Cycling France and Flanders
More visits to the WW1 battlefields and war graves in France and Belgium
Since my first visit in April '01, Cycling the Somme, I've been back to the WW1 battlefields each year. In April '02 I went back to the Somme. April/May '03, the Somme and Passchendaele and in July '04 - (By car but with a cycling connection!), via Poelkapelle / Tyne Cott on route to a weekend in Paris and the finish of the Tour de France.
April '02 - Back to the Somme
I made the same trip as the first except it was via Hampshire to take my wife and granddaughter to my daughter's for a short stay. Then an early start the next morning to catch a P & O ferry - Dover to Calais. From there the train to Albert and bike to Avril William's at Auchionville where I had booked 3 nights for evening meals and B&B. My main objectives this trip was to locate the war grave of my mothers half brother, George W. Dadd who is buried at Lievan near Lens, north of Arras. I also wanted to revisit my grandfather's grave at Templuex le Guerard and battlefields where the Grimsby Chums fought.
Next day I rode to Lens, and found George W. Dadd's war grave at Lieven. A good day, Spring like, but finding the way had been a bit tricky, with cycling prohibited on some of the ordinary two-way roads! On the way home at a road junction I was consulting a map when two local cyclists in racing gear stopped. I ask for directions, they overcame the language barrier with, "we show you", and beckoned me to follow. Several miles later after hanging on to their back wheels - even enjoying the challenge - we were on the outskirts of Arras. Then, "We go this way, you go that", and they were off - I wish I had ask for an address to contact them again but the chance had gone! The 63 mile round trip ended with a cool beer followed by a warm shower and then an evening meal in good company.
After a good nights rest and an English breakfast! I made the trip I'd promised myself, back to Templuex le Guerard. It was a tough 32 mile ride there because of a strong head wind and occasional squally showers. It took the best part of three and a half hours but I was please I had made the effort. The wind then gave me an easier return trip and I arrive back, with time enough to be ready for dinner.
Next morning I packed my panniers before breakfast, paid Avril and was on the road
As I left to catch the train at Albert having achieved some of my goals, I knew others could wait because I'd be back the next year and each year after, while I was able. The trip back was without incident but when I rang my wife from Calais there was a change of plan! Because of a rail strike rolling stock was in the wrong place and the best journey they could offer for their return had five changes, so instead of driving home from Dover I headed for Hampshire then took them home the next day. I'd enjoyed the time in France but the 800 miles of driving, Grimsby - Whitely - Dover - Whitely - Grimsby was something else!
April - May '03, the Somme, La Boisselle and Passchendaele
This time to cut out the driving I tried a different route. Cycling to Hull, (40 miles), to take P & O's overnight ferry to Zeebrugge. Cycle the 10 miles to Brugge, from there by train via Lille, to Albert and back on the bike for the final 8 miles to Auchionville. A two night stay at Avril's, then back to Lille. Bike from there to Poelkapelle for B&B at Varlet Farm. Cycling from there via Brugge to Zeebrugge for the overnight ferry back Hull.
All went well at first, although I'd misjudged the distance from the Humber Bridge to the ferry terminal but managed to arrive in time! I'd booked a shared 4 birth cabin - the other three turned in early but had obviously had a curry for their evening meal! The ferry docked on time and I was soon on my way to Brugge on a cycle path that followed the dual carrageway. I found the railway station easily, bought my ticket that included a small charge for my bike, then made my way to the platform. Access to this was via an escalator. Inexplicably I tried to walk on with my bike, instead of carring it on my shoulder - suddenly gravity took over as the stairway steepened, and I found I couldn't prevent the bike with the extra weight of my pannier bags, rolling back! Seconds later I lost my grip and the bike went down, closely followed by me. Trying to regain my balance with a giant stride, I landed on the back wheel, breaking spokes and bending the rim into an 'L' shape. Then an even more bizarre moment! While I was gingerly picking myself up hardly daring to believe I wasn't injured, then I noticed my wallet that I'd dropped. It was being carried away up the moving stairs. I ran up to get it and then down the wrong way! By this time extremely embarressed I dragged my bike round a corner to take stock. I had my ticket and the train was due - I would have to get my bike sorted when I changed trains at Lille. In the end it all worked out well, the guard on the train gave me directions to a cycle shop close to the station at Lille. I found it, (in a shopping precinct, first floor - access via an escalator!), and they repaired my bike! I caught a later train but arrived at Avril's in good time to sort myself out and be ready for the evening meal.
Next morning after breakfast I was on the road early, heading for La Boisselle and the mine crater that became to be known as Lochnagar, locally it is La Grande Mine. The mine and others along the 16 mile front had been engineered to destroy strong points in the German front line just before zero hour on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. This one detonated at 7.28 am, did destroy enemy machine gun positions but along with the week long bombardment that preceded zero hour, didn't give the British any great advantage. The opening day of the battle is the bloodiest twenty-four hours in the entire history of the British Army. Modest gains cost 57,470 British casualties including 19,240 killed. This section is where the 10th Lincolns - the Grimsby Chums, attacked. From a fighting strength of 842, the battalion's casualties on that day are reckoned to be 502, and it later became known 187 of them had been killed. Private Richard Munson of 'D' Company was one of those and has no known grave. I found the crater and walked the area visiting several nearby CWG cemetaries. Having read many accounts of the Somme, being there adds reality and also as other commentators have said, astonishment how small the battlefield areas are. So with much to think about I headed back to Auchionville.
Next morning I was on the road early on my way to catch the train at Albert. I went via the church in the hamlet of
On my return I found a brief reference to this story in Martin Middlebrook's guide "The Somme Battlefields". Personally I believe it is an interesting story that deserves to be told in greater detail. One on my list to follow up!
After this slight but interesting detour, I caught the train - Albert to Lille - and then cycled the 40 odd miles from there to Varlet Farm near Poelkapelle which is some seven miles north of Ypres, (now called Ieper) in Belgium. This working farm run by Dirk & Charlotte Cardoen-Descamps & family, also has excellent B. & B. accommodation which has been extended. The farm is situated in the WW1 Ypres salient on Passchendaele battlefield and 11/2 miles from the Tyne Cott, Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery.
I had read about this farm with B. & B. accommodation on the battlefield and I booked to stay overnight to check it out for future visits. It proved to be an excellent find, and I recommend it without hesitation to anyone visiting this area. Unfortunately I ran into very heavy thunder showers in the last ten miles of my ride to the farm. They delayed my arrival and I didn't have time to visit the Tyne Cott Cemetery. However my discomfort was minuscule to the nth degree compared the conditions suffered at Passchendaele in 1917. Much has been written about them but a quote from "The Reminiscences of Private Harry Baumber", in Peter Bryant's book, "GRIMSBY CHUMS The Story of the 10th Lincolnshires in the Great War", portrays the horrors of war at it's worst and Passchendaele was surely that.
Pte Baumber wrote:
Next morning after breakfast Charlotte showed all the guests a collection of WW1 artifacts that surface in the fields each year and to one corner of the yard a pile of unexploded shells awaiting disposal by army experts. Then it was time to head for Zeebrugge, via Brugge about 40 miles. So a leasurely ride and lunch in Brugge then on to Zeebrugge. I was in a shared cabin again, this time only one other occupant, an airframe fitter who had driven from Switzerland that day. He was fast asleep and snoring for England when I went back to the cabin but it wasn't long before I was fast off! The rest was routine and I was back in Grimsby for Sunday lunch and catching up with all the news!
In 2005 my wife and I stayed at Varlet Farm on route to Paris to see Lance Armstrong win the Tour de France for the sixth time. We enjoyed the stay and the evening meal in Ypres then watched the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. Next morning we visited the Tyne Cott Cemetery before heading off for the weekend in Paris. I think we will both be back but I know I will, to do the cycling trip each year while I'm able, retracing the war-path of the Grimsby Chums!
Back to the Top
When planning a trip I prefer to arrange accommodation around my chosen route across to the continent. If via Dover to Calais it's no problem due to the frequency of the cross channel ferries, so I can book accommodation well ahead of my trip. If Hull to Zeebrugge then I sort out the ferries first because savings can be made on off peak days - for example using the booking facility on the P & O website to get prices for different days, I found it much cheaper to travel on the Tuesday evening instead of Friday Saturday or Sunday. On the return crossing, Saturday was the best price.