In the twenty-first century, few people in Western societies give much thought to bicycles. The machines are usually seen as something one gives to a child as a birthday present; or, something one buys to use for exercise in the sunshine. In some cities, and especially in Asia, bicycles are used as a primary mode of transportation, both in day to day living for activities like going to work and shopping, as well as in actual business, such as postal and product deliveries, but also as taxis for passengers, in those areas that still allow ‘rickshaw’ traffic.
Very few people give any thought to the bicycle as a military tool, but it was – and remains – a vital component of many military operations.
The modern bicycle dates from a design created by the German Baron Karl von Drais, who invented his “Laufmaschine” (German for “running machine“) in 1817 (patented in 1818), that was called “Draisine” (English) or “draisienne” (French) by the press; this term would evolve over time into “velocipede”. Von Drais’ design was the first commercially successful two-wheeled, steerable, human-propelled machine on record.
It should be noted that it also quickly earned the nickname of “bone-shaker”, for obvious reasons.
But, the design fascinated people, and progress was made in developing it. Many of these designs, such as the ‘penny-farthing’ of Englishman James Starley and Frenchman Eugène Meyer, are outright silly and fanciful, more suited to the pages of a Jules Verne novel than to any kind of useable machine. All that began to change in 1885, and first line militaries around the world began to take notice.
In 1885, John Kemp Starley, James Starley’s nephew, invented what became known as the “safety bicycle”. Departing from past designs by making both wheels identical in size, employing a high-necked caster to better anchor the handlebars for steering, and incorporating the first rear-wheel chain drive on a bicycle, all combined to vastly improve the ride, handling and speed of the bicycle.
The younger Starley’s design – which was widely copied, as he had failed to patent the design – was swiftly followed by the last two major developments that would draw serious military attention to the bicycle for military use.
The first innovation was the reinvention of the pneumatic tire by John Dunlop in 1888, greatly smoothing out the ride and simplifying the design, and the patenting of the folding bicycle by African-American inventor Isaac R. Johnson, approved on October 10, 1889. Johnson’s design is also the first recognizable appearance of the “diamond frame” design that is still common over a century later.
These two developments created an explosion of interest in cycling throughout the United States and Western Europe in the early 1890’s, actually causing an economic bubble near the turn of the century. It is at this point that the ‘Turmoil of the Century’s Turning’ happened.
The decade from 1895 to 1905 saw multiple – and massive – wars break out all over the world, from the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, to the Second Boer War (1899-1902) in southern Africa, which saw Great Britain deploy nearly 300,000 Imperial troops by steamship – to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. In the midst of these massive conflicts – a sort of “dress rehearsal” for World War 1 – there was the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the “China Relief Expedition” of 1900, with saw an allied force of British, French, Japanese, Russian, German, Austrian, Italian, and American troops marching from the Chinese city of Tientsin to rescue the diplomatic staffs in Peking (now Beijing) at the height of China’s “Boxer Rebellion” (1898-1901).
All of these major conflicts – as large and expansive as most of the wars of the twentieth and twenty first centuries – made the various militaries realize that they needed to continue to innovate and upgrade their forces, a process that had already been happening in earnest for over thirty years.
Infantry – the core of all military forces – moves at the speed of a walking soldier, unless there are tools such as railroads, motorized vehicles or airplanes to carry them…and even then, they will still be walking. As well, the infantry have been carrying much of their own equipment for most of that time, to the tune of some 120lbs (c.54kg) on their backs. Something needed to be done to improve their mobility.
Bicycles were obviously useful to horse-drawn armed forces as messengers, as the cyclists did not need to worry about sick or lame animals; bicyclers were relatively easy to fix if something broke down. Other functions were tried out, including using bicycles to lay communication wire, create local maps by fixing clinometers to the frame, and patrol rail lines; there were even experiments to use them as ambulances and to haul machine guns around the battlefield. While not usable in the cavalry role – which should be apparent from the nature of the machine – could the infantry use it?
This led to the creation of “bicycle infantry”: infantry units began to test out bicycles during long-distance rides, more or less to see what happened. This is where James Moss enters out story.
Then First Lieutenant James A. Moss, of the 25th United States Army Infantry Regiment (Colored), the storied “Buffalo Soldiers” (the United States military was still heavily segregated then) obtained permission in 1896 to take fifteen volunteers from the regiment on an experimental series of rides that culminated in a 1,900 mile ride from Missoula, Montana, to St. Louis, Missouri. Moss’ unit completed the trek – which avoided roads and paths where possible, sticking strictly to overland travel – made the trip in some 40 days, at an average of 6 miles per hour (pdf link). While the US Army was ultimately satisfied with conventional infantry units, armies outside the United States took notice of Moss’ experiments. (James Moss would go on to lead a bicycle-equipped unit in Cuba, and would later write a set of basic instruction manuals for troops and officer that form the basic framework of basic military instruction manuals today.)
When World War One broke out, the bicycle served in all theaters. However, it was rarely deployed into direct combat, primarily due to the confines of trench warfare in Western Europe, and a simple lack of resources on the Eastern Front, in Russia. This unspectacular performance, overall, signaled the death knell of the military bicycle to the military pundits of the time.
However, other officers came out of World War One with a better understanding of bicycles and their military uses.
In the Second World War, bicycles were deployed extensively in Malaya, where Japanese intelligence officers, familiar with the Japanese Army’s use of c.50,000 bicycle infantry in the 1937 invasion of China, made sure in their pre-war scouting to note the presence of bicycle shops throughout the British-controlled colony. Likewise, Germany and Italy deployed units of bicycle infantry in rugged terrain, where horses would struggle. Many guerilla and partisan units – and the intelligence teams from the Allies who supported them – used bicycles for scouting, messages and to run electric generators to power radio systems that reported on Axis forces until the end of the war.
Post-1946, the bicycle again faded into obscurity in most of the military world, although bicycle infantry units would continue to serve for decades in Swedish and Swiss military units. In one place, however, the military bicycle would reach its peak – in a place called Vietnam.
France, although it had been soundly beaten by Hitler’s Germany in 1940, was desperate to retain its colonial empire. When French forces returned to Indochina in September of 1945, the Vietnamese were less than impressed. Where French troops had capitulated to Japanese troops more or less without firing a shot, the resistance in Indochina had been led by native Vietnamese, and mostly by the Communist Party led by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap (who were supported (pdf link) by the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war). After French forces seized control of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) by force in September of 1945, the Communists retreated into the mountains and countryside, vowing to continue their war, now framed as a war of independence from France. This brought about the “cargo bike”.
The Communist forces, known as the ‘Viet Minh’, waged a brutal guerilla campaign in the rural areas of the country, causing steady and damaging casualties to French forces. However, the Viet Minh faced all the same challenges as a pre-WW2 non-motorized army, but with the added problem that suitable pack animals were few in number, and human porters could only carry a tiny amount of the supplies needed.
Viet Minh mechanics took the commonly-available bicycle, and began modifying it, resulting in a vehicle that could reliably carry up to 400lbs (c.181kg) at the pace of a walking adult human. While not the equal of a cargo truck or a boat, this was a far better solution. And it very shortly made its effects known.
In 1954, Viet Minh forces surrounded and destroyed the cream of the French Army in Indochina, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. France deployed its best units, numbering over 12,000 troops, in a badly thought out plan to bring the Viet Minh to battle in order to destroy them. At the extreme range of supply and support aircraft, the French troops found themselves over-extended and cut off, as French ground forces could not break through to reach them. The Viet Minh surrounded the town the French had fortified, and fought a nightmarish siege for nearly two months. Eventually, some 11,000 French troops would surrender; nearly 8,000 would die in a march to prison camps that rivaled the Bataan Death March in its brutality. The result was France agreeing to Vietnamese independence, surrendering their Indochina colonies in whole, which would lead to yet another war…but that is another story.
One of the primary reasons the Viet Minh were able to crush the French was their ability to move supplies, and the ‘cargo bicycle’ was at the heart of the Vietnamese logistical triumph. But again, the military use of the bicycle receded into seeming obscurity, despite its next successful showing against American forces in Vietnam…
…And yet – the bicycle remains in use as a military tool by guerilla and insurgent forces around the world. Why?
Within its obvious limits, the military facts of the bicycle of today remain unchanged from those same facts discovered by James Moss and his unit of Buffalo Soldiers in 1896: the bicycle requires no fuel, beyond the food required for its operator; it moves essentially silently, at a constant speed of up to twelve miles per hour; it raises no dust in its passing; it can operate in most weather and terrain conditions; and it can be used to power various systems, from air circulation fans to electric generators, and does so with no heat output, again, aside from the signature produced by the operator.
Given the ludicrous progress of the US Army’s new Infantry Squad Vehicle (ISV), it might be time for regular militaries to think about “going old school”.