Cycling France and Flanders

Grimsby Chums Sector at La Boisselle, France

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More visits to the WW1 battlefields and war graves in France and Belgium

Introduction

     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.
     From my notes on these four visits I've recorded just a few of the things that I found interesting, plus a few images.

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
Shell at the side of the Sunken Lane  Shell at the side of the lane.
by 9.30. It was a sunny spring morning and I had time to visit the nearby sunken lane that had been in no mans land on Saturday morning July 1st 1916. The first day of the Battle of the Somme. Waiting in this lane for the Hawthorn Redoubt mine to be blown, 100 bombers (A and D companies), of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers had assembled, with four Stoaks mortars and two machine-guns. When it was detonated at 7.20am, they attacked but only 50 of them made the low bank beyond the lane. Other units of the 86th Brigade that attacked from the front line to the left and right suffered similar fates. As I walked up the sunken lane towards the open fields with the crater ringed with trees a few 100 yards away, it was difficult to imagine the carnage of that day. Then I came across a WW1 shell that had been recently ploughed up in the adjacent field, and moved to the edge of the lane for collection! A regular occurrence some almost 90 years on! (In the shell photo, bushes on the rim of the crater can be seen on the skyline). I also found a small calibre shell case with the strips of cordite still intact!


Sunken Lane viewed from Hawthorn RidgeSunken Lane viewed from about 1/4 distance towards Hawthorn crater. Half
of the Ist Lancashire Fusiliers did not reach the low bank just past this point.

      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.

Sign Post to La Grande MineSign points the way to the mine crater that became known as 'Lochnagar'.

     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
The Virgin Mary
Beaumont Hamel. I wanted to see the stained glass window on the left side of the church's main entrance. It is not large or intricate but special because of the story behind the irregular shaped section it contains. The story is as follows: During the fighting in the area the church was severely damaged by gunfire. For a time the German Army occupied the ruins and one of the soldiers defending this position found the fragment of stained glass in the debris. The image on the irregular fragment of glass was the head of the Virgin Mary. The soldier carried this fragment of glass and image on his person through the rest of the war. After the war, hearing that the church was to be rebuilt, he, (or his family) returned it.
     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:
      "It has been said by many participants that, if the Somme was Hell, then Passchendaele was the absolute cesspit of all Wars rolled into one. One top ranker, seeing the conditions at first hand for the first time, wept openly with the now famous remark, 'My God! Did we send men to fight in this?' Just a sea of liquid mud with, here and there, duck-board tracks. At night they used to lay out tapes to supposedly guide you from one place to another, no bloody good at all! We suffered as many casualties with men slipping and drowning in the morasses as through enemy action. You look back on this miserable, grisly sector of Flanders and wonder over and over again how you came out unscathed. I know in those weeks we were there I lived through one extended nightmare. All the most gruesome, disgusting, revolting adjectives in the scope of human discription have been used for Passchendaele and every one justified".

     The 34th Division of which the 10th Lincolnshires - Grimsby Chums - belonged, was ordered to the Ypres salient in early October 1917 where it was urgently needed to assist at a critical stage in the battle of Passchendaele. The Lincolns were there from the 7th to the 24th October at a cost of 171 casualties, of whom 33 had been killed.

     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!

Grimbarian

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Travel Tips and Links, Ferries, Trains, and Accommodation.

     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.
     With France, Belgium, Germany and others in the EEC adopting the Euro on the 1st January '02, prices depend on the exchange rate you can get. In April '02 1.515 E/ (1 euro = 66p) was the best I could get. In April '03, 1.351 E / (1 euro = 74p) , and in June '04, 1.428 E/ (1 euro = 70p). However goods and services haven't gone up alarmingly.
     Currency - I always take a reasonable amount of cash but use plastic when I can for sizable amounts. I've found overall a 1% saving using a credit card rather than a debit card - perhaps doesn't sound much but it is better than nothing! I haven't updated the prices in the original links below but none of them have gone up excessively to the best of my knowledge! (links proved before page uploaded - The exception is the link to Dover Secure Parking which comes up with "Site being updated")

  • New Excellent B & B at Varlet Farm near Poelkapelle which is some seven miles north of Ypres, (now called Ieper) in Belgium. A single B & B cost me E37/23 in 2003. An Ensuite double, (or twin-bedded) 54E/36 in July 2005. Payment in Pounds Sterling or Euros welcome

  • Finding the location of a war grave is relatively easy on the search facility of the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission Web Site.

  • A map is essential. I bought the AA Road Map, Le Nord & Ile-de-France, 1 cm = 1.8 km, (1 inch = 2.8 miles) from W. H. Smith 3.99.

  • For secure car parking I used Relyon Car Parking at Dover

  • Link to all P&O Ferries I found Dover/Calais Ferries biker friendly. A five day return ticket cost 26, bikes go free!

  • I checked SNCF French Railway web site, for train times and ticket prices. My return ticket, Calais Villa to Albert cost 284fr, (about 28), bikes go free.

  • My two night stay at Avril Williams' Farmhouse Accommodation, Auchonvillers. A home from home! Cost, 800 fr. (About 80 for two nights Evening meals + B.& B.).

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