The Cycle Industry/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV

MILITARY AND OTHER SERVICE BICYCLES

The advantages of a bicycle for military purposes have been advocated ever since the introduction of the safety, and a branch of the old volunteer service, followed later by the Territorial Army, has always had a cycling section or sections attached to it. The War Office had not been too enthusiastic on the subject until the Great War of 1914–19, when the Cyclists' Section became a recognized and valuable unit of Kitchener's Army, and the War Office placed very big orders for bicycles with many of the largest firms in the industry.

In the old days the cyclist sections were attached to volunteer regiments all over the country, but the Government gave very little, if any, assistance in the purchase of the bicycle and made no attempt to standardize the machines—a very essential thing where any article is used for military purposes.

The cyclist sections paraded at the usual annual camp meetings and engaged in manoeuvres, some of a highly instructive description to the men engaged and authorities alike; all honour and praise to those who worked hard, against strong opposition at times, to prove the handiness and extreme mobility of a soldier when mounted on a bicycle.

Various forms of military machine saw the light some years ago. One was a four-wheeler, or quadricycle, propelled by two or more men and carrying a machine gun; another hauled a small gun or machine gun behind, and was propelled by riders seated tandem or in fours. This was mostly during the days of solid or cushion tyres; with the advent of the pneumatic tyre military cycling was mostly confined to the use of bicycles of the solo pattern.

Carbines or rifles were carried on the machines in much the same manner as they are to be seen in the Army Cyclists Corps to-day.

In war the advantages of a cyclist corps are that a small body of men can push forward to reconnoitre and act as a scouting party; where roads exist, they can, with the aid of a bicycle, cover about three times the distance of foot soldiers and yet be fresh and ready to engage in a skirmish. The bicycle enables men to push forward and make camping arrangements in advance of the main body, and to carry out multifarious duties that in other cases would entail the use of horses which might, by reason of the noise they create, cause their presence to be known to an enemy.

Modern cyclists who carry out military duties recognize that the bicycle is only suitable for certain purposes, and that in some instances it would be only an impediment. Having recognized the failings and advantages of a bicycle in war, it will probably be more largely used than ever in the future by military authorities of this and other countries.

As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the War Office placed huge orders for bicycles with the cycle manufacturers of the Midlands soon after the war commenced in 1914, and bought up all the available suitable stocks they could obtain. Thousands of these machines went to Flanders and France and other overseas countries. Thousands came back to this country and were sold by auction along with those from home camps which were no longer required. These sales undoubtedly affected the retail trade in bicycles throughout the country.

The Continental army authorities, particularly in France, have long recognized the extreme practicability of cycles in war, and the French army have largely adopted a bicycle with a folding frame made by one of its largest and best known manufacturers. This machine, when folded, can be slung across a soldier's back when the ground is too broken to allow a bicycle to be ridden. Thus, the French soldier-cyclist is supplied with a rapid means of transit, and whole companies are equipped with these folding machines and move very rapidly from place to place.

If the Postal Service of the country does not, at the moment, rank equally in importance with the Military Service, it is nevertheless most essentially a branch of the Government of the country, and it makes very large use of the bicycle and the tricycle in the collection and delivery of letters, parcels, and telegrams.

Rural postmen, postwomen, and telegraph girls and boys would be lost without bicycles to carry them swiftly from village to village, and if they were to wake up some morning to find themselves deprived of their use they would, perhaps, appreciate them more than they do now.

The G.P.O. employs a special staff to control its bicycle contracts, to supervise and inspect their manufacture and repair, and generally look after its interests at the factories it favours with its contracts. The cycles used by the G.P.O. are bicycles for telegraph messengers, and postmen, and in some towns carrier tricycles, with baskets in front, for collection of letters from suburban pillar boxes and branch offices. These machines are painted or enamelled the familiar G.P.O. red, and when in dock for any serious repair they are sent to a central depot for attention. Minor repairs are dealt with by local cycle mechanics acting under instructions from the postmaster of the town or district.

Most of the machines have to be capable of resisting somewhat rough treatment, and it is surprising how well they survive it.

The Postmaster-General, like many other Government officials, does not enter too deeply into details in connection with his department, or he would know that a proper dry housing for bicycles is essential if they are to be kept in good condition, and an occasional cleaning and oiling, other than the desultory attention they receive at the hands of the staff who ride them, is as essential to their well-being as to any other piece of machinery. In the meantime, any odd corner out of the way is good enough for the G.P.O. bicycle.