French bicycle infantry in the First World War, lavishly extra-illustrated with hand-drawn maps

Honneur et Patrie. Historique du 2e Groupe Cycliste Pendant la Guerre 1914-1918. Nancy-Paris-Strasbourg: Berger-Levrault, n.d. [ca. 1920].
1st ed. 8vo. 71 pp. text, extra-illustrated with a gelatin silver print frontis portrait and 24 hand-drawn, vividly colored combat maps on 16 plates, bound-in. ½ leather over marbled boards, title in gilt on red leather spine label. Extremities rubbed and corners a bit bumped, with a hint of foxing and soiling to maps, but about excellent.

A unique and extraordinary document of the exploits of a French bicycle infantry unit in the First World War. Lavishly extra-illustrated with 24 remarkably detailed and attractive hand-drawn maps and plans.

Leave it to humanity: We are graced with the wit to churn out remarkable new technologies, whether to solve hitherto insoluble, soul-crushing problems or simply make everyday life a bit more pleasurable. Almost as quickly, we find a way to apply the new inventions warfare, surely the most insoluble, soul-crushing problem of all.

So it was with the bicycle. Depending how one defines the term, it was invented in either the first or second quarter of the 19th century, brought into mass production in the third quarter, and became omnipresent in the final quarter. Predictably, the world’s militaries were intrigued: bicycles were inexpensive, easy to use, and, unlike horses, did not need to be fed and watered. By 1900 most of the major world armies had military units, and when war broke out in western Europe in August 1914, the good road network and relatively flat terrain was well suited to the bicycle.

France reorganized its bicycle infantry in 1913, creating ten “groups” of 417 men each, with each group assigned to one of the Army’s ten cavalry divisions. Generally, these units saw much action early in the war, fell out of use during the trench warfare in 1915-1917, and became newly relevant during the offensives of 1918.

Honneur et Patrie is a rare work memorializing the exploits of the 2nd Bicyclist Group, attached to the 2nd Cavalry Division, which saw service in Alsace-Lorraine, Bois des Haies, Riems, Flanders, Belgium and elsewhere. This example is extraordinary for being illustrated with a frontis photograph of a member of the 2nd—a Chief Sergeant judging by his insignia—and 16 plates bearing 24 hand-drawn and hand-colored maps and plans by an unnamed artist. These have been rendered with a combination of precision, attention to detail and decorative sensibility often seen on military maps of the 18th century but rarely in the modern era.

On each map the landscape is rendered in appealing tones of blue, brown, green and gray, with the military data superimposed primarily in blue and red. A great variety of symbols, often changing from map to map, differentiate unit types on both the French and German sides (bicycle infantry, cavalry, infantry and even tank), while others indicate fortifications, lines of trenches, artillery emplacements &c. On almost every map movement is indicated by arrows and dotted lines, with the result that each reveals a narrative of its own, presumably complementing the adjacent printed text.

In all, a unique and oddly charming—given the subject matter—cartographic record of a French unit that saw much action on the Western Front of the First World War.

OCLC locates four institutional holdings of Honneur et Patrie, all in European libraries (May 2020).