Book Review — Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War

Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War by Ted Glenn history of the Canadian bicycle troops. Glenn is a professor at Humber College and writes about Canadian government and military history at home and abroad. He lives and cycles in Toronto.

World War I was a significant event in Canadian history. It put Canada as a nation on the world stage. Canada was no longer just seen as a Commonwealth nation of Britain. Their soldiers proved themselves on the battlefield, and Canadian forces were not filler troops but a national army. Vimy Ridge was Canada’s Belleau Woods or Iwo Jima.

WWI was the first industrial war, and mechanization began replacing older methods of warfare. Machine guns and airplanes took to the field. The horse cavalry was no longer useful and motorized vehicles were very prone to failure. Moving troops quickly was the job of the rail system, but tracks did not always run where they were needed. Canada responded with bicycle troops. When the cavalry dismounted, it lost 25% of its firepower as some troops were required to secure the horses. Bicycles could be dropped, and all the soldiers could move on foot. Bicycle troops were weighed down with equipment; up to 90 lbs of were packed onto the bicycles. Even so, the cyclists were are to move farther and faster than other troops.

The trenches did create a problem for the cyclist troops. There was no moving to engage the enemy, but they could be moved from trench to trench and be assigned infantry and police duties that did not take away personnel from the trenches. Bicycles would seem to have a limited role in modern warfare, but the Soviets used bicycles through WWII. The Viet Cong loaded bicycles with supplies and transported them down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail. The Swiss Army maintained a Bicycle regiment until 2001. Bikes are cheap, low maintenance, and extremely efficient.

Glenn captures a little-known aspect of WWI and Canadian forces in Europe. The text is well documented and contains many more pictures than one would expect. The Canadian Cyclists formed a bond during the war as many small elite forces did. A well-done history of a little known, but very proud, WWI force.

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