Military Motorcycles in World War One

Military Motorcycles

Military Motorcycles in World War One

Military motorcycles made their first appearance in an era in which everything motorized got militarized. First used by Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, it was for the First World War that the military motorcycle made its real debut. Let’s discover together when they were first deployed and how countries decided to use them to their advantage.

The beginning

As previously mentioned, Pancho Villa rapidly understood that motorcycles offered speed and agility ideal for hit and runs. In 1916, Villa attacked the US city of Columbus, New Mexico, bringing the United States military into the conflict.  President Wilson sent General “Black Jack” Pershing down to Mexico with orders to capture Villa. Pershing took 5,000 men, trucks, planes and motorcycles, to aid in finding Villa.  This was the first time that motorcycles had been used in an armed conflict by the US military and it was Harley-Davidson who provided them.  Harley-Davidson supplied J models, which were powered by F-head (intake over exhasust) engines and capable of speeds up to 60 miles per hour.  A combination of solo motorcycles and sidecar models were ordered by the military.  The sidecars models were additionally equipped with machine guns, making them into mobile gun platforms for fast attack missions.

Pershing spent 11 months chasing Pancho Villa and his Indian motorcycles around northern Mexico, but was unable to catch him. Despite the result of the expedition, the US military was pleased with the performance of the military motorcycles, which played an important part in recommending them for service in WWI.

The first military motorcycles to be used in World War One

The first military motorcycles to make their way to the front lines of the Great War (1914-1918) however were the British Douglas, Triumph, its German counterpart the TWN, and the NSU. Triumph Motorcycles was started in Britain by a German immigrant from Nuremberg named Siegfried Bettmann who set up his business in Coventry and later also set up a German branch in Nuremberg. Before the outbreak of the First World War in 1913 the two companies were set up to operate under different names. In Britain the motorcycles were called Triumph whilst those made in Nuremberg were branded TWN (Triumph Werke Nürnberg).

The British take on military motorcycles

In 1914 the vast majority of motorcycles were little more than standard bicycles with an engine attached. After seeing how mobile soldiers were using them, the British Army decided to invest more resources into developing ones that were more suited for battles. Producing military motorcycles was only half the job, because the military needed people who were able to ride them. The problem was easily solved by recruiting riders from motor clubs and racing leagues. In the spring of 1915, the British Army deployed the Motor Machine Gun Service: riders with sidecars that were specially designed to mount heavy guns.
The British Army also recognized the value of motorcycles as a method for delivering messages. At the time regular telegraph lines were vulnerable to enemy artillery fire and using signal lights or smoke signals showed German snipers where British troops were and risked messages being intercepted by enemy interpreters.

A problem that riders did not have: they could travel quickly and quietly over uneven terrain. Although the small Triumph military motorcycle could only produce 4 horsepower, it became a central tool for British communication on the frontlines. Over 30,000 units were produced during the war.

The German take on military motorcycles

The Germans used military motorcycles to dispatch messages, scouting, and all other things that the British army was doing with them. However, the Germans were also interested in seeing what these vehicles could do in direct combat.
The basic concept was to leave the horses inside their stables and use motorcycles instead.

The reasons that pushed them to test motorcycles as a replacement for horses during calvary charges were:

  • Ease of motorcycles mass-production,
  • more impact
  • motorcycles do not feel fear
  • motorcycles do not have any legs to break

 

Unfortunately, despite on paper motorcycle use resulted way better, this was a poor choice. Motorcycles were not as good as horses on uneven terrain and this caused tests to be pretty tragic. Needless to say: the idea of deploying motorcycles for direct combact was abandoned.

The USA take on military motorcycles

When the United States entered World War I in April of 1917, they brought motorcycles from several US companies. The vast majority of the motorcycles came from Indian and Harley-Davidson, but motorcycles produced by Excelsior and a few other US manufacturers also made it to Europe. Indian dedicated the vast majority of its production to the war effort: the company built almost 50,000 motorcycles for the US Military. Harley-Davidson decided to not only focus on the war effort and delivered over 20,000 motorcycles to support the war.

 

The Indian military model was based on the PowerPlus Big Twin: it featured a 61 cubic inch side valve motor which produced 18 horsepower (over 4 times more powerful than what Triumph military motorcycles were able to produce at the time) and could reliably carry the motorcycle at speeds of 60 mph. The engine was mated to a three speed hand shift transmission and the drive train was mounted into a frame with both front and rear suspension.  Lighting was handled by a gas headlamp and there was even a rear brake just in case you needed to stop quickly.

 

Harley-Davidson instead, based its military model on the their J series: it was equipped with a 61 cubic inch F-head motor which produced 15 horsepower, putting it below the Indian.  Like the Indian PowerPlus it had a three-speed hand shift transmission, a frame with front suspension, and a gas version and only a rear brake was mounted for stopping the motorcycle.
All American motorcycles were divided in motorized units called “Motor Mobile Infantry”and deployed on the front lines: some of them were outfitted with various sidecar mounted machine guns, other were converted into ambulances able to carry one or two wounded soldiers, and other were used to lead convoys, dispatch messages and general transportation behind the front lines.

 

Even if, when talking about WWI the conversation always shifts to how tanks, chemical weapons and trenches were important. We must not forget how vital the role of motorcycles was in shaping the result of the conflict and, therefore, in shaping the world we live in today.

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