Today is Memorial Day – a day to remember fallen heroes. This is a post and video about the remarkable role that bicycles have played in military history. Memorial Day is a good time to think about the meaning of this important public holiday. This is a day to honor those who died serving the USA in military service. The holiday was established after the Civil War as Decoration Day, a day when soldier’s graves would be decorated. The name was gradually changed to Memorial Day over the years, until the name Memorial Day was formalized by the Federal Government. Now, the day is celebrated nation wide on the last Monday in May.
The Connection Between Bicycles and the Military
Did you know that the US military and its allies around the world have often used bicycles in war zones? Bikes provide quiet, stealthy and efficient transportation, and this was often handy in war-time situations. As John Adams-Graf, editor of Military Vehicles magazine, says:
“With the advent of the pedal bicycle, military minds recognized the efficiency of transporting troops via a mode that required no feed, no special care, or any rest. Bicycle-borne troops could move longer distances than troops on foot.”
25th United States Infantry, 1987
The most extensive experimentation on bikes was carried out by 1st Lieutenant Moss, of the 25th United States Infantry, at Fort Missoula, Montana, in 1897. The unit was made up of African-American soldiers, who were known as the “Iron Riders.” This was the point they were trying to make:
“Unlike a horse, a bike did not need to be fed and watered and rested, and would be less likely to collapse.”
Lieutenant Moss’s unit rode their bikes in formation, traveling up to 40 miles per day. Each bike had a knapsack, a blanket roll, and a shelter half tent. Each soldier also carried a rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. The fully loaded bikes weighed 60 pounds.
The Bicycle Corps’ biggest achievement was a 1,900-mile journey from Fort Missoula to Yellowstone National Park and back, and to St. Louis. The intention was to show that a unit on bikes could travel great distances to participate in battles. The unit was disbanded just before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. However:
“This unit continues to be a great symbol for the utility of the bicycle on almost any terrain and the innovation and bravery of Black Soldiers in the U.S. Army.” (Black Bike History Month, see sources at end of post.)
If you want to learn more about these soldiers on bikes, watch this very entertaining PBS documentary:
By the end of the 19th century, bikes were being used by messengers and scouts, reducing the need for horses. This saved horses from the trauma of being in war zones.
Bikes in World War I
Bikes were in the thick of World War I from Day 1 of that terrible war. Many nations had bike units ready to go into war.
However, as the war devolved into a muddy, stagnant fight over a few hundred feet of trenches, the role of both bikes and horses diminished. But there were other roles that bicycles could play in the war. Belgian World War II bicycle collector and author Johan Willaert says:
“Bicycles were no longer considered ‘combat’ vehicles. However bicycles continued to be used in supporting roles on airfields, depots and camps and were a relatively fast, economic and light way of getting around.”
Also, fleeing families used bikes to transport their goods. The photo above shows a family of Belgian refugees in 1914. Warmly dressed children are perched on the bike, which also carries the family’s clothing. Presumably this family fled the invading German army with the family bicycle.
During World War I, volunteer soldiers from all over the world joined the war effort. This photo shows Indian bicycle troops at the Battle of the Somme. More than a million soldiers from the British Indian Army – ten percent of the British war effort – volunteered in the First World War.
Australians in World War I – the Australian Cycling Corps
Of course, the Aussies were in the thick of things throughout World War I. This photograph was taken around 1915 in Broadmeadows, Victoria, Australia. It shows members of the Australian Cycling Corps with their bicycles, before being deployed overseas.
The Australian army had cycling units that fought in many of the major battles of World War I, such as Messines in June 1917, and Passchendale in July 1917. These cycling units were deployed to the front line, and also did cable burying, traffic control, and reconnaissance work. The bikes were from England, manufactured by the Birmingham Small Arms Company – better known as BSA. This company was a major British arms and ammunition manufacturer since the Crimean War.
Carrying Guns on Bikes
Note that the bikes did not come with bottle holders – the soldiers would carry water supplies in the same way as the regular army corps. The soldiers were issued with Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) .303 calibre rifles. They could either attach these rifles to the down tube of their bikes or swing them across their backs – as you can see in the photograph below. The Lee Enfield was the British Army’s standard rifle from its official adoption in 1895 until 1957.
1915 Military Humber
I am kind of happy that carrying a rifle on one’s down tube never caught on, even during World War I. However, other ways were found of carrying guns on bikes. British bike manufacturer Humber Bicycles created their 1915 Military Humber by simply added military fittings to their most robust frame. As the Humber rear brake linkage conflicts with the usual position for the front rifle clip – on the offside of the headstock – Humber’s front rifle clip was uniquely mounted on the nearside.
As the war progressed, all the combatants made extensive use of bicycles for messengers, scouts, infantry men, and even ambulance carriers. The photo below shows Commonwealth cyclist scouts, walking their bikes on a muddy road on the Western Front, in war-torn France.
Bikes for Transportation
Bikes were also used extensively for quick transport of men and supplies. Below, a group of Allied soldiers enters a captured village with their bikes.
Canadian Soldiers in World War I
Of course, Canadian soldiers were also on that hellish front. The photograph below shows the Newfoundland Regiment marching through a French village. (Look carefully to see the cyclist soldiers a little behind the mounted soldiers.) So many men from this regiment died that it was hard to keep up their numbers, despite the fact that recruitment proved easy in Newfoundland. It was said of this regiment, after 90% of them were killed or injured by the Germans at Beaumont-Hamel:
“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
Because of the tremendous losses, Remembrance Day is a huge event in Newfoundland to this day. And because of the courage of the regiment, King George V gave the regiment the prefix “Royal.” This was the only time during the First World War that this honor was given. The original of this photo is captioned: “The Newfoundland Regiment marching back to billet after Monchy.”
Bikes Used to Transport Civilians
By 1918 the end of World War I was finally in sight, and bikes played a role in this too. Here a British soldier transports a little girl on his bicycle. The villagers were excited to welcome the British troops.
Bicycles Used in Demobilization
As we know, the war finally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (as is commemorated on Remembrance Day). Demobilization began, and here too bicycles played their part.
In the photo above, demobilizing troops transport their kit on heavily laden bikes. The original caption reads:
“Photographs of the demobilization. Cyclists crossing Cologne.”
Bikes in World War II
Bikes were also used in World War II. To support the efforts of all Americans to limit the use of rubber, gasoline and oil, the US Military used bikes extensively for transportation around their bases and in patrols. Bicycles were also used by soldiers at air bases to transport crews and mechanics to and from air craft.
Bomber Bikes in the War
Also during World War II, the Allied forces supplied folding bikes to paratroopers and to messengers behind friendly lines. And behind enemy lines, US forces dropped bikes out of planes to stranded service men, to enable them to escape the enemy. These escape bikes were known as “bomber bikes.”
Bikes in Normandy
Some soldiers of the Canadian 3rd Division came ashore on Juno Beach, Normandy on June 6th, 1944. They carried with them British-made BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Company) folding bicycles. The plan was to ride them towards where they planned to fight, and then discard them.
British paratroopers also rode BSA bikes. Alex Cranmer of New Jersey-based International Military Antiques, says:
“The thinking behind the paratroop folding bicycle was that it would give foot soldiers some distinct advantages. The War Department felt a paratrooper could cover up to 25 miles on foot in a 24-hour period, however, given a bicycle the same soldier could cover up to 75 miles in a 24 hour period. Furthermore, a bicycle was relatively silent compared to a motorized scooter or vehicle. The issue really come down to the tires, once damaged it rendered the bicycle useless, which is why the BSA folding paratrooper bicycle was far better on paper than on the battlefield.”
Pity they did not have Schwalbe Marathon puncture-resistant tires back then!
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American Paramarines on Bikes
American Paramarines, part of the Marine Corps, also rode folding bikes. Of course, the advantage was that they could be assembled in minutes, after a jump. As the ad says: “In a matter of seconds, the folded bicycles are assembled and ready to speed away on a lightning-fast maneuver.”
Bikes on the Ho Chi Minh trail
Bikes were also used by opposing forces. During the Vietnam War the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army used bikes to ferry supplies down the “Ho Chi Minh trail.” Bikes are stealth and were used on minor roads, to avoid detection and attack by US and Allied bombers. A lot of people figured out the usefulness of bikes a long time ago.
Women also rode bikes in wartime service.
Bikes in Advertising
Bikes were used so extensively by the US military during World War II that they were featured in advertising, such as this ad from the Westfield Manufacturing Company.
And this one from Columbia Bicycles:
A Different Kind of Memorial Day this Year
Usually at this time of the year, there would be races and charity bike rides going on all over the country. Many of them would be three-day rides that ended on Memorial Day. Sadly, these kinds of group rides were not possible this year, because of Covid-19 and the need to keep each other safe. Let’s hope things will be back to normal next year, so we can get out there and celebrate Memorial Day on our bikes.
Happy Memorial Day everyone!
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Sources consulted for this post:
Black Bike History Month. An Army of Bikes.
Kirsh, Colin. Bad Teeth No Bar: A History of Military Bicycles in the Great War.
Ruggiero, Adam. Little-Known Heroes: All-Black 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps.
Suciu, Peter. The forgotten role of the bicycle in wartime: How soldiers rode into action on two wheels. Fox Nation.