Cyclists in War

Joshua Worth investigates the role of bicycles during war around the world. 

Are you fond of cycling? If so, why not cycle for the King? Recruits wanted – bad teeth no bar!

This was the text that recruited young men for the 48th Division of the British Army Cycling Corps. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bicycle regiments became a standard component of the British Army.  With the First World War centenary commemorations upon us, what better time to explore a little-known chapter of cycling’s rich history?  

On the 7 November 1914, Army Order 477 was passed, which brought several pre-existing bicycle battalions together to form the Army Cycling Corps. Bicycles had been used before, in limited numbers, for scouting and messaging services in the Boer wars of South Africa, but during the First World War, they were formalised and began to be used in a more widespread manner. Generally, battalions of the corps remained in England, performing a defensive role, but smaller groups were sent to France to join the front line. They were most effective at the beginning and end of the war – during the deadlock of trench warfare their usefulness was greatly reduced.

Bicycle Infantry

A report from Cyclist magazine in 1914 expressed that although the war was ‘not a war of men but a war of machines’ the cycling troops were still able to engage in a more old-fashioned, close combat, skirmish warfare.  

If there be any of the old glamour and romance left in modern warfare, the cyclist scouts are having more than their share of it …... When the war is over the tales of our cyclist warriors will be amongst the most inspiriting in the annals of this stupendous conflict’

The report goes on to praise the bicycle infantry for their speed, silence and ability to take cover:

[the cycle-soldier] has but to lean his mount flat on the ground and it is practically invisible’

Bersaglieri cyclists

Bicycle troops were common in the French, Italian and German armies as well. The Italian Bersaglieri, or marksmen, were a regiment of elite soldiers famed for their focus on speed and mobility (as well as their fancy headgear). Their soldiers were supremely fit, and jogged everywhere instead of marching. When bicycles became more widespread, they were among the first and most enthusiastic adopters. Many of them, such as Ottavio Bottechia, went on to compete in the Tour de France after the war – in fact, Bottechia was the first Italian to win the tour. He recalled a particular incident from his soldier days where he cycled up a high mountain pass with a machine gun strapped to his back to assist an outpost at the summit. He arrived late in the evening, and when he woke the next day, he discovered that the Austrians had tried and failed to attack in the night, with the machine gun he had carried having proven essential in driving them back.

But as technology moved on and warfare changed, bicycle infantry began to fall out of favour. Bicycles were still used in World War II, though sparingly by the Allied forces. The Japanese, however, used thousands of bicycle troops during their campaign, capturing Singapore in 1941. Bicycles have remained a valuable tool for militias and semi-professional armies – the Tamil Tigers relied heavily on bicycles during the Sri Lankan civil war.   

It was only in 2001 that the final European cycle regiment was disbanded. The Swiss Army, despite their neutrality, maintained a regiment that had become an elite and highly prestigious unit, with only the fittest and strongest cyclists making the cut – cycling a fully laden bicycle for hundreds of kilometres through the Swiss Alps is certainly no easy task.

Every year since 1921, a service has been held to commemorate the fallen cyclists of the First World War, in Meriden in central England. The contribution of the cycle regiments is not well-known, so events like this aim to honour their efforts and keep their memory alive. The very first commonwealth soldier killed in the war was 17 year old reconnaissance cyclist John Parr - so it’s clear that the bicycle was a vital part of the war effort from day one.  

It’s all just another chapter in the incredible story of the humble bicycle.

 

You can read more of Joshua's articles here

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