Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Peaceful Bicycle?

As every Gentleman knows it is never long before new inventions get the once over from our friends in military uniform. Almost from the inception of the bicycle experimentation took place to ascertain what opportunities the bicycle offered to the military to quicken the demise of the enemy.
Despite beavering away like demented clockwork toys it was not until 1894, and the advent of the pneumatic tyre, that improved tyre resilience and a shorter sturdier frame meant that the bicycle was considered as a practical military tool. Military Cyclists were first used as messengers and scouts and it was not terribly long before whole Bicycle units were created by European armies.
In the UK military cyclists were employed by the militia and territorial units, often quicker than their more conservative regular counterparts to adopt the novel and new. The French military started toying with cycle units in an 1886 experimenting with folding bikes on the backs of “Chasseurs a pied” but it was in the United States that the most extensive experimentation with bicycle units was carried out. Using a variety of different bicycle models, Lt. Moss and his unit of the “25th Coloured Regiment” (an African-American unit managed by white officers) carried out extensive bicycle tests. The unit often went about modifying their bikes for use over “road-less terrain”, perhaps conjuring up the first real ATB’s and won considerable attention and fame, often riding for hundreds of miles at speeds that would defy even horsed cavalry.
The first known use of the bicycle in combat occurred during the Jameson Raid of (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896), in which cyclists carried messages for the doomed, almost lunatic enterprise. Not a terribly successful start to the military career of the bicycle, but it was quickly improved upon in the Boer war. During that conflict cyclists were primarily used as scouts and messengers, but combatative bicycle raids were conducted by both sides. One of the most famous units in the entire war was the Theron se Verkenningskorps or TVK, a Boer bicycle scout unit lead by Daniel Theron whose exploits became something of a legend across Africa and was even more broadly reported across the world.
In the Great War, cycle-mounted infantry, scouts, & messengers were used by all combatants; finding particular favour with Continental Armies . Both Italian Bersaglieri and German Jager battalions had Bicycle Companys at the outbreak of the war and enthusiasm for the bicycle really seems to have captured German Commanders imaginations, for after the war they conducted an extensive study of the cycle in war and published their findings in a well received report – “Die Radfahrertruppe” (Bicycle Troops).
Despite Teutonic appreciation for the bicycle it was Japan that took the lead on military cycling in the post WW1 world, employing some 50,000 bicycle troops in its initial invasion of China in 1937. They repeated their Bicycle campaigning in early 1941 with the successful capture of Singapore which was largely due to their speedy and imaginative use of bicycle-riding soldiery. Bicycles allowed quiet, swift, and logistically light campaigns. Thousands of troops were able to mount swift, enterprising, and multi-directional surprise attacks which confused their enemy. Bicycles were cheap, easy to maintain and made few demands on Japanese industry, especially as leg power reduced the dependence on petrol.
The Finnish army used bicycles during the 1930’s and 40’s. Bicycle units spearheaded the advances against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and were used right up to the end of the war.
Hitler was less keen on the bicycle preferring motorised two wheeled transport for his reconnaissance units early in the war. Some Wehrmacht units did utilise bicycles in the blitzkrieg era especially during the initial months of the war, and towards it’s end German Volksgrenadier divisions incorporated a bicycle battalion in their structures in the faint hope that such a formation might act as a flexible and mobile reserve.
Allied Forces did not use the bicycle much in World War II, but folding bicycles were issued to some paratroopers and occasionally for special messengers where circumstances permitted.
More recently bicycles took on a new lease of military life in a series of modern insurgency conflicts where the cycle's ability to carry troops and relatively large loads across larger distances than pedestrians might alone. In the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese used bicycles to ferry supplies. The bikes were not ridden but used almost as a mechanical mule, with a tender walking alongside, pushing the heavily loaded bike.
The use of the cycle as battlefield transport continued well into the 21st century with the Swiss and Swedish Armies. In Sweden bicycle units were phased out by 1952 yet the Swiss only phased the military bike out in 2001. (Kronan produces a modernized version of the Swedish m/42 military bicycle still...although I have never ridden one I’m told it’s a marvellous and tough bit of kit!).
In very recent times bicycles have been used by terrorists as bombs; In August 1939 – just days before the outbreak of the Second World War, Coventry was the scene of a bicycle bomb attack by the IRA. In this attack a bomb exploded inside the carrier basket of a tradesman's bicycle that had been left outside a shop. Interestingly the same tactic was repeated by the IRA in Sussex at two seaside resorts during the summer of 1994. 
Even up to a few days ago the tactic was still going strong in Afghanistan when a bomb placed on a bicycle killed three people and wounded at least 25 others in the eastern province of Laghman. Sadly it appears the military use of the bicycle will remain with us for some time to come.

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