Though a forerunner of the bicycle was invented around 1820, it wasn’t until the 1880s that the “safety bicycle” was developed and cycling really took off. The French, Germans, and English all began experimenting with bicycles by the mid-1880s. But the first formal creation of a military bicycle unit in the United States didn’t happen until 1891, when the Connecticut National Guard Signal Corps was formed. The District of Columbia soon followed suit, and before long Illinois and Colorado also had military bicycle units.
But bicycles, and the men that road them, were not truly tested in battle until the Boer War (1899-1902) between the English and the Dutch Calvinists (called Boers) in South Africa. With every war there are advancements made in technology and subsequent shifts in how wars are fought and the Boer War was a testing ground for several new strategies and technologies. Observation balloons, telephones, smokeless powder, machine guns, and bicycles were all experimented with and refined throughout the war. (The first concentration camps were also created by the English during the Boer War.) Though bicycles didn’t win (or lose) the war, they did prove to be an invaluable tool, which meant that when the Great War rolled around in Europe in 1914, many militaries would already have begun training bicycle mounted soldiers in increasing numbers.
Cyclists were frequently used during the war as scouts. They could quickly venture out, scout for obstacles or enemies, then swiftly return to the column of troops to relay the information. Unlike cavalry soldiers, they were able to lay their bicycles down, creating a low profile that was hard for the enemy to see. They also didn’t have to tie up their bike as would be needed with a horse. And the bicycle wouldn’t whinny or whicker, giving away the scout’s position.
Bicycle mounted soldiers were also used as messengers and supply runners. Messages were hidden away within the frame of the bicycle to escape detection if the soldier was intercepted. A cyclist could run a message back to Johannesburg, then pick up food, mail, and other supplies to take back to the column. They traveled faster than a soldier on foot, and unlike a mounted rider, they didn’t need to carry additional food or water for their mount. When they encountered obstacles, they could often simply lift their bicycles over them.
There was a lot of experimentation by a gentleman named Donald Menzies who created “war cycles” that could travel along railway lines. These cycling patrols ran almost noiselessly along the tracks, and when painted khaki, were very difficult to see. Because the vehicles were on a track, they didn’t need to be steered, so the men were free to fire their weapons. And because they had fixed gears, the men could move forward or backward simply by pedaling in that direction.
But the 8-man track bike weighed 250 pounds without any men or equipment. Once fully loaded, it was closer to 1,500 pounds. This made the bicycle very hard to start up (The men had to start in unison or chains would break.) and it was just as hard to stop once it got going. In the end, though the war cycles were very popular in the newspapers of the time, they proved rather impractical in use.
During a long march, cyclists would pedal alongside the infantry, gathering up soldiers who were faint or infirm and hauling them to the nearest train line to be taken to a hospital. Due to the number of inaccurate maps that existed at the time, the cycling soldiers would zip ahead conducting survey work, returning with accurate travel directions for the foot soldiers. (In fact, most travel maps were not created first for the automobile, but for the bicycle. But that’s another story.)
Both sides in the Boer War made use of cycling technology, and for the most part, the vehicles were used for communications and hauling goods. But the English began to suspect that they were being used for spy work as well. They eventually declared that bicycles were not allowed to travel at night in the city of Johannesburg without lights. Bicyclists could travel so stealthily at night, that Boer spies were able to get in and out of town, gathering information and taking it back to the Dutch.
Given the difficulty of the terrain, high temperatures, and flying bullets, horses had a high mortality rate during the war. Bicycles, on the other hand, could be walked or carried over rough terrain, they were impervious to heat (although there were some issues with tires on hot rail lines in the “war cycle” experiments) and a bike that got shot up didn’t die. It just needed a bit of repair work the next time the cyclist got it to town.
The advantages of having trained cyclists on hand during war time became evident, and following the Boer war, several militaries put additional resources towards improving the cycling component of their ready troops. Despite the rise of the automobile, bicycles retained a role in several subsequent wars. Although America was not involved in the Boer War, this time period still played a foundational role in the use of bicycles in later wars in which the United States did take part.
Sources for this article:
The photo at top is from the Wikipedia page on bicycle infantry, and shows the British Cycle Company drilling, c.1910, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, England. It can be viewed directly through Wikimedia.
Jim Fitzpatrick’s book is incredibly interesting and was the foundation upon which I built this post. If you’re interested in either war histories or cycling histories, I’d highly recommend it. Fitzpatrick, Jim. The Bicycle in Wartime: An Illustrated History. Revised ed. Kilcoy, Queensland, Australia: Star Hill Studio Pty, 2011. Kindle.