Cavalry on Wheels: The Forgotten History of Military Bicycles

Cavalry on Wheels: The Forgotten History of Military Bicycles

Cycling has a long and colorful history that includes service in various armies in Europe.

Here's What You Need to Know: The bicycle had its first baptism of fire in the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Visit parts of Europe—especially France, Italy, and notably the Netherlands—and you’ll find lands where people love their bikes. Bicycle racing is one of the most popular sports in Europe, following only football (soccer) in overall popularity. For many Europeans cycling is part of daily life as people commute to work, get to the store and when possible, get away from it all.

Cycling also has a long and colorful history that includes service in various armies in Europe, and for that matter the world.

As with the automobile no one person, or persons, can lay claim to actually inventing the bicycle. The first person generally credited with building a two-wheel device that would be the forerunner of the modern bicycle was German Baron Karl Von Drais, who in 1818 devised an in-line contraption that was propelled by the rider’s feet. This horse substitute, which was aimed at the well to do, didn’t catch on, however.

Other inventors and tinkers attempted to create the human-driven machine, but it actually wasn’t until the 1860s that Frenchmen Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement introduced a pedal-driven system that would propel bicycle technology and subsequently the riders forward.

Further innovations in pedal-driven systems lead to the development of what is now known as the “ordinary bicycle,” or just as often to collectors as the “penny-farthing.”

That bicycle is noted in that it featured a tall front wheel and was known for being a bit difficult and even dangerous to ride, as these had a high seat and poor weight distribution. Such bicycles were novelties for the wealthy—or more accurately, wealthy men. No proper lady would ever consider riding such a bike.

The ordinary bicycle introduced the French to their love affair with the bicycle—one that continues to this day. These bikes, while awkward to ride, were tested by the military for dispatch riders and scouts during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Ironically it was this war that also destroyed the first fledging French bicycle industry, yet it was far from the end for bicycle innovation.

Development progressed in Great Britain and even in the United States, where technological advances included a chain-driven system that allowed for a more stable riding platform. English inventor John Kemp Starley built on this development, and produced the world’s first successful “safety bicycle,” which was dubbed the “Rover.”

Released in 1885, its design would be recognizable even today. It featured equally sized front and back wheels, with the front being steerable and a chain drive to the rear wheel. This bike designed caught on during the 1890s and many military thinkers saw its potential. According to The Bicycle in Wartime: An Illustrated History by Jim Fitzpatrick (Brassey’s Inc., 1998) the late 1880s and 1890s saw many nations experiment with bicycles.

The British may have beat their continental rivals to the finish line, and used cyclists as scouts during field maneuvers in the Easter exercises of 1885, but both the Austrians and Germans each considered the possibilities of using the two-wheeled contraptions in 1885 and 1886 respectively. Yet it was again the French army that formally introduced the bicycle into service in July of 1887.

Across the Atlantic, the Americans followed suit as some National Guard regiments experimented with bicycles. The First Signal Corps of the Connecticut National Guard formed the first military bicycle unit in 1891, when the bicycle was used by messengers and relay riders. Various challenges ensued including one that had a Connecticut National Guard cyclist prove he alone could deliver a message faster than an entire flag signaler team, while a relay team carried a single dispatch 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, DC to Denver in just over six days.

Bicycles Ride off to War

While the bicycle proved that it could deliver messages via a rider carrying the dispatches, military planners adapted it for use with portable topographers and even telegraphers. In one case a rider used his bike to study the grade of hills and other terrain to help commanders in the field determine if the land was traversable with cannons and wagons. In another case, bikes were actually used to lay a cable from a command post to the front lines. Both uses no doubt seemed practical to designers, but in the field proved otherwise.

More radical concepts were devised as well, and various nations conducted tests to see if a bicycle could be used as actual gun platforms. In the 1890s multiple nations conducted field tests that included adding a sidecar mounted with early machine guns, as well as side-mounted rifles that could be fired from the handlebars. As these were prototypes, which not surprisingly failed to go very far past proof of concept, few if any of these early bikes survive today, even in museums.

The bicycle proved to be a new machine of war, yet some military planners instead looked to see if tactics could be devised to use the bike in combat. This begat the first practical study of tactics for bicycle riders, and this was just in time for the bike to head off to a real war.

It is generally accepted that it was during the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, which began in 1899, that the bicycle was first had its baptism of fire. Bicycles were used by messengers, adapted into portable stretchers, and even used as a part of a specially devised two-man cycle to patrol the railroads. In the latter case, about twenty were built for patrol work, however, none are believed to survive today.

The use of bicycles was not limited to the British either, as the Boers too adopted bikes in place of horses on a very limited scale. The bike had been tested in battle, and it looked as if it would find a place in future wars.

The First World War, which began as a very mobile and fluid conflict at first, did seem to be ideal for bicycles, and both sides on the Western Front used a large number of bikes to help troops get to the front lines quickly. However, as it bogged down into the hellish nightmare of trench warfare the two-wheel machines were relegated to rear echelon duty. Cycles were used to some degree by sharpshooters in less static areas, as well as by scouts and of course dispatch riders.

Bicycle technology advanced again following the war, as well as increased interest in bikes throughout Europe for leisure and sports. Even in the United States cycling began to catch on, and it was a sport that rivaled all others, with venues such as New York City’s Madison Square Garden hosting daylong cycling races and events. Only with the advent of the radio, and the sport of baseball, which was easier to call by announcers, did cycling fade as America’s premier sport. Across the ocean however it remained popular—and so too bicycles remained machines of war as much as machines of sports and peace.

A generation after the trench warfare of the First World War, the outbreak of war in Europe and Asia put the cycle back in the field. The German Army, even during its rapid moving blitzkrieg, still relied on horse-drawn carriages to transport men and equipment, and bicycles also played a part.

Wartime shortages throughout World War II also resulted in many nations utilizing the bicycle to save on fuel. This was especially true in isolated Great Britain during the Blitz and followed even after the Yanks arrived in great numbers. The United States, which was also on wartime rationing, relied on bikes in great numbers. Ironically for collectors, few of the American bikes have survived the war.

Unlike with other American gear from World War II little information has been left as to the total numbers produced, and even today it is not clear just exactly how many bikes were made for the U.S. Army on official wartime contracts.

While bikes were never utilized in great numbers by the American forces and only in a limited frontline role by the British, there was a wartime enemy of the Allies that used cycles in much larger numbers. The Japanese actually relied on the bicycle more than any other power during World War II.

During the invasion of Malaysia, there were thousands of Japanese soldiers rolling towards Singapore on bicycles. The Japanese had developed folding bikes specifically designed for warfare—later rehashed for civilian use—but also requisitioned bicycles from other occupied/conquered territories.

The Japanese also have earned notoriety for being able to adapt and overcome with their bicycles. As rubber was in short supply it is reported that Japanese soldiers learned to ride on the rims when the tires went flat and couldn’t be repaired.

After the Second World War, the civilians were the ones who had to adapt and overcome, and many of the wartime bikes passed to civilian hands as the world recovered from the horrors of the war. This was especially true in Europe, where fuel was still hard to get and where there had been an existing bike culture.