The Highland Cyclist Battalion

At the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 regimental and territorial cycle corps were officially designated infantry battalions. The first Highland Cyclist Battalion, a territorial force, was embodied in Kirkcaldy. The name was something of a misnomer for Kirkcaldy is hardly Highland territory.

All cycle units had initially been deployed by the British military to defend the UK coastline.

According to some sources the Highland Cyclist Battalion grew out of the 8th Cyclist Battalion of Territorials of the Perthshire Highland volunteers, renamed as the Highland in 1909 and embodied in 1914 as the 1st/1st battalion. At the end of war it was sent to Ireland and disembodied in 1919.

There were three Highland Cyclist Battalions deployed during the First World War.

The 2nd line battalion Highland Cycle Battalion was formed in November of 1914, also in Kirkcaldy, also ended its days in Ireland. This corps became the 1st Provisional Cyclist Company, in July 1915.

A 3rd line battalion was a home-based training unit which operated between 1915 and 1916. The majority of men from it were posted into the 1st and 2nd Highland Cycle Battalions.

The Highland was one of the several cyclist corps within the British Army. Why cycles?

The bicycle was regarded as providing great flexibility of movement, enabling soldiers to have great freedom of movement for themselves and their equipment, independent of others, and as such the cycle was a good alternative to the horse.

Indeed the cyclist infantry emerged from the cavalry; both mounted units. Cycles were most effective on roads with decent surfaces but remember that bicycles then were a far cry from today’s multi-geared lightweight machines and these government supply cycles were very heavy to handle and impractical over rough ground leading to many of them being abandoned as their riders struggled to keep us with their infantry comrades. Being dependent only on muscle power and the air in their tyres, bicycles were cheaper to run than fuel dependent transport but just as liable to fail so each battalion had its own bicycle mechanics, cycle artificers, to maintain them.

All European armies operated bicycle units. Commonly cyclists would be used as scouts and for communications but by the outbreak of war in 1914 cycle infantry corps were deployed to combat duties. Their silent movement and their flexibility along with their cheap running costs made them popular with all Europe’s light infantries including the Italian Bersaglien and the German Jäger. Poland’s armed forces included around 200 cyclists per company and the Japanese army had 50,000 biking soldiers. In winter, Finnish serving cyclists swapped wheels for skis to keep them on the move.

Men of the Highland Cycle Battalion appear to have been distributed among various regiments as and when required. In addition to their scouting and messenger duties they served within the hard-pressed ambulance service moving casualties away from the front lines to field medical stations for attention.

At the end of the war cycle battalions were disbanded but that was not the end of the military cycle divisions.

In the 1939-45 war cyclists had their place. The Americans dropped bikes over enemy lines, the so-called bomber bikes, for use by their men operating within enemy territory.

A prevailing images of the Vietnamese War is peasant soldiers pushing supply-laden bikes along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Finland’s army operates cycle units and up until 2001 Switzerland retained a bicycle regiment.

Despite their reputation as brutes, the military cycle was resurrected when an updated version of the Swedish military bicycle, the m/42, went back into production in 1997.

A wonderful resource on the history of bicycles http://bsamuseum.wordpress.com/page-5/

Scottish mounted divisions in WWI http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Horse

A good source on cycling within the British army is The Cyclist Division .

One Comment to “The Highland Cyclist Battalion”

  1. A far cry from the millionaire status of today’s (or is it yesterday’s) self-serving drug stars. As Orwell might have said, Two Wheels Good.

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