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The motorbikes of World War One

Motorbikes played an important role in securing victory for the allies during WWI
Motorbikes played an important role in securing victory for the allies during WWI
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Monday, 04, Aug 2014 04:47

by Hayley McCrystal

As we commemorate 100 years since the start of WWI, MotorbikeTimes takes a look back at the role motorbikes played in the conflict, billed as the war to end all wars

As the nation remembers the bravery of those that served 100 years ago, and as we've seen so many charity rides (see here, here and here for more information) to acknowledge the centenary, we thought it'd be a good idea to have a look at the bikes that were used by the allied forces during WWI, bringing us to victory.

The importance of motorbikes during the Great War is all too often overlooked, however, bikes were used for mounted infantry, scouts, patrol, despatch and courier duties, ammunition carriers, medical supply carriers and casualty evacuation, sometimes being converted into ambulance type vehicles. They versatility of these machines clearly helped them play a hugely significant role in the logistics of the war - more so than cars. The use that they were most commonly used for, however, was that of messenger. Because of the unreliability of communications technology during the war years, the motorbike's virtue of speed meant that orders, reports and maps could be transferred between units quickly. Like the motorised version of a carrier pigeon. Sadly, as we all know, the motorbike doesn't exactly offer you optimal protection. Think of the potential for danger the everyday use of motorbikes presents... now stick it in a warzone. Yikes!

Nonetheless, motorbikes played an integral role in the success of the war and turned what was a relatively new and underdeveloped industry into a worldwide phenomenon.

Motorcycle despatch riders were first put to use in WWI by the British Army Royal Engineers Signal Service, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, favouring Douglas and Triumph bikes.

Motorbikes were first introduced to the British military after the Ministry of Defence made a deal with William and Edward Douglas of Douglas Motorcycles to produce, what they thought was 300 bikes for the military; what the contract actually proposed was to make 300 bikes a month for the duration of the war. That's a heavy production line if ever we've heard of one - especially for that particular era.

It was not only the men of the war who got to ride around on these bad boys, though. The Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) also made use of motorbikes. The initial aim of the WRAF was to provide female mechanics so that men could be free to serve in the armed forces. Thanks to the high number of women volunteers, many also filled driver positions as well. Women's love for the bicycle in this period makes it easy to see how they seamlessly graduated to motorbike. Before the stigma attached itself to motorbikes - occurring after WWII - they were seen as fun and adventurous, and, we're sorry to tell all you macho bikers, a perfectly fitting feminine vehicle.

Until the outbreak of war, Indian motorcycles were the most successful motorbike manufacturer in the world. After the start of the war, Douglas blew Indian out of the water, matching their 20,000 bikes a year and then some, producing over 70,000 motorcycles for military use.

Triumph motorcycles were favoured during the war and focused their production on the war effort. It has been estimated that around 30,000 Model H roadsters were supplied to the Allies, 20,000 going to UK troops. This 'Trusty Triumph' featured a side-valve, four-stroke, 550cc engine and was a favourite of the UK military despite the company only having two factories - one in Coventry and the other in Nuremburg, Germany. Talk about a conflict of interest.

Now, across the pond to our long-serving allies. Like most other US businesses, the motorcycle industry thrived during the war years with Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles leading the pack. It has been estimated that the US ordered over 80,000 bikes for military use during WWI - clearly the motorbike held an important place amongst the troops.

By the end of 1917, Harley-Davidson provided around 15,000 bikes for the war effort. Approximately one third of all Harleys made in 1917 and 1918 were bought for war use. The initial bikes used in the war were adapted civilian models such as the J series, which used a 61 Cubic inch F-head motor producing 15 horsepower. It featured a gas headlight instead of the usual electric one. Harley Davidson later developed the FUS and LUS models with trademark high, flat fenders for the muddy conditions of the war, along with other, 'military-friendly' features. With such a high percentage of production being dedicated to military use, it is clear that the company was invested on making the bikes as ergonomic as possible.

War bikes were also produced by Indian Motorcycle, first founded in Massachusetts, US. They devoted the majority of their production to the war effort and, being a smaller company that Harley Davidson, didn't manage to maintain both the military and domestic markets resulting in them losing many domestic dealers from which they did not fully recover after the war. Harley, on the other hand, went straight back to selling bikes to civilian consumers, having maintained a steady, albeit reduced, supply of motorcycles to their civilian dealers. The Indian model that was used for the war was based on their PowerPlus Big Twin featuring a 61 cubic inch side valve, 1000cc engine, producing 18 horsepower. Like the Harley, the Indian model used a gas headlight for their military bikes.

Excelsior and Henderson also helped provide for war use. The Chicago based company, Excelsior , made at least 2,600 units for the US military, most of which were used for the courier service domestically. Whilst the company gave a valiant effort during the war, it wasn't enough to keep them afloat and they fell victim to the effects of the Great Depression, ceasing all motorcycle operations by 1931.

On this, the 100th anniversary of the Great War, we should remember all those who fought to defend the freedom of our nation, many of whom lost their lives in the process, and those who continue to fight for us. To acknowledge this milestone, the British Legion is inviting everyone in the UK to turn off their lights between 10pm and 11pm tonight (4 August 2014), leaving a single light on or candle lit to commemorate the sacrifices made 100 years ago.

To donate to the British Legion, visit their site by clicking here.

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