Cycling & soldiering

As early as the first bicycles became somewhat mainstream, the contraption has been used as a military device. It was mainly due to the development of the pneumatic tyre, shorter and sturdier frames, that led to the investigation of possible military uses for bicycles. The idea being simple, in the time before widely adopted motorised vehicles, the bicycle ensured quicker and more efficient troop deployment than an infantry march. Also, compared to horses, the bicycle was easy to maintain due to its simplicity, did not need to be fed and groomed, and was not prone to illnesses.

Bicycles were initially used in battle during the Second Boer War, which took place from 1899-1902 in present-day South Africa and Swaziland. Both sides, which included the British Empire on one side and the Orange Free State and South Africa Republic on the other, used them.

However, some of the first countries to adopt the bicycle as a military prop were France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This can be traced back to military experiments as early as the 1880s and 1890s.

It must be mentioned that some sources state the bicycle was already deployed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

German Jaeger cycling unit.
Exhausted Belgian army cyclists at rest by a roadside.

The Great War (WWI) was the real mainstream use of the bicycle, very much helped by the conditions of better kept gravel roads in the area of conflict. Not only for troop transportation, but also for communication purposes. Numerous are the stories of nightly escapades of military cyclists sneaking through enemy lines.

It is also well documented that reconnaissance was often made by cyclist troops ahead of the invading army. Similarly, The German Jaeger cyclists went ahead of the infantry with leaflets requesting calm from Belgian civilians on the day of the invasion, 4 August 1914 .

In Belgium, a dedicated military cycling school provided troops with specific training in reading maps, reconnaissance and communication techniques, as well as the mechanical skills needed to maintain the bicycles.

German military personnel on their 'Truppenfahrrad' in World War II.

At the outbreak of World War II, the German army was not fully motorised. The Treaty of Versailles after World War I had limited the development of the German military industry. Horses were widely used, as well as the bicycle: knows as 'Das Truppenfahrrad'.

Especially at the beginning of the war, and then again around 1943 -when the production of motorised vehicles and an ever increasing shortage in fuel- sparkled the demand for the military bicycle. The bicycle was used by the German army in the occupying actions on the Western Front, as well as later on the Eastern Front. It is estimated production of this bicycle rose to 1.2 million units in 1943.

British airborne infantry load their bikes onto gliders before an assault, possibly during Operation Market Garden.

During WWII, it was Finland, Germany, Japan, Finland, and the Soviet Union that mostly deployed troops on bicycles. The American forces in WWII never really used bicycles in great numbers, and they were used in a front line role by the British.

British Airborne soldier on a BSA.
German military personnel from on route from the Pannerden-Doornenburg ferry to Nijmegen. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S73823 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.