Veterans Day, also known as Remembrance Day, happens all over the world on 11 November. It’s a very important time to remember those who gave their lives for us in the horror of war. Anyone who has ever read about World War I knows that being in that war was like being in hell – while right here on earth. Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day is celebrated on 11 November to recall the end of fighting at the end of World War I – which happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. That was before almost everyone alive today was born, but it’s shaped the present for all of us.
Of course, I found myself wondering whether bicycles played any role in the First World War – the war to end all wars which unfortunately did not end all wars. I did some research, and was quite amazed at what I found. Bikes were in the thick of World War I from Day 1.
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 on the family bicycle.
When we think of World War I, we usually think of British soldiers. But in fact, many of the soldiers were volunteers from all over the Commonwealth. This photo is a welcome reminder of that. It 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.
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.
Note that the bikes did not come with bottle holders – the soldiers would carry water supplies like the regular army corps. The soldiers were issued with Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) .303 calibre rifles, which they could either attach to the down tube of their bikes or swing across their backs – as you can see in the photograph below.
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. 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 were also used extensively for quick transport of men and supplies. Below, a group of Allied soldiers enters a captured village with their bikes.
Of course, Canadian soldiers were also on that hellish front. The photo 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 tremdendous 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” – the only time during the First World War that this honour was given. The original of this photo is captioned: “The Newfoundland Regiment marching back to billet after Monchy.”
By 1918 the end of the war 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.
As we know, the war finally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (which is of course what we will remember on Remembrance Day). Demobilization began, and here too bicycles played their part.
In this photo, demobilizing troops transport their kit on heavily laden bikes. The original caption reads: “Photographs of the demobilization. Cyclists crossing Cologne.”
There are many more such photos on Flickr from various national archives, and I find it fascinating stuff. How strange to imagine a world where the soldiers are on bikes, rather than fighter jets or tanks.
The loss of human life in World War I was tremendous – 16.5 million people died while soldiers were traveling around on horses and bicycles. However, it could have been even worse if we’d had time to make more “progress.” How many more people would die if a world war was conducted with weapons of mass destruction?
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