Postcard of French military bicycle scouts riding on a road en route to Ypres, Belgium, in formation (all photos courtesy of National WWI Museum and Memorial)

Postcard of French military bicycle scouts riding on a road en route to Ypres, Belgium, in formation


In 1920, the National WWI Museum and Memorial began collecting objects and documents from all nations involved in the First World War. Nearly 100 years later, the Museum and Memorial is home to one of the largest Great War collections in the world — more than 330,000 items strong.

While it is the official World War I museum of the United States, the collection represents more than just the American story. All belligerent nations involved are represented with items from both the battlefield and the home front. They range from simple objects a soldier may have carried to rare treasures of national significance. Learn more about a few lesser-known collection items that help tell the story of the time.

BICYCLE BATTALIONS

WWI is known for introducing wartime innovations such as tanks and submarines, but the world’s armies still made plenty of use of “old-fashioned” technology. Case in point: Bicycle battalions. Soldiers on bicycles could travel farther and carry more supplies than soldiers on foot. Bicycles were easier to maintain and quieter than horses — and they wouldn’t wander off after soldiers dismounted to fight.

During WWI, many countries used bicycle battalions, sometimes called cyclist corps. These mounted soldiers trained to fight in a mobile warfare approach, but the trench conditions made this difficult. Instead, cyclists often performed duties such as delivering supplies and messages and guarding prisoners or important locations. They did engage in combat, however. During the 100 Day Offensive, Canadian cyclists performed reconnaissance and fought with the infantry.

A new archival collection highlights the diversity of bicycles used in WWI with over 160 photographs and postcards of military bicycles from France, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Belgium, Russia and other nations.

St. Nazaire Stevedores Poster, illustrated by Lt. E.M. Behar
St. Nazaire Stevedores Poster, illustrated by Lt. E.M. Behar

STEVEDORES POSTER

Men work in the shadow of a dock, pushing and carrying war supplies from a ship’s hold onto a train boxcar; a bright background shows ships moored, a boom crane and an American flag. The working men are African American stevedores in the Army Transport Service at St. Nazaire, France, one of nine base ports through which supplies arrived and began their transport inland.

The poster’s inspiration came from a competition held in November 1918 between stevedores at nine ports to see which of the ports performed best in their job duties. These port performances were recorded in a graph each week illustrating how much progress each was making in the “race to Berlin,” and copies of the results were posted at the various ports. “Berlin or Bust” was the competition’s confident slogan.

Correspondence regarding missing money for bacon purchased in December 1918
Correspondence regarding missing money for bacon purchased in December 1918

SHOW ME THE BACON!

By the end of WWI, almost 900,000 tons of foodstuff had been shipped from the U.S. to the Western Front. Once rations were received by a Division, the Subsistence Officer oversaw distribution. The Division Subsistence Officer was also responsible for examining the Division Strength Report to determine the number of rations needed, return unused rations and to properly file all records. These tasks required the assistance of five sergeants, each responsible for the issue of beef, bread, potatoes and dry rations, while the fifth was in charge of the records.

One collection item represents the importance of record keeping. 2nd Lieutenant John M. Hewett served as the Disbursing Officer, Quartermaster Corps at the American Camp in Allerey, France. In a letter dated Aug. 26, 1925, the Finance Office of the U.S. Army notified 2nd Lieutenant Hewett of an error on his account from December 1918. He had ordered 2,848 pounds of bacon, but he did not make the proper payment at the time and owed $192. Almost seven years later, and ration records were still under review. Further correspondence shows that 2nd Lieutenant Hewett’s account was moved to settlement with no balance. We do not know how the accounting error was solved, but 2nd Lieutenant Hewitt’s bacon was saved.

–National WWI Museum and Memorial (all photos courtesy of National WWI Museum and Memorial)

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