Because of its enormity and relevance to us all, especially in my lifetime, I became interested in 20th Century wars a few years ago, in particular WWI & WWII – the origin & issues, the battles, the places, the people etc. This resulted in a lot of reading about these matters, the protagonists and inevitably details of the main events, such as the D-Day landings and The Western Front. As it’s said, a picture is worth a thousand words and unavoidably I was drawn to visiting these and other related locations. However, it seemed inadequate just to visit, I felt the need to travel there and tour by bike; I have always found that travelling by bike you see more, meet more people and really ‘connect’ with a place – for events such as these I have found this improves the experience and provides greater insight.
As well as undertaking basic research beforehand, reading and in some cases watching relevant films helped to form a mental picture that proved beneficial once on-the-ground. In each case the understanding gained combined with being there provided greater appreciation and, insofar as possible, a real sense of events at the time. Of course today these locations are ironically places of tranquillity, which completely belies the horror that once took place there. I find that seeing the landscape adds to my understanding of events, which is further aided by cycling; on a bike there’s nothing like a hill to bring home the practical implications for warfare of terrain and what those present might have been experiencing, albeit with the absence of the sounds, smells, fear and danger!
As a matter of interest and respect, I like to visit the Commonwealth War Graves that unfortunately abound at these locations. In a strange way they are quite beautiful; the white limestone headstones arranged precisely in line, recede into the distance and the impeccable care that is always taken to ensure the cemeteries are kept in immaculate order. I especially like the flowers used, particularly red roses which seem to resonate with the bright white of the headstones adding sense of place.
All-in-all the setting and ambiance created is fitting and often quite moving to visit. At first each identical headstone looks the same but read the sparse but telling words on each and it does not take long to appreciate something of their lives and death: nationalities, army – navy – air force etc., age, location etc. There will be a story for each of bravery, damaged families and the tragic loss of what might have been had they lived. I have visited too many to remember all but I will always remember, respect and appreciate their sacrifice and what they gave for us.
Being a baby boomer I have been fortunate to personally live my life without war of this nature, which makes me all the more grateful for their sacrifice. However, as the first generation to miss such action, we ‘boomers’ are nonetheless closely connected with those who did. My father was in Egypt at the end of WWII and his father barely survived in a POW camp, after walking home from Germany at the end of the war, just managing to survive on bread dough taken from the POW kitchen. Although my other grandfather also survived, having spent time in a bomb crater between the lines as the battle raged, he lived the rest of his life blighted by the mental damage such an experience causes. I often think of them when visiting the battlefields and cemeteries.
To-date I have undertaken two bike tours of iconic WWI and WWII battle regions: in 2010 to the aforementioned D-Day Beaches & in 2012 to the Ypres Salient. These were successful and very interesting, providing an appreciation that could only be achieved by visiting and more so by cycling. I found the evening Menin Gate ceremony at Ypres very moving, as was being at the D-Day beaches for 6th June commemorations, especially when I met a veteran who had landed on the beaches on that day in 1944.
Amongst other day-rides undertaken to various battlefields, for obvious reasons one alone stands out – The Somme – which because of events that took place there between 1916 and 1918 has become the landmark battle of all time and a byword for reckless loss of life in the pursuit of no meaningful benefit. The prolonged, effective stalemate achieved over the period produced one of the most awful, though by no means the only, example of the futility of war, which even today exactly one hundred years later is generally viewed by all with incredulity.
Our visit to the Somme battlefields in 2009 was somewhat impromptu, as a period of wet weather had set in at our camping base in Martigny (Dieppe) and as we had the car decided to bail out for the day in the hope of finding better weather elsewhere for a ride. Surprisingly the 90-mile drive to Albert made all the difference and we had an interesting and dry day cycling around the Somme battlefields. Starting in Albert, located close to but just behind the main battle front, the ride included a number small war cemeteries as well as major sites now marked by the Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval Memorials.
The area is quite hilly and the scenery today is mostly agricultural. The hills played an important role in shaping the mostly trench-based battles that took place in this area; an amazing Google website now shows detailed maps and related modern aerial photography of the main WWI battlefields and trenches here and elsewhere along the Western Front. Some original trenches are preserved at the Canadian Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park for visitors to see, together with a thought-provoking museum of the battles that took place at the locality but it is impossible to imagine how things might have been there in 1916.
Perhaps more poignant is the Franco-British Thiepval Memorial a short distance away to the southeast. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens between 1928 and 1932, the imposing Memorial arch has the names of 72,000 missing or unidentified men engraved into the Portland Stone façade; everything about the Somme is on an unimaginable scale!
Not surprisingly even today farmers still recover material from these battles in their fields, which will forever remain stained with the blood of those who died and injured there – about 600,000 Allied troops and only slightly fewer Germans. Some 150,000 people visit Thiepval every year and in this the centenary of the Somme Battle that took place over 3-years, it is right that we should remember forever the men of all nations who fought the terrible battles here and elsewhere along the Western Front.
STATS – MAPS – STUFF
Ride: 18th July 2009
Mileage: approx. 13 miles
Maps: Michelin 1:150,000 Map 301 + IGN 1:100,000 Map 103
Albert to Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park via D50 & D73
Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park to Thiepval Memorial via D73
Thiepval memorial to Albert via D151 & D50