WHEELING ON THE WESTERN FRONT 2014

On Feb 27th 2017, ABF The Soldier’s Charity announced their 2018 Ride to Victory. Steve Dyster has signed up after reminiscing about his introduction to organised multi-day tours on their 2014 ride.

Embarking on a tour of the Western Front in aid of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity may be bizarre behaviour for an anarcho-cyclist, but, off I went with fifty-four others …… under the command of Colonel Richard Hackett (retired, from ABF The Soldiers' Charity) and Charlie and Ariane Bladon (not retired, of Green Jersey Cycling Tours). It was with some personal trepidation that I decided to join a tour from London to Compiegne via Calais and Nieuwpoort.

Riding three hundred and fifty miles in five days did not seem an especially tough challenge for me, though I acknowledge that it was to some others. It struck me that donations received should be rewarded in sweat, so my chosen mount was a Pashley Roadster Sovereign with viciously sprung saddle and a three speed hub. Just the sort of thing my Grandfather, who was injured near Ypres would have recognised as a bike.

Limited training, and a 06.00 start at Wellington Barracks, did little to allay concerns that the Pashley would struggle to keep up, but I was not alone on leaving the wonder-weave flyer at home.

Amongst the Heavy Brigade – bicycles that is – was Andy. Ex-REME, his bike had been modified to suit his love of steady touring. Twin headlights flanked his bar-bag and one just knew he was the chap to have around for a lasting roadside repair. Professional mechanical support was available, too.

Escaping London without having to battle the traffic, cycling remarkably unhindered. Heading round the Albert Memorial, past Trafalgar Square and down the Old Kent Road was a breeze.

Rural Kent appeared suddenly. The B258 from St. Paul’s Cray to Crockenhill has not gone down in legend, so far as I know; but on it was a tractor; lining its unkempt verges were hedgerows; and there was barely a dwelling before the first village.

To Dover!

On to Dover, which is easier said than done for the information of my northern friends who think the hills end at Bolton. Kent’s countryside beauty lies in wooded valleys lined sporadically with pretty villages. Going across the grain is not easy. The first example of the coquettish Kentish hills was a speedy descent to Eynsford on the River Darent, and the first feeding station.

Eynsford, as an introduction to Kent, can hardly be bettered. The clear stream runs by the roadside past clapper-boarded houses to a ford. Feeding stations are a novelty to the anarcho-cyclist. However, with a slice or two of Ariane Bladon’s cakes to aid socialisation, I began to feel less curmudgeonly. “Good route out of London, wasn’t it?” “Nice cake!” “Very good cake.” “Excellent cake.”

Cake and route passed the test with flying colours, but the Pashley was about to get its first real challenge. Would three speeds pushed by a middle-aged man with a good store of brawn and a fragment of technique, be sufficient to deal with the gradients which would feature frequently all the way to the coast?

Well, typical initial steepness gave way to a gentler crest and a rooftop ride along a narrow lane with distant views over golden fields and summer-green copses. Many of the Light Brigade passed by, but I did manage to catch a polka-dot-jerseyed cyclist. This turned out to be Helen, retired from the army and on her first long-distance bike ride.

Following a brief and rare disagreement with the route card, we pedalled on together towards the West Malling. Helen said that she was confident of completing the distance; “I have the attitude and mental strength from running, as well as good basic fitness. I think it might be tough, but I’ll see how it goes.” She added that she was pleased that there was someone who had maps and knew a bit about cycling and might be able to do the odd repair. Apparently she meant me. No occasion arose to disabuse her of this notion.

To the end of the line

The second day was one of glorious sunshine. Our primary objective was Nieuwpoort, at the mouth of the River IJzer. There, amongst the holiday-makers, stands the demarcation stone delineating the limit of the German advance; there, where the goose-foot locks, now overlooked by the King Albert memorial, were opened to flood the land and halt that German advance, began the Western Front.

All eager to get to the beginning, pancake flat land encouraged good progress, twisting and turning to cross dykes and canals;  at one time running alongside a soup of stagnant algae, at another by clear water shaded by willows. The Roadster turned out to be a tremendous vehicle for covering the miles on this sort of terrain. Get those twenty-eight inch wheels rolling and away you go in comfort and style.

I had never heard of Bergues before, but it is a gem. Clearly of strategic importance in the days of cannon, it has low bastions hidden behind deep ditches and water defences, too. The feed station was next to a narrow canal or, maybe, it was a tree-lined river; more cake, just one more slice.

Quite suddenly, the border was crossed and the outskirts of Nieuwpoort reached, seemingly, a little further on. Heading for the beach, we glided through the crowds enjoying the sand and sunshine. A little away from the feed station stood that grey stone pillar.

Pedestrians and cyclists, in holiday mood, thronged the shared path by the IJzer as we turned inland to head for Ypres. Fortunately Belgian infrastructure designers had the good sense to make this track generously wide. Use of cycle paths, when present along the roadside, is a legal requirement. It does not matter which side of the road it is on or the direction of travel, unless indicated so. We were hailed with gentle reminders. 

The extreme northern end of the line was not left in the hands, solely, of the Belgians. There were British and French troops here, too. The two allies did not trust the Belgian’s as King Albert was married to a German. Good job the British royal family changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha or the alliance might have been in real trouble.

To Ypres or Ieper

 

The IJzer slides sluggishly, heavy with the water of Flanders, past a few Belgian war cemeteries and the preserved Trench of Death, reminding us that there was ferocious fighting here, especially in the early months of the war.

After Dixmuide, the “brick” gained speed on the main road to Ypres, and onto minor roads past Langemarke German Military Cemetery. A small hill followed, Pilckem Ridge, the rim of the saucer in which the small city of Ypres sits. Here is where riding a bicycle aids understanding of the fighting. Pilckem Ridge is barely noticeable. The legs push a little harder and subconsciously the brain notes that there is an ascent, but were it not for the miles of flat roads already traversed it would not excite much attention. Yet it was this low ridge, semi-encircling the ancient city of Ypern, Ypres or Ieper, that had been captured by the Germans. Withdrawal from the city was unthinkable as it would open up the whole coast of Flanders and north-east France. Ride around and you’ll see how hard it would have been to establish a defensive line; bomb along in the car and you’ll notice little.

From Boezinge, the Ieper-IJzer canal towpath runs past the famous canal-side dugouts where surgeon John McRae wrote “In Flanders fields the poppies grow …” and the grave of young Joe Strudwick, aged fifteen, the youngest English soldier to be killed. He should, of course, not have been there. Should the rest? Good question. That evening, after setting the tone for the tour by arriving late at the hostel, and rushing off for dinner, we started to get an answer.

Andy Robertshaw, eminent military historian, archaeologist and broadcaster had joined the trip. His “en route” talks and evening briefings were fascinating – another benefit of an “organised tour.” There are many more complexities to the Great War than are held in the popular imagination. Robertshaw suggested that many of these common assumptions had little basis in historical evidence. Passing miles in the saddle whilst thinking through the words of an expert was most enjoyable, sometimes perplexing. Nor, by the way, does it underestimate the sacrifice of lives; it puts them in context, gives them meaning. Soldiers returning in 1918 were seen as heroes who had won the Great War for Civilization and Sir Douglas Haig was the man who had lead the army to victory. The Royal Navy's blockade was crucial, too.

As the bugles of the daily Menin Gate ceremony faded and we headed for refreshments in Ypres’ grand market place, I reflected by what small margins had some lived and some died; my Grandfather had shrapnel lodged close to his brain for the rest of his time. We walked back up to the Menin Gate as the carillion chimed midnight to take a look at the wreath one of the serving soldiers had lain.

Nation building

The area around Ypres is peppered with cemeteries and Great War sites. One cannot visit all, even on a sixty-mile day. Equally, “cemetery” tourism has a morbid side and is not something I like to do. Yet there are new memorials erected and ones never before visited. After a talk at the Pool of Peace – the crater left by one of the mines blown the British in 1917 at Spanbroekmoelen – we ran down and up the Messines ridge to spend time at the Irish Peace Park.

Beyond Messines the country is flat and increasingly industrialised. Drizzle descended on us and mud spattered us from below; we rode through a sepia landscape. Memorials and cemeteries kept coming – including the famous football-bedecked cross that marks the informal Christmas Day Truce of 1914 – at odds with the fields of beets that faded into the mist.

British tourists tend to head for Ypres and the Somme; this soil attracts the Australians. Fromelles has a new visitor centre, built following an excavation of a nearby wood and the building of a new cemetery. Andy Robertshaw had been involved in this excavation. All nations want to remember the part their sons played. At Fromelles, the Australian government had stumped up a good deal of cash to do this. For “colonies” the events of the Great War were seminal moment in nation-building.

We passed through the semi-industrialised, semi-decayed area around Lens, with little use of main roads, amongst the business units and slag heaps. It was one of those bits that would never attract the touring cyclist if they were not bent on reaching a special objective.

The objective in question was Vimy Ridge, where Andy Robertshaw was giving another talk. The Heavy Brigade fell a little behind time and decided to go at the ascent as individuals. I dropped the Pashley into first and went at it. Initial steepness gave out and it was into second as the road curved toward the giant memorial depicting Mother Canada mourning her dead, at the same time revealing the importance of this ridge. Industrial northern France, then occupied territory, was openly displayed.

Here, for first time, the Canadians fought as a single division; men who went to war regarding themselves and Scots, English, Welsh, Irish, fought together and the collective pride in their achievement forged the Canadian nation.

My nifty ascent got me there just as Andy Robertshaw provided more food for thought; the development of new tactics and the mix of soldiers who fought on Vimy Ridge. Then the Canadian guides showed us around the underground tunnels along which men and ammunition reached a front line where the trenches were sometime only fifty yards apart.

Arras and the Somme

Leaving the memorial, we rolled down to Arras. The sun come out, the plain of the morning had gone, the gentle hills rolled into Artois; the oppression of dirty roads in the wet flat-lands was lifted.

Rehydrating in the grand square, a harvest moon in the clear evening sky, the magnificent city hall was a floodlit monument to the prosperity of this region since the middle-ages, proclaiming wealth, peace, commerce in crops and cloth. Only, it is a replica; three-quarters of the town required rebuilding after 1918.

Pedalling the first few bright miles from Arras, we knew that July 1st 1916 had been a sunny day. Yet, it was the blackest that the British Army has ever suffered. To the south, the French – this was a joint operation – had one of its best.

 

Forget the Great War for a moment. Enjoy the peaceful villages, immerse yourself in the ordinary; there would be nothing of great spectacle here were it not for the works of war.

Around Gommecourt the war returned. A short extract from the route book gives a flavour:


Imm before farm building on R, track leads up to Sheffield Memorial/Pals Battalion memorials at the copses; Luke Copse CWGC, Railway Hollow CWGC, Serre Road No 3 CWGC, Queens Rd CWGC. 

Within half a mile were Serre Road No 1 and Serre Road No 2 cemeteries, the latter the largest of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemeteries on the Somme front.

Andy Robertshaw, pointed out that in several places the British forces in this area did reach their objectives, but that successes were matched by failures causing the attack to halt amidst counter-attack and desperate attempts to reinforce.

One needs a little humour, as did the front-line infantryman. At Serre Road, Andy told of heroism with a touch of ‘Allo, Allo’. During the German occupation of France in the Second World War, the caretaker of these cemeteries often showed German officers around. At the end of the war the Communist French Resistance demanded he be tried and shot for collaboration. The Free French Resistance refused and the man survived. He showed the officers around to detract attention from the fact that, in the tool shed, he hid escaping Allied airmen. 

Riding on, we mounted a low ridge passing yet more cemeteries, to meet as a group at the Scottish Memorial. This is a famous spot, where the official cameraman took the famous and oft shown footage of the mine under neighbouring Hawthorn Ridge being blown. To improve their chances, as the Scots went up the hill towards the German trenches, a tunnel had been dug, emerging in the sunken lane one can still see. Unknown to them, a short sharp drop lay just beyond the lane. The Germans had filled it with barbed wire. A long, narrow cemetery marks the spot. 

For us, it was up the short hill to Auchonvilliers, where the Ocean Villas tea-room laid on lunch in the sunlit garden. Around the back is a genuine trench running into the cellar of the building, a mysterious pit and piles of barbed wire that Andy Robertshaw had helped to lift out at some time in the past, only to find that they had been placed to prevent access to a tip of gas shells. The tea-room also has guest accommodation.

After lunch we began our approach to three major sites; Newfoundland Park, famous for its Canadian connections, but witness to action by many others, Ulster Tower, and the landmark memorial to the missing soldiers of the Somme at Thiepval. 

An explanatory leaflet guides the visitor around Newfoundland Park. Amongst the graves in Y Ravine cemetery are some of men from the Royal Navy. I asked about these and was told, by a retired army officer, with some reluctance, that as far as he had heard the Royal Navy had done a pretty good job when drafted onto land.

After Newfoundland Park the country becomes a little stiffer. There is a good climb, by the standards of the region, to Ulster Tower. This is a replica of Helen’s Tower in County Down where many of the Ulster Division had trained, including some 5,000 who were killed or injured on July 1st, 1916. There is a small museum and a café; an oasis of calm with a friendly welcome before a brief cycle takes one to the visitors centre at Thiepval. This tells the story of the Somme. Do not get the impression that you’ll receive a less friendly welcome that at Ulster Tower; it is just on a larger scale. Visible from distant parts of the battlefield, with each name carefully carved, the massive grandeur mixes with the tragedy of each lost love.

It is a short run into Albert. The Golden Virgin looks over the town from the basilica tower. The statue of the Mary holding her child aloft was secured at an improbable angle after being hit by shells in 1915, and there it hung on. The superstition developed that the war would end only when the virgin fell. In spring 1918 the Germans captured the town. The virgin stood until British artillery knocked her off her perch. Three months later the war ended. 

As a centre for cycling Albert would be grand, though it offers surprisingly limited accommodation options. 

Last leg

 

The final-day weather forecast was not especially promising and there were ninety miles to cover.

At first, the contorted route reflected the movement of the lines between July and November 1916. From the depths of Lochnagar crater, we wound past CWGC and German cemeteries, most famously the hidden Devonshire Trench. The Devonshires suffered heavy casualties and buried their dead where they had set off from; “The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshires hold it still.”

Near Mametz, a dead-end – strangely fitting given the appalling casualties suffered by the Welsh Division – took us to the figure of a dragon, snarling at the woods it had taken two weeks of bloody fighting to capture.

Truth is that there is too much to see; from Delville Wood, Pozieres, Courcelette, the memorial to Lt. Bell VC (professional footballer) and the crucifix peppered with bullet holes near Bazentin Le Petit, bunkers and more. This is good cycling country with sufficient undulation to make life interesting, many country lanes and little traffic. One could forget the war!

At Peronne the route swung towards Compiegne; the end of the ride. There was a long way to go and some pretty scenery, but after lunch there was a distinct fin de cycle feeling.

A shame really, as the countryside was most attractive, with a grand hilly section near Thiescourt. Akin to the Chilterns, wooded ridges requiring hard-pedalling on the ups and care on the twisting descents.

The approach to the Clearing of the Armistice, in moderate rain for a change, negotiated a semi-urban road with more roundabouts than Milton Keynes. And there, almost unexpectedly, despite the signs, was the luggage wagon and the Wheels on the Western Front banner.

Maintaining our reputation for arriving last, the crowds had long gone home. Here the end of a war that had cost so many lives was brought about by a few strokes of the pen. Yet, it was also here that France surrendered to Germany in 1940. For us it was the end of a bicycle ride. 

I’d been sceptical about joining a large scale organised ride, but have signed up for the 2018 edition, which will follow a very different route.

Information

For ABF The Soldiers' Charity https://www.soldierscharity.org

For Green Jersey Cycling Tours http://www.greenjerseycycling.co.uk

For the 2018 ride http://greenjerseycycling.co.uk/2018

PUBLISHED MARCH 2017

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