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Bad Teeth No Bar

 A History of Military Bicycles in the Great War


Colin Kirsch


London: Uniform, 2018

Paperback. 382 pages. ISBN 978-1910500927. £32


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen




The role of horses in the Great War is of course well documented, with another illustrated book appearing fairly recently, Simon Butler’s The War Horses : The Tragic Fate of a Million Horses in the First World War (Wellington: Halsgrove, 2011). But until Colin Kirsch filled the gap with his magnificently researched and superbly illustrated large-size, heavy paperback, there was no thorough study of the units and machines of the ‘gas pipe cavalry’ [named from the tubes forming the frame of a bicycle] of the warring armies. And even though it is not written by an academic for ‘the scientific community’, it has a lot to offer to academics with an interest in the First World War. This is one of the bonuses of the current centenary: it gave rise to many monographs on little-explored aspects of the War.

Just as the fighting possibilities of aeroplanes were immediately perceived by the military, the humble bicycle made its way into armies as soon as a reliable version – which has hardly changed today – was produced, around 1885. The book tells us why:

The bicycle could be loaded with equipment and ridden or pushed; it was light enough to be carried over obstacles; it was silent when ridden (a particular advantage at night); it could be easily hidden if it needed to be abandoned; and it was simple to repair. […] The most important factor of all was that, unlike the horse or motorcycle, it required neither food nor petrol to sustain it. [17]

The British Army first actually used cyclists on the front during the Boer War (1899-1901), with a massive investment in bicycles after the invasion of Belgium in August 1914. Kirsch’s figures are most interesting: ‘the British cycle industry led the world in 1914 and over the following few years more than 100,000 British military bicycles are believed to have been supplied to the British, Belgian, French and Russian armies, as well as to overseas destinations like Africa’ [16].

Naturally, the machines had to be mounted by men – volunteers until conscription was introduced with the Military Service Act of January 1916. Alfred Leete’s martial poster of 1914 showing Lord Kitchener addressing the passer-by in age of serving had its low-key counterpart for cyclists, as shown in an extraordinary reproduction [16]:

Are YOU fond of Cycling?

if so



Recruits Wanted

by the S. Midland Divisional Cyclist Company

(Must be 19 and willing to serve abroad)

Cycles provided

Uniform and Clothing issued on enlistment


The last line gave the book its title and Kirsch explains that initially ‘weak eyesight, bad teeth or slight physical defects like flat feet’ were causes for rejection – but he quotes Cycling magazine (3 September 1914): ‘Dental defects – unless they are the cause of malnutrition – will not debar a recruit from passing the doctor’. ‘Hence the line at the bottom of the poster’, Kirsch explains [16] – apparently the Army Cyclist Corps, formed in 1915 (with 30,000 men by the end of the year) after the necessary legislation was passed in November 1914 and immediately disbanded after the war, was less rigorous than the rest of the armed forces.

A later poster, with a headline openly derived from Lord Kitchener’s exhortation, ‘CYCLISTS! Your Country needs You’ (October 1915) shows that weak eyesight, however, remained an insuperable disqualification. The ‘Conditions of service’ indicated make for fascinating reading today:

Age 19 to 40; Height 5 ft. 2 in.; Chest 33 ½ in. (unexpanded). Good Eyesight without glasses essential; Enlistment for the duration of the War. Pay at infantry rates, with usual Separation and other usual Allowances. Cycles, Uniform and Rations provided free. […] Men who are good average road riders will be accepted. [48]

The book has plenty of photographs showing these men in various activities, some with the rifle slung along the frame, resting on the handlebars ready for shooting, though we learn that there were few head-on confrontations by whole units of the Cyclist Corps as ‘mounted infantry’. Many use their bicycles to carry various sorts of loads, from special baskets full of homing pigeons [136-137] to stretchers, with two or three expert riders using the unfolded stretcher secured to their machines to evacuate the wounded from the battlefield: ‘the number one bicycle takes the lead, while numbers two and three are at the rear with the stretcher supported between the three bicycles’ [74]. The risks were very high for some, as Kirsch reminds us: ‘A primary role of cyclists was in signals (reconnaissance and communications) so they became prime targets for snipers, resulting in high casualty numbers. They were nicknamed “The Suicide Battalion” ’ [18].

Though the text and photographs understandably bear mostly on British combatants and their equipment, the rest of the world is not neglected – far from it. Each of the major allies benefits from a section, as does the Empire and Commonwealth and also the enemies. Thus we have photographs of Americans riding with their broad-rimmed hats, Sikhs with their turbans and Germans with their spiked helmets. Some are seen during tours of the European front by their respective authorities, like ‘Prime Minister William Massey and Deputy Prime Minister Joseph Ward inspect the New Zealand Cyclist Corps at Oissy in northern France, 3 July 1918’ [326].

Kirsch being a collector of vintage bicycles who has been running a website called the Online Bicycle Museum since 2007, the back flap tells us, a large part of the book is naturally devoted to the machines and their accessories, with superb colour photographs of restored specimens, old advertisements by the manufacturers and pages from the specialised cycling magazines of the 1910s. One is astonished to see so many brands whose name will be familiar to older readers (though some have now finally disappeared), either as suppliers of bicycles (Raleigh), of accessories (Brooks, which then offered many more accessories besides high-quality leather saddles), of car equipment (Lucas), of cars (Rover, Singer, Sunbeam, Triumph). BSA (Birmingham Small Arms) is the most interesting case of evolution, from weapons, as its name indicates, to bicycles – and to world-famous motorcycles in the 20th century. Some of these companies were based in London or Nottingham, but most were located in Birmingham and Coventry, the two main centres of the British vehicle industry. In the United States, Harley-Davidson of Milwaukee followed the reverse path, first producing motorcycles, but adding bicycles to its range at the time of the First World War. In Italy, the Bianchi family firm – now a major supplier of Tour de France racing bikes, and the only one to figure in Bad Teeth No Bar – was already producing a Modello Militare Brevettato which it sold in quantities to the Russian Army, with a Bicicletta Speciale a Sospensioni Elastiche (Modello Militare C) magnificently preserved and restored, photographed in full colour on p. 216. In France, the Peugeot family, initially specialised in ironware, had by 1914 diversified into motor-cars and motorcycles, but it kept a very strong line of bicycles – especially military ones after buying up the patents for the Bicyclette Pliante ‘Système Gérard’, known in England as the Capitaine Gérard folding bicycle, which equipped the chasseurs cyclistes of the French Army. ‘Though this was not the first folding bicycle – Emmit Latta’s patent preceded it by a number of years – it was the first folding bicycle manufactured in large numbers and accepted for military use’, we learn [211].

The ingenuity of man where engines of war are concerned having no limits, for their part the Germans came up with an innovation which had no future, unlike the folding bicycle: all-steel wheels, with the metal tyre mounted on short radial springs fixed on the rim, as numerous as the spokes – no more punctures to fear, and a clever way of countering the rubber shortage due to the Allied high seas blockade. A full-page colour photograph of a  superbly preserved Herrenrad Victoria ‘Model 12’ with Mauser ‘Gew 88’ Rifle, complete with these unusual wheels, deservedly provides the frontispice for the book. We do not know whether this was the type used by Hitler, ‘who had been a military cyclist messenger in World War I’ [361].

Kirsch’s discussion of the various types and brands is not limited to technical details. Incidentally, it leads to economic considerations. In these days when British Brexiters like Boris Johnson insist that their economy would fare better by passing agreements with countries outside the European Union (‘they will queue to sign with us!’)  and when Donald Trump argues that his trading partners are taking advantage of the United States, it is good to be reminded that there is nothing new under the sun by reading a 1915 advertisement by Michelin, with a drawing in which John Bull is shaking hands with the famous ‘Tyre Man’:

The Common Cause


The Allies are United

in Arms and in Business


1915 Imports to Gt. Britain from France £31,470,445

1915 Exports to France from Gt. Britain £69,702,999


The above figures show that France is

today our very best customer – and it

is up to you to reciprocate in full


Therefore, buy



The famous tyres manufactured by the famous French firm, thus courteously

returning the compliment to France and

… at the same time Economising …


Michelin Means Mileage


One Quality Only – The Best


France is as necessary to England

As England is to France [332]

The sad economic outcome of the war for the bicycle industry had nothing to do with the deteriorating trade balance with France or other countries – simply the market was left with enormous surpluses of Government stocks which had to be sold second-hand (an undated advertisement  announces ‘Government Bargains’ in huge type, with the sub-heading ‘Thoroughly Overhauled and Renovated Government Army Bicycles’[271]) or at a discount, thus freezing sales of new high-quality machines at the full production cost. The industry’s answer was to lower prices by reducing quality:

The main effect of the war on the cycle trade, both at home and in the export market, was to reduce prices still further, shifting the emphasis from making expensive machines for the gentry to new markets among the working classes: the bicycle had now become a popular means of commuting [275].

On the export market, especially the Dutch East Indies, the main competitor had become Japan, since ‘the opportunity provided by World War I enabled it to take advantage of the inability of British companies to deliver to Asia. By using cheap labour, it could produce cheap bicycles’ [274].

As in so many other fields, the Great War had put an end to the world domination of the British cycle industry: another example of the Pyrrhic victory of 1918 and possibly the first ill effects of ‘globalisation’. Probably this is not the conclusion which Kirsch intends the reader to draw from his masterly exploration of the part played by military bicycles and cyclists in the war – but the underlying sense of nostalgia which impregnates his work inevitably leads to it.

Unreservedly recommended to anyone with an interest in the less well known, though fascinating aspects of the First World War.



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