In 1897 one of the most unusual experiments of the army involved the 25th Infantry.
It was the heyday of the bicycle and a young lieutenant, James Moss, was charged with organizing a bicycle corps. The effort was put to an extreme test. On June 14, 1897 20 men of the bicycle corps left Fort Missoula in Montana. Their goal was to ride to St. Louis some 1,900 miles away. When a civilian asked one of the men, “Where are you going today?” the riders quickly shot back their answer, “The Lord only knows. We’re following the Lieutenant.”
By early July the temperature was 110 degrees. Most of the men suffered from the heat, but all peddled on. It took 40 days in all and the group averaged 50 miles a day. The bicycle corps was met in St. Louis by a large enthusiastic crowd, some on bicycles, and escorted to the city center where a large celebration was held. It was a great surprise for the men. They had dealt with dozens and dozens of blown tires, dust caked gears and chains and very few roads.
Photographer Unknown, University of Montana, Mansfield Library
In the end lieutenant Moss thought the only uses for soldiers on bicycles was as messengers or scouts to compliment the cavalry and infantry, but he saw little point in continuing the exercise since horses were plentiful and roads and trails so poor in the west. The army agreed with Moss (who became a Colonel in time) and no further bicycle units were put on the trail.
“Each rider carried a 10-pound blanket roll that included a shelter tent and poles, a set of underwear, two pairs of socks, a handkerchief, and toothbrush and powder. Properly packed, the roll fitted into a luggage carrier in front of the bicycle’s handlebars. Each man also carried rations of bacon, bread, canned beef, baked beans, coffee, and sugar in hard leather cases attached to the bicycle frame. Every other man carried a towel and a bar of soap, and each squad chief carried a comb and brush and a box of matches. Fully loaded, the soldiers’ bicycles weighed about 59 pounds each. Every man also carried a 10-pound Krag-Jorgensen rifle and a 50-round cartridge belt.”
— The Wheels of War by Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer
End of the road for Swiss cycle regiment -
By FIONA FLECK GENEVA Monday 30 April 2001
The famous green-camouflaged Swiss army bicycles, like the knives, are the stuff of legend. Introduced in 1891 despite opposition from the cavalry, the bikes became an integral part of the Swiss defence force. The modern seven-gear mountain bikes, which Swiss Cycle Regiment recruits call their “metal mules”, carry up to 160 kilograms of equipment, including bazookas, mortars, grenades and ammunition. The bikes can reach downhill speeds of almost 65kmh. The regiment’s role in a conflict is to fortify a flank and guard the valleys from Lake Geneva to Lake Constance. The main advantage of the cyclists is that they can be deployed rapidly.
Soldiers in other countries might regard them as something of a joke, but the Swiss are fiercely proud of their combat cycling tradition. Even so, officers and recruits admit that their bikes have no place in a modern high-tech army. “I’ve served 700 days on my bike, but you have to be realistic. An army costs money and we can’t hang on to the bikes just for the sake of tradition,” Captain Matthias Zavratnik, 28, said. He is “deeply saddened” that the regiment will soon be gone. There was a public outcry when Switzerland phased out the mounted cavalry in the 1970s and its carrier pigeon service in the 1990s. But the end of the cycle regiment of 3000, scheduled for 2003, is seen as the cruellest aspect of a sweeping modernisation of the armed forces. It is believed to be the world’s last combat cycle regiment. Captain Daniel Setz, one of Switzerland’s few career soldiers, lamented that the cyclists had to go, but said: “I must provide my men with maximum protection. A platoon of cyclists could be decimated by a modern fragmentation bomb and would stand no chance against snipers.” A 2800-member transport horse unit is also marked to go as army numbers are cut from 360,000 to 100,000.
Recent articles have been written promoting the use of various types of bicycle for units of the US Army, and the Swiss maintain bicycle units in their citizen army. But the most impressive military use of the bicycle was not in these venues, it was in the war in French Indo-China between the forces of the Union of France and the Viet Minh. Pushed to the brink by the forces of General Vo Nguyen Giap, the French were besieged at Dien Bien Phu, deep in the mountains of northern Viet Nam, where it was assumed that the Viet Minh could only bring small arms and mortars to bear due to the remoteness of the outpost. With superhuman effort, the Viet Minh were able to transport an entire REGIMENT of artillery to the hills surrounding the French bastion, and bring it under constant fire. Not only did they bring the guns over jungle tracks, but they supplied them with sufficient shells, and did it all with bicycles and horses. It was concluded that each man could carry upwards of 300 pounds of equipment on his bicycle, and still be able to push it through the jungle tracks for 8 or more hours a day.