Racing for your Life – Motorcycles in World War I and II

September 12, 2017

Corners. That’s where you’ll find the edge, the fine line between victory and going over the high side. The corners are also where you’ll find the snipers…if you are behind enemy lines in World War I. Over one hundred thousand young men raced against death in those early days of motorcycling, and thousands of women joined them serving on motorcycles on the home front. Military commanders discovered that motorcycles in World War I provided better speed than horses for dispatch delivery. The new invention spread rapidly, it’s versatility proven by one “ultimate test” after another.

Motorcycle Troops on Scout Duty in Belgium

Motorcycle Troops on Scout Duty in Belgium

In both World War I and World War II, motorcycles found their most important use for communication. But in World War I, they also provided increased mobility to infantry units for direct combat. Prior to entering World War I, The US army troops rode motorcycles in direct combat, fighting Pancho Villa in “The Border War.” In World War II, military leaders mostly deployed motorcycles for dispatch riding rather than direct combat.

Motorcycles in the Border War

The US began testing motorcycles in 1913, probing the possible value of Harley-Davidson in combat. General “Black Jack” Pershing was himself a motorcycle enthusiast. He thought the light vehicles would be perfect for chasing Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries around the desert. Harley’s J Series 61 cu inch engine could hit 60 mph, outperforming a horse. Pershing had motorcycles for war equipped with sidecars for command transport and machine gun deployment or supplies and ammunition.

Pancho Villa, for his part, could also appreciate the benefits of an iron horse. He preferred the Indian brand. So Harley and Indian were competing in life or death races in the desert, not just the deadly board track races.

Motorcycles in World War I

World War I is known for the brutal and immobile trench battles. But before grinding down to these hellish halts, mobile infantry units mounted on motorcycles skirmished. Sidecars carried machine gun platforms for quick deployment. Motorcycles were equipped with stretcher side cars for evacuating the wounded and ammo supply side cars for reloading positions. The armies of Europe and the US also used motorcycles for recon missions and security patrols. But their largest and most important use was secure and timely message delivery. Radios were not as reliable as they are today and motorcycles outperformed horses. Several hundred thousand motorcycles were used in World War I.

Motorcycles in World War I - a Matchless Model 1000 - 1918

Matchless Model 1000 – 1918

When the war broke out on July 28th, 1914, leaders could not have know that it would eventually involve 70 million combatants and claim 17 million lives. But patriotic motorcylists around Europe recognized looming trouble and rushed to service. W.H.L Watson, a future motorcycle despatch rider, had his eye on the newspaper. He predicted the outbreak of war three days in advance and decided to enlist: “At 6.45 P.M. on Saturday, July 25, 1914, Alec and I determined to take part in the Austro-Servian War.” A few months later, he was off the front to serve as a despatch rider, carrying critical communications between the fields of battle. We will cover his personal story of hair-raising adventure in an upcoming article.

Women Motorcycle Riders in the Military

Women entered the war as motorcycle dispatch riders in the UK for the first time in 1917. They served in the Women’s Royal Navy Service, aka “The Wrens” that we will cover in detail in a future article. The Wrens continued to provide communications by motorcycle in World War II.