Posted 23 July 2013 - 09:03 am
You might find this item I wrote some time ago useful. Unfortunately limitations on posting photos on this forum mean that some illustrations are missing. Edit - all uploads seem to be failing at the moment so I'll try and post some later
Cycles and Motorcycles
Given the mechanised nature of much of World War One it is difficult to think of the simple pedal bicycle (or push bike) playing a part. Nevertheless it did play an important role in all armies and in combat situations (rather than just being a convenient way to get from the camp to the nearest estamet). In 1914 the German army used cyclists as scouts and it was some of these who made the first contact with the Russian army before the battle of Tannenberg. British and German cyclist units engaged in scouting duties actually fought each other before Mons, dismounting to fire from prone positions but using their bikes to disengage and report back to their respective commands. In Italy the Bersaglieri had a cyclist unit that was used to get troops quickly to vulnerable parts of the line to plug breakthroughs or stiffen the defenders as necessary.
Cyclists also proved useful in patrol and security roles. The following examples illustrate this. The French canal system played an important part in supplying the armies but could be very vulnerable to sabotage, a small amount of explosive applied in the right place could cause a whole stretches (or pounds) of canal to drain and even just opening all the paddles on a lock could cause significant harm, stranding boats in some sections. Cycling troops proved ideal for patrolling the tow paths being quiet and able to go where most other vehicles could not. Some key British canals were similarly patrolled. In 1914 there was a fear that the Germans might carry out raids across the North Sea and land troops in Yorkshire and Northumberland, it was for this reason that units such as the Huntingdonshire Cyclists (a volunteer battalion) found themselves patrolling the North Yorkshire coast.
For much of World War One the security of the Allied field telephone system was compromised as the Germans had found a way of detecting and amplifying the electric signal caused by the ground return on these devices. Although the security breach was known about, how it was being achieved was not discovered until late in 1917. In the meantime there was a ban on using the system to convey important tactical information. As a result couriers carried all important messages between the front line trenches and command posts in the rear. It was here that bicycle mounted despatch riders proved to be vital for they could provide that link often cycling along the communications trenches. They could manhandle their bicycles over or round obstructions and were, importantly, a silent mode of transport.
Cycle ambulances were also used, presumably the intention was to provide a quiet, smooth ride for the patient but in a photograph of an 1917 Austrian cycle ambulance the patient appears to be suffering as much from the terror of the ride as any injury.
Most armies had military bicycles built to their specifications, these were often folding bikes so that they could be carried on motor transport, trains etc as needed. The Italian forces actually had two different designs, one for the infantry and another for mechanised units. It was not unusual to see bikes strapped to the side of armoured cars and lorry mounted guns. Even after the war RAF DH 9a aircraft patrolling Iraq often carried a folded bike strapped to the fuselage so that in the event of a forced landing the observer could pedal off to find a phone (as hazardous an undertaking then as it would be in today’s Iraq).
The importance of the motorcycle in World War One is often overlooked. They were ubiquitous and acquired in huge numbers. The US government alone between 1915 and the end of 1918 purchased more than 80,000 motorcycles (50,000 from the Indian Motor Cycle Corporation, 20,000 from Harley Davidson, 1,800 from Cleveland and others from overseas manufacturers, mainly British) Harley Davidson also supplied motorbikes to the Canadian army. Britain used more than 48,000 bikes mainly supplied by BSA, Royal Enfield, Phelon and Moore, Triumph, Douglas and Clyno with no less than 48 other motor cycle manufacturers. British motorcycles were also used by Canadian, Australian, Belgian, French, Russian and US forces. Belgian FN bikes were used not only by Belgium but also by some Australian units. Italy, which used some 6,400 motor cycles, put a heavy load on Bianchi and Fiat. Austro Hungary used bikes made by Austro Daimler, Austro Fiat, Graf und Stift, and Puch. Germany made nearly exclusive use of NSU motorcycles some of which may also have been supplied to Bulgaria and Turkey.
Motorbikes were used in a huge variety of roles including: mounted infantry, scouts, patrol and security duties, despatch and courier duties, very light transport (with sidecars), ammunition carriers, medical supply carriers, casualty evacuation (with sidecars) and signals.
Motorbike mounted infantry used their motorcycles for transport but fought on foot. The photograph of two Bulgarian motorcyclists shows that even firing from the pillion of a moving motorcycle was a problematic action, unless perhaps one was contemplating an assassination. The action of the Australian solo rider was more worthy of a circus act than a serious military manoeuvre, one winces to think of the effect of the front wheel hitting a rut or rock whilst he is engaging in this Wild Bill Hickock performance. American motorcycle mounted infantry were deployed in the 1916 Mexican campaign and France sent a similar unit to Petrograd.
Motorcycles were used for scouting and patrolling in Belgium and Northern France in 1914 and for patrol work in theatres where warfare was comparatively open and mobile. The Australians used motorcycles for this in the Middle East but found that machine gun armed Model T’s could do a better job, having a longer range and being able to carry fuel and water. Various military police units and others responsible for security behind the lines used motorcycle patrols throughout the war.
It was in the role of despatch delivery that the motorcycle proved invaluable. Despatch riders were a reasonably quick and secure means of delivering written orders, reports, maps, aerial photographs, signed authorisations and many other items. The relatively insecure nature of most forms of electronic communications at the time made this even more important. Despatch riders would at times have to carry messages through artillery bombardment and enemy fire. This often involved riding down cratered roads (whose positions were well marked on the maps of the enemy’s artillery), often having to dismount to lug the bike over or round debris, dead horses or even human bodies. Towards the end of 1918, as fighting on the Western Front became more fluid, Allied despatch riders could find themselves behind the German front lines delivering messages to and from units that had broken through. It was probably a motorcycle despatch rider that rode 12 miles behind the German front line, through a shattered German Army, to tell the advance armoured cars of the British Tank Corps that the war was over.
Behind the lines despatch riders effectively provided what could be regarded as a military postal service. Women despatch riders were often used away from the front although some could find themselves under artillery fire. Even away from the combat zone the speed of delivery that the motorcycle could provide was often vital. For example getting the photo’s taken by aerial reconnaissance to headquarters as fast as possible, in 1918.such jobs were often carried out by some of the first women to serve in the RAF.
The medical services also made use of the motorcycle both as a means to get medical personnel and supplies quickly to where they were needed and as a means of casualty evacuation. In the latter role a sidecar was used to carry the patient. This could sometimes been a fairly crude arrangement, for example the American approach of a stretcher strapped to the top of a standard Harley Davidson side car, however the French did produce a specially designed, enclosed, sidecar specifically for carrying prone wounded. Evacuation could sometimes be carried out under fire by both male and female medical staff.
Whilst being used directly as a means of communication the motorcycle also supported the signals operation. Motorbike mounted linesmen were used to both patrol and maintain military telephone and telegraph networks. Field telephone lines were sometimes laid by motorcycle combinations from reels mounted on side cars. Motor cycle combinations carried wireless transmitters. One interesting aspect of the signals work was the distribution of carrier pigeons. The carrier pigeon was much used during the First World War (and Blackadder fans may be interested to know that it really was a court martial offence to shoot a pigeon, albeit probably not a capital one). However pigeons fly home and it was necessary to continually distribute birds from the lofts to infantry (and tank) units. This was done by motorcycle using special pigeon carrying packs strapped to the riders backs.