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.

As a result, there are more bikes in collections in Europe than in the United States.

The other part of this is that cycling had been more popular with adults following World War II and many surplus bikes were actually shipped to Europe after the war. The bicycle is a classic example of “from swords to plowshares” as it became a means of transport for civilians again.

Yet its war days were not over. While it isn’t the most iconic image of the Vietnam War, the Vietcong and North Vietnam forces in fact utilized bicycles in great numbers. It may be hard to imagine how well these bikes fared in the dense jungles, especially as this was a decade prior to the “mountain bike craze” that began in California and Colorado, but the bikes actually did their job. Bicycles were also used in other rural conflicts, including in Central America, throughout Africa and are still in use today with American troops in Afghanistan.

Bikes in the Neutrals

Ironically, two nations that used bikes in greater numbers than most haven’t actually used them in anger, the neutral nations of Sweden and Switzerland. Each has rugged terrain and a truly independent spirit.

Sweden was among the forerunners of bicycle technology for military use, and the 27th Gotlandic Infantry Regiment replaced its cavalry complement with bicycle-mounted troops in 1901, and by 1942 the nation had six bicycle infantry regiments. However, from 1948 to 1952 the Scandinavian nation began to decommission its bicycle infantry regiments, and by the 1980s only special bicycle rifle battalions remained.

Most of the vintage military bikes were sold off, and for collectors, the war-time era ones tend to be more desired, even though the Swedes didn’t take part in the Second World War. Commercial versions based on past military designs are also available today, but these were never technically “military bikes.”

Europe’s other main neutral power of Switzerland had a long history of military cycles as well. The nation’s Bicycle Infantry was introduced in 1905 and only phased out in 2001, and for nearly 100 years the bikes that the mountain nation used were known for their high quality and equally high durability.

In 1988 the Swiss updated the bikes, and this resulted in Switzerland selling nearly all of its stocks. Thus the famous Swiss Army Bike is almost as famous as the Swiss Army Knife today in collector’s circles.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

This article first appeared in October 2020.

Image: Wikimedia Commons