The bicycle is a machine that we can all relate to, it’s a common denominator. Be that early childhood memories of the first ride down that steep hill, the freedom to go distances that would be problematic on foot or that flat tyre at the most inconvenient time.
Today, bike technology has changed dramatically from the bikes that were being used in the First World War. No carbon fibre frames or dual suspension shock absorbers, gears – what were they? And the AIF Uniform was the standard Cycling Corps apparel, no Italian lycra for our boys as the photograph below demonstrates. This photograph was taken in c1915 at Broadmeadows, Victoria of six members of the Australian Cycling Corps with their bicycles prior to deployment overseas.
It is not well known that the AIF had cycling units that were used in many of the major battles during the First World War such as Messines in June 1917, and Passchendale July 1917. These units were deployed to the front line as well as undertaking cable burying, traffic control and reconnaissance work.
The bikes were not the Malvern Star of the day. They were issued from England and manufactured from Birmingham Small Arms Company – or better known as BSA. This company was also a major British arms and ammunition manufacturer since the Crimean War (1854-1856). It is interesting to note that the bikes did not come with bottle holders as today’s do. The men would carry water supplies like the regular army corps. Also the soldiers were issued with the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) .303 calibre rifles, having the option of either attaching it to the down tube of their bike or swung across their back. As can be seen from the photograph of 827 Pte Jack Bambury and 830 Pte Herbert Davis at Henencourt, 12 May 1917. The colour patches are just visible in this image too.
The models of the bikes ranged from the Mark I through to the Mark IV. If you were lucky you were issued with a Mark IV. This bike had a free wheeled hub, which basically means you were able to coast without having to pedal constantly – as with the Mark I to III. Those models had a fixed hub, which in today’s terms would be called a Fixie - or Track bike (those that you see on the Velodrome). The Mark IV was also issued with a hand operated rear brake. This brake would have nowhere near the stopping capacity of the disc brakes that are often on contemporary mountain bikes and some road bikes.
Before the official formation of cycling units, bikes were used for transport and other military needs as can be seen by this photograph taken in Serapeum, Egypt c1915. This photograph is of the Signal Section of the 13th Battalion, AIF ready to march off to a ceremonial parade with their bicycles and signal equipment.
All cycling units had colour patches and badges. The colour patches were square with a white background and a superimposed red middle square. These were positioned at the top of each individual sleeve of the tunic. Below are examples of the 1 Australian Divisional Cyclist Company and the 2 Australian Divisional Cyclist Company.
The terrain these soldiers had to endure seems impossible to contemplate; riding through mud and rubble while under constant threat of shellfire. These bikes did not have the luxury of knobblie tyres either (tyres that have protruding pieces of rubber for extra grip); but would have been a standard military issue of little or no grip, more like standard tyres, as can be seen in the bicycle below. This photograph was taken in Ypres, Belgium on 26 September 1917.
The AIF cycling units have often been forgotten in military history but the humble bicycle played a very important role in the logistics of warfare. The simplicity of the bike made transportation quick and reliable. Even in 2008 the Australian Military were using the bicycle in East Timor to improve flexibility of field patrols with a unit called Bicycle Infantry Mounted Patrol (BIMP). Here we are, nearly 100 years on, and it still plays an import role in military life as it does in civilian.
For those wanting further information the book ‘History of the First AIF/NZ Cyclist Corps 1916-19 CYCLING TO WAR’ by Ronald J Austin goes into detail of the Corps and is an excellent overview.