On the morning of 28 June 1914, the 12th Tour de France began in Paris. The riders couldn’t have known that, over 1000 miles away in Bosnia, Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austrian Empire had just been assassinated. One week after the race had finished, Germany would declare war on France – World War I had begun.
What the Tour de France riders also couldn’t have known was the prominent role that the bicycle would come to play in the war. Although the First World War is remembered most for the horrific trench fighting along the Western Front, in its opening stages armies turned towards the bicycle to increase their mobility.
Bicycles in war
During the First World War, the British, Belgians, Germans, French, and Italians all employed the use of the bicycle to varying degrees of success. In fact, it is thought that Britain’s first fatality of the war was a teenage reconnaissance cyclist named John Parr who was scouting for German positions in Belgium. He was killed just days after the British Army arrived in France.
The Italians made use of bicycles the most. They were used by a light infantry unit called the Bersaglieri - meaning marksmen - who were known for their high degree of mobility and were recognised by their extravagant headdresses.
The First World War began as a very mobile war which proved perfect for bicycles. Both sides used a large number of bikes to help their troops get to the front lines as quickly as possible, and there were numerous reports of their cycling bravery in the British press. However, as the war descended into the hellish pits of trench warfare, bicycles proved more and more ineffective on the Front Line. But, this does not mean that bicycles were no longer used in the war effort at all.
British cycling battalions were instead used for reconnaissance and to ferry communications between trenches. This was particularly vital whenever the security of the trench telephone system was compromised. What’s more, the canal systems in both Britain and France were seen as very vulnerable to attack by sabotage and were therefore regularly patrolled by Army cyclists.
Types of bicycle that were used
There were three main types of bicycle commonly used during the war. The biggest percentage were normal road bikes, to which military accessories – such as front and rear carriers and rifle clips - were later added.
Many of the top bicycle manufacturers in the UK also offered military roadsters – militarised versions of civilian road bikes. These tended to be bicycles with more robust frames, wider wheels, and various combinations of military accessories. They were often used for troop transport, rather than patrols, due to their weight.
Folding bicycles also became invaluable. When soldiers came across tricky terrain, they were able to fold them, stow them on their backs, and tackle the ground on foot. The Italian Bersaglieri were the first to make use of folding bikes, and other armies soon caught on.
It’s not known exactly how many military cyclists there were in the First World War, but it is estimated that at least 100,000 British soldiers used bicycles in some way, showing their invaluable role in the British war efforts.
100 years after World War I began, the 2014 Tour de France organisers opted for a tribute route that hugged the line of what was the Western Front. The cyclists rode past battle sites and through towns, such as Reims and Ypres, that have become almost synonymous with the atrocities that occurred - a moving reminder of the “war to end all wars” that cost millions of lives and the role that the bicycle played.