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Bikes at War Part Two: The Great War

This is the second post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.

Part 1 Boers on Bikes

Part 3 The Bikes of WWII

Part 4 How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War

Part 5 The Swiss Army Bicycle

Part 6 Bikes in the Cold War and Beyond


Adolf Hitler was a bike messenger? Yes, indeed. And a decorated one, at that. But more on that later.

The Fantastic Charge of the Light Brigade: Albert Robida's 1883 illustration of life in 1950s France.
The Fantastic Charge of a Light Brigade: Albert Robida’s 1883 illustration of future warfare.

If the Great War had been fought in accordance with the fantasies of armchair generals, then the bicyclist would have replaced the doughboy as the symbol of gallantry and heroism. Sadly, the war devolved to trenches, and bicycles, like horses, were relegated to the backlines.

Under Pressure: Commonwealth cyclists fix their bikes amidst a barrage.
Under Pressure: Commonwealth cyclists fix their bikes amidst a barrage (probably photographed during training).

Traditionally, mounted soldiers fought from atop their mounts. But ever since the invention of gunpowder, advances in military technology meant that massed infantry, with dedicated artillery support, could more and more easily hold their own against charging cavalry. The value of a horse in combat became less than its value in transporting the combatant, and correspondingly the vulnerability of a horse in combat became greater. Pragmatic generals recognized that it was better to move soldiers quickly on horseback, but then have them dismount before engaging in combat. These mounted infantrymen were a hybrid of the traditional cavalry and infantry, and were named dragoons, after the dragon-shaped firearms they carried in the French army. Dragoons in the 19th Century were the equivalent of airborne infantry in the 21st Century: they moved quickly on the battlefield, secured objectives by stealth and speed, and relied upon more heavily armed units to back them up.

A Few Smart Men Wanted for The London Cyclists Battalion.
A Few Smart Men Wanted for The London Cyclists Battalion. Ironically, the London Cyclists were sent to India without their bicycles, while Sikh troops were sent from India to the Western Front with bicycles.

Going into the Great War, the European powers had organized bicycle corps for three different roles; scouts on bicycles would move quietly and report back on the position of the enemy, the disposition of the terrain, and occasionally skirmish. Secondly, bicycle messengers would convey dispatches from the front line to the headquarters, and back. Finally, infantry mounted on bicycles would move quickly to exploit weaknesses uncovered by scouts, or be held in ready reserve to react quickly and shore up a defense. While not as traditionally glamorous as serving in the cavalry, bicycle infantry were popularly seen as the progressive vanguard of the 20th Century.

German Bicycle Infantry prepare to go to the front.
Achtung! German Bicycle Infantry prepare to go to the front.

As it was, the first season of fighting remained relatively fluid, with the German armies rushed through neutral Belgium in a flanking attack. The bicycle was a vital part of the rapid advance. Hordes of cyclists preceded the invading German columns, scouting ahead of the main group, seizing bridges, railheads and crossroads, and laying telephone lines. The Belgian and French responded in kind, as bicycle units conducted raids behind the German lines to blow up bridges, sever communication lines and attack supply lines. Stories abound of stealthy cyclists on both sides hearing cavalry approaching, and then dismounting, hiding, and ambushing them. Time and again brave bike scouts rushed back under fire to inform their advancing units that they were marching into a trap.

Wanted: A Few Good Bike Trailers. A British illustration of bicycle infantry advancing under fire, and towing a machine gun.
Wanted: A Few Good Bike Trailers. A British illustration of bicycle infantry advancing under fire, and towing a machine gun.

When the Colonials of Canada organized in 1914, five Cyclist Battalions were formed from the volunteers. They were trained as scouts and light infantry. They envisioned fighting a rearguard action against the advancing Germans, delaying the enemy whilst their Commonwealth brothers-in-arms retreated. However, by the time the First Contingent disembarked in St. Nazaire, France in February of 1915 the front lines had frozen, along with the muddy trenches. The Canadian boys rode their bicycles to the front, but dismounted and huddled in the mud alongside the rest. For the most part, the Canadian Cyclist Battalions were engaged in regular infantry duties, and only occasionally as messengers at the general headquarters. But, three years later, during the final Hundred Days Offensive, the Canadian Cyclists came into their own at the Battle of Amiens. Bicycle-mounted troops were able to keep up with the advancing tanks. And most notably, the first Allied soldier to cross the Bonn River into Germany was a Canadian cyclist.

Advance of the Bicycle Battalion.
Advance of the Cyclist Battalion. Muddy roads and skinny tires made for long slogs dismounted & walking.

As the war dragged on, the French bicycle unit were disbanded and the men sent to bolster other units already “decimated” on the front lines.* In the view of German Major Rudolf Thiess, this was a strategic error. A decade after the war he wrote Die Radfahrtruppe, or “The Bicycle Troops,” an analysis of the use of bicycles in the Great War by both sides. While the Germans maintained, and even expanded their bicycle units, the French did not, depriving the French of a quick-response reserve. In Thiess’s view, bicycle units should not merely be maintained, but also expanded. His view was prescient, as the German advance, and retreat, of the Second World War would depend greatly upon bicycles.

German bicycle infantry prepare to advance.
Out of the Woods: German bicycle infantry prepare to advance.

New analysis notwithstanding, the first Allied soldier of the Great War killed by enemy fire has traditionally been held to be Private John Parr, a Bri
tish reconnaissance cyclist who was killed while providing covering fire as his squad mate escaped from German cavalry in Belgium. But regardless of who killed John Parr, or where, one bicycle messenger of der Weltkrieg is more (in)famous than any other: Adolf Hitler.

The most infamous draft-dodging, conscientious objector, bicycle messenger you never knew you knew: Gefreiter Adolf Hitler.
The most infamous draft-dodging, conscientious-objecting bicycle messenger you never knew you knew: Gefreiter Adolf Hitler, Radfahrer bis Regiment.

Hitler is not often remembered as a conscientious objector or a draft dodger. But he did not want to be conscripted into the Austrian army, which in his words was a mixture of races, and at the age of 24 Hitler left his native Austria for neighboring Bavaria. He was deported back to Austria by the Bavarian police, where he failed an army physical exam, and he returned to Munich to paint landscapes barely fit for postcards. A 1924 Bavarian government report concluded that Hitler was allowed to join the Bavarian Army in error. As an Austrian citizen he should not have been allowed to enlist, and but rather deported. Regardless, by the end of the First Battle of Ypres, Hitlers regiment had been reduced to 600 men, from the original 3,600. Hitler was promoted from Schtze (Private) to Gefreiter (Corporal), and assigned to the post of Radfahrer bis Regiment (Regimental Bicyclist.) It was as a bike messenger that Hitler would earn two Iron Crosses, as documented by Ancestry.com, and one of his Iron Crosses was at the recommendation of a Jewish officer. Ironically though, as another blog has pointed out, Hitlers experience on a bicycle did not stop the Nazis from passing legislation to ban bikes from roads in favor of cars

While serving as a regimental bike messenger, Adolf Hitler earned two Iron Crosses.
Gefreiter Adolf Hitler, Fahrrader bis Regiment. While serving as a regimental bike messenger, Adolf Hitler earned two Iron Crosses.

Unfortunately, Hitler’s enamor of the automobile did not fit with Germany’s resources. Without the oilfields of Armenia and Azerbaijan, let alone Texas and Oklahoma, the Third Reich had to depend upon synthesizing coal for almost 80% of its liquid fuel. It was the bicycle therefore that made the Blitzkrieg advance possible, and bicycles that allowed the Wehrmacht to retreat. But more on that next month in Part Three of this continuing series.

 

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn a BM in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.

 

*Being a nitpicker, the author would like to point out that the literal and original meaning of “decimate” is to reduce by one tenth, not one half, and certainly not 90%.

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An Ode to Laborers on Two Wheels

Let us now praise Sweaty Men and Women;

All hail the Bicycle Courier,

Who is fast on feet and two wheels,

Bringing us coffee and sandwiches and beer.

 

Three cheers for the bike messengers of the world, the “cyclo-laborers.” While we cower in climate-controlled cubicles, they brave the sun and rain, the light and dark, the heat and the cold. They sweat, so we don’t have to. Our recreation is their vocation. We ride for pleasure. They ride for profit. We ride when we want to. They ride because they have to. We get to sit out rainy days. They get to ride twice as far in the rain, and make twice as much in tips.

Riding for pay weeds out the amateurs. Guys and girls who can’t straighten or tighten their own handlebars and seat posts dont get far: fast, or pain-free. Their wheels wobble, brake pads bleat, and seats squeak. They don’t need a bell because their rusty chain announces them to any pedestrian with ears un-budded to hear.

The experienced couriers know their delivery area like a hipster knows his ukulele. They make the lanes of the streets into runs of strings, sliding from one chord position to the next with the utmost of grace, efficient and unhurried. They assert their presence in traffic safely and predictably with a steady beat.

And when they arrive at their destination, bike couriers deliver happiness: an artfully wrapped sandwich, a creamy frappacinno, a verdant bouquet of flowers. No, bike couriers may not be paid as well as the mostly professional classes that employ them, but like a good butler, they take pleasure in a labor done well, finding utmost satisfaction in a smiling client.

 

All hail the Bike Courier who brings us Cups of Good Cheer.

May you enjoy this Labor Day, and many more.

Many happy returns to your shop for more deliveries.

Godspeed, Sweaty Rider.

May the wind be to your back,

May your track stands be flawless,

May your tips be undeclared,

And may you always keep the rubber side down.

Author Wesley Cheney sweats on a sultry summer day to deliver piping' hot Jamaican patties (in a kilt).
Author Wesley Cheney sweats on a sultry summer day to deliver pipin’ hot Jamaican patties (in a kilt).

 

Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John’s on his bicycle, he aspires to earn a BM in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Luke’s Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.

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A Brief, Illustrated History of the Bicycle at War, Part 1: Boers on Bikes

This is the first post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.

Part 2 The Great War

Part 3 The Bikes of WWII

Part 4 How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War

Part 5 The Swiss Army Bicycle

Part 6 Bikes in the Cold War and Beyond


“A Bike, A Bike, My Free-State for a Bike!”

The utility of any invention is most tested when it is put to war, and the bicycle is no exception. Like any invention, mankind was quick to press the bicycle into making war. After all, here was a vehicle that gave a man the mobility of a horse, but for only the fraction of the cost, fodder and water. Never mind the steam train, the bicycle was the true Horse of Steel.

French bicycle couriers in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War would not have looked much different from this pair of American chaps.
French bicycle couriers in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War would not have looked much different than
this pair of American chaps, wearing kepis and messenger bags.

The first alleged use of the bicycle under fire came during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when messengers rode high-wheeler bicycles, carrying dispatches from headquarters to troops and back. But the new technology was not sufficient to keep Emperor Napoleon III from being personally captured in battle, losing his army, his war and his throne. And the nascent French bicycle industry, primarily based at the heart of the fighting in the northeast province of Alsace-Lorraine, was practically destroyed by the war. Prior to the war, France had been the technological leader in the bicycle industry. After the war, the British bicycle industry gained ground, led by Birmingham Small Arms, aka BSA, and began selling bikes around the world.

BSA bicycles and tricycles, alongside namesake rifles and pistols, were exported to the other BSA- British South Africa. At the height of the British Empire, the independent republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State (in what is now northeastern South Africa) were wealthy thorns in the side of British hegemony. The two states had been founded by Dutch farmers, or Boers, who had fled the first British invasion of southern Africa almost a century prior during the Napoleonic wars. The Dutch Boers were every bit as freedom-loving as their American cousins, and were in no small part dissatisfied with the British abolition of slavery. When first gold and then diamonds were discovered in the new, independent Boer states, tensions rose as British immigrants began to flood into the Boer gold country. When war broke out in 1899, the British army in South Africa was at least four times bigger than what the Boers could field. Recognizing that they could not win by numbers, the Boers turned to tactics. But like their freedom-loving, bigoted Confederate cousins in America, they were doomed to fail in a total war against an industrialized foe.

Founder and leader of the Boer bike scouts,
The Original Tweedster: With a sweet mustache, a tight tie, a bandolier, a bicycle and a Mauser rifle, Captain “Danie” Theron was hipper than any Brooklyn Fixie Freak, and worth One Thousand Pounds Sterling, dead or alive.

It was in the lead up to hostilities that Boer Captain Daniel Theron (a distant uncle of actress Charlize Theron) first proposed a bicycle corps. While the British had the imperial resources to ship horses by the hundreds of thousands to BSA, and subsequently ride them to death by the tens of thousands, Captain Theron recognized that the Boers did not have such resources, and that horses must be saved for combat. Boer cycling champion JP Jooste accompanied Theron on a trip to to the capitol of Pretoria to pitch their idea, and pointed out in a briefing to a general that, A horse must sleep and eat, while a bicycle needs only oil and a pump before it is ready for action. To which the general replied that a bicycle neither kicks nor bites, to boot. Jooste was challenged to beat a man on horseback from Praetoria to Crocodile Ridge, a distance of 75km, and did so, setting the ground for Theron’s decidedly unconventional kommandos.

Theron’s efforts were initially met with widespread, conservative skepticism. The burghers, or land-owning white citizens, had been raised on horseback, and were reluctant to allow new-fangled contraptions to take the place of traditional horses. They viewed the cyclists as geeky cowards, trying to avoid combat. Theron at first was limited to organizing a messenger brigade, the Vrystaatse Rapportrijders, or “Free State Couriers.” But, “as soon as the burghers saw that the despatch riders could not be stopped by rivers, heavy roads, hostile patrols, or even enemy bullets, they gained a new respect for the corps.”

Vrystaatse Rapportrijders, or “Free State Couriers.” Members of the Boer communications brigade
entrusted with military dispatches pose with their bicycles.

After the free riders proved that the bicycle was both reliable and cheap, Theron was able to establish the TVK, or Theron se Verkenningskorps (Therons Reconnaissance Corps). Theron trained an elite group of a hundred scouts on bicycles, many of which were probably riding (BSA) Birmingham Small Arms bikes from (BSA) British South Africa. Scouts on bikes were able to infiltrate behind British lines and report back without being detected. Theron solved the thorny problem of frequent punctures by fashioning tire strips from rawhide leather, a problem that led British soldiers to discard their bicycles by the hundreds. The riding conditions would have challenged 21st Century mountain bikers: The veldt itself is covered with a thinly growing thorny scrub, just ridable for bicycles, but prevalent of punctures to all but the stoutest tyres. The roads and tracks are quite practicable, but very bumpy, and abounding in sandy patches where sideslips are the rule and riding is difficult, and are intersected with watercourses over which the wheels bump heavily. Nevertheless, with strong machines and careful riding, the bicycle is a most useful method of progression, though across country the horse has undoubtedly the advantage.

While the horse and rider may have had an advantage in ideal terrain, they were also conspicuous, hungry and thirsty. A man on horseback could see for miles on the treeless veldt, and also be seen. Being lower to the ground, cyclists were able to travel long distance unobserved across arid land, and were not nearly as thirsty in the process. In fact, one of Theron’s principal targets of surveillance were the watering holes and paddocks that British troops depended upon to water and feed their horses. Theron’s tactics became so disruptive that a price was placed on his head by the British high command of a thousand pounds Sterling for capture, dead or alive, the equivalent of nearly a million pounds in 2016.

British bicycle troops in South Africa perform a Boer-style ambush after dismounting from their bikes.
British bicycle troops in South Africa perform a Boer-style ambush after dismounting from their bikes.

Recognizing the technological advantage of the bicycle, the British soon raised their own “Cape Cyclin
g Corps,” which was likewise tasked with surveillance and dispatches. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, who later became the founder of the Boy Scouts, (an elite paramilitary organization, in the immortal words of Red Dawns Colonel Bella), understood the importance of the bicycle, and traveled with his own folding bike. Bicycle messengers were assigned to transport carrier pigeons, as the birds preferred bicycles to horses. And a New Zealander bicycle squad even chased down and captured a contingent of Boers on horseback (presumably the horses were thirsty and hungry).

British troops traveling by train were subject to ambush and booby trap, creating a need to patrol the tracks. Australian forces deployed to BSA built their own four-wheeled, eight-seat bicycle for just such a purpose by bolting together several bike frames and replacing the pneumatic tires with railroad wheels. As with any bicycle, it allowed them to travel quietly and closer to the ground, allowing them to be on the lookout for covert Boer kommandos and demolition charges. The eight-man squad could dismount more quickly from their bicycle than they could from a locomotive, and in a pinch they could also tow a trailer equipped with a Maxim machine gun. Their “war cycle” could also accommodate a stretcher between the bike frames for carrying the wounded back home.

Eight Men, Four Wheels, One Machine Gun: The Boer War Cycle sped along at 50kmh on railroad tracks and over land.
Eight Men, Four Wheels, One Machine Gun: The Australian “War Cycle” sped along at 50kmh over
railroad tracks.

The occupying British army understood the capacity for bicycles to be deployed in asymmetric warfare; a mandatory licensing program was initiated, and lights were required at night: “No person may ride or have in his or her possession a bicycle, tricycle, or automobile, unless the machine has been duly registered at the Commandant’s Office. When a machine is registered, a numbered metal plate will be issued and must be attached to the machine in a conspicuous place. Cyclists passing a Guard or Sentry will do so at a pace of not more than 6 miles an hour and will dismount if ordered to do so. A lamp will be carried on any machine when ridden at night between sunset and sunrise.”

First They Come For Your Bicycles: the terrorist threat posed by bicycles was so great that the British confiscated them en masse.
First They Come For Your Bicycles: The occupying British South African army confiscated 500 bicycles
from Boer Citizens in Graaff-Reinet.

Sadly, Captain Theron’s bicycle did not prove faster than a speeding shell. While scouting on his own in the latter days of the way, he reached the top of a kopfe, or small hill, only to find seven mounted British soldiers on the other side. He quickly opened fire with his rifle, killing four outright, and wounding the other three. Unfortunately, the artillery battery that the troops had been accompanying heard his shots, and saturated the hilltop with fire. We do not know his dying words, but we can only hope that they were thus,

“You can have my bike when you pry it

from my cold, dead hands.”

Just one more flat tire...members of the British South African army bicycle corps fix their bikes in camp.
Just one more flat tire…members of the British South African army bicycle corps fix their bikes in camp.