The forgotten role of the bicycle in wartime: How soldiers rode into action on two wheels

Photograph shows French soldiers with bicycles during the beginning of world War I. Image is part of the George Grantham Bain Collection in the Library of Congress (Library of Congress).

In many parts of the world the bicycle is the main means of transportation as people commute to work. Cycling, for many people it is a way of life, but it also has deep roots in military history all over the world.

A forerunner of the bicycle was first invented by the German Baron Karl Von Drais in 1818, but it took many years to be refined into the car that we know today. Frenchman Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement made the pedal powered system that is propelled by the rider, and other innovations.

It didn’t take long for the military thinkers of the 19th century to see the merits of the use of this new means of transport. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) bikes were tested by dispatch riders and scouts, with little – if-a success, but that did not deter the others see the benefits of the bike had to offer.

The British army used bike scouts in the field maneuvers in the spring of of exercises, in 1885, and, shortly thereafter, the armies of Austria and Germany, each tested on the possibilities of the use of the two-wheeled contraptions, while the French military formal re-cycling in service in 1887.


“Various nations military embraced new technologies,” said John Adams-Graf, editor of “Military Vehicles” magazine.

An American made 1891 Columba Light Roadster Safety, considered state-of-the-art at the time as it featured a rear brake, no seat tube and soft tyres. In this example, the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio, was adapted for use by the U.S. army for the possession of a gun and ammunition case. (Photo: Peter Suciu, Bicycle Museum of America)

“With the advent of the pedal bicycle, military mind recognized the efficiency of the transport of troops via a mode that requires no food, no special care need, or no rest,” Adams-Graf told Fox News. “Bicycle-borne troops could move longer distances than troops on foot.”

However, the bike was not enthusiastically received by everyone in the time.

“Army brass were all the officers, cavalry,” said Colin Kirsh, author of the book “Bad Teeth No Bar: A History of Military Cycling in the Great War”


“If bikes were started with the replacement of horses in civilian life, they were afraid that if they approved the use of bicycles for military purposes that they would be in the place of the cavalry,” Kirsh told Fox News. “In the early days, fans of cycling were considered to be cranks. Soldiers wore the King’s uniform and were expected to behave in a manner that reflects. Leaning on a bicycle was considered to be ugly.”

A few of the Swiss Army Bikes. Hundreds of these bikes were sold as military surplus in the 1990s and maintained, it can still be driven today. The front of the bike probably dates from the 1930’s or possibly earlier, and has a simple front brake that literally is reduced on the tyre when the brake is activated. The rear bicycle is a post-war version, and each has only one gear! (Photo: Peter Suciu, Private Collection)

If the bicycle has changed the design, allowed the rider to carry themselves in a more “military mode,” which helped convince the old guard military thinkers that the two-wheeled contraptions had a place next to the horse.

By the end of the 19th century in great Britain had the largest bicycle industry in the world, noted Kirsch, and this was probably the reason why the bike rolled over South Africa in a number of songs during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

“Bicycles were already in use in South Africa; the Farmers a small force of cyclists, and the British followed,” added Kirsh, who explained it was a matter of timing.


“There were no motorized vehicles, and the cycles had developed into a practical shape,” said Kirsch. “In the end of the 1890s the bicycle on the road.”

A pre-World War II French bike that is heavily modified for the move of material on the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trial” in Southeast Asia during the vietnam war. This bike could not be ridden, but instead served a role as a package mule. It was offered for sale at a collector’s show. (Photo: Peter Suciu, Private Collection)

On the other side of the Atlantic ocean, the Americans also began to see the possibilities the bicycle had to offer. The First Signal Corps of the Connecticut National Guard formed the first military bicycle unit in 1891, when the bike was used by messengers and relay riders. Various challenges followed, including one that had a Connecticut National Guard cyclist to prove that he could deliver a message faster than a whole flag signaler team, while a relay team wore a single shipment from Chicago to New York City in just four days and 13 hours, with much of it in rainy weather. A follow-up challenge brought a message from Washington, D. C. to Denver in just six days!

Across the state of Connecticut in the Montana’s Fort Missoula’s 2nd Lieutenant James A. Moss organized the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, which consisted of eight soldiers running in formation, and stairs as much as 40 km per day. Each bike is equipped with a knapsack, blanket roll and shelter half-tent. In addition, each rider carried a rifle along with 50 rounds of ammunition.

The Bicycle Corps took part in an 800-mile trip from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone National Park and back, and then traveled from Fort Missoula to St. Louis, a journey of some 1900 km. All of this was to demonstrate the ability of the ability of the device to travel great distances in the fight. However, the corps was disbanded before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.

Cycling in the world Wars

In America and Europe, it was clear that the bicycle can be used for the delivery of messages, but the military planners adapted for use with portable topographers and even telegraphers. In one case, a rider of the bicycle to the study of the degree of hills and other terrain to help the commanders in the field to determine whether the country was moved with guns and cars.


When the first world War broke out in 1914, many nations had units that were ready to drive into battle, but the war quickly became a stalemate muddy trenches and little movement, the bicycle’s role reduced. As with the cavalry, the horses of the bike was mainly relegated to use behind the lines.

A World War II British made, BSA folding bike. This was meant to be folded and could be carried over the rivers on the rider’s back. Some of these have survived over the years and most were sold as scrap or offered to citizens after the second world War. (Photo: Peter Suciu, Private Collection)

However, a generation later, the bike played a more direct role of the Germans, Japanese and British used as a way to move the troops to the front if not directly in battle.

“Bicycles were not longer considered as ‘combat’ vehicles,” said the Dutch World War II bike collector and author Johan Willaert. “But cycling continued to be used in support tasks at airports, depots and camps, and were a relatively quick, economic and easy way to get around.”

But the soldiers did the cycling in the fight; in particular, the Japanese soldiers used this to speed troops down the Malay Peninsula in 1941. These soldiers rode the bikes on the rims as the tyres went flat as rubber was scarce. In Europe, the bike saw use in an equally unexpected locale!


“An example is that some units of the Canadian 3rd Division came ashore on Juno Beach, Normandy on 6 June 1944, equipped with the British made BSA Foldable bicycles,” Willaert told Fox News. “They were driven by the Infantry in the direction of the original objective of the various units, where they would be thrown away, and the real fighting started.”

File photo – An attendee dressed as soldiers of the former Swiss bicycle regiment rests during the Convoy-to-Remember 2010 meeting in the village of Birmenstorf, west of Zurich August 7, 2010. (REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann)

The BSA was also used by the British paratroopers.

“The idea behind the para’s folding bike was that it would give foot soldiers a number of clear advantages,” said Alex Cranmer of New Jersey-based International Military Antiques.

“The Ministry of War felt a paratrooper can be up to 25 km on foot in a period of 24 hours, however, given a bicycle, the same soldier could cover up to 75 miles in a 24-hour period,” Cranmer told Fox News. “In addition, a bicycle was relatively quiet in comparison with a motorized scooter or a car. The problem really come down to the tires, once damaged, it made the bike useless, that is the reason why the BSA folding paratrooper bike was much better on paper than on the battlefield.”


After the second world War, most countries stopped with cycling, apart from Switzerland, which is a military bike is almost as ubiquitous as the “Swiss Army Knife.” The Swiss Bicycle Infantry was introduced in 1905 and only phased out in 2001, and for almost 100 years, the bicycles that the mountain nation were used, were known for their high quality and high durability.

File photo – Special Task Force soldiers on bicycle patrol in the area of Vellavely village in Sri Lanka, which was territory formerly controlled by the Tamil tiger rebels, in Batticaloa, 28 May 2007. (REUTERS/Buddhika Weerasinghe)

And long before the mountain bike craze that began in California and Colorado in the 1970s the bicycle was a true off-road means of transportation in the jungles of Vietnam, where the Vietcong and North Vietnam forces every used bike in large numbers.

More recently, cycling is used by some Special Forces units in Afghanistan, showing that after almost 150 years since the French experimented with the scouts on two wheels that the bike can still have a role with the army.

“There are situations in the current tactical environments for the use of the bike is not on a large scale troop movements, but rather, in special operations in mountainous terrain where the rider could take advantage of the large jumps in mountain bike design,” said Adams-Graf. “Of course, if future conflict left a nation without oil or electrical energy sources, with the feet on the pedals will always work for a soldier from point A to point B! Bikes are tools that the modern warfare planners should remember.”

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