Friday, January 3, 2014

1914 - The Year World War I Started

Later in 1914 we will have the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, about which I expect we'll read and hear plenty. Bicycles were a relatively low-cost way to achieve a more mobile infantryman, but their use seems to have been limited. Still, one does see photographs.

France - Cyclists of Army, from the Library of Congress

[between ca. 1914 and ca. 1915]
1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.
Notes: Title from data provided by the Bain News Service on the negative.
Photograph shows French soldiers with bicycles during the beginning of World War I.
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Subjects-World War, 1914-1918.
Bain News Service Collection persistent URL for version at Library of Congress.

While cyclist-soldiers take up most of the visual space in the photograph above, there is one mounted cavalryman to the left. One wonders how the two groups, cyclists and traditional cavalry, regarded one another.

Cycle orderlies under fire, from the National Library of Scotland

From the National Library of Scotland description of this photograph: Cyclists sheltering from shelling, Western Front, during World War I. A shell bursting in the rubble of ruined buildings beside a road. Two cyclists have turned their bikes upside down and are using the wheels to give a little shelter from the blast. Curiously, a third man, appearing totally unconcerned, seems to be using a hammer and chisel on a rock in the road.

Bicycles were used quite commonly, not only for general transport, but also for carrying dispatches. Motorbikes, runners, pigeons and dogs were also used to carry messages because field telephones were limited by the need for cables and wireless was still unreliable.

I think the person who wrote this annotation is lacking imagination - rather than using a hammer and a chisel on a rock, I believe the fellow is bashing some bicycle part to try to bend it - that would make more sense. I also don't think they were seeking shelter behind their bicycles - not much shelter to be had! It seems more logical that they were simply working on their bikes, the photographer was going to record that scene, and by chance the photographer captured the shell going off in the background as well. Anyway, I like that theory better.

By chance I found this book written by a young American journalist, Roadside Glimpses of the Great War by Arthur Sweetser, published in 1916 before the United States was part of WWI - amazingly he did much of his travel in the war zones of France and Belgium by bicycle. On page 23 he starts what is probably one of the more unusual bicycle travelogues:
It was obvious that even if the Germans entered Lille at all, it would be only with a small holding force. The main army was driving through farther east. Douai, they told me, was the centre of activities, but how to cover the forty kilometres there was a poser. At last the idea of a bicycle struck me. It would be quaint indeed thus to chase the battle-front blindly all over France. After a whole day's hunting and tremendous linguistic effort, I secured the best the city could offer, the best bicycle, I soon believed, in all France, a machine which, costing me but $23 secondhand, was destined to take me half across the country.

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