The Regiment on two wheels

The Bicycle Showband Crescendo celebrates their 50-year-anniversary of performing on bicycles this year. In a video to commemorate this fact they explain that in 1973 some of their members thought about playing music while riding bicycles because they were inspired by the Dutch army band on bicycles. That was the band of the so-called “Regiment Wielrijders” (the Regiment of Riders on [two] wheels). It is great to know that the successor of that military band performed with them on June 4, 2022, to celebrate their earlier 100-year-anniversary. But what about that ‘Wheel Riders Regiment’? Let’s find out in this post and video.

“Swift and Skilful, Calm and Worthy” is what the motto of the Wheel riders Regiment means. Here on a model of the museum collection.

We find most of the regiment’s history at Fort Isabella, located between the city of ’s-Hertogenbosch and the town of Vught. This fort, dating back to 1614, was originally built as part of the defence system of the fortified city. It is now located in the municipality of Vught, after a municipal border change, somewhere in the second half of the last century. Fort Isabella was named after Isabella of Austria, the sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands, together with her husband, Archduke Albert VII of Austria. After his death she was appointed Governor of the Netherlands on the King of Spain’s behalf. The fort always kept her name, even after it was rebuilt and used as a military compound from 1917. In 1922, the fort became the home base of the Regiment Wielrijders.

Since the Summer of 2022, this is the new location of the museum, one of the smaller buildings of Fort Isabella, which was the home base of the ‘Regiment Wheel Riders’ from 1922 to 1940.
One of the main pieces of the museum is this model of the military compound Fort Isabella. The museum is now housed in the small building on the right hand side, with the red roof tiles.

The history of the regiment started experimentally, in 1888, when 16 civilians started to despatch military messages on their own bicycles. This experiment was the result of a cooperation between the army and ANWB, the first cyclists’ union. By 1894 the experiment had proven to be successful, and an official corps was founded. Thanks to the inventions of the air-filled rubber tyre and the safety bicycle the new machines had become interesting for the army. Not just the Dutch army, there were regiments on two wheels in a number of countries. Their usefulness was demonstrated especially in the second Boer war in South-Africa. Military cyclists were used primarily as scouts and messengers. Because they could move swiftly and silently, people on bicycles could also go on patrol and do reconnaissance.

Part of the collection sometimes travels. Here an exhibition in Huis Doorn in 2022. This was the residence of the last German Kaiser when he was in exile in the Netherlands. It now has a pavillion showing the role of the Netherlands in WWI.

During WWI, the cyclists united with men on motor bikes. Some of which had integrated machine guns on their motor bikes. Two years after ’s-Hertogenbosch became the home base the battalion became a regiment of 4 battalions in 1924. Together they were an important part of the light brigades. In 1927 the Regiment got their own band, which played while riding their bicycles. To make that possible some of the bicycles got a different type of handlebars, so that riders could steer with their elbows while playing drums for instance. Apparently, the band was of some significance for the regiment. A bandstand was placed on the main square between the barracks when the regiment celebrated the 10-year anniversary of being stationed in Fort Isabella.

The mayor of Vught laid a wreath on Memorial Day in 2021.

In 1939, the one regiment was split in two. The first regiment stayed in ’s-Hertogenbosch, the second was relocated to Apeldoorn. But when World War II was threatening to also come to the Netherlands both regiments were relocated to the East of the province of Brabant, later in 1939. On 10 May 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and the regiments were in a war situation for the first time. The “Wielrijders” defended the country in a region called Albasserwaard and around the city of Dordrecht. They lost 77 men and another 74 were severely injured. All names of the fallen can be seen on the monument at Fort Isabella. The Nazis demobilised the Dutch army and after the war ended, in 1945, the two regiments were not reinstated. A fact that was made official by royal decree in 1950. A much regretted fact by most of the men who had been part of one of the two regiments. It would take until 1972 before a first reunion was held. That it was visited by 1500 men proved the regiments were still in their hearts. Reunions would be held until 1993 when the number of men who had served had decreased too much.

The original army band of the Regiment Wielrijders was founded in 1927. Here on a still from a film from 1935.
Not a French army cyclists band, but a Dutch! A performance at Fort Isabella in 1960, to remember that this was their home base from 1922 to 1940. A news item by British Pathé with commentary in Dutch.
The marching band of the Dutch army still performs on bicycles sometimes to stress that they feel they are descendants of the original army band on two wheels.

In 2014, the collection of the Wielrijders Regiment came back to Fort Isabella that had just become a public area. The collection had been housed in the national army museum until then. This led to a renewed interest for the regiments on two wheels. From 2019 a wreath was laid every year at the monument on the 4 May, which in the Netherlands is Remembrance Day. In 2021, one of the top pieces of the museum, a painting depicting the origin and development of the regiment could be restored thanks to crowd funding. That year the museum moved to a different building in the fort. The fort is being transformed into a residential neighbourhood and the museum is now in a separate building. Thanks to volunteers the museum is now open on every Saturday afternoon. (Before the move it was only open once every month.) It is nice that the history of the regiment on two wheels is not forgotten. It ties in nicely with the fact that the Dutch acknowledge cycling as part of their national identity more and more.

My video report about the “Regiment Wheel Riders”.

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