I want to ride my bicycle … by Queen, the King and Kaiser soldiers

You’d be forgiven for immediately thinking of Queen’s song – it did inspire the title… and an event during Queen Victoria’s reign as explained by Thomas Pakenham in The Boer War inspired the post – although the London tube strike influenced the date for posting.

Shortly before the Second Anglo-Boer War started, Lord Milner, the Governor of South Africa in Cape Town was on a working holiday in England. During this time, he took a secret bicycle tour to Devon with a lady friend (Pakenham chapter ‘Nods and winks‘). Aside from this intriguing human insight into Lord Milner, the section which caught my eye was:

Indeed, the bicycle was the sports car of the nineties, the sporting symbol of the age. (It added spice not only to love, but to politics. Cabinet ministers like Balfour – the ‘divine Arthur’ of the Panshanger set – went dashing down to Hatfield on their bikes to see the Prime Minister. It was on his bike that ‘Pom’ McDonnell, Salisbury‘s urbane Private Secretary, had sped from Hatfield to Osterley one sunny weekend in 1895 with the glorious news for Arthur: the Liberal government had fallen.)

Although by 1914, when the forces of the King of England and the Kaiser were at war, cars were more prevalent, in Africa bicycles still had an important role to play especially when silent movement was required. Motorcycles were used abundantly as a means of rapid transport, however, the noise often gave away the position. Hector Duff, administrator in Nyasaland pays tribute to the dangers faced by the motor-cyclists in his memoirs (). Therefore, on occasions where secrecy was required, bicycles were the preferred form of rapid transport (Hordern, Official history, p35).

The Lake Tanganyika Expedition was also to make use of the bicycle with Spicer-Simson referring to a

cyclometer for my bicycle [being delivered by] one of Mr Locke’s employees [who arrived] direct from Fungurume on a bicycle ( ADM 137/141)

Bicycles were fundamental for Lettow-Vorbeck’s assessment of the position in Tanga during the November 1914 battle – he used them himself as did officers and messengers (Reminiscences of East Africa). On 14 November 1918, Lettow-Vorbeck records that:

I cycled  back to our main body and told the Europeans what I had learned at the Chambezi, and that it was my intention to carry out the conditions [of surrender] which had been officially communicated to me… (p318, Reminiscences of East Africa).

Later,

Lieutenant Kempner was sent out on a bicycle to get this sum [one and a half million rupees] from the English, or induce them to procure it was quickly as possible [to pay the Askaris their outstanding salaries] (p319, Reminiscences of Eat Africa).

That said, bicycles are still essential forms of travel in many places in Africa and I’m constantly amazed at the type and extent of produce transported on a single bike (around 20 mattresses on one and up to 5 20kg bags of charcoal on another, on roads our vehicle was having to do 10-20km per hour).

For those who believe in history repeating itself, or at least appearing to, over the past few years, bicycles have again come into fashion, particularly in London with the Boris bike (officially Barclays Cycle Hire) and cycle trains which are prominent on tube strike days.

The importance of the bike in war has been acknowledged in the publication Bicycles in war by Martin Caidin and Jay Barbree (1974).

Previous posts mentioning bicycles:

Transporting pigeons by bicycle restricted them to being moved along existing roads.

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One thought on “I want to ride my bicycle … by Queen, the King and Kaiser soldiers

  1. The Belgians had a cycle company of the Force Publique at Katanga in 1916 (Lisolo na Bisu 1885-1960: Our history – the Congolese soldier of the Force Publique’ published by the Belgian Royal Army Museum, 2010)

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