When the USA declared war on Germany (although not on the Central Powers) in April 1917, there was an unprecedented scramble to fill the requirements for modern warfare.  Among the novelties: motorcycles that were used for messenger duties, or as mobile gun platforms, or even highly mobile (and highly uncomfortable) ambulances.  While President Woodrow Wilson had expanded the navy in the ‘Teens to protect the supply chain selling American-made goods to the British and French, he hadn’t built up ground or air forces, thinking this would deter the USA from joining the war that had already cost millions of lives.

“Harley-Davidson motorcycles, some with side cars on the road, manufactured by the Harley-Davidson Co, Milwaukee Wisc. for the War Department. Aug 26, 1918” [National Archive]
With the US suddenly on a war footing, all the major manufacturers (and some minor ones too) were invited to submit motorcycles for testing, as tens of thousands of motorcycles would be required for war.  European armies were using hundreds of thousands of motorcycles by 1917, but the initial American order was low; only about 20,000 motorcycles.  That number would increase over time, and to secure more orders, Harley-Davidson offered clever enticements like free training at mechanic’s schools for servicemen.  Indian Motocycles won the largest contracts at first, as they were a much larger company than Harley-Davidson, but Milwaukee was well represented in the war.

“Model 18-F three-speed twin, Prest-O-Lite attachment and side car.” Note the acetylene generator on the rear rack, the nickel-plated tire inflator on the fork, and the speedometer; a fully-equipped machine. [National Archive]
These photographs are part of our series of images discovered in the National Archive  on their 100-year anniversary.  They’ve never been published as far as we know, and represent the US Gov’t keeping tabs on the manufacturing processes and products of its military suppliers.  This series shows Harley-Davidson motorcycles and sidecars on display and in use by the US Army, in many different configurations, almost as a rolling catalog on a military base!  Take a look at our other articles from 1918 here. 

“Harley-Davidson motorcycles, some with side cars on the road, manufactured by the Harley-Davidson Co, Milwaukee Wisc for the War Department. Aug 22, 1918”  Note: this shot is either New Jersey or Maryland [National Archive]
“Harley-Davidson motorcycle with side car and two cases for holding rifles, manufactured for the War Department by the Harley-Davidson C, Milwaukee, Wis. Aug 26, 1918” [National Archive]
“Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, some with side cars on the road manufactured by the Harley Davidson Co., Milwaukee Wisconsin, for the War Department. Aug 26, 1918” [National Archive]
“Types of Harley-Davidson motorcycles manufactured for the War Department by the Harley-Davidson Co, Milwaukee Wis. Aug 26, 1918” [National Archive]
“First Motorcycle Battery of N.J. using a Colt-Martin rapid fire gun. 1917” Note: the same surrey-top observation car can be seen in most of these photos.  The fields suggest someone will be pushing up daisies soon! Pictured at the Washington Barracks, D.C. [National Archive]
Close-up of a Harley-Davidson rider in the woods of Maryland in 1918. “Harley-Davidson motorcycles, some with side cars on the road, manufactured by the Harley-Davidson Co, Milwaukee Wisc. for the War Department. Aug 26, 1918” [National Archive]
“Harley-Davidson motorcycles, some with side cars on the road, manufactured by the Harley-Davidson Co, Milwaukee Wisc. for the War Department. Aug 22, 1918” [National Archive]
“Fleet of motor trucks and motorcycles parked on the grounds at Washington Barracks, D.C.” [National Archive]
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