Lest We Forget
Trench warfare; not exactly a place where you think "ooh, I need a bicycle."
But the history of cyclists in active service during wars is nothing new. And today is an especially fitting day to remember these little-known cyclists who served and fought, many of whom lost their lives.
Their bikes were heavy beasts, and for the most part single-speed.
But the simplicity of the bike, mechanically and for refuelling purposes, made them ideal for transportation, for burying the cables used for communications, even traffic control and of course reconnaissance work.
The two battalions of Australian and New Zealand Cycling Corps advanced over hilly terrain, over rubble and through the suffocating mud, and under shellfire they pedalled carrying loaded packs on their backs and a rifle, the Short Magazine Lee Enfield .303 calibre rifles, either mounted on the down tube of their bike or slung across their backs.
Deployed in a number of major battles, most notably Messines in June 1917, and Passchendaele July 1917, these units fought on the front lines as well as providing operational support and acting as ambulances.
The bikes themselves were made in England; manufactured by the Birmingham Small Arms Company. The BSA had been a major British arms and ammunition manufacturer since the days of the Crimean War in the mid-1800s. For some reason, possibly rationing of rubber during the war, the bikes didn’t even have the “luxury” of tyres with extra rubber protrusions (think mountain bikes tyres) for better grip, standard military issue was the treacherously sleek and smooth road tyre similar to the road tyre of today.
The AIF cycling units have often been forgotten in military history but at one point were seen as a crucial resource.
The Australian military deployed bicycles during the Boer War, World War I, the Japanese invasion of Malaya-Singapore and in Vietnam, and as recently as 2008 were using bicycle field patrols in East Timor.
Thanks to the Australian War Memorial for all images, and thanks as always to our Diggers.