Bicycles in combat: Cyclists during the First World War

The First World War is often remembered for its static nature and trench warfare. In its opening stages, however, the opposing armies looked towards mobility. Reasonably lightweight, easy to maintain, and relatively quiet, the bicycle earned itself a valuable role during the First World War. 

Image: [Canadian Messenger with German spring tire bicycle], A.S. English Fonds, Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2016.3.1.1-43.

The origins of the bicycle in warfare date much farther back than the First World War. As early as 1870, the French were using bicycles during the Franco-Prussian War and as recent as 1902, the British were experimenting with it during the Second Boer War in South Africa. Thus, it came as no surprise when the Canadian Expeditionary Force formed the Canadian Divisional Cyclists (later the 1st Canadian Divisional Cyclist Company) in 1914. Predominantly formed by the men of the Corps of Guides, the cyclists sailed for England aboard the Ruthenia in October, 1914.

Known alternatively as the “Suicide Battalion,”  the duties of the cyclists proved to be incredibly dangerous. These included gathering intelligence, laying and maintaining telephone wires, delivering messages, training border patrols, and acting as trench guides. Their ability to manoeuvre between battlefields and well ahead of a force meant they were ideal for gathering intelligence, performing surveillance and reconnaissance, and obtaining “battle-winning information”. [1] However, their varied duties also made it difficult to keep track of them, and in May 1916, the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian Divisional Cyclist Companies were amalgamated to form the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion. The newly formed Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion began performing tunnelling duties and operation rail lines, with their most famous tunnels being those near Neuville-Saint-Vaast. [2] Integral to the assault on Vimy ridge in April 1917, the Battalion came together for the first time as a proper fighting force.

The Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion was disbanded in November, 1920. As such, there is no perpetuating unit or Battalion Association advocating for the Battalion’s Service during the First World War. However, there are efforts currently underway to see the Battalion formally honoured by the Canadian Battle Honours Committee. Headed by the descendants of those who formed the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion, they intend to shed light on a history that is seldom shared.

 

References 

[1] War Office, Cyclist Training (Provisional), 1914.

[2] Ellis, W.D. Saga of the Cyclists in the Great War, 1914-1918. Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion Association: 1965. pp. 58-9.

 

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Bicycles in combat: Cyclists during the First World War

  1. I’ve never seen proof the Cyclists were ever referred to as the “suicide battalion”, it seems to be an internet myth. When you look at the casualties sustained by the Cyclists, while relatively high as a portion of the unit, they were very small when compared to those sustained by infantry, machine gun and artillery units. This is borne out by the data.

    Like

    1. Hi Casey,

      Thank you for your comment. The Cyclist Corps regularly referred to themselves as a “suicide battalion”, there is a great article in the Toronto Star run on 13 September 1918 using the name, among other official and unofficial communications; however your point about casualties is well taken. The unit had a rate of about 23% which is indeed low in comparison.

      Like

  2. Regardless of whether or not the Cyclist Corps considered themselves to be a ‘suicide battalion’, the fact remains that reconnaissance is an inherently dangerous job because of the close proximity to the enemy and ever-present risk of discovery that it entails.

    I personally served briefly in a reserve armoured reconnaissance regiment in the very early 1980s. The fact that we were equipped with nothing more than a jeep with a pintle-mounted machine gun mounted on the crew commander’s side brought home rather firmly the reality that if we were engaged, we would have little to no real protection from enemy fire.

    Bicycle recce troops, by virtue of their slow-moving conveyances, were even more vulnerable.

    For what it’s worth, my great-great uncle, Robert Finnie Struthers, was a member of the Cyclist Corps and he was wounded in action in late 1918, just a few months before the war ended. His war service records show how he spent time in several different field hospitals in France recuperating from his wound before he was sent to England and then demobilized in 1919. His experience is proof of the danger inherent in the missions he had to carry out, and the risks that all soldiers have to face in combat.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s