Dunkirk to Mulhouse (931km), July 11- 22, 2016.
Our ride along the Western Front fell mid-way through the four-year centenary of the First World War and 100 years to the month after the start of the Somme offensive. It was an end-to-end experience …. more or less. We failed to inspect the mouth of the Yser, where the ‘Race to the Sea’ reached the Channel. Nor did we ride the last few miles from the foot of the Vosges to the Swiss border. I doubt we missed much at Nieuwpoort but it was a shame not to see the wooden shelter in a forest clearing near Pfetterhouse marking ‘Kilometre 0,’ where Swiss border guards kept watch through the war, protecting their neutrality against outflanking manoeuvres from either side.
Abbreviation notwithstanding, we pedalled nearly 600 miles, compared with the Front’s authorised length of 400ish miles – as the howitzer shell flies, presumably. The distances on the day by day maps shown here don’t exactly correspond to our numbers, but near enough.
On the grid at Dover, G chatted up a fellow traveller who was setting off with his son on a family team-building exercise. Their plan was to take the train to St Quentin and cycle back via Ypres. They raced away from the boat at top speed, but after a few minutes we found them on the hard shoulder carrying out roadside repairs – a chain issue. Our paths crossed again at Thiepval, where they mentioned a persistent headwind. I’m not sure how successful the bonding was.
Day 1: Dunkirk to Ypres
The exit road from the ferry terminal is thick with HGVs and not at all bike-friendly; just saying. It would have been fun to explore Bergues, one of the prettiest towns in French Flanders; and Poperinghe, which has a lot to show from its time as ‘Pop’ – a rest station for the troops (and a place of execution for deserters). But if you want to make progress on a cycling tour, you have to be selective.
The Last Post ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate (above) in Ypres every evening at 8 o’clock. It was our first deadline, and a tight one: we didn’t get off the ferry until 3.30, it’s more than 40 miles to Ypres, and we were soon lost, weaving through Flemish villages in our attempt to avoid Dunkirk and main roads. Once we entered Belgium, our progress improved on the cycle trail beside the straight, flat road to Poperinghe, assisted by a brisk following wind. We had been told that B&B Hortensia would be easy to find – ‘near the Low Gate’ – but this turned out not to be the obvious landmark we were anticipating. However, we did manage the 10 minute walk to the Menin Gate without losing our way, following the town wall, and reached the gate just as the buglers were licking their lips for action. I can’t think of a better way to begin a Western Front tour.
Day 2: Ypres to Arras
Dragoon Camp Cemetery
Each of us had a family reason to visit Ypres. Who doesn’t? I set off before breakfast in search of Dragoon Camp Cemetery with only a rough idea of its whereabouts. But there was a sign to it from the road I was following speculatively, heading north beside the canal. An immaculate grass carpet led me between the fields to the small enclosure. It was a restful pastoral scene, and my first glimpse of the extraordinary remembrance work done by the CWGC. This is almost as impressive as the enormity of sacrifice, and sets ‘our’ graveyards apart from the French.
In one of the smallest of all the war graveyards, it wasn’t difficult to find Dicky Atkin, who went from school to the Somme in March ’16, was injured in October, and recovered in time to be blown to bits near Pilkem Ridge on August 14 1917. I had a look at the nearby Yorkshire Trench on my way back to breakfast at B&B Hortensia: coffee, sticky pastries, and John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields on each paper place mat.
War tourism has been Ypres’s livelihood since before the Armistice: Michelin set its researchers to work on a series of guides to the battlefields in 1917. The town centre has been beautifully reconstructed, and we thought the Flanders Fields war museum was the best of those we visited – possibly because it was the first of many to educate us with battlefield dispositions laid out on the floor, thick with arrows and dotted lines like stormy weather charts. We learned about salients, creeping barrages and defence in depth. Weapons and uniforms illustrated the transformative developments in soldiering brought about by four years of conflict. Newspaper cartoons showed bulldogs, poodles and dachshunds. Letters and case histories brought personal immediacy to the numbers game of shells fired, yards gained, lives lost.
Finding a family member at Tyne Cot, the world’s largest Commonwealth war graveyard, was a more challenging task for my companion (above). Since it lies 12km in the wrong direction, G hired a taxi for the excursion; knowing that the meter was running added to the stress of the search. Needles in haystacks came to mind, as we dashed about, scouring row upon row of gravestones, many named, others ‘Known Unto God.’ Had we not eventually discovered that, like every large graveyard, Tyne Cot has a book tucked away near the entrance listing all the names and locations, it would have been a long and expensive afternoon. Captain Edwards does not have his own grave: his is one of 35000 names on the wall – the first name on the first panel, in fact.
We learned an early strategic lesson on the road. Battles tend to be fought on hills, and we would spend much of the next ten days cycling up to war memorials. Flanders may be predominantly flat, but that only reinforces the prominence and strategic value of the Kemmelberg (156m), whose location beside our route south from Ypres issued a challenge we could scarcely refuse. With super-steep (20%+) cobbled tracks leading to the summit on two sides, the Kemmelberg is a classic climb with as big a place in the history of cycle racing as it has in that of the war. We parked the bikes and explored on foot, making a note of the hilltop Hotel Mont Kemmel for lunch next time, when we’re not in an ugly rush.
Lt LH Ruck of Aberdovey and the Worcestershire Regiment died in the battle of Neuve Chapelle on March 11 1915. Le Touret memorial (above) was a resting place for Galaxy, too.
The twin towers of the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge were in our sights, like a giant tuning fork, for more than an hour before we toiled up the hairpins from Givenchy la Gohelle.
Of all the great memorials on the Western Front I find Vimy Ridge the most powerful. The monument has uplift, pathos and simplicity, and the place is beautiful, with sheep quietly grazing the lumpy sward, oblivious to all warnings about unexploded bombs. The visitor centre is well worth 15 minutes, and you might spend longer, absorbed by a set of letters from a Canadian officer who found time every day to write to his infant daughter.
This ridge is one hump in a line of hills separating the northern coal belt from the fields of Artois and the open road to Paris. Such key positions were fought over at length and repeatedly, changing hands as offensives and counter-offensives came and went. The first commemorative notice we encountered at Vimy celebrated the heroism of a Moroccan brigade in 1915. French losses in the sector numbered in the hundreds of thousands and are commemorated on a nearby hill, Notre Dame de Lorette, just across the motorway. The dome of its basilica is also visible from afar. Visiting both wasn’t practical for us.
Canada’s moment of glory came on Easter Monday 1917: an assault on the ridge whose success is put down to good training on one side, bad planning on the other, and tunnels dug beneath the German positions, to blow them up from below.
Day 3: Arras to St Quentin
Place des Héros, Arras
Overnight in Arras, the weather took a turn for the much worse. Were we downhearted? No!
As soon as G changed into his swimming trunks, the rain stopped.
The northern Somme was a British theatre and the Colonies all played their part. In the space of half an hour on the morning of July 1, 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out at Beaumont Hamel. This memorial and Vimy Ridge are Canadian territory, presumably covered by a better free-movement deal with the EU than Team GB could arrange. At Delville Wood near Longueval, 3000 South Africans were under orders to hold their ground ‘at all costs’. They did just that for six days, until only 142 were left alive. We thought the small museum there one of the best of its kind. Pozières was an Australian victory.
Our influence shows. ‘Somme: British in control, French gastronomy seriously degraded,’ I wrote in my notebook. Either side of Lutyens’ memorial to the British dead at Thiepval we had thin coffee and biscuits at the Ocean Villas Tea Room at Auchonvillers and lunched on sausage, egg and chips at Le Tommy, a greasy spoon on the main road at Pozières. Filthy coffee there, too.
Both these institutions have small displays of war memorabilia, their homespun charm complementing the bigger-picture museums such as the ‘historial’ at Péronne. A football that was dribbled across no man’s land by an advancing platoon, and made it to the enemy trench unpunctured, suggested that if truth is the first casualty of war, humour is the last man standing.
Day 4: St Quentin to the Chemin des Dames
At St Quentin we left the British war behind. I don’t think we realised it was Bastille Day until, after a pleasant spell on the canal towpath with a family of swans for company, we stopped for a coffee in La Fère and watched the ceremonials en direct from the Place de la Concorde, with all verses of the Marseillaise and tricolor vapour trails from the flyover. The public holiday factor had worrying implications for our lunch, but the Taverne des Poulbots in St-Gobain managed to squeeze us in. Decent food, and a great ambience.
From Flanders fields and the Somme, we moved on to our next theatre. Chemin des Dames is a broad ridge running for 30km between Laon and Reims, named after two daughters of Louis XV who so enjoyed riding along the top, the king had it paved with a fine highway worthy of their ladyships. We enjoyed the ride too: a good surface, splendid views and better weather.
Soon after a German graveyard from World War II we came to a roadside statue of Napoleon, who fought and won a battle up here in 1814. April 1917 saw the ill-fated Nivelle offensive, against which the Germans were so well prepared and deeply dug in, the usual prelude of an intense artillery barrage had little effect. In the face of terrible losses and negligible gains, mutiny spread through the French ranks.
‘On en a assez. Personne ne veut plus marcher’
….. sang the poilus in the subversive Chanson de Craonne.
Malmaison German cemetery
Napoleon on the Chemin des Dames
Day 5: Chemin des Dames to Reims
Chemin des Dames disinformation panel
There is not much to see on the Plateau de Californie battleground, but the Caverne du Dragon, half way along the ridge, is a different story: a fascinating network of underground caves simultaneously occupied for months on end by French and German troops. They built walls to shelter behind, either side of a subterranean no man’s land. The exhibition upstairs introduced us to the searing art of Otto Dix (below). Guided tours: advance reservation advised.
Caverne du Dragon
Crossing the Aisne brought us to our first vineyards. After a tasting stop at the northernmost champagne producer, Charles Heston of Villers Franqueux, we overnighted in Reims for R&R and a coloured light show on the cathedral façade. The hotel Crystal is well placed for après-vélo, has charm, an indoor garden and a bike storage room.
Day 6: Reims to Vienne le Château
After pushing our bikes laboriously through some fields, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the dual carriageway to visit the Fort de la Pompelle. That gave us time for the luxury of a coffee stop at the restaurant Cheval Blanc at Sept Saulx, which attracted many celebs in its heyday. The churchyard has the graves of the pilot and 6 crew members of a Stirling bomber shot down on a mission to Stuttgart in April 1943.
Mourmelon, Russian memorial
This chapel and graveyard came as a surprise to us. Some 4000 soldiers of the Russian Expeditionary Force died in Champagne between 1916 and ’18.
La Main de Massiges
Massiges, Vierge des Abeilles
The main road from Reims to Verdun is not easy to avoid, but our attempts to do so turned up some interesting results, notably a set of trenches, complete with rusty wire and crumbling dugouts, above Massiges – another climb that repaid the effort. At the foot of the hill, a statue of the Virgin still stands, with a bullet hole in her chest that served as a doorway for swarms of bees. Soldiers paused to say a prayer for protection or a quick death, before tramping up the hill into battle.
Day 7: Vienne le Château to Verdun
At the excellent hotel Le Tulipier in Vienne le Château, we were ticked off for having neglected to visit the Vallée Moreau, a German rest station behind the lines of the Argonne. Chastened, we made good the omission in the morning, and ignored signs advising us to keep out. We had the place to ourselves.
And so to Verdun, France’s sacrificial city. The name alone sounds a note of sombre finality, like the drum beat of a funeral march.
Defended by a ring of hilltop fortresses, the city was a bulwark and a stumbling block, where German determination to bleed France dry met patriotic resistance. ‘Ils ne passeront pas.’ By the time they called it off after 300 days of battle, the death toll had reached 700,000, to which the name of Capitaine Charles de Gaulle was nearly added. Forests and villages had been erased ‘like chalk off a blackboard’ as one airman observed.
So it was a surprise to find the town on the Meuse in party mood, the riverside quais alive with music and street theatre, and not a seat to be had on the café terrace; nor a place on a tour of the underground citadel where Verdun found shelter.
“Military towns always needed entertainment,” said our guide, who had a car and saved us an energetic day in the saddle by conducting a quick tour of hill forts and atomised villages. It finished at the Douaumont ossuary where Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand held hands in the rain in 1984, expressing Verdun’s new role as a symbol of reconciliation. The building’s unusual shape represents a sword plunged in the ground, up to the hilt.
Day 8: Verdun to Villey St Etienne
Two long hot days of mostly pleasant cycling through rural Lorraine – swimming in rivers, dousing ourselves in fountains and pestering old ladies to refill our water bottles, with occasional war memorials to remind us of our mission – took us from the elegance of Verdun’s sublime Hotel de Montaulbain to the simpler comforts of Le Globe in St Dié. We began by taking a wrong turn out of Verdun and missed the Alain-Fournier trail along the so-called Tranchée de Calonne (D331), a mistake that saved us pints of sweat, to judge from all the arrows on the Michelin map. The author of Le Grand Meaulnes was an early casualty of the war, killed in the woods near St Remy la Calonne on September 22, 1914.
After a swim in the Lac de Madine we followed a cycle trail beside it rather than go back to the road, making way for this semi-recumbent family.
Rare sighting: the Pino Allround?
Note no panniers. We dumped them behind a hedge at the bottom of the steep climb to the Butte de Montsec, which commemorates the American victory at St Mihiel in 1918.
Lundi, jour de fermeture. Lorraine is not the best-appointed tourist thoroughfare at the busiest of times, and the Monday problem caught us unaware and under-resourced. Having lunched on a few peanuts, we arrived at the small village of Lucey in a distressed state, late in the afternoon, and seized the first opportunity for a Côtes de Toul vin gris tasting (Ets. Lelievre, should you be passing). The home produce on sale also included apple juice. I drained a litre of it in one gulp, and gave back the bottle. ‘On rafraichit les papys!’ they cried, hilariously.
Joan of Arc, Toul Cathedral
Toul was as close as we got to Joan. The Maid came to Toul for the hearing of a lawsuit brought by a Domrémy man who claimed she had proposed to him. Or perhaps it was her father who proposed the marriage …. Anyway, the case was dismissed and Joan was free to pursue her destiny.
Yves Montand singing ‘À bicyclette’ was the highlight of a cheerful evening at Le Pavillon Bleu (above), beside the Moselle near Villey St Etienne. The chambre d’hote next door worked well for us.
Day 9: Villey St Etienne to St Dié
Pants the heart for cooling streams? A dip at Mattexey
Day 10: St Dié to Hohrodberg
From our bedroom window in St Dié des Vosges, we looked in trepidation at the mountain wall. How to scale it? On the map we could see no practical alternative to the main Colmar road, a climb of about 500 metres to the Col du Bonhomme. Riding in a narrow cycle lane with trucks belching diesel fumes as they laboured past was hard work.
Mid-mountain halt. Much diesel fume inhaled on the ascent to the Bonhomme. (Panniers took a different route. Merci, Pierre)
By 10.30 we were at the pass and turned right with relief, to enjoy top-of-the-world cycling on the airy mountain road. Impressive as all the museums are, for sheer cycling pleasure the greatest legacy of the First World War is the Route des Crêtes, a 50 mile stretch of French military road along the spine of the Vosges, reaching 1350m below the dome of the Grand Ballon. The idea was to supply the troops in their efforts to take control of the mountains, and from there Alsace, which had been in German hands since 1871. The road took us through forest and rolling open pastures, with ski lifts and big views over empty valleys and shimmering lakes; sweaty ascents alternating with brief moments of freewheeling bliss.
On the Route des Crêtes
Even the skilled photographer has difficulty setting up the self-timer after a hard morning in the saddle.
The most important memorials on the Vosges front are the Linge – a strenuous but worthwhile diversion from the Route des Crêtes – and Hartmannswillerkopf (HWK), known to the French as Vieil Armand or, more graphically, ‘mangeur d’hommes’. Both sites saw intense fighting in 1915.
With General Mueller at Le Linge. This trench looks German.
The Linge is a military dig in a place of great natural beauty, with an excellent small museum.
The General in charge of its Franco-German team showed us around, pointing out the difference between well-made German trenches and rough French earthworks. “They were so close, they could light each other’s cigarettes,” he said. The General plants a cross when he unearths a body: white for a Frenchman, black for a German.
Most of the crosses are white because the Germans carried their dead and wounded down the mountain; the French lay where they fell. The museum gave us interesting – that is to say, appalling – information about the role of animals in the war. 14 million used, 10 million killed, 120,000 decorated (including a pigeon at Verdun).
After the tour, the General offered us a ride in his jeep to our hotel, the Roess at Hohrodberg, 250 vertical metres down the mountain. Since we would be coming back up in the morning – on our way back to the Col du Calvaire and the Route des Crêtes – it was an easy decision to tie our bikes together outside the museum and rely on Galaxy’s persuasive powers to arrange a lift back up the hill in the morning. Our hotelier was désolée – her husband would be leaving at dawn for shopping in Colmar. Scanning the dining room at supper, G set his sights on a middle-aged man with a full-sized bottle of wine for company. We offered this fine fellow a digestif and got chatting. My heart sank when our mark revealed himself as a biker, from Dusseldorf. Everyone else had gone to bed.
‘Motor cycling is not allowed in the Black Forest at the weekend,’ our new friend explained, ‘that’s why there are so many German bikers in Alsace.’ How interesting; and is the bike by any chance a two-seater?
‘I do not take you without a helmet.’ Alas, ours were tied to our bikes at Le Linge. My ever-resourceful co-equipier set off in search of a hard hat, and found a flimsy-looking foam example hanging from a peg. It would only be a loan for an hour, not even that. Klaus from Dusseldorf looked doubtful, but …. ‘Since this is France, OK!’
Day 11: Hohrodberg to Wattwiller
Our saviour from Dusseldorf
Lunch at the Hotel Wolf in Le Markstein was cut short when the management started bringing in the garden furniture against an approaching storm. Luckily it missed us. The Grand Ballon d’Alsace (1424m) is the highest point of the Vosges, and the pass just around the corner from this picture was the top of our tour.
Happy to leave the storm behind us
HWK is a more extensive site than the Linge, with 40+ kilometres of trenches and tunnels and an imposing necropolis. The key to the battleground was the kopf itself, a forest-clad rocky spur dominating the Alsatian plain. After learning how to tell German barbed wire from the French kind – it’s all about spacing of barbs – we considered our battlefield education almost complete, but for one disappointing omission: nowhere had we learnt about the role of the bicycle in the First World War.
From Vieil Armand it was downhill all the way to Mulhouse and the fast train to Paris …. or so we assumed. My Alsacien friend Pierre who recommended the Domaine du Hirtz for our last overnight halt failed to mention the steep approach road. It was the toughest climb of the entire trip.
Day 12: Wattwiller to Mulhouse
An excellent summary of the phases of the war on the Western Front
DFDS ferries (Dover-Dunkirk)
Post Script: Kilometre 0
The geography of the southern terminus of the Western Front is rather complicated, not least because the river Largue which marks the frontier was rerouted after the war. A sliver of Switzerland projects into France to the south of the village of Pfetterhouse: a salient, in fact, also known as Le Bec de Canard, with an isolated Swiss farm, Le Largin, which also had a part to play as an escape route in WW2. The best approach is from the D41 which runs through Swiss forest on its way to Courtavon (Fr). A rough track (on the left, if you’re approaching from Pfetterhouse) leads to the farm. It’s only a short walk from there to the clearing where a wooden bunker has been reconstructed and an old border post (illustrated) has a Bernese bear on the Swiss side. There are plenty of useful information panels.
Le Largin farm, from the footbridge over the Largue
A visit to kilometre 0 is a good excuse for an overnight stay or a lunch at the excellent Auberge Sundgovienne, on the Belfort road 4km west of Altkirch.