Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

General Pershing Rode A Harley: Use of Motorcycles & Bikes in WW1

Not long before the motorcycle there was the bicycle, a mode of transport fueled by human energy. In terms of energy conversion it is efficient, easy to maintain and with little effort gets you from A to B. In the photographic story depicted on this site it is not easy to identify the make of the bikes being ridden and many of them were bought by the opposing forces before the war; or captured by them during it.

Armies By Bicycle

The British Army had bicycle companies within its divisions. During the course of the war one of these divisions became The Cycle Division . The United Kingdom also employed cyclists in the territorial units of the army. The territorials were responsible for homefront duties, for example, patrolling the South and East coasts of England for signs of invasion.

The first contact between the British and German armies occurred on the 22nd August, 1914, when a British bicycle reconnaissance team encountered a German unit near Oberg. One of the cyclists, Private John Parr was killed, thereby becoming the first British fatality of the war. On the next day German scout patrols on bicycles encountered the Russian 2nd Army advancing on Neidenburg, beginning the events that would lead to the Battle of Tannenberg.Then on the 23rd August, 1914, at Mons, British and French cyclists fought rear guard actions, dismounting from bicycles in order to fire their weapons. They then retreated on the bicycles

Some facts about the widespread use of bikes:

  • The French army used bicycles with Peugeot manufacturing 63,000 for the war effort.
  • In 1915 The Italian Bersaglieri rode bikes and fought as infantry soldiers.
  • Austria-Hungary and Italy used bicycles with their light infantry units.
  • The German Army Jager (light infantry) battalions each had a bicycle company (Radfahr-Kompanie) at the outbreak of the war. By 1918 there were a total of 80 companies. A number of these were formed into eight Radfahr-Bataillonen (bicycle battalions).
  • In the aftermath of the war, the German Army conducted a study on the use of the bicycle and published its findings in a report entitled Die Radfahrertruppe.

An Historical Note

In 1871 the four kingdoms of Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony and Wurttemberg were unified into one German state. Each retained its own military units until the end of WWI. Within the records of the Bavarian Regiment of the German Army, now archived and online, are included ‘volunteer’ Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s record describes him as a ‘Catholic’, an ‘Artist’ and a ‘Messenger (bike rider) for the Regiment’, whose role was to carry messages back and forth from the command staff to the units near the battlefields.

Armies By Motorcycle

European armies had begun using fast and agile motorcycles as reconnaissance and messenger vehicles, and even as ambulances. Many motorcycles used during World War I were equipped with special sidecar mounted machine guns. By the time America entered the war in 1917, the motorcycle was widely used for combat, communications and transportation.

The new sport of motorcycle racing was a powerful incentive to produce tough, fast, reliable machines. Experimentation and innovation drove development right into the First World War and by 1914, motorcycles were no longer bicycles with engines: they had their own technologies, although many still maintained bicycle elements like seats and suspension.

The German army had Renault, the French Peugeot, The Italians Garelli designs, the British Triumph and the Russians borrowed designs and bought from them all. Motorcycle production became focused on the Allied war effort.

In England the ‘Trusty Triumph’, considered by many to be the first “modern” motorcycle, was introduced in 1915. Some 30,000 Model H bikes were supplied to Allied forces during World War I (20,000 for UK forces).

The United States Army began using motorcycles as early as 1913, and in 1916 the Harley-Davidson Motor-Cycle Company’s bike was chosen by GEN John J. Pershing for the pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico. By 1917, when the USA entered the war, roughly one-third of all Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced were sold to the U.S. military. The U. S. Army bought 50,000 Indian Powerplus motorcycles, causing the company to devote its entire production to the military, thus losing the domestic market.


The new automobiles that were evolving at the time showed better combat possibilities, particularly if they could be properly armed and protected against enemy firepower. But the compact maneuverability and speed of these two-wheeled vehicles continue to make them an important mode of military transport, and an evolving part of military history.


First World War Motorcycle and Bike Pictures