This is the second post of our 6 part series, Bicycles at War.
Part 4 How the Bicycle Won the Vietnam War
Part 6 Bikes in the Cold War and Beyond
Adolf Hitler was a bike messenger? Yes, indeed. And a decorated one, at that. But more on that later.
If the Great War had been fought in accordance with the fantasies of armchair generals, then the bicyclist would have replaced the doughboy as the symbol of gallantry and heroism. Sadly, the war devolved to trenches, and bicycles, like horses, were relegated to the backlines.
Traditionally, mounted soldiers fought from atop their mounts. But ever since the invention of gunpowder, advances in military technology meant that massed infantry, with dedicated artillery support, could more and more easily hold their own against charging cavalry. The value of a horse in combat became less than its value in transporting the combatant, and correspondingly the vulnerability of a horse in combat became greater. Pragmatic generals recognized that it was better to move soldiers quickly on horseback, but then have them dismount before engaging in combat. These mounted infantrymen were a hybrid of the traditional cavalry and infantry, and were named dragoons, after the dragon-shaped firearms they carried in the French army. Dragoons in the 19th Century were the equivalent of airborne infantry in the 21st Century: they moved quickly on the battlefield, secured objectives by stealth and speed, and relied upon more heavily armed units to back them up.
Going into the Great War, the European powers had organized bicycle corps for three different roles; scouts on bicycles would move quietly and report back on the position of the enemy, the disposition of the terrain, and occasionally skirmish. Secondly, bicycle messengers would convey dispatches from the front line to the headquarters, and back. Finally, infantry mounted on bicycles would move quickly to exploit weaknesses uncovered by scouts, or be held in ready reserve to react quickly and shore up a defense. While not as traditionally glamorous as serving in the cavalry, bicycle infantry were popularly seen as the progressive vanguard of the 20th Century.
As it was, the first season of fighting remained relatively fluid, with the German armies rushed through neutral Belgium in a flanking attack. The bicycle was a vital part of the rapid advance. Hordes of cyclists preceded the invading German columns, scouting ahead of the main group, seizing bridges, railheads and crossroads, and laying telephone lines. The Belgian and French responded in kind, as bicycle units conducted raids behind the German lines to blow up bridges, sever communication lines and attack supply lines. Stories abound of stealthy cyclists on both sides hearing cavalry approaching, and then dismounting, hiding, and ambushing them. Time and again brave bike scouts rushed back under fire to inform their advancing units that they were marching into a trap.
When the Colonials of Canada organized in 1914, five Cyclist Battalions were formed from the volunteers. They were trained as scouts and light infantry. They envisioned fighting a rearguard action against the advancing Germans, delaying the enemy whilst their Commonwealth brothers-in-arms retreated. However, by the time the First Contingent disembarked in St. Nazaire, France in February of 1915 the front lines had frozen, along with the muddy trenches. The Canadian boys rode their bicycles to the front, but dismounted and huddled in the mud alongside the rest. For the most part, the Canadian Cyclist Battalions were engaged in regular infantry duties, and only occasionally as messengers at the general headquarters. But, three years later, during the final Hundred Days Offensive, the Canadian Cyclists came into their own at the Battle of Amiens. Bicycle-mounted troops were able to keep up with the advancing tanks. And most notably, the first Allied soldier to cross the Bonn River into Germany was a Canadian cyclist.
As the war dragged on, the French bicycle unit were disbanded and the men sent to bolster other units already “decimated” on the front lines.* In the view of German Major Rudolf Thiess, this was a strategic error. A decade after the war he wrote Die Radfahrtruppe, or “The Bicycle Troops,” an analysis of the use of bicycles in the Great War by both sides. While the Germans maintained, and even expanded their bicycle units, the French did not, depriving the French of a quick-response reserve. In Thiess’s view, bicycle units should not merely be maintained, but also expanded. His view was prescient, as the German advance, and retreat, of the Second World War would depend greatly upon bicycles.
New analysis notwithstanding, the first Allied soldier of the Great War killed by enemy fire has traditionally been held to be Private John Parr, a Bri
tish reconnaissance cyclist who was killed while providing covering fire as his squad mate escaped from German cavalry in Belgium. But regardless of who killed John Parr, or where, one bicycle messenger of der Weltkrieg is more (in)famous than any other: Adolf Hitler.
Hitler is not often remembered as a conscientious objector or a draft dodger. But he did not want to be conscripted into the Austrian army, which in his words was a mixture of races, and at the age of 24 Hitler left his native Austria for neighboring Bavaria. He was deported back to Austria by the Bavarian police, where he failed an army physical exam, and he returned to Munich to paint landscapes barely fit for postcards. A 1924 Bavarian government report concluded that Hitler was allowed to join the Bavarian Army in error. As an Austrian citizen he should not have been allowed to enlist, and but rather deported. Regardless, by the end of the First Battle of Ypres, Hitlers regiment had been reduced to 600 men, from the original 3,600. Hitler was promoted from Schtze (Private) to Gefreiter (Corporal), and assigned to the post of Radfahrer bis Regiment (Regimental Bicyclist.) It was as a bike messenger that Hitler would earn two Iron Crosses, as documented by Ancestry.com, and one of his Iron Crosses was at the recommendation of a Jewish officer. Ironically though, as another blog has pointed out, Hitlers experience on a bicycle did not stop the Nazis from passing legislation to ban bikes from roads in favor of cars
Unfortunately, Hitler’s enamor of the automobile did not fit with Germany’s resources. Without the oilfields of Armenia and Azerbaijan, let alone Texas and Oklahoma, the Third Reich had to depend upon synthesizing coal for almost 80% of its liquid fuel. It was the bicycle therefore that made the Blitzkrieg advance possible, and bicycles that allowed the Wehrmacht to retreat. But more on that next month in Part Three of this continuing series.
Wesley Cheney bikes for family, fun, profit and necessity in Norfolk, Virginia. He writes about bikes and kilts at Foto by Wes and (re)builds bamboo bikes and bamboo kayaks at 757 Makerspace. When he is not delivering sandwiches for Jimmy Johns on his bicycle, he aspires to earn a BM in Music Education at his alma mater, Old Dominion University. Wesley loves leather saddles, full fenders, helmet-mounted lights and mirrors, platform pedals, front racks, double kickstands, and vintage friction Suntour Command shifters. He warbles on a flugelhorn, sings bass in the choir of Christ and Saint Lukes Church, and studies ukulele under the amazing Skye Zentz.
*Being a nitpicker, the author would like to point out that the literal and original meaning of “decimate” is to reduce by one tenth, not one half, and certainly not 90%.