We have covered a wide range of Emergency and Patrol Services by Bike here at Utility Cycling, but it recently became apparent that we were missing one major component of this topic: military bicycles. The use of bicycles by military groups has been around for nearly as long as the bicycle. Bicycles provide an effective means of transportation for soldiers for many of the same reasons they are effective for police officers, EMS personnel, SAR personnel, and even firefighters, because they can carry more than a person on foot, navigate crowds and a variety of terrain, are very discrete and/or approachable, move faster than a person on foot, and are much less expensive to operate and maintain than motorized vehicles or even horses. I’d definitely characterize myself as more of a pacifist than anything else, and I’d much rather see bicycles used as a vehicles to promote peace, but it’s important to acknowledge their widespread military use, as well. Header image credit: The BSA & Military Bicycle Museum.
Image Source: Light Bicycle Infantry
A Brief History of Military Bicycles
Like many of the topics we cover here, you could probably write multiple books dedicated to the use of bicycles for military purposes. However, in the interest of brevity, I’ll just provide a quick summary, but it should be noted that the history of bicycles for military use is quite extensive and varies significantly from country to country and military to military.
The BSA & Military Bicycle Museum is a great online museum for military bicycles, and I suggest you check out the pages there for a ton of great information on military bicycles with a mostly European focus. According to “The Illustrated War News” (wow, what a concept for a newspaper…) from Beginnings of War Machines, military bicycles first appeared in Italy in 1875 and were used mostly for carrying messages. However, within less than ten years, bicycles were being employed to carrying armed soldiers on scouting maneuvers in England. Shortly thereafter, in 1896 in Austria and 1898 in France, folding bicycles that could easily be carried on a soldier’s back were introduced to improve mobility and maneuverability of bicycle infantry and other types of soldiers. Generally, there were two types of military bicycles, which included roasters for delivering messages and folding bikes that could be carried by a soldier on foot over poor terrain and easily converted to a bicycle when possible.
Image Source: Beginnings of War Machines
In the United States, bicycles were used as early as 1896 by the 25th Infantry of Buffalo Soldiers as an alternative to horses for covering long distances. In the early 1900’s, bicycles also became useful in warfare for delivering messages or carrying arms to battle. Unlike soldier on horseback, a bicycle soldier could more easily hide from the enemy, and there was no need to refuel the bicycle. On the other hand, it is much more difficult for a bicycle soldier to fire or wield a weapon like a gun or sword on a bicycle, so they were primarily used for getting from one place to the other quickly and quietly. The first war to really test the ability of a bicycle was the Boer War in South Africa.
Image Source: The Cycle in Warfare
Bicycles were also quite common in World War I and World War II. In World War I, they were used primarily by light infantry units, scouts, and messengers by almost every country involved in the war. Folding bikes were the most common in WWI, and the BSA (British Small Arms) produced huge quantities of them.
Image Source: Wikipedia
Bicycles were still quite common in WWII, which also saw the introduction of airborne paratrooper bicycle units. Paratroopers were outfitted with folding bicycles so that they could be mobile once they landed. In other cases, airborne soldiers were able to quickly get to containers full of bicycles near their landing sites and take their opponents by surprise. Many countries, such as the United States, standardized military bicycle production during WWII. In fact, the bicycle was a key element in many successful wartime feats during WWII. Perhaps the most famous military cycling regiment is the Swiss Army Bicycle Regiment, which is famous for the great distances and amount of gear they can carry in a day. In countries like the U.S., many civilians were also encouraged to commute by bike to conserve precious resources during the WWII, as well.
Image Source: Oldbike
In general, it appears that bicycles have long been used for mi
litary purposes and during wartime for a wide range of different activities, which is certainly no surprise, as we’ve definitely covered how mobile, utilitarian, and efficient a bicycle can be. I certainly haven’t done the history of military bicycles any justice here, but if you follow some of the links provided above, you’ll find a plethora of great information and photos about military uses of bicycles from around the world. Feel free to add others in the comments section, as well.
Bicycles are still relatively common within the U.S. military and others around the world for a wide range of purposes. They are not quite as prolific now as they were in the early 1900’s, but they certainly haven’t been done away with either. Bicycles are also used by other military-type groups, such as guerrillas, militias, and others. These days, mountain bikes are much more common than skinny tire roadster-type bikes, but folding bikes are still the bicycle of choice, especially for paratroopers.
Image Source: Montague
However, as with many of the Emergency and Patrol Services by Bike we have covered here, the ways in which the bicycle is being used for military purposes is constantly changing and evolving. For the most part, bicycles are not very common in combat anymore, and many bicycle regiments, such as the Swiss Army Cyclists, have recently been disbanded. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is encouraging the use of bicycles for transportation to and within bases given the high costs of driving. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen what the future will bring for the military use of bicycles…hopefully just to promote peace and love…yea right…but given the utility of bicycles for accomplishing a wide range of goals, I’d imagine they will remain a useful feature of militaries around the world in times of war and peace.