In May 2016, I set off on a 3-week bike ride to explore the Western Front, pursuing a long-held ambition to find out more about the Great War of 1914-1918. I took my tent and sleeping bag with the intention of camping when the weather permitted, and cycled a total of 1,500 kilometres from the Belgian coast near Nieuport to the Swiss border. It turned out to be a remarkable and very memorable journey through landscape and history.
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living, but the dead
Returning lightly dance
These words, written by the poet Edward Thomas in 1916 just months before he was posted to France and killed at the Battle of Arras in April 1917, have long captured my imagination about the tragedy of the Great War. This is the story of my road to France.
Planning my route
It was when I found a French IGN map of the ‘Grande Guerre’ (Great War) on a visit to the Somme Memorial at Thiepval in 2014, that I knew my route would follow closely the line along which the opposing armies dug in during October 1914. Following the German advance through Belgium, the Battle of the Frontiers, defeat of the German army at the First Battle of the Marne and subsequent retreat, and the Race to the Sea, this 800 kilometre line of trenches became known as the Western Front.
The journey begins
I suppose that my ride really began as I cycled, full of anticipation at the prospect of what lay ahead, from my brother-in-law’s home in east London to Stratford Station, there to catch a train to Dover and then the ferry to Dunkirk. From the port, I rode along canals and through the fields of Flanders to Diksmuide, and then to Ypres, a city almost completely rebuilt from rubble and ashes. After a day exploring the Ypres Salient, including the German cemetery at Langemark and the infamous Passchendaele, I turned south through the battlefields of Artois, past the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge to reach mediaeval Arras, another city devastated by the war and beautifully restored.
Riding south from Arras among the rolling chalk hills of Picardie, I explored the monuments, museums, railways and other reminders of the Battle of the Somme and the terrible loss of life that resulted.
Close to the River Somme, my route then took me behind the Hindenburg Line, the defensive works built by the Germans as they retreated early in 1917. This brought me to St-Quentin, where I found the impressive, restored basilica and stunning Art Deco architecture that is a legacy of post-war reconstruction during the 1920s.
Mutiny and the road to Verdun
Beyond Soissons, yet another ancient, front line cathedral city that was badly damaged and rebuilt, I visited the impressive Fort de Condé, which stood on a wooded hill overlooking the pretty valley of the Aisne. In the old fort I learned about the Séré de Rivières defensive system, lines of fortresses built by France following her defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. After an anxious night under canvas battered by heavy rain near Soupir, I climbed onto the ridge of the Chemin des Dames, scene of the disastrous 1917 Nivelle Offensive that sparked mutiny in the French army.
Leaving the hills behind for a while, I visited the great Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims. This Gothic masterpiece once saw the coronation of France’s kings, and has now been meticulously restored after the wartime shelling and fire which destroyed the roof, most of the 13th Century stained glass windows and many of the sculptures.
East of the city, I passed through vineyards of the Champagne region and then climbed into the Argonne Forest where I found evidence of the fierce but little-known battles that raged across these wooded hills during the first few years of the war. At Verdun, I wandered among the fortresses, memorials and cemeteries that told the story of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in history, where Germany’s Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn sought – unsuccessfully – to ‘bleed France white’.
Deep inside the Fort de Vaux at Verdun, where a small French garrison were besieged by German troops, finally surrendering when water supplies ran out
The vast cemetery beside the Douaumont ossuary at Verdun, with more than 16,000 graves
Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains
Turning south-east, I headed as rapidly as my heavily-laden bike would allow across Lorraine towards my final goal of the Vosges mountains, along which ran the old border between France and the German Empire. The annexation of parts of Lorraine and most of Alsace following the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War led to considerable anger and calls for revenge in France during the years leading up to the Great War, a sentiment played upon by politicians and others with nationalistic views.
This is a region with a long, fascinating and battle-strewn history. It was part of the Germanic Frankish Kingdoms and later the Holy Roman Empire for the best part of a thousand years. Alsace saw invasions by the French under Louis XIII during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), followed by Louis XIV later in the 17th Century and Napoleon in the early 19th Century. The Duchy of Lorraine (still within the Holy Roman Empire) passed to France in 1766 on the death of the Duke, Stanislas Leszczynski, by virtue of the marriage of his daughter Maria to King Louis XV.
During the Great War, in late 1914, Lorraine was the setting for a number of important battles including Flirey, Trouée de Charmes and the Grand Couronné. These engagements between the French and German armies altered the course of the war, yet are nowadays rarely spoken of.
As I reached the mountains, the weather broke. My route took me up onto the ridge above at the Col de Bonhomme and along the Route des Crêtes, the old military road built by the French in 1915 to supply the front line. In a howling gale with rain whipping up the steep hillsides from the south-west and over the road, I had to fight to keep my bike upright as I rode over the Grand Ballon at an altitude of 1,400 metres.
It was an experience that served to remind me of the terrible conditions endured by the soldiers, which – especially during the long, cold winters – were far worse than anything I rode through.
I passed by the battlefield of Le Linge as my progress that day was severely hampered by the storm, but did visit the peaceful sanctuary at Hartmannswillerkopf before descending through the famous Rangen vineyards to reach Thann. Gentler cycling took me south through pretty villages of pastel-coloured timber frame houses to the Swiss border. Here, at the aptly named ‘Kilometre Zero’, the Western Front ends among restored trenches and bunkers beside a small stream in the woods.
Remembrance and reconciliation
Beyond the adventure of cycling, and the opportunities to learn about Great War history, this was a journey of remembrance and a chance to reflect on my own reactions to the loss of so many young lives. In addition to memorials and ceremonies such as the solemn sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres every evening of the year at 8 pm, I found countless other moments and places to remember. These ranged from the deeply moving Christmas Truce sculpture at Messines to the many small, lonely cemeteries on quiet lanes and beside farm tracks in the fields.
Just as important as remembrance are the examples of reconciliation and striving for peace that are to be found all along the Western Front. Again, these include some of great, international consequence, such as at Reims, where a plaque lying just outside the western entrance of the cathedral recalls the historic 1962 meeting between General de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. And inside the church are the remarkable stained glass windows commissioned from the German artist Imi Knoebel for the 800 year Anniversary. But I found many smaller signs of that desire for friendship and co-operation across Europe that has been one important legacy of the Great War, despite (or perhaps partly because of) the horrors of the WW2.
There is so much to discover along the Western Front. To help convey the extent and variety awaiting the visitor, I have created maps of each day of my ride to identify some of the most interesting and impressive sites on – or close to – my route. There are, for example, some of the best museums I have ever seen, and these help the visitor understand how the conflict came about, the weaponry and course of the war, and the impacts on soldiers, civilians and communities. Perhaps most interesting of all, they show how the Great War influenced and stimulated change across so many spheres of our contemporary lives, including social policy, political systems, technology, and medicine that are still so evident today, especially in Europe.
Family and other stories
Visiting the Western Front was an opportunity, as has been the case for many, to look into family involvement and fortunes during the war. One close relative, Amédée Tardieu (my wife’s grandfather), was a French artillery officer. He wrote a fascinating memoir with accounts that range from those quirky and charming moments that happen even during a war, to some truly terrifying experiences under shellfire.
Amédée survived, but his younger brother Edmond did not. He was killed at the Battle of Malmaison on the Chemin des Dames in October 1917; we believe by a shell fragment. I set out to find his grave at a military cemetery in the Aisne Valley, and have since taken other family members there. This shared experience has given us some recognition of the life of this young man who was all but lost to memory.
The ride stimulated my interest in the history of the Great War, and especially the events that led up to the outbreak of conflict in August 1914. Among the histories I have read are Christopher Clark’s ‘The Sleepwalkers – How Europe went to war in 1914’, Sean McMeekin’s ‘July 1914 – Countdown to War’ and ‘The Russian Origins of the First World War’, and Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Pity of War’. These have given me a lot of insight into this fascinating yet complex subject, although I know there are many other works, and other perspectives.
One story which really captured my imagination was that of Jean Jaurès, the great French socialist leader and pacifist, whose efforts to pull Europe back from the brink were held back by political scandal, then cut short by his assassination on the eve of war.
So, in 2019 I spent a couple of days in Paris, walking around the locations where the main characters acted out that drama, including: the Foreign Ministry (Quai d’Orsay), the offices of Le Figaro where the newspaper’s editor Gaston Calmette was killed by the wife of Jaurès’ key political ally Joseph Caillaux, the Taverne du Croissant where Jaurès was shot (and where I took my dinner), and finally the Panthéon where he is buried.
I have also read a number of narrative accounts of WW1, including ‘Storm of Steel’ by Ernst Jünger, widely acknowledged as one of the greatest books about the war. A year or so after my ride, I decided to take my bike again to the Somme and retrace Jünger’s steps as described in his book, to better understand the conflict from his perspective. So many young German men lost their lives, and while the German cemeteries and museums help us to remember that, out in the old battlefields I found myself having to work hard to keep this in mind.
Recording the journey
The cycling (or walking), discovery, history, remembrance, and reconciliation are all parts of the story of a journey along the Western Front. Each of these will find a place in the book I am now writing, and which will be illustrated with photographs, drawings and maps. I’ll be posting progress updates on my website, with more short articles and blogs on the battlefields, memorials and most of all the people whose memory we must not let go of.
There are a number of organisations promoting opportunities for walking and cycling parts or all of the Western Front; these can easily be found by searching on the internet. The Western Front Way is a UK-based charity working closely with European partners and local communities to mark the 1,000 Kilometre route they have identified, and to promote knowledge, remembrance, and reflection. Their inspiration has been the recent discovery of a letter, written by 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Douglas Gillespie, shortly before he was himself killed, in which he proposed that the Western Front should become a path of pilgrimage.
“When peace comes, our government might combine with the French government to make one long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea … I would make a fine broad road in the ‘No-Man’s Land’ between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot and plant trees for shade and fruit trees, so that the soil should not altogether be waste. Then I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on a pilgrimage along that Via Sacra so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side.”
Get in touch
Please do leave a comment (below), or get in contact if you have your own experiences to share, or would like to know more about my ride and progress with my writing project.
All photographs, artwork and maps (created in MapMaker 4 software) : © Nigel Bruce