Professional armies may often be inherently conservative organisations but they are quick to examine new technology to assess its utility in a military context. The introduction of the bicycle was no different. It appeared to offer several advantages over cavalry for specific tasks, being able to traverse over most ground, requiring neither forage nor water, was easily transportable by rail, and could be ridden by a fit and trained soldier over distances and at speeds that at least equalled, and often bettered, cavalry and greatly exceeded what was achievable by infantry.
Its introduction as a military vehicle appears to date from 1875 when the Italian Army used bicycles to carry messages between the Quartermaster-General and the Chiefs of Battalions during their manoeuvres at Somma. The cyclists employed were found to be able to cover 20 kilometres in an hour and maintain this pace for several hours. In 1884 cyclists from the Austrian Military Academy performed a five day march carrying full field kit, covering distances of up to 110 kilometres in a day. During the 1885 manoeuvres the Austrians employed cyclists as messengers with up to 160 kilometres being ridden each day. In January 1886 the German Army authorised the purchase of bicycles for use in carrying messages between the border fortresses of Cologne, Strasbourg, Konigsberg, and Posen.
In France General Cornat employed cyclists to pass messages between the French frontier fortresses and as despatch bearers during the 1886 manoeuvres of the 18th Army Corps. On average the cyclists carried seven or eight despatches a day, averaging 8o kilometres per day over eight consecutive days. On only one occasion were they unable to follow General Cornat on horseback, when he rode across difficult ground. The cyclists, aware of the destination, were able to make an enforced detour and arrived before the General. According to Cornat he did not use a single horseman as an orderly during the manoeuvres and his messages had been carried three times faster than usual.
British interest in the military application of the bicycle first arose in 1881 when Colonel J. Sprot wrote to the Cyclist under the pen-name “C.O.” suggesting that cyclists could act as orderlies and that tricyclists could operate as mounted infantry. In 1882 the Hon. R. G. Molyneux wrote a letter to the Volunteer Service Gazette arguing that in the absence of an adequate cavalry in the army for home defence that cyclists could fulfil the roles of scouts, outposts and orderlies.
The first use of military cyclists in Britain occurred in 1885 when, during the Easter Manoeuvres of that year, Major Bloomfield of the 1st Volunteer Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment suggested their use to his commanding officer, Colonel Tamplin, as the battalion had no cavalry. Acting as scouts the cyclists were able to report the movements of the advancing columns allowing the defenders to safely hold a bridge without fear of being turned by attacks along parallel roads.
The 1st V. B. Royal Sussex repeated their use of cyclists in 1886 but it was the Easter Manoeuvres of 1887 that brought military cycling to wider public attention. The manoeuvres were carried out between Friday 8th and Monday 10th April at Dover and the general idea was that an invading army landing unopposed at Sandwich Bay had rapidly sent out a strong force of all arms to seize the high ground around Whitfield and if possible secure the Dover-London road and railway about Kearsney. The defending commanding officer in turn had sent out a force to Whitfield to cover Kearsney from attack from the north while awaiting reinforcements.
Finding himself short of cavalry for the manoeuvres, Colonel Stracey, Scots Guards, commander of the ‘enemy’ Dover Marching Column advertised in the national press for cyclists to act as scouts on the flanks of his line of march. The advert was read by Lieutenant-Colonel A. R. Savile, Professor of Tactics at Royal Military College, Sandhurst, who offered his services to Colonel Stracey as commander of the cyclist force.
The response to the advert among the cycling community was impressive and Savile was able to form a scratch force comprised of both Volunteer servicemen and civilians, the latter advised to wear their cycling club uniforms while on manoeuvre. To give them practical experience before the manoeuvres began Savile issued the following special idea instructing the Cyclist Corps to assemble at St Thomas’s College, Canterbury, on Good Friday when they would take part in an independent reconnaissance.
“An invading force, unprovided with cavalry, has landed unopposed at Sandwich. The officer commanding the force desires to occupy Canterbury and to close the roads and railways leading from Chatham to Canterbury and Whitstable. His object can apparently best be attained by seizing the railway junction east of Faversham, at Preston, through which the main Chatham-Canterbury road also passes. He therefore rapidly pushes forward his scouting corps of cyclists to ascertain whether any of the defenders have arrived east of Faversham, and whether a suitable defensive position for occupation by the advanced guard of the invaders can be found along the Faversham Creek, near Ospringe, covering the railway junction and closing the main road. Information is further required as to whether Whitstable is occupied and has been fortified by the defenders. Fast-riding scouts are also to be pushed forward to examine and report upon certain strategic points on the projected line of advance.”
The cyclists corps were issued with instructions to fall back and report immediately if they sighted any of the enemy’s outposts or scouts. Under no circumstances were they to attempt to run the gauntlet of any vedettes and they were to take every precaution to avoid capture.
The main force, comprised of four columns marching on different roads, left Canterbury on the morning of Good Friday preceded by the cyclist scouts. The volunteer corps performed well, keeping the columns advised of the route ahead by means of telegraph or cyclist despatch riders, traversing ground which would have been impassable for horses, and covering the ground in less time than it would have taken cavalry. Savile further sent two picked men on a special mission in which they covered 50 miles in under five hours despite fierce north-easterly winds and poor road conditions. Throughout the manoeuvres the cyclist corps provided timely and accurate intelligence on the enemy and proved their worth as despatch riders. The manoeuevres ended on Easter Monday on the review ground where, after an hour’s parade ground drill, the Cyclist Corps marched past the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, to the cheers of the assembled crowd.
The War Office reported that the performance of the Volunteer Cyclists Corps was “very satisfactory.” Savile, keen to follow up on the success of the manoeuvres, drew up a recommendation for the formation of cyclist sections in volunteer battalions which was issued by the War Office in August, 1887. The strength of the section was to be one officer, two non-commissioned officers, from twelve to twenty privates and one bugler. Men were to be preferably between the age of nineteen and twenty-five, between 5 feet 4 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height, and weigh no more than twelve stone. They were also required to be good marksmen and have knowledge of signalling and surveying or drawing. Safety bicycles were preferred and each rider was to carry tools and be able to perform simple repairs. The bicycles were also required to carry arms, ammunition, and the rider’s service kit. Uniform was to follow that of the battalion, with the appropriate substitution of breeches or knickerbockers for trousers and of shoes for boots. Central to their role was reconnaissance and they were also to be trained in the occupation of a defensible position or post.
Volunteer battalions were quick to respond, as evidenced by the creation of a Cyclists Corps for the V.B. Somerset Light Infantry during a meeting held at the George Hotel, Taunton, on Tuesday 13th September 1887. By June 1888, when Savile delivered a lecture on military cycling to the Royal United Services Institute, at least thirty-two cycling sections existed in volunteer battalions.
In December 1887 Savile was appointed by the Secretary of State as president of a committee to consider the best bicycles to be used by the volunteer battalions, their clothing and equipment, training and conditions of efficiency. The committee issued an initial report which closely echoed the recommendations made by Savile in August. The question of which type of bicycle revolved around the various merits of ordinary versus safety bicycles and tricycles, and of single versus multiple rider machines. The safety bicycle was considered to be the best all-round machine as it was easy to mount and dismount from, simple to store and transport, and offered better handling than other types of cycle. Key to the military use of bicycles was standardisation of parts so that repairs could be effected quickly from parts in stores and so that emergency repairs could be conducted by transferring parts from one machine to another.
The committee’s report marked the beginning of a serious debate within the British Army about the merits of the bicycle for military purposes. Their use in Army Manoeuvres was to continue up to the opening of the First World War, numerous tests were conducted to determine the best machines and equipment, and a series of handbooks on drills and training were issued. Ultimately the development of motor vehicles rapidly superseded the use of military bicycles as motorcycles offered a faster method of relaying despatches while any tactical use of cyclists as mounted infantry was made redundant by the greater speed of mobile infantry and armoured units.
 “The volunteer manoeuvres at Dover,” Morning Post, April 6, 1887, 7.
by Mike Dash
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