Back in the early 1900s when motorcycles were starting to appear on American streets, the United States found itself thrust into an international conflict known as the First World War. The War Department called upon Harley-Davidson to provide motorcycles that could be outfitted with machine guns. Harley produced over 60,000 motorcycles, a third of which was sold to the Russian army. The main production of the World War One motorcycles were to combat Pancho Villa, a Mexican bandit. It wasn’t until World War Two that these models really began to take off.
Harley’s motorcycles were used primarily for dispatch, the off-road tires and durability playing a vital role on the front lines. Not only did these soldiers carry messages, they did reconnaissance work as well. Each soldier was assigned a motorcycle and was just as responsible for it as he was for a horse or a gun.
Soldiers trained by riding round and round the barracks, accelerating and decelerating to determine who would be the best riders. Those without the natural skill were quickly weeded out. Then, the soldiers learned to ride on the highways, learning hand signals and how to change gears.
Training becomes more intense as soldiers learn bushwhacking, the art of riding through the forest standing up on the bike, letting the knees absorb the shock of the various terrain. In training dispatch riders, this type of riding is vital. Roads became blocked and were patrolled frequently, so soldiers needed to know how to wing it off road. They also learned to safely ford water up to a foot and a half high, with the throttle open and the bike at full speed. The rider’s were now ready to fight.
Military Motorcycles of Today
Many bike owners still today pay tribute to those troops who fought by customizing their bikes to look like the motorcycles of that time.
This bike here (and the one above) is the WLA, a motorcycle with horizontally opposed cylinders and shaft drive, designed for desert use in the North African campaigns of World War Two. When the soldiers of WW2 came back from the war, they brought back with them a deep love for motorcycle riding. Harley-Davidson was being civilianized, producing classic and iconic bikes like the chopper. Biker culture became a thing as well, young soldiers and veteran officers leading the post-war popularity of the motorcycle and the Harley-Davidson brand.