only three fires needed fire engines, and only one was big enough to necessitate a ‘district’ call for the Fire Brigade.
Of course, the German theory is that the Zeppelins are going to intimidate everyone in London, and frighten the people into demanding that the Government shall sue for peace. Which only shows that Germany does not know anything about English people. It takes quite a lot to make an Englishman really angry, but if he finds he is going to be kept awake at night by these things he will probably decide that he may just as well be kept awake in a trench in Flanders as in his own house or his ‘digs’ in London. Then he goes and enlists, in the hope of having a chance of being acutely unpleasant to some individual German by way of retaliation for the Zeppelin nuisance.
…It is rather a pity that arrangements cannot be made for airships to be guided by bogus signals to some of the districts where recruiting is slack. A few bombs here and there would probably wake things up a bit, and fetch in some of the slackers; for, as a matter of fact, quite a number of the so-called slackers do not enlist for the simple reason that they cannot see yet that the war is any particular affair of their own.
– ‘The War in the Air’ by C.G Grey, editor of ‘The Aeroplane’ published in The War Illustrated magazine, 12th June 1915
In early 1915 the Kaiser sanctioned an air campaign against strategic targets in Britain that included military bases and ammunitions dumps but excluded royal palaces and residential areas. On 19 January, two Zeppelins attacked the eastern coastal towns of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn, killing four civilians but causing little significant damage. A further seven people were killed in the first Zeppelin attack on London on 31 May. Costlier raids on the capital took place later in the year. On the night of 13/14 October 1915, for example, five Zeppelins accounted for the lives of 71 Londoners.
Although German airship attacks on England continued throughout the war, their limitations quickly became apparent. Despite their long-range bombing capabilities, Zeppelins were vulnerable to poor weather and made enticingly large targets for British fighter pilots and anti-aircraft gunners. From the spring of 1917, the German military authorities increasingly turned their attention to long-range bombers such as the ‘Gotha’ aeroplane. The daylight attack on London by 20 Gothas on 13 June 1917 killed 162 civilians, the highest death toll from a single air raid on Britain during the war. Less than a month later, on 7 July, a further raid in which 57 more people were killed raised British anti-German sentiments to fever pitch.
As C.G Grey suggested in his editorial (above) in The War Illustrated magazine after the first Zeppelin bombing raid on London on 31st May, 1915, the main consequence of the raids was increased enlistment.
MILITARY FOLDING BICYCLES
Though various folding bicycle designs had been patented by British manufacturers during the 1890s, the 1900 Dursley Pedersen folding military bicycle was the only one that went into limited production; they were manufactured, but not officially sanctioned by the military. It was similar in style to Major Baden-Powell’s ‘Collapsible Military Bicycle’ which made its debut a year after the Pedersen.
The portability of each of these bicycles was created by removing the handlebar/front forks and wheel and attaching them to the rest of the bike before mounting it on your back.
Though Mr Pedersen illustrated it mounted on his back, it was not a very practical option for military use. Its light weight was an advantage, but its narrow tubing was too delicate for serious use over rough ground. Baden-Powell’s machine was a lightweight diamond frame machine, so stronger, but even this did not receive any interest from the military.
This issue of weight v size v strength was initially a dilemma for military folding bicycle design. But in the end weight and size were less important. Many soldiers had to carry their normal roadsters over obstacles so, by comparison, a folding roadster was an advantage. Thus Great Britain’s WW1 ‘Machine Folding, General Service’ was a full size medium weight folding roadster. (It was not until 1942 that BSA made a lightweight folding paratrooper bicycle, the BSA Airborne).
The French Captain Gerard and the Italian Bianchi folding bicycles were strong (i.e. relatively heavy) but had smaller frames. Peugeot started manufacturing the Captain Gerard in 1898, and it was an extremely successful design. It was still in use during WW1. You can see it in the centre of the photo below, with the similar size Italian Bianchi military folding bicycle on the right and the larger BSA folding military roadster on the left.
1. BSA MILITARY FOLDING BIKE. 2. FRENCH CAPTAIN GERARD. 3. ITALIAN BIANCHI
BSA ‘MACHINE FOLDING, GENERAL SERVICE’
1912 BICYCLETTE PLIANTE PEUGEOT ‘SYSTEM GERARD’
1912 BIANCHI ‘MODELLO MILITARE BREVETTATO’
The Mk IV was approved on 31st July 1911, as ‘Bicycles, Mark IV, 24-inches’ with the description:
General Service, Coaster hub with tyres, front brake and mudguards; with Bag, tool, Mark II; Bracket, lamp, Mark II; Bell, Can, oil; Carriers, kit, front and rear, Mark II; Cover, kit carrier, rear; Clips, rifle, butt and fore-end, Mark II; Lamp, Mark II; Outfit, repairing tyres; Pump, Mark III; Pump Clips (2), Mark II; Saddle, Mark III; Spanners (2); and Screwdriver.
The Mark IV was the official government pattern military roadster bicycle. Unlike the previous models, it was issued in one frame size only, 24 inch. An amendment to the pattern was issued on 13th July 1915, replacing the coaster hub with a freewheel (and replacing the handlebar with one fitted with two brake levers). It was the most common military pattern machine, seeing service throughout the colonies as well as in Great Britain, until the end of WW1.
Various manufacturers made their own military machines. If they followed the Mk IV pattern, they could supply the government directly through a contract.
But many companies’ Military Models were just a heavy duty version of a company’s civilian model. Those who already built a tradesmen’s bicycle had an advantage, as they could use those frames and fittings. To this heavy duty roadster would be fitted front and rear carrier racks and rifle clips of various styles.
1914 RUDGE-WHITWORTH MILITARY MODEL
& SUSSEX CYCLIST BATTALION
1916 NEW HUDSON MILITARY MODEL No 101
1914 RALEIGH MILITARY MODEL
1908 RALEIGH ALL-STEEL MILITARY MODEL
WW1 ROYAL ENFIELD BICYCLE AMBULANCE
1915 THE MILITARY HUMBER
1918 COLUMBIA MILITARY MODEL
CIVILIAN BICYCLES WITH MILITARY FITTINGS
THE WORK OF THE SOLDIER CYCLIST
When the war is over the tales our cyclist warriors have to tell will be amongst the most inspiring in the annals of this stupendous conflict. The reasons of the success of the soldier-cyclist are not far to seek. In the fist place it must be realised that his mount, unlike that of the cavalryman, 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.
But silence is by no means the cyclist’s sole advantage. He has a good turn of speed, which is a factor useful alike in attack and retreat. A cyclist in warfare is really a mounted infantryman, and, generally speaking, he is superior in point of speed to the heavily-accoutred cavalryman, while, of course, the ordinary infantryman is snail-like by comparison. Should his attack fail for the time being, or receive an unexpected or momentary check, the cyclist can easily beat a retreat, and by a circuitous route come upon his foe again at another point, where, perhaps, he is least expected. Thus he can be said to possess to a marked degree the power to ‘cut and come again’ which faculty is eminently useful in war.
Again, the ability to take cover often spells the difference between victory and defeat, and here the cyclist scores distinctly. He has but to lay his mount down flat upon the ground and it is practically invisible.
– Cycling Magazine, 8th October, 1914
On enlistment, a bicycle from any of the major companies could be obtained on hire purchase; this could be a military machine or a civilian bicycle with military fittings and accessories. Hire purchase included insurance. Manufacturers turned their factories over to war production, so received government assistance as necessary. I assume the insurance necessary for military bicycle hire purchase schemes would therefore have been underwritten by the government.
It would seem that the opportunity to buy a new bicycle on hire purchase was a good incentive for a cyclist volunteer to enlist. But a volunteer could also take his own machine.
Examine the bicycles in the illustrations above and below: all are civilian machines.
The one above has military fittings but its chaincase shows its civilian origin; a gear trigger is not shown, but as it is fitted with two brake levers, the large rear hub suggests gears.
The front two bikes illustrated below – joined by a solid bar to tow the machine gun – look like racing machines, and they are not laden with carriers or kit. Their mudguards have no forward extension, which suggests bicycles four or five years old in 1914, i.e. less likely to have been recently purchased so maybe the riders’ personal machines. These are illustrations rather than photos, but artists invariably used photos or personal experience for their drawings.
WW1 MOTORISED BSA BICYCLE WITH WALL AUTOWHEEL
1915 ‘THE MILITARY SUNBEAM’
1911 HUMBER DESPATCH RIDER’S BICYCLE
1905 PREMIER HELICAL
1915 SWIFT MILITARY MODEL
1918 ROYAL ENFIELD MILITARY MODEL
GLADIATOR CYCLE CO:
1917 CHAUCHAT MACHINE GUN
1896 PROTOTYPE MILITARY FOLDING BICYCLE
FRENCH CIVILIAN BICYCLES USED BY MILITARY IN WW1
WW1 GERMAN HERRENRAD VICTORIA
GERMAN CIVILIAN BICYCLES USED BY MILITARY IN WW1
THE WAR ILLUSTRATED
BOER WAR BICYCLES