Cycling along the length of the Western Front, Paul Lamarra tried to come to terms with the scale and horror of World War I
It was 4 August and halfway through a warm and memorable summer. The promenade in the Belgian seaside town of Nieuwpoort was busy with holidaymakers and I was cycling slowly among them in search of the banks of the River Yser and the point where the World War I’s Western Front met the North Sea coast.
For more than three years the front would be an almost static line along which the advancing Germans and the defending Allies confronted each other in a murderous stalemate. More than 800 kilometres long, it stretched from the North Sea across northern France to the Swiss border near Basel and my plan was to cycle the whole way.
In Nieuwpoort smart couples promenaded, children drove pedal cars hazardously and beyond the red-roofed beach huts, grandparents dozed with their feet buried in the deep golden sand.
My search for the Western Front and any hint of its compelling horror singled me out, for I seemed to be the only one aware that it was exactly 99 years to the day that Great Britain had entered the war.
I imagined that such carefree scenes were not dissimilar to the summer of 1913 when thoughts of war were at best hazy. Yet within a year the beach would be encased in razor wire and the heatwave of 1913 no more than a bittersweet memory that would be cherished through four years of war and the hard times that followed.
The frivolity of the Belle Époque was blown away and it would be many years before the fashionable Flemish women who insisted on speaking French in the art nouveau cafés would return. Only a handful of buildings survived a German naval bombardment.
There was no Western Front trail to follow and instead I had to look for clues in the landscape. The River Yser led me almost to Ypres where I stayed to witness the sounding of Last Post held every evening in the cavernous Menin Gate.
Cycling quickly across the polders there were few reasons to stop. Soft, wet and once again grazed by cows, this low-lying landscape reclaimed from the sea had healed easily and was free from obvious scars.
After I crossed into France, the network of roads grew mazy and I paid careful attention to the map and signposts to remain in touch with the front. It was a peculiar tri-lingual world of French, Flemish and English place names. Armentières, Fromelles and Loos where the resonant names of major battles, but it was the renaming of landmarks by the Tommies that gave the landscape an added poignancy. From here to the River Somme I would encounter Station Wood, Red Farm, VC Corner, Blighty Valley and Grove Town among others.
In this gently undulating landscape, any sort of high ground was of strategic importance and the otherwise barely discernible contours were often marked out by the incongruous square-edged concrete of a gun post. At Fromelles the broken bunkers were preserved in a wheat field.
My original navigational strategy was to link cemeteries marked on the map, but I had no idea there were so many. To begin with, it felt right to stop at them all, but I made very little progress and in the end stopped only when I needed to rest.
The small shelters designed by the British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens for each of the British cemeteries were the perfect place to sit out of the sun or the rain and to contemplate the silence. I would sign the visitors’ book and often notice that I had been the first visitor for several months.
The line of the Front was hard to detect in the area’s overlapping red-brick former mining towns, so in heavy rain I opted to follow the Canal de la Deûle south into Lens. An unplanned overnight stop in Lens to dry out was made worthwhile with a visit to the new outpost of the Musée du Louvre and some respite from thoughts of war.
On leaving Lens the weather was bright and dry. Unusually the road was lined with mountain ash trees and their red berries shone in the midday sun. The large conical slag heaps that had been ghostly in the gloom were now stark against the blue sky.
Straight ahead lay Vimy Ridge. Almost 150 metres high, seven kilometres long, steep sided and forested, it was a mountain in the Douai plain – and a daunting obstacle in war. At the village of Vimy, the road swept upwards in a series of sharp bends. There was a lot of height to gain in a short distance and cycling a fully laden bike without stopping proved a challenge.
My approach was from the north and from behind the German lines. Right at the top, where there were fewer trees, the ground dropped into deep and unnatural craters. Now grassy and steep-sided, the craters were the handiwork of tunnellers who placed huge explosive mines under the German trenches; in the psychological battle their effect must have been devastating to morale.
British Royal Engineers dug 3.5 kilometres of tunnels, the Germans dug 2.5-kilometres and the Canadians, who eventually captured the ridge in a carefully planned attack in the spring of 1917, dug a further 13 tunnels. The longest was 1,700 metres and more than 160,000 kilograms of explosive were detonated. Even a century later, signs still warn about viable unexploded mines and it is forbidden to stray from the path into the woods.
All along the front, official statistics tried to show the scale of the slaughter. However, the sight of the seemingly infinite lines of graves at the British, French, Canadian and German cemeteries at nearby Neuville Saint-Vaast and the elegant Vimy memorial to the 11,285 Canadians whose bodies were never recovered made me think it was almost beyond human comprehension.
From Vimy Ridge, the momentum of the descent carried me quickly into Arras, capital of the Pas-de-Calais department, where I enjoyed northern French hospitality with a beer from an estaminet on the arcaded Place des Héros before continuing on my way.
Anxious to avoid busy roads and getting lost more than once, I slipped into the Somme département under cover of darkness. In the twilight, the rolling fields of beet and wheat became indistinct outlines. Uncannily there was the rumble of distant thunder, and lightning lit the far-off horizon. For a soldier in the Battle of the Somme such sound and light shows would have been commonplace and he must have reflected with a mixture of relief and regret that some other poor blighters were getting a pounding. Even when it was quiet on the Western Front, there can have been little peace of mind.
Over burger and frites at Chez Christine, a friterie and American diner at Achiet-le-Grand, I had discussed my accommodation options. Christine suggested the Hôtel de la Gare, but it had already closed for the night, so I pushed and found a campsite near Thiepval.
The next morning I had my first proper encounter with the billowing landscape of the Somme and crossing this sector of the front seemed to take an eternity. The hills were steep and difficult to attack, even on a tarmac road. The plateaus were devoid of cover and the soil looked heavy and claggy. If the Germans lost one hill they needed only to retreat to another. It was a confusing terrain in which it was difficult to maintain any sense of direction.
The Somme has around 400 British cemeteries; some are small and remote, and often accessible only on foot. These cemeteries had evolved from makeshift collections of graves that had been dug in haste during brief lulls in the fighting.
The Thiepval Memorial remembers 72,191 men who were missing in action presumed dead and have no grave. Gigantic, formal and surrounded by closely mown grass, it is the largest such memorial on the Western Front. The lists of men are organised by rank and regiment and in this respect lacked the égalité of the Canadian memorial at Vimy, which lists the names in alphabetical order.
I preferred the small plaques attached to railings and churches that remembered the battalions of pals such as the Glasgow tramway employees who had joined up together, fully expecting to return to their jobs when the ‘short’ war had ended and their duty done. Nonetheless, the museum at Thiepval went to great efforts to make sense of the struggle and to put faces to the names.
By the time I had reached Péronne I had begun to wonder if indeed my interest in the war was becoming unhealthy. The Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne, easily the best museum on the front, however, gave my journey a sense of perspective. Among the political and battle maps, the uniforms and the Prussian pickelhaube helmets there was a Chemin de Fer du Nord poster printed in the immediate aftermath of the war offering rail tours to the Somme front to witness the devastation of the battlefield.
From Peronne I moved on to Saint-Quentin and then south via Noyon to Compiègne and to the clearing in the woods where the armistice was signed on Maréchal Foch’s railway carriage on 11 November 1918. In 1940, in the same carriage and on the same spot, France surrendered to the Nazis in Hitler’s gloating presence.
I followed the River Aisne east with the front always on my left. This little-known part of the battle line was a heavily wooded crest beyond ploughed fields and little evidence of the war remained. I climbed on to the Chemin des Dames ridge between Soissons and Reims and here the memorials and cemeteries resumed. Unusual memorials included one to stenographers and several dedicated to the French cavalry.
On the Chemin des Dames my journey overlapped with other wars. As well as the trenches and the machine-gun posts, there were German pillboxes built in the World War II to facilitate an orderly retreat. Fort de la Malmaison, at the western end of the chemin was built in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and in a field near Craonne at the eastern end a luminescent statue of Napoleon stood among the cabbages close to where he had defeated Russian and Prussian forces in 1814. Craonne itself had been destroyed in World War I and because of the amount of unexploded ordinance it had to be rebuilt elsewhere.
At times I followed the Voie Sacrée, used by reinforcements heading for the Battle of Verdun; at others, I was on the Voie de la Liberté following the route of Allied forces after the Normandy landings in 1944.
Verdun itself I found to be an uneasy mix of French grief at the loss of half a million men and the bombastic triumphalism of having defended the town against the odds. When the Germans attacked the forts in the hills above Verdun in the winter of 1916 it was with the intention of bleeding France white and they would have succeeded had they not suffered the same fate first.
Beyond Verdun the front seemed to have slipped from the collective memory. Perhaps there was just too much of it. On the wildly oscillating road that followed the Tranchée de Calonne towards Hattonchâtel I dismounted frequently to stare into deep shell holes and scrape away the leaves now filling the trenches.
Lost in the forest were the bodies of men who died in the first weeks of the war, among whom was Alain-Fournier, the author of Le Grand Meaulnes. He was killed along with 20 others on 22 September 1914 and their remote mass grave remained undiscovered until 1991.
Regniéville, near Pont-à-Mousson, had been wiped from the map but the main street that led to the tumbledown church could still be made out. High in the Vosges mountains of Alsace at Vieil-Armand north of Mulhouse, the networks of trenches, bunkers, tunnels and coils of barbed wire were eerily intact.
From here it was a short distance to the Swiss border and journey’s end. The trip had proved physically and emotionally overwhelming. It had taken 17 days to cycle from Belgium to Basel and yet I felt that a true sense of the scale of the struggle on the Western Front still eluded me.
By ferry: Paul travelled with DFDS Ferries from Dover to Dunkerque. Fares start from £29 each way for a car and up to four passengers.
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Musée du Louvre-Lens
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Meuse tourist board
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