The Bicycle in Wartime, by Jim Fitzpatrick, Batsford-Brassey, Inc., Dulles, Va., 1998,$26.95.
Technology in warfare brings to mind innovations ranging from war chariots to modern missile systems. Receiving little attention amid all the high-powered weaponry, however, is the considerable role that the bicycle has played in military history, although Jim Fitzpatrick’s book, The Bicycle in Wartime, should do something to redress that.
Emerging as a form of recreation in the latter half of the 19th century, bicycling quickly became a mode of transportation and support for European and American armies. Bicycle structure needed to be modified to meet the needs of soldiers in the field, incorporating heavy-duty tires, reinforced front-wheel forks and strengthened frames. Folding bicycles were developed for easier manual transport, as were special wheel rims to fit railroad rails. Teams of bicycles in tandem, or multiple rider units, were created to tow machine guns and light artillery.
During its infancy, the bicycle corps was expected to perform duties similar to cavalry, with troops carrying lances or forming a breastwork of bicycles to impede cavalry attacks. The U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps proved the sturdiness and reliability of the machine when its troops pedaled through the Rocky Mountains in the late 19th century. During the Boer War in South Africa, bicycles proved valuable for scouting and communications. While the trenches limited the bicycle’s tactical use during World War I, it was a prime means of communication behind the lines.
It was during World War II, however, that the bicycle actually came into its own. In 1939 and 1940, tens of thousands of German Radfahrtruppen pedaled to early victories behind their tanks. In Malaya, columns of Japanese cyclists, laden with their equipment, moved quickly and efficiently down British-built roads to isolate the great fortress of Singapore in February 1942. As Fitzpatrick notes, “In contrast to the European proving ground, the Malayan blitzkrieg was spearheaded by bicycles, followed by tanks.”
Bicycles also proved instrumental in North Vietnam’s effort to drive the French from their country–and later the Americans from South Vietnam. The machines became a key method of transportation, moving ammunition and food stores along primitive jungle trails. Front forks were reinforced to support loads in excess of 400 pounds, while bamboo rods adapted to the handlebars and an additional rod placed in the seat column as a balancing-pushing stabilizer allowed North Vietnamese troops to move supplies to the South despite American efforts to disrupt their highway systems.
Besides a highly readable text, Fitzpatrick provides a valuable bibliography and a wealth of interesting and sometimes bizarre photographs and drawings highlighting the bicycle’s development as a tool of war.
Kenneth P. Czech